Great explorations: a fictional midwife and fictions of ideal women by Louise Duckling

Following on from the arrival of WSG’s anniversary volume in paperback format, Louise Duckling introduces new books launched by two of its contributors: Sara Read and Tabitha Kenlon.

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On an autumnal evening last September, a small crowd gathered at Harris & Harris Books in Clare, Suffolk, for one of its popular Author on the Stairs events. Gillian Williamson and I had been invited to talk about WSG’s anniversary book, Exploring the Lives of Women, 1558–1837, which had recently been released in paperback format.

As one of the book’s editors, I wanted to convey the scope and originality of our authors’ contributions in my talk. Therefore, I chose to address the question: why had so many of the women featured in the book been left out of the historical record? I considered how women’s history was constructed (and gendered) in Victorian biographical dictionaries, using our ‘bookend’ queens Elizabeth I and Victoria as opening case studies, before introducing some of the women whose lives are explored in our anniversary volume.

This approach led neatly into Gillian’s talk about her chapter on the Gentleman’s Magazine. Gillian eloquently described how the magazine constructed ideas of gender in the eighteenth century, specifically referencing the emergence of obituaries in its pages. The obituaries were used by Gillian (with some brilliant flashes of humour) to show how femininity was framed in the Gentleman’s Magazine, while also providing glimpses of a less-neatly gendered society.

There was an opportunity for the audience to ask questions and handle some of our original source material – an 1866 edition of a female biographical dictionary and an early volume of the Gentleman’s Magazine­. We enjoyed lively discussion and hospitality, in the perfect setting of an independent bookshop. Reflecting on this evening, in such an intimate and sociable environment, it is clear we were very fortunate. For anyone releasing a book right now, any ‘in-person’ events or celebrations will have to wait. This is exactly the case for two of our book’s contributors, whose latest work has been published during the lockdown.

The first of these new books is by Dr Sara Read, who specialises in cultural and literary representations of women, reproduction and medicine in the early modern period. Sara played a pivotal role in the WSG book, serving as both co-editor and contributor, with her chapter focusing on The Countesse of Lincolnes Nurserie (1622) by Elizabeth Clinton and highlighting views around childcare and breastfeeding. In her latest work, Sara continues to draw upon this rich subject knowledge, while venturing into new territory: the genre of historical fiction.

In her excellent debut novel, The Gossips’ Choice, Sara has created an atmospheric world for her protagonist, the midwife Lucie Smith. The book has been described as a seventeenth-century version of ‘Call the Midwife’, as we follow Lucie’s cases during the plague year of 1665. It is a beautifully crafted and impeccably researched novel, drawing upon a wide range of historical sources. For example, some of the events in the book are inspired by A Complete Practice of Midwifery (1737), the memoir of midwife Sarah Stone. This approach provides authentic detail to a vividly imagined and compelling story.

The second new book release is by Dr Tabitha Kenlon. Tabitha’s research concentrates on eighteenth-century British novels, theatre, and conduct manuals. In Exploring the Lives of Women, Tabitha’s chapter provides a close reading of a single text, exposing the confused rhetoric in the cautionary pamphlet Advice to Unmarried Women (1791) written by an anonymous clergyman. Tabitha also contributed one of the two poems in our book, ‘Gretchen’s Answer’, which follows similar themes by exploring the consequences of “when society tells women how to think, how to act, how to feel” (Exploring, p. 98).

Tabitha’s first monograph continues this investigation. In Conduct Books and the History of the Ideal Woman, Tabitha shows how the longest-running war is the battle over how women should behave. This is an exceptional study, being the first of its kind to provide a trans-historical approach: expanding upon previous period-specific studies, Tabitha considers the persistence (or alteration) of the female ideal over six centuries. Tabitha’s brilliant close readings of a wide range of texts are superbly executed and entertaining, making the book highly accessible to the specialist or general reader. It is a powerful book, written with compassion and flashes of anger, in an elegant and witty prose.

Until we can all meet to celebrate, congratulations to Sara and Tabitha for producing two great books. Full reviews of both publications will appear on this website in the coming months: watch this space!

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The Gossips’ Choice by Sara Read is published by Wild Pressed Books for £12.

Conduct Books and the History of the Ideal Woman by Tabitha Kenlon is published by Anthem Press for £80 (hardback) and £25 (ebook). Please ask your institutional library to buy a copy. A 20% discount is available to WSG members.

Exploring the Lives of Women, 1558–1837, the anniversary book by WSG, is published by Pen & Sword Books for £19.99 (hardback), £12.99 (paperback) and £5.20 (ebook).

Please support your local independent booksellers if you can. Harris & Harris Books is currently offering a delivery service.

Reminder: WSG seminar March 2020

***EDIT: Due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, we have cancelled this event.***

The third seminar of the year takes place on Saturday 21 March. 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 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.  To join the WSG, see our membership page.

Reminder: WSG seminar January 2020

The third seminar of the year takes place on Saturday 18 January. 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 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

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

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.