Reminder: WSG seminar November 2019

The second seminar of the year takes place on Saturday 23 November, with papers on early modern science, authorship and overlooked lives.

Seminars take place at the Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, WC1N 1AZ, starting promptly at 1pm and finishing at 4pm.  Doors open at 12.30.  The Foundling is a wheelchair accessible venue, and directions for getting to the Museum can be found here, including those for the visually impaired.  All seminars are free and open to the public, though refreshments will cost £2 to those who aren’t WSG members.  Those attending the seminars are welcome to look round the museum before or after.

Saturday 23 November, 2019. Chairs Miriam al Jamil and Felicity Roberts
Masuda Qureshi: Celestial Revolutions: Hester Pulter and the circular skies.
Natasha Simonova: ‘Semiramis does not stand still’: Amabel Polwarth and Amateur Authorship
John Beddoes: Anna, Emmeline and Maria Edgeworth, Three Sisters of the Enlightenment: “I do not wish to be the cause of one of your tight laced faces.”
Francesca Saggini: Below and Beyond. On Re-reading Burney’s Biographies

For further information including abstracts, see our seminars page.  To join the WSG, see our membership page.

WSG seminar series 2019-20

The Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837 is pleased to announce the speakers for their seminar series 2019-20.  All seminars will take place at the Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, WC1N 1AZ, starting promptly at 1pm and finishing at 4pm.  Doors open at 12.30.  All seminars are free and open to the public, though refreshments will cost £2 to those who aren’t WSG members. 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. Those attending the seminars are welcome to look round the museum afterwards.

Saturday 21 September, 2019. Chairs Gillian Williamson and Carolyn D. Williams
Charmian Kenner: Sarah Andrews: furthering the cause of Latin American independence in early 19th century London
Sonia Villegas López: Female libertinism in Gabriel de Brémond’s transnational oriental fictions
Rebecca Simpson: Scandal and the Maternal Imagination in Eighteenth-Century Britain: The Confessions of Mary Toft [WSG Bursary awardee, 2018]
Alison Daniell: Of False Hair, Bolstered Hips and Witchcraft: The Regulation of Women’s Bodies and an Act of Parliament that Never Was

Saturday 23 November, 2019. Chairs Miriam al Jamil and Felicity Roberts
Masuda Qureshi: Celestial Revolutions: Hester Pulter and the circular skies.
Natasha Simonova: ‘Semiramis does not stand still’: Amabel Polwarth and Amateur Authorship
John Beddoes: Anna, Emmeline and Maria Edgeworth, Three Sisters of the Enlightenment: “I do not wish to be the cause of one of your tight laced faces.”
Francesca Saggini: Below and Beyond. On Re-reading Burney’s Biographies

Saturday 18 January, 2020. Chairs Angela Escott and Miriam al Jamil
Charlotte Young: Women’s involvement in Canterbury sequestrations, 1643-1650 [WSG Bursary winner, 2019]
Carol Stewart: Penelope Aubin’s The Noble Slaves and the Politics of Opposition
Anne Stott: Princess Charlotte of Wales: gender and the “reversionary interest”
Katherine Woodhouse: “Madam Smith says, what shou’d the Captain do with such a wife as me who can only sit with a book in her hand”
Anna Jamieson: Madness Exhibited: The Margaret Nicholson Scandal

Saturday 21 March, 2020. Chairs Carolyn D. Williams and Angela Escott
Lindy Moore: The Scottish Schoolmistress in the Eighteenth Century
Alexis Wolf: Women and Mentoring in the Late Eighteenth Century: Mary Wollstonecraft, Margaret King and Mary Shelley
Rachel Eckersley: Female benefactors to dissenting academies in England
Catriona Wilson: “Some attention to those female members”: Feminised monarchy in the first exhibition of Kensington Palace’s State Apartments, 1899

For further information including abstracts, see our seminars page, or contact the organiser Carolyn D. Williams.  To join the WSG, see our membership page.

A Celebration of Mary Wollstonecraft

Many thanks to WSG member Emma Clery who organised this fascinating day and invited our group; the following report is by Charmian Kenner, one of a number of WSG members who attended.

A celebration of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) held on 27 April 2019, the 260th anniversary of her birth, invited us to consider her ‘in the round’ by discussing her life, work and legacy through research in history, literary criticism, politics and philosophy; and by experiencing representations of Wollstonecraft through art, film and drama. We met in the atmospheric Old St Pancras Church in London, with participants sitting on either side of the aisle that Wollstonecraft walked down to marry William Godwin, and with a lunchtime visit to the original site of her grave in the churchyard. Participants came from around the UK and as far afield as Japan and the US.

A theme throughout the event was how Wollstonecraft’s thinking prefigured and fed into ideas and struggles of today. Hannah Dawson focused on Wollstonecraft’s central concern with freedom, or rather women’s lack of it, since economic dependence on men meant vulnerability and loss of self, leaving women obsessed with beauty as their only asset to hold the male gaze – a condition from which we have yet to entirely escape. Wollstonecraft’s argument that women were playing a part assigned to them by society, rather than this being their authentic nature, links directly with today’s views on gender as a construct we can change. Catherine Packham pointed to connections between Wollstonecraft’s critique of modernity, in particular the late eighteenth-century social and economic order, and analyses by current theorists such as Thomas Piketty. Laura Kirkley highlighted Wollstonecraft’s cosmopolitan outlook, seeing humans as globally interdependent with shared moral obligations, exemplified in her support for Native Americans and her criticisms of empire.

A rousing discussion of ‘What would Mary do?’ with Shrabani Basu, Charlotte Gordon and Bee Rowlatt, imagined multiple possibilities for a contemporary Wollstonecraft, from having a strong social media presence to speaking out on modern slavery and refugee issues, to being a campaigning member of the academy. The latter position was impossible to achieve in her lifetime, and Andrew McInnes reminded us of the tensions in being a ‘philosophesse’ in the late eighteenth century, when women thinkers were both celebrated and stigmatised, though Wollstonecraft tried to take a gender neutral position and establish herself as a philosopher first and foremost. Isabelle Bour pointed out that Wollstonecraft’s reception was different in France at the time, where her life was not seen as scandalous, and she was appreciated as an intellectual in the mode of Germaine de Staël. Translations of Wollstonecraft’s work were popular with moderate Girondin revolutionaries and her ideas became part of progressive French thought.

Janet Todd and Lyndall Gordon, whose studies led the way in research on Wollstonecraft, both contributed to the day. Lyndall Gordon, looking for missing pieces in the jigsaw of Wollstonecraft’s life, shared her latest investigations into Mary’s stay in Hamburg, where she seems to have discovered a fraud that shook her faith in lover Gilbert Imlay. Janet Todd relished the burgeoning interest in Wollstonecraft studies, compared to the 1960s when her proposed PhD on Wollstonecraft was deemed ‘too obscure’. She also warned us against making Wollstonecraft, who characteristically was ‘always prickly’ and swam against the mainstream, into a ‘national treasure’. Speakers and audience at the conference agreed that Wollstonecraft sustains us today with her resilience in the face of life’s challenges, both personal and political.

A number of organisations carry on Wollstonecraft’s legacy. The Mary Wollstonecraft Fellowship celebrates her writing with talks and events; the Mary Wollstonecraft Philosophical Society disseminates her work and that of other women philosophers of the period, including through university curricula; the Wollstonecraft Society promotes education in schools; Mary on the Green fundraises to place a statue of Wollstonecraft by Maggie Hambling on Newington Green; and New Unity has a Heritage Lottery funded project at Newington Green Meeting House, ‘Uncovering the Dissenters’ Legacy at the Birthplace of Feminism’.

Joanne Major and Sarah Murden, All Things Georgian: Tales from the Long Eighteenth Century

All Things Georgian: Tales from the Long Eighteenth-Century. By Joanne Major and Sarah Murden. Barnsley: Pen & Sword. 2019. Pp 170. £25.00 (hardback), ISBN 9781526744616; £8.32 (ebook), ISBN 9781526744630.

All Things Georgian: Tales from the Long Eighteenth Century takes its name from Joanna Major and Sarah Murden’s highly successful blog. The volume provides readers with an array of short narratives concerning life in Georgian England between 1714-1830 that are designed to illuminate the complexity – and at times, tragedy and hilarity – of Georgian life. Major and Murden have a track record as co-authors having published three full-length biographies of lesser-known Georgian women with Pen & Sword in recent years. This volume presents twenty-five new tales to the reader, recounted with the same genuine scholarly excitement and skills for storytelling that readers have come to expect from this partnership. From actresses plucked from the streets of London and thrust into the spotlight of The Beggar’s Opera, to the first flight of air balloons and the discoveries of female astronomer Caroline Herschel, this volume brings together some of the most intriguing stories of the Georgian period in one illuminating compendium.  It is worth noting that as well as being a highly readable, enjoyable volume of short stories, it is clear that this book has been extensively researched. A glance down the ‘Notes and Sources’ pages gives the reader a sense of how familiar the writers must be with the inside of a Record Office.

Georgian women are certainly the stars of this volume, and it is refreshing to see so many tales with female protagonists from different ranks and social stations within the collection. What emerges from these stories is that a woman’s ability to succeed in this period was not always determined by their rank or by their ability to read and write, but instead owe a lot to skill, cunning, and a degree of luck. Intriguing accounts like that of Anne Rochford who rose from a nursery maid to gain royal favour as a coffee shop owner in the Royal Mews with a high-class of clientele despite being born illegitimate and made an orphan early in her childhood, exemplify this point. Readers interested in this theme will find the fate of sisters Sally and Maria Wallen particularly intriguing. Despite being sisters, these women entered into markedly different vocations: whilst ‘Crazy Sally’ became a famed female bonesetter at Epsom, her sister Maria Wallen found success playing Polly Peachum in The Beggar’s Opera. Curiously for both women, the pinnacle of their success came during single life, indeed, both suffered disastrous marriages that lead to their respective downfalls. Maria ultimately ended up at the Old Bailey addressing charges of bigamy and was replaced by a younger actress, whilst Sally was abandoned by her husband who took her life savings with him, eventually being buried in a pauper’s grave. Of course such tales are tinged with sadness, but this volume is at its best when it is exploring the fortunes and fates of women like Anne, Sally, and Maria – women born into the lower echelons of society, forced to navigate their way through the complexities of Georgian public sphere and the harsh realities of life without the benefit of wealth or social security. By including these tales, the authors provide a much-needed insight into the Georgian period as a time of social change in which fortune, station, and marriage was not always a prerequisite for individual success.

Despite the well-selected range and scope of subjects in the twenty-five tales, there is one significant omission: the marked absence of minority groups in these tales.  For example there were thousands of black servants and enslaved people in Britain in the 1770s and yet, the only clues one finds in this book to their existence is in some of the portraits and cartoon illustrations included alongside the main tales. Recent scholarship in this field has made significant strides in accounting for these and other minority groups in the Georgian period, indeed, one can even find evidence of Major and Murden’s telling stories about individuals from a minority background in their blog. Given the considerable work that has clearly gone into representing different facets of Georgian life and the populace of England, it is a shame, then, to find minorities largely omitted. The inclusion of accounts to this effect would have helped to represent the diversity of England’s populace during this period, and been a great asset to the reader grappling with the intricacies of Georgian Society.

On this note, though, additional praise should be given that in the production of this volume the authors have worked hard to source and include various pertinent illustrations – over 100, in fact – to accompany the main text. The visuals provided throughout help add texture to the tales, whilst demonstrating the distinctiveness of this period. Indeed, Major and Murden have created a well-structured and well-researched book that makes for highly pleasurable reading. The volume will appeal to both those familiar with this era, who are bound to find something new and intriguing amongst this rich collection, and more broadly, those interested in social-cultural history and women’s studies.

KATHERINE WOODHOUSE
Loughborough University

*Disclosure: Sarah Murden is a member of the Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837.

Briony McDonagh, Elite Women and the Agricultural Landscape, 1700-1830

Elite Women and the Agricultural Landscape, 1700-1830. By Briony McDonagh, London and New York: Routledge. 2018. Pp. 190. £110 (hardcover), £37 (paperback), ISBN 9781409456025.

In 1782, the leading bluestocking Elizabeth Montagu wrote the following letter to Elizabeth Carter boasting about her achievements as a landowner:

“[B]y Fees to Laywers, I laid out 36:000 in a purchase of Land, as good assurance of ye title; and by ye help architects, Masons, &c, I have built as good a House in Portman Square; & am now, by ye assistance of ye celebrated Messrs Brown & Wyatt, embellishing Sandleford within doors, & without as successfully, as if I was Esquire instead of Madame. All that I have mention’ has been effected in little more than 5 years, few gentlemen in ye Neighbourhood have done more.”

Written during the period succeeding the death of Montagu’s husband in 1775, after which she inherited considerable property, this letter fully expresses her pride in her work. For Briony McDonagh, this is a feminist statement, one in which Montagu expresses her deep belief that gender played no part in defining one’s capabilities as estate manager.

Elite Women and the Agricultural Landscape, 1700-1830, abounds with such examples of aristocratic and genteel women who played an active role in the management of landed property, some of which owned the properties in question and some that did not. A study on feminist historical geography, McDonagh’s new book is the first large-scale quantitative study considering female landownership in this period, and it expertly revises many long-held assumptions on female management of property. While we might, as McDonagh states, “be forgiven for thinking female landowners didn’t exist in any real numbers” due to the lack of work done on the topic, her study argues that over 3 million acres in England would have been owned by women in the later eighteenth century, and more than 6 million acres in Great Britain as a whole. “While undoubtedly disadvantaged by primogeniture, coverture and various other legal devices,” as McDonagh concludes in her second book chapter, ‘Women, Land and Property,’ “Female landowners as a group consistently held somewhere in the region of 10 per cent of the land.”

Nor were women the passive vessels through which property made its way back to the hands of their male owners. McDonagh’s third chapter, ‘Managing the Estate,’ considers the active role that many single, married and widowed women played in estate management. In this chapter, McDonagh emphasises the importance of such practices as the keeping of account books, which allowed the female landowner to keep a record of her decision-making and achievements regarding the management of the estate for her heir and wider family.  Elizabeth Prowse and the Duchess of Beaufort, for example, were responsible for the introduction of sophisticated systems of accounting that became the basis of bookkeeping practices in their respective estates for generations. Perhaps an even more impressive achievement was that of Anna Maria Agar, who after inheriting an incredibly encumbered estate from her uncle, cleared am eye-watering debt of £68,000 in only 15 years.

Equally impressive achievements by female landowners fill the pages of the subsequent chapters. Chapter 4, ‘Improving the Estate’ focuses on improvements introduced by women into their estates.  The already-mentioned Montagu had cause to boast in 1790 of her “genius for farming” and the improvements originating from her “own prudence and activity,” since after her death in 1800 the value of her estates was estimated at £10,000 a year, a 33% increase on their annual value since the death of her husband. Though of more modest means than Montagu, Anne Lister achieved great successes in the management of Shibden Hall, which she inherited from her uncle in 1826. Instead of leasing out the mines in the estate, as had been the practice in her family, she managed them herself, and through a careful calculation of costs managed to offer better prices than those of her competitors. Both women, as McDonagh affirms, demonstrate how, much like their male counterparts, female landowners were “influenced by a wide intellectual commitment to the idea of improvement,” a discourse that combined economic concerns as well as ideas about the social and moral dimensions of improvement.

One of the most common and long-held assumptions about female property management has been that by the early eighteenth century single, married and widowed women played little to no part in the management of large agricultural estates. This is an assumption against which McDonagh continues to successfully argue in the fifth chapter, ‘Country houses, gardens and estate villages.’ In this chapter, McDonagh argues that, much like their male counterparts, female landowners were “important figureheads in the local community, where they demanded votes and deference, and sometimes also on a regional and national stage.” McDonagh presents examples of several women who, by undertaking comprehensive programmes of building works, asserted their power and constructed their identities around their property management. To suggest, as scholars before McDonagh have done, that female landowners would inevitably have been less interested in altering the landscapes of their estates “is to vastly underestimate the degree in which gentle and aristocratic women acted to articulate, bolster and defend the status, power and wealth of their class.”

Whilst emphasising the active role that so many women played in the management of estates and their involvement in areas of activity far beyond their households, McDonagh is nevertheless deeply mindful of the ways in which their gender influenced their experience of landownership and estate management. This is the particular focus of the sixth chapter, ‘Representing women and property.’ As McDonagh points out, coverture made it difficult for women to sign leases and pursue legal proceedings, as well as keep their property out of the control of their husbands, even in cases in which they held it as separate estates. The majority of women would have also been educated at home, receiving an education generally focused on social and domestic rather than intellectual accomplishments, and they were also less likely to have practical experience of estate management than men of comparable age and status. Even dress would have been a factor that would have made their experience a gendered one. Indeed, one of the most vivid examples McDonagh provides is that of Amabel Hume-Campbell, whose letters describe in great detail her long walks through the landscape despite her lack of suitable clothes, which often resulted in her having to walk in wet shoes and sometimes even barefoot.

McDonagh leaves her stamp on the field of property studies with this deeply original and masterfully researched work which, besides making an unarguably valuable contribution to history and human geography, it is also important reading for scholars considering the portrayal of propertied women beyond these two subjects. For anyone interested in the portrayal of female property owners in literature, for example, this work is just as essential. Elite Women and the Agricultural Landscape vividly brings to life the distinct and powerful ways in which women experienced, modified and improved the eighteenth-century landscape, and it will undoubtedly influence future contributions to the field of property studies.

RITA J. DASHWOOD
University of Warwick