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

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

WSG at BSECS 2019

WSG member Miriam al Jamil reports from the recent BSECS conference.

WSG members make an increasingly strong showing at BSECS conferences, both as participants in our own panel and as speakers on others. This year’s conference took place in Oxford 4-6 Jan 2019 and the theme was ‘Islands and Isolation’, which inspired a broad and eclectic range of papers across a range of disciplines. Our panel was titled ‘Fallen Women, Missionary Wives and Castaways: Exploring Women’s Isolation in the Long Eighteenth Century’. It was organised by Carolyn Williams and chaired by Yvonne Noble.

Tabitha Kenlon’s paper was ‘Scold, Punish, Pity or Seduce? The Confused Rhetoric of Advice to Unmarried Women (1791)’. Readers of our book Exploring the Lives of Women, 1558-1837 will be aware of Tabitha’s work on conduct manuals and her paper explored contradictions in an anonymous advice manual of 1791. Description of the process of seduction is combined with moralistic counselling of the young women at risk, characterised as victims who succumb to temptation. The language borders on the salacious as the reader is addressed directly as a fallen woman, her shame a ‘chronicle of male triumph’. The writer exhorts reform but is not convinced that a woman will ever be exonerated for her failure to anticipate the actions of her seducer. Tabitha interpreted ‘isolation’ as the social and moral wilderness into which the fallen woman was propelled.

Trudie Messent presenting at BSECS 2019

Trudie Messent presented on a WSG panel for the first time. Her paper was titled ‘Yesterday I left my native land and have now gazed upon it for the last time’: Isolation viewed through the life writing of Missionary wives in the Sandwich Islands and New Zealand, 1819-1832’. Trudie examined both the harsh physical journey and the emotional one which young newly-married wives experienced as they adjusted to life on the other side of the globe. She suggested that the letters and descriptions written by her subjects had a cathartic effect in the absence of social contact that their new lives entailed. Trudie’s paper was accompanied by some beautiful slides, showing routes taken, portraits and scenes which enriched the descriptions and quotations in her paper.

Carolyn Williams’ paper ‘Ladies unus’d to such hardships: Women on Desert Islands in two Eighteenth-century Novels’ began with a witty admonition for the incompetence shown by such desert island dwellers as Ben Gunn and Robinson Crusoe who were unable to recognise the potential resources available to them on their islands, such as the fermenting grapes or sea salt which could be put to good use to supply yeast or enable cheese-making. The delicate languishing ladies in Penelope Aubin’s The Strange Adventures of the Count de Vinevil and his Family (1721) were given short shrift in Carolyn’s discussion which highlighted the shortcomings of an upper-class life as preparation for survival on an island. Their practical working-class counterpoint was identified in Charles Dibdin’s Hannah Hewit; or, The Female Crusoe (1792) whose scientific and mechanical facility rendered her desert island sojourn a period of comfort and creative energy.

Other WSG members who gave papers at the conference included Gillian Williamson, Miriam Al Jamil, Brianna Robertson-Kirkland, our bursary winner Madeleine Pelling, and Judith Hawley who contributed her insights at a round table discussion on ‘#MeToo’. I am sure there were other members and friends at the conference. There were many familiar faces. Speakers Olivette Otele and Cynthia Wall mined their academic experience for thoughtful keynote talks, and a delightful concert of eighteenth-century songs by soprano Valeria Mignaco and guitarist Jelma van Amersfoort put us in a convivial mood for the conference dinner. Plans are already underway for next year’s conference which will be ‘Natural, Unnatural and Supernatural’ and we are sure WSG will have a strong presence again in 2020.

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

Robin Runia, The Future of Feminist Eighteenth-Century Scholarship: Beyond Recovery

The Future of Feminist Eighteenth-Century Scholarship: Beyond Recovery. Edited by Robin Runia. New York and London: Routledge. 2018. Pp. 185. £110.00 (hardback), ISBN 9781138571372.

Robin Runia’s edited collection The Future of Feminist Eighteenth-Century Scholarship: Beyond Recovery makes both a fascinating and timely historiographical intervention within eighteenth-century literary studies. This is a discipline that for some time has enacted important acts of recovery, particularly by recentring into the forefront of critical discussion, women writers, editors, and critics who have traditionally fallen outside of literary canons. As Runia’s ‘Introduction’ sets out, the collection represents an attempt to argue for the continued necessity of such feminist scholarship of eighteenth-century literature in the face of perceptions that this important work has now been ‘done’. Yet, in the age of the digital humanities, in which a huge number of eighteenth-century texts have been made available through digitisation projects, the recovery of forgotten texts by women writers is easier than ever. At the same time, the important shifts that have characterised feminist movements in the last few years, such as #MeToo and the rise of intersectional approaches, mean that a critical reassessment of this feminist scholarship, including the politics and methodologies that underpin ‘recovery’, has never been more necessary.

Collectively, the various essays included in this volume highlight the continued vibrancy of feminist scholarship of eighteenth-century literature. Together the chapters represent a broad range of approaches to the idea of recovery, with some authors actively considering recovery as a framework for their scholarship, and others passively employing the methodologies associated with it (such as reassessing existing accounts, and bringing new attention to overlooked women authors) as part of their analyses. Of the latter, Karen Bloom Gevirtz’s chapter, ‘Philosophy and/in Verse: Jane Barker’s “Farewell to Poetry” and the Anatomy of Verse’, offers a compelling reassessment of Jane Barker’s use of rhetoric and structure in the ‘investigation and explication of the experience of feeling’ (55) within the experimental philosophy of the New Science. Likewise, Jennifer L. Avery’s chapter, ‘The “English Sappho’s” Daughter: Reading the Works of Maria Elizabeth Robinson’, argues for the necessity of a critical reassessment of Robinson’s works, particularly her gothic novel, The Shrine of Bertha.

However, the volume is most successful when it tackles issues of recovery head on. Kate Parker’s essay ‘Recovery and Translation in Cross-Channel Eighteenth-Century Women’s Writing’, for example, makes an important argument about the nature of the texts that feminist scholarship has previously favoured for recovery, that is, the privileging of ‘original’ and ‘creative’ writing over the intellectual work associated with the production of translated texts. As such, Parker’s chapter demonstrates how recovery, normally viewed as an act which disrupts traditional notions of value as ascribed to canonical texts, in fact reproduces, albeit in a different form, this hierarchical approach to literary culture.

Beyond this theoretical emphasis, the volume is also concerned with contemporary relevance of historic texts, with a number of essays asking how the reading and recovery of these eighteenth-century narratives might shed light on current attitudes, ideas, and issues. For example, Shawn Lisa Maurer’s chapter, ‘Lydia Still: Adolescent Wildness in Pride and Prejudice,’ asks how our reading of Lydia Bennet shifts when we read her through a contemporary lens, as a stereotypical ‘teenager’. Likewise, Brittany Pladek’s chapter ‘Beyond the Poet-Physician: Letitia Landon’s Reader-Centred Therapy,’ attempts to redefine and bring nuance to the stock figure of the poet-physician by integrating Landon’s reader-oriented model. In so doing, she asks how recovering ‘alternate traditions of literary medicine’ might offer ‘a historical resource for present and future approaches to humanistic healing’ (72).

Perhaps the most useful consideration of the relationship between past text and literary present, however, is Cynthia Richards’s contribution to the collection. This chapter attempts to square what Richards refers to as ‘the transhistorical nature of trauma studies’ (15) with historicist accounts of the eighteenth-century, reading the rape of Richardson’s Clarissa in relation to DSM-IV and post-traumatic stress disorder. At the same time, she highlights the lack of trauma studies within eighteenth-century studies, enacting her own kind of productive recovery by bringing these two fields into conversation. Although the type of retrospective diagnosis intimated by this approach is often bemoaned by historicists, the chapter highlights how these readings resonate with current readers of the text, specifically students. Richards’s account provocatively draws out the unavoidable contemporary resonances of books like Clarissa in an age of #MeToo, thereby offering a compelling exploration of the dynamic potential of using the lens of trauma studies to interrogate these historic documents.

This dual emphasis on history and present day is also echoed in the volume’s attention to the figure of the reader, who appears in both contemporaneous and current forms throughout. In her modern manifestations in the volume, a critically-aware author-reader emerges who rethinks eighteenth-century texts through multiple layers of historiography, the current cultural and political climate, and personal experience. Indeed, both Runia’s introduction and Richards’s piece reflect on their own experiences from panels at the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies annual conference, framing these discussions in relation to the acts of recovery their own scholarship enacts. The eighteenth-century author-reader is also given attention through Stacey L. Kikendall’s account, ‘(Imprudent Travel): The Politics of Locations and the Gendered Experience in Mary Wollstonecraft’s and Mary Shelley’s Travel Writing’. In this essay, Kikendall skilfully reads the women’s travel writing in terms of a dialogue of included versus excluded detail, wherein the prudent author anticipates the aspects of a text that might be judged as imprudent by its potential readers and edits accordingly. Like Runia and Richards’s contributions, Kikendall’s essay is dependent on a dense historiography around both women and their writing, including edited private letters and biographical texts, which serve to sharpen Kikendall’s reading of Wollstonecraft’s and Shelley’s authorial prudence, resulting in a complex analysis of authorship that functions on multiple levels and through different timeframes.

As such, each of these chapters offers a refreshing analysis or use of recovery as a strategy for writing about eighteenth-century literature, as inflected by previous scholarship, present debates, and digital technologies. Yet ‘recovery’ as feminist praxis is not simply a literary concern, particularly within eighteenth-century studies. Indeed, important work has been done on once obscure women artists such as Anne Seymour Damer and Mary Linwood, while the field examining women’s material and craft productions during this period is flourishing. Due to the hierarchical divisions between art and craft that have previously characterised canonical art historical scholarship on the period, such work has reflected deeply on the utility and limitations of feminist recovery as a methodology. As such, I feel that the broader implications of this study could be more successfully teased out through an interdisciplinary volume, one that reflects the multitudinous approaches to recovery that characterise research undertaken by a wide range of scholars working in the highly interdisciplinary field of eighteenth-century studies. Emily M. N. Kugler’s essay, ‘Fantasies of Emancipation: Collaborations and Contestations in The History of Mary Prince’, is one of the few essays in this volume to take advantage of such an approach, using a compelling analysis of surviving material objects against the texts which are part of her discussion, which together work to show how new digital approaches can bring material and textual cultures into fascinating dialogue.

Overall however,The Future of Feminist Eighteenth-Century Scholarship: Beyond Recovery represents a welcome addition to the reflexive historiographical conversations that have long characterised eighteenth-century studies. Just as Felicity Nussbaum and Laura Brown’s The New Eighteenth-Century: Theory, Politics and English Literature asked vital questions about the discipline’s use of (and then resistance to) theory in 1988, so too does Runia’s edited volume offer an important reassessment of those concerns and methodologies in light of the current scholarly and cultural climate.

FREYA GOWRLEY
Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art