Carolyn Williams: thoughts from BSECS 2016

In January the Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837 presented a panel at the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies annual conference at St Hugh’s College, Oxford.  Here one of the panel speakers, WSG committee member Carolyn Williams, reflects:

Anonymous, The wonderful and surprising English dwarf, etching, c1725, BM PD 1872,1012.4329 By permission of the Trustees of the British Museum
Anonymous, The wonderful and surprising English dwarf, etching, c1725, BM PD 1872,1012.4329
By permission of the Trustees of the British Museum

“The BSECS annual conference has been the site of encounters that have played a significant role in the formation of the WSG itself, so we feel we have a special relationship with it. We have always fielded speakers there, and since the organisers declared they welcome panels, these are what we have offered. Now there is an annual theme we also like to adhere to that, but we don’t let it cramp our creativity: the enlightened mood of the conference encourages broad interpretations.

The 2016 theme was ‘Growth, Expansion and Contraction’, and we called our panel ‘Minds, Bodies, and China as Sites of Female Growth, Expansion and Contraction in the Long Eighteenth Century’. This year BSECS kindly provided a chair, Dr Penny Pritchard, to look after us. We tried to be good, to stick to time limits, and to sort out our technology before the panel was due to start: particularly heroic because we were on at 9 am!

Dr Tabitha Kenlon flew in from the American University in Dubai to read a paper on ‘The Virtues of the Gothic: Lessons in Female Comportment from the Gothic Novel’. She examined the relationship between Gothic novels and conduct manuals, showing they both extended and restricted boundaries by presenting heroines who defied and embodied social conventions. Her argument took its rise from Eliza Parsons’ novel The Castle of Wolfenbach, where the heroine, on encountering a mysterious woman dwelling in secret at the castle, asks her for guidance, saying, “I shall think myself particularly fortunate if you will condescend to instruct me, for… more attention has been paid to external accomplishments than to the cultivation of my mind, or any information respecting those principles of virtue a young woman ought early to be acquainted with”.

As panel organiser, I put myself in the middle, the position which usually attracts fewest questions, and I used no technology: everybody has different skills and my speciality is distracting the audience’s attention while people behind me do clever things with computers. I took the theme literally and applied it to the human body, in a paper entitled ‘“Marry a Monster? Who would have them?”: Size and Female Sexuality’. My inspiration was the 2015 workshop, headed by Elaine Hobby, who had discussed her forthcoming edition of Aphra Behn, and particularly some episodes in The Rover Part II (1681) where men of average size pay court to a giant and a dwarf. Examining the language applied to them in this play, and also its sources, Parts I and II of Thomas Killigrew’s Thomaso, or, The Wanderer (1663), I found that the ladies’ difference from the average was often seen as a matter of quality rather than simple quantity, and that, though size did not mean everything, it could, in certain circumstances, mean anything.

Dr Emma Newport, from King’s College London, concluded the panel with ‘Interplay and Interpretation: Lady Banks’s “Dairy Book” and the collection and collation of Chinese Porcelain.’ Her paper brought to light an unpublished, hand-written account of Lady Sarah Sophia Banks’s Chinese porcelain collection, the ‘Dairy Book‘, as an example of how networks of exchange were created and complicated by the influx of Chinese goods, materials and ideas. She argued that the porcelain collection and the ‘Dairy Book’ engendered both expansion and contraction: as gateway to wider narratives, technologies and aesthetics, but also contracting as the porcelain metonymized these wider representations.

Question time was enthusiastic. As well as casting new light on Gothic fiction in general, Tabitha Kenlon attracted new readers to Eliza Parsons. Jane Austen, who included this book among the ‘horrid’ novels in Northanger Abbey, and who became notoriously ‘sick and wicked’ at the prospect of perfection in fictitious characters, must have really enjoyed it. A great deal of interest was expressed in Sarah Sophia Banks: her porcelain dairy opened up a new world for the audience. Dr Matthew McCormack, whose own paper, earlier in the conference, had expressed an interest in the relationship between humoral theory and masculine size, took my own subject in a new direction by asking whether there was any evidence of an interest in humours in depictions of giants and dwarves that I had come across. I could not provide any, but Emma Newport could: she has been conducting research into dwarves on the eighteenth-century stage, which she has generously offered for my perusal. I can’t wait!”

Do you have any further information about depictions of size on the early modern stage?  Get in touch with Carolyn here.

Women’s Studies Group at BSECS 2016

WSG will be at the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies annual conference in January 2016 presenting the “WSG Panel: Minds, Bodies, and China as Sites of Female Growth, Expansion and Contraction in the Long Eighteenth Century”.

Our three papers consider women in confrontation with the great and the little, and their movements between them, whether mentally, physically, or through material objects. Dr Tabitha Kenlon begins by considering the engagement between gothic novels and other literature of the time, particularly conduct manuals, whose functions they often perform, both extending and restricting women’s boundaries by presenting heroines who defy
and embody social conventions. Just as conduct manuals provided guidelines for young ladies to be recognized as proper women, the gothic novel often features heroines searching for their appropriate place in society. Understanding the connections between
gothic novels and conduct manuals provides a more nuanced and complete picture of the ways texts worked together to construct ideals of female identity in the eighteenth century.

Carolyn D. Williams discusses textual representations of physical size and its bearings on female sexuality. Expansion and contraction are seen both as creating characters who are bigger and smaller than the normal run of human beings, and as the process of changing physical size. Jane Sharp’s The Midwives Book (1671) and the anonymous Aristotle’s Master-Piece (first published c. 1680) are cited in a discussion of controversy over the proper size of women’s generative organs. Swift’s Travels (1726), Parts I and II of Thomas

Killigrew’s  Thomaso, or, The Wanderer (1663) and Part II of Aphra Behn’s The Rover (1681) are brought to bear on the question whether people of non-standard size are ordinary humans on a different scale, or are monstrous, evil, and bestial. The plays combine both senses of expansion and contraction by introducing two Jewish sisters from Mexico, one a giant and one a dwarf, who wish to be transformed to normal size. Killigrew’s work in particular, where characters undergo magical sex changes that are
accompanied by transformations into giants, reveals a close and complex relationship between size and sexuality requiring further exploration.

When Alexander Pope, in his Epistle to a Lady (1735), described his ideal woman as ‘mistress of herself, though China fall’, he was both punning and reflecting a common eighteenth-century assumption that the passion for porcelain was a major threat to women’s sense of proportion. It is therefore appropriate that Dr Emma Newport’s paper, which concludes this panel, should explore the complex relationship between china the
substance and China the nation in British cultural consciousness. The focus of her research is Lady Banks’s porcelain dairy and the complementary text of her ‘Dairy Book’.
Her achievements re-imagined the aristocratic porcelain dairy as a site of research, of social arts and as a synthesis of male and female collecting practices. They engender both expansion and contraction: as gateway to wider narratives, technologies and aesthetics, but also contracting as the porcelain metonymises these wider representations.

Go to the BSECS website for the full conference programme.