Jennie Batchelor and Gillian Dow, Women’s Writing, 1660-1830: Feminisms and Futures

Women’s Writing, 1660-1830: Feminisms and Futures. Edited by Jennie Batchelor and Gillian Dow. London: Palgrave Macmillan. 2016. Pp 266. £89.99 (hardcover), ISBN 9781137543813.

‘Feminisms and Futures’ is a supremely fitting appellation for this volume of waypoints and landmarks. Born out of Chawton House Library’s tenth anniversary conference in 2013, this collection of essays is self-consciously circumspect and candid in its assessment of feminist literary history. As Batchelor and Dow express in their introduction, the field is dynamic, progressive, and often contradictory. Since Chawton House Library’s opening in 2003, the landscape of feminist literary study has matured and shifted. Both within and beyond the academy, the intervening years have seen feminist scholars tenaciously seek new ways to recover women’s writings and reinforce women writers’ cultural presence, from Adrianne Wadewitz’s Wikipedia edit-a-thons and Caroline Criado-Perez’s campaign to ‘Keep a Woman’ on English bank notes, to, alternatively, Marisa Fuentes’ work on the lives of women of colour and the simultaneous presence and erasure of their voices within colonial archives. Yet, the systemic bias remains, and there is still much work to be done. The essays contained in Women’s Writing, 1660-1830 offer a crucial opportunity to pause, reflect, and assess the direction – or indeed multiple directions – in which feminist literary history is, could, and should be headed.

The urgent questions at the heart of this volume chiefly surround the ‘recovery project’ around women’s writing. The query of whether the recovery project has ‘achieved its goal’ is quickly dissected and problematised. Instead of a simplistic and potentially dismissive and counter-productive call for work ‘beyond recovery’, Batchelor, Dow and their authors instead carve out a nuanced and diverse assemblage of avenues in which the voices of women writers and readers can continue to be accessed and studied. The introduction, as well as essays by Ros Ballaster, Katherine Binhammer, Isobel Grundy, and Dow, unflinchingly grapple with the potential for isolation or elitism within women’s literary history as a distinct field. Indeed, the impact of scholarly work on the realities of higher education is valiantly approached: the exclusionary and unaffordable cost of editions of women’s writing, the white, Anglo-centric nature of the field, and the teaching of women writers in the classroom.

Flanked by Grundy’s preface and Cora Kaplan’s postscript, the volume underscores the centrality of literary study to feminist scholarship. Grundy reiterates the ways in which women’s writing continues to be a ‘daring choice’ (p. 9) for scholars to pursue, and sets a tone of boldness, scholarly, social, and pedagogical responsibility and intellectual rigour which carries through the volume. Ballaster’s chapter on the place of the aesthetic navigates the place given to aesthetic judgement and the privileging of literary forms of writing, and opens up a key question throughout the volume: what counts as women’s writing? Economics and professionalism are key issues within the volume, and their influence on how women’s writing has traditionally been defined is nuanced within the essays. E. J. Clery raises the part played by neo-liberal ideology in shaping the study of women’s writing and demonstrates the ways in which the economic is addressed in women’s writing. M.O. Grenby considers the professionalisation of women’s writing of children’s literature and the economic valuation of writing by women. Batchelor’s essay on anonymity grapples with the professional and amateur author, alongside the uncomfortable image of modesty, deference, and silence which surrounds works ‘by a lady’, or indeed the ungendered ‘Anon’. Drawing from the wealth of ‘Anon’ work in periodicals such as the Lady’s Magazine, Batchelor makes a convincing case for the inclusion of such anonymous texts within the remit of women’s writing. Similarly, Elaine McGirr further diversifies the parameters of the women writer through the performative utterances of Nell Gwynn and Susannah Arne Cribber.

Alongside who and what counts as women’s writing, the frameworks and methodologies through which it is approached and taught are considered. Binhammer skilfully navigates the categorisation and signification of the women in women’s writing, and makes a case for the need to marry eighteenth-century literature with feminist theory within pedagogical contexts. Marie-Louise Coolahan and Mark Empey interrogate book ownership and access in order to assess the impact of women’s writing upon the make-up of libraries, deftly demonstrating how the ‘neo-liberal university’s appetite for quantification and empirical research’ (p. 67) can be turned to fruitful ends in feminist literary scholarship. Chloe Wigston Smith challenges the notion that taking up the pen necessitates abandoning the needle, and reflects upon the relationship between material objects and their literary representations. Aligning feminine literary and material practices, Smith celebrates the feminist potential of the ‘material turn’.

The geographical borders, and the crossing and interrogation of those boundaries, dominate the final two essays in the volume. Sarah Prescott tackles the persistent problems around the synonymous use of British for English, and the consequent exclusion of Scottish, Irish, and Welsh women’s voices. The juncture of national identity and gender, and their impact upon differing notions of value and authorship, literary aesthetic, and professionalism, underline the importance of intersectional considerations. Opening out the conversation again to consider pan-European writing, Dow’s chapter also turns to the mapping of women writers’ lives. Noting that the dismissal of biography and bio-bibliographical surveys have been heavily scorned and dismissed, Dow brings the discussion back toward the so-called success of the recovery project.

One of the many impressive – but not explicitly highlighted – aspects of this book is the plethora of references to projects, databases and networks which have contributed to the study of women’s literary history over the years. Coolahan and Empey’s Reception and Circulation of Early Modern Women’s Writing, 1550-1700 informs their chapter, Prescott’s Women’s Poetry from Scotland, Ireland, and Wales: 1400-1800 similarly informs her contribution, while the impact of Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present is mentioned by Ballaster, Clery and Binhammer alike. As Batchelor and Dow reflect in their introduction, the catch-all phrasing of a ‘recovery project’ is misleading in suggesting a cohesive, strategized, and unified movement. The essays in this volume reflect and embrace the diversity of projects, perspectives and approaches, even occasionally crossing disciplinary lines. Encompassing the professional and amateur, print and manuscript, the canonical and the overlooked and undervalued, Batchelor and Dow champion a vision for the future of feminist literary history which is both grounded in the realistic issues that abound in humanities scholarship, and refreshingly inclusionary.

SERENA DYER
De Montfort University

Cfp WSG Seminars 2019-20

Established in the 1980s, the Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837 is an informal, multidisciplinary group which promotes in the study of women and gender in the early modern period and long eighteenth century.  The group enables members to keep in touch, to hear about one another’s research and publications, and to meet regularly to discuss relevant topics, including at regular weekend seminars and an annual workshop at the Foundling Museum. We can offer advice and opportunities to engage in activities that increase opportunities for publication, or enhance professional profiles in other ways.

For our 2019-20 seminars, we invite papers related to any aspect of women’s and gender studies: not only women writers, but any activity of a woman or women in the period of our concern, or anything that affects or is affected by women in this period, such as the law, religion, etc. Papers tackling aspects of women’s studies within or alongside the wider histories of gender and sexuality are particularly welcome. We would also welcome how-to presentations for discussion: examples of suitable topics would include, but are not limited to, applying for grants, setting up research networks, becoming a curator, co-authorship, using specialised data, and writing about images.  Papers should be about 20-25 minutes. The closing date for applications is 20 May 2019.

The seminar dates are:

  • Saturday 21 September, 2019, 1-4pm
  • Saturday 23 November, 2019, 1-4pm
  • Saturday 18 January, 2020, 1-4pm
  • Saturday 21 March, 2020, 1-4pm

The full address for the Foundling Museum is 40 Brunswick Square, London, WC1N 1AZ. It is a wheelchair accessible venue and there are further access directions including directions for partially-sighted visitors here.  We are allowed into the room at 12.30pm to give us time to sort out paperwork and technology, but sessions will run from 1-4pm. So please arrive a little early if you can.

The WSG is open to women, men and non-binary people, students, faculty, and independent scholars, all of whom are invited to join our group and to give papers.

Find out more about us at https://womensstudiesgroup.org

Check the Book section for progress on Exploring the Lives of Women

Please reply to WSG seminars organiser Carolyn D. Williams at cdwilliamslyle@aol.com

Reminder: Booking still open for WSG seminar and book launch 8 December

A reminder that the special Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837 seminar takes place 8 December, when WSG launches its 30th anniversary collection, Exploring the Lives of Women 1558-1837 (Pen & Sword Books, 2018) at the Foundling Museum, London. Reserve your place now to hear a special set of papers, ‘Women’s and Gender Studies in 2018 and Beyond’, drink a glass of wine (or soft drink), and get a copy of the book.

Speakers are:

Louise Duckling: Exploring the Lives of Women, 1558-1837: A Journey in Images
Bernadette Andrea: ‘English Daughters’ in Eighteenth-Century Morocco: Abjection and Assimilation in the Narratives of Thomas Pellow and Elizabeth Marsh
Felicity Roberts: The Academic Precariat: Writing Women’s History Now

Seminars take place at the Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, WC1N 1AZ, starting promptly at 1pm (doors open 12.30pm) and finishing at 4pm. The Foundling is a wheelchair accessible venue, and directions for getting to the Museum can be found here, including for those who are partially sighted. This seminar will be a parent and baby-friendly event.

WSG seminar and book launch December 2018

Come and help the Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837 celebrate the launch of their 30th anniversary book, Exploring the Lives of Women!  On 8 December at the Clore room in the Foundling Museum, London, WSG will be holding a one-off edition of one of their winter seminars, featuring a special set of 3 papers, ‘Women’s and Gender Studies in 2018 and Beyond’, followed by the book launch.  Booking for this seminar is now open on eventbrite. Reserve your place to join us for three stimulating papers, a glass of bubbly or a soft drink and an opportunity to peruse the new book.*  Hardback copies will be available for purchase on the day at the special pre-order price of £15.99 and editors and contributors will be there to sign or dedicate your copy. It would make an ideal Christmas present…

Speakers are:

  • Louise Duckling on ‘Exploring the Lives of Women, 1558-1837: A Journey in Images’
  • Bernadette Andrea on ‘‘English Daughters’ in Eighteenth-Century Morocco: Abjection and Assimilation in the Narratives of Thomas Pellow and Elizabeth Marsh’
  • Felicity Roberts on ‘The Academic Precariat: Writing Women’s History Now’

The Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, WC1N 1AZ, is a wheelchair accessible venue, and directions for getting to the Museum can be found here, including for those who are partially sighted. Seminars are free and open to the public, start promptly at 1pm and finish at 4, doors open at 12.30pm, and those attending the seminars are welcome to look round the museum before or after.  This seminar is a parent and baby-friendly event.

*Once you have booked, no printed ticket is necessary to attend this event. Just turn up and give your name. If you are experiencing trouble booking, please email the WSG organisers on wsgpostbox@gmail.com.

*If you are intending to purchase a book, please also indicate to the organisers by emailing wsgpostbox@gmail.com. Please bring cash.

To order a copy online, see our publisher Pen & Sword’s page.

Review: Love’s Victory, Penshurst Place

In August WSG member and PhD student at Birkbeck College Miriam al Jamil went to the ‘premiere’ of Lady Mary Wroth’s Love’s Victory at Penshurst Place, Kent. She reviews it here:

Inspired by a WSG notice, I obtained a last-minute ticket for the first ever professional performance of Love’s Victory (MS transcription here) which was staged in the beautiful medieval Baron’s Hall at Penshurst Place in Kent. Penshurst was the home of Lady Mary Wroth (1587-1651/3) whose prose romance Urania and sonnets are better known than this pastoral tragi-comedy, written between 1617 and 1619.  It exists in only two manuscript copies, an incomplete Huntingdon MS and a Penshurst version on which the performance was based. The project to revive the play has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of Lancaster University’s Shakespeare and his Sisters project which Professor Alison Findlay has been running for two years, and a film of the performance will shortly be posted on their website. It will be a valuable resource and interesting I am sure for many WSG members.

The gallery of the hall served as Venus’s heavenly domain, from which she and Cupid observe the entangled trysts of four pairs of lovers, echoing aspects of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Venus demands that her power is respected and the complex web of the lovers’ desires and misunderstandings is formed and untangled through rhyming couplets, in song and music. The lovers devise word games and singing competitions to while away the time. Each represents aspects of love, its fickleness and calculation, vulnerability and yearning. The dilemma of an arranged marriage makes all true love secondary, an offence to Venus which results in the tragic death pact of the true lovers Musella and Philisses in her Temple. The Penshurst MS provides the denouement of the plot which is missing in the Huntingdon version. Musella’s mother is brought in and rebuked for making a forced marriage arrangement which has led to the death of her daughter. Her shame and grief convince Venus to reverse the tragic ending and restore the lovers to life again. So we all celebrate the joyful triumph of love. How could it be otherwise?

The language, arguments for love in all its aspects and guises framed in a pastoral setting was suitable entertainment for Wroth’s private audience in her country house. It reflects traditions of courtly masque entertainments and aristocratic participation. Professor Findlay suggests it may have brought Wroth together with her cousin William Herbert if they both performed in the play. Certainly Mary entered into a relationship with William after her husband died. The final scene lays the blame for miserable marriages squarely on the mother and it is tempting to read Mary’s personal story through the twists and turns of the plot. The performers gave energy and insight to their roles, and the evening was an encouraging contribution to the ongoing rediscoveries of women’s skill and creativity to which we all subscribe at WSG. Interested readers may want to order the forthcoming edition of Love’s Victory edited by Findlay and Michael Brennan once it is available on the Manchester University Press website.