Women’s Writing special issue on Janet Todd launch

In June at Mansfield College, Oxford, Ros Ballaster and Ruth Perry held the launch for their special issue of Women’s Writing, a festschrift in honour of Professor Janet Todd.  WSG member Angela Escott was there to hear Janet reflect on a life in scholarship.

Front cover of Women's Writing
Front cover of Women’s Writing

WSG has had a close association with the journal Women’s Writing since its early days. The Editor, Marie Mulvey-Roberts, was a member of WSG, and she encouraged other members to contribute papers given at our Saturday sessions or annual one-day workshop. In 2010 some of us co-edited a special issue in honour of Mary Waldron, an active committee member. Now current and former WSG members are contributors to a special issue in honour of Professor Janet Todd, the pioneering scholar of Aphra Behn, Mary Wollstonecraft and Jane Austen, and a Founding (now Consultant) Editor of WW. The celebration took the form of an interview by Marie of her distinguished colleague in an imposing hall at Mansfield College, Oxford. Ros Ballaster, co-editor of the issue and fellow WSG member, hosted the event which included a reception and a banquet dinner.

Marie questioned Janet about her life and her extensive travelling both as a child and during her academic career. Janet spoke of the patronising attitudes towards women when she was a student at Cambridge University, and women were confined to three female undergraduate colleges. She told of the impossibility of choosing Mary Wollstonecraft as a PhD subject, so she wrote instead on John Clare. The only feminist theory being studied when she began her career was that of the French feminists, Irigaray, Kristeva and Cixous. Todd bravely defended Anglo-American “socio-historical” feminist criticism and also challenged the jargon of New Historicism. A pioneer in the study of women writers, Todd founded a journal Women and Literature which can be considered a forerunner to Women’s Writing.

She described the pressure under which she published her Dictionary of British and American Women Writers 1660-1800, the immense and significant project she conceived and researched extensively by herself, and she spoke self-effacingly of the number of times she had read ‘erroneously mentioned by Janet Todd’ in references to the women covered in her Dictionary. In a question about role-models she described sharing a platform with Germaine Greer who towered above her in height and whose confidence she admired. Although female networks were an important part of her own research, and Marilyn Butler was a close friend, no network of women academics existed to provide support for Janet early in her career, particularly as she was working in the USA, Ghana, Bermuda and Puerto Rica. Finally, she spoke of her recent first venture at writing fiction, and of the lack of pressure to publish at the beginning of her career. Marie ended by reminding us of the impressive publication list of this inspiring academic, including the multi-volume editions of the works of Behn, Wollstonecraft and Austen.

Want to read more? The special issue of Women’s Writing is available here, with a subscription.  Ros Ballaster tweets as @BallasterRos.

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.