BSECS 2020: Heroines, Hoops, Heels, Witches & Ghosts: Femininity & the Natural, Unnatural & Supernatural. Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837 Panel

This year at the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies annual conference, the Women’s Studies Group were represented by three fantastic panellists: Tabitha Kenlon, Alison Daniell and Carolyn D. Williams. The session was chaired by Yvonne Noble. This panel was well attended and allowed for a lively discussion, closely linked to the papers. Below is the panel proposal, which provides a little more detail with regards to the overall idea for the panel and the individual papers.

This panel considers different ways in which ideas about the natural, unnatural and supernatural on the one hand, and the characteristics and capabilities of women on the other, can become ambiguous and complicated when brought into contact with each other.

Dr Tabitha Kenlon, in ‘A Handbook for Heroines: Acting the Part in Northanger Abbey’, invokes performance theory to argue that Jane Austen’s heroine, by refusing to adhere to all the rules presented to her by conduct manuals, draws attention to the performative elements of ‘nature’. Although conduct manuals assured readers that women were naturally disposed to certain activities and temperaments, writers nonetheless felt obliged to remind women to behave in ways that, if truly natural, should have required little effort. In this respect they were not so different from the Gothic novels that Catherine found so delightful, and whose popularity gave concern to anxious moralists. She must adjust her own actions to fit the story she is really in, while learning to distinguish between malicious deception and required social performance.

Alison Daniell’s ‘Of False Hair, Bolstered Hips and Witchcraft: The Regulation of Women’s Bodies and an Act of Parliament that Never Was’ discusses the Matrimonial Act 1770 (or, as it is more commonly known, The Hoops and Heels Act 1770), which ostensibly permitted husbands to divorce wives who had seduced and betrayed them into matrimony by using perfume, make-up, heels and other commonplace beauty aids; the wives were also to ‘incur the penalty of the laws now in force against witchcraft, sorcery, and suchlike misdemeanours’. It is a fake: it was never passed, or even debated, by Parliament and its provisions do not exist anywhere in law. Yet it is referenced in a number of academic publications and has been quoted, re-quoted and published in newspapers across the globe for over 175 years. This paper analyses possible legal sources for its provisions and discuss some of the cultural factors associating women’s power over men with witchcraft and a mutable female body. It will also suggest a more prosaic origin for the myth than the emotive combination of witchcraft and divorce we know today.

In ‘”Overcome by the horror of the piece”: Women and Ghosts on the Eighteenth-Century Stage’, Carolyn D. Williams considers some cultural, gendered and theatrical implications of Sarah Siddons’ belief that in Macbeth, Act III, scene iv, when Banquo’s ghost twice appears to Macbeth at a banquet, Lady Macbeth sees it too. Critical opinion has generally opposed her view of this episode, despite contemporary evidence that she made it work on stage. The presentation will conclude with some brief workshopping of a few key moments in the banquet scene, and of one line in Act V, scene i, the sleepwalking scene, once offered as self-evident proof that Siddons’ views were untenable, but which could take on additional, and powerful, resonance if these views are respected.

Charlotte Young and Hannah Jeans awarded WSG bursaries

The WSG is extremely pleased to announce it has awarded bursaries to Dr Charlotte Young, an early career scholar who gained her PhD in History at Royal Holloway, and Hannah Jeans, a PhD candidate in History at the University of York.

Charlotte will use the bursary to research her project on women’s involvement in the Canterbury sequestrations, 1643-50. She tweets as @charlie_l_y. Hannah will use hers to take up a Kanner Fellowship in British Studies at the Willam Andrews Clark Memorial Library, Los Angeles where she will research the Pole family newsletter collection, c.1680-1710, which will inform her thesis ‘Women’s Reading Habits and Gendered Genres, c.1600-1700’. She tweets as @HannahJeans1.

The WSG bursaries are intended to support early career researchers, PhD students and independent scholars research “any aspect of women’s studies in the period 1558-1837”.  Previous winners have worked on topics from the experience of early modern female service to friendship, and pregnancy. Bursaries can be awarded for new or continuing, single or multidisciplinary projects.  They can be used to subsidise any costs incurred by the project.  To be eligible, applicants must be a member of the WSG.  The WSG bursary panel wish to thank all of this year’s applicants for their applications, and encourage those who have been unsuccessful to consider re-applying the following year.

Reminder: WSG seminar January 2018

*Please note: Karen Lipsedge will now be presenting her paper at the 11 March seminar. In her stead on 14 Jan a paper from Brianna Robertson-Kirkland will be read*

Has everyone recovered from new year celebrations? Ready for more early modern women’s studies research? WSG’s January seminar takes place in just under a fortnight, with three papers on Aphra Behn, reading women, and the eighteenth-century stage.

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. Directions for getting to the Museum can be found here.  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.

Sunday 14 January, 2018. Chair: TBC
Maryann Feola: Aphra Behn and the shaping of an imagined Naples.
Karen Lipsedge: Reading women and the eighteenth-century home.
Sarah Burdett: From bloodthirsty Amazon to ‘Desp’rate Mother’: Sarah Yates’s re-invention of Queen Margaret of Anjou on the 1790s London stage.

Reminder: WSG seminar November 2017

The next in WSG’s 2017-18 seminars takes place this month, with three papers on women authors and love, politics, and art.

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. Directions for getting to the Museum can be found here.  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 25 November, 2017. Chair: Lois Chaber
Eva-Maria Lauenstein: ‘Within these tombes enclos’d’: delineating Renaissance love in Mary Sidney Herbert’s Antonius.
Mihoko Suzuki: Political writing beyond borders: Charlotte Stanley and Margaret Cavendish.
Valerie G. Derbyshire: Words and pictures: Charlotte Smith (1749-1806) and the works of the artists of her day.

Elaine Hobby in conversation with Sara Read

Elaine Hobby, Virtue of Necessity (Virago, 1988)

One of the aims of the WSG’s Commonplace Book, was to conduct interviews with some prominent academics who have been closely involved with WSG over the years. Late last year WSG member Sara Read sat down with Elaine Hobby, Professor of Seventeenth-Century Studies at Loughborough University, and this half hour audio is the result.

 

As some readers might know Elaine is a long-time associate of WSG who has encouraged her PhD students to join the group and give research papers at their seminars, and who recently gave a keynote on Aphra Behn at WSG’s 2015 workshop.  She is a renowned scholar of seventeenth-century women’s writing, especially autobiographical and lesbian writing, as well as midwifery manuals, whose books include Virtue of Necessity: English Women’s Writing 1649-88 (1988) and an edition of Jane Sharp’s 1671 Midwives Book or the Whole Art of Midwifry Discovered (1999).

She is currently leading a major project to produce an edition of Aphra Behn’s works. Sara spoke with Elaine about her research interests, her experiences of an “embryonic” WSG, her early influences and her latest project.  The conversation helps illustrate just how small a circle of people the feminist study of early modern women involved in the UK in 1987, and the changes that have transformed the field since.