The first WSG seminar of the academic year will shortly take place at the Foundling Museum. Directions for getting to the Museum can be found here. Doors open after 12.30pm with the session starting promptly at 1, and tea, coffee and biscuits at about 2.30pm. Seminars are free and non-members who wish to attend are very welcome but will be asked to make a donation of £2 for refreshments. Attendees are also welcome to visit the Foundling before or after the seminar and there is currently a very interesting exhibition on Handel’s singers.
For the September session organiser Carolyn Williams has put together a programme on song, play, and translation… we hope to see you there.
Saturday 17th September, 2016. Chair: TBC Brianna Elyse Robertson-Kirkland: Venanzio Rauzzini (1746 – 1810) and his female operatic students. Judith Page: Austen and Shakespeare: Mansfield Park, Shylock, and the ‘exquisite acting’ of Edmund Kean. Lucy Gent: What is becoming in Mansfield Park? Jane Austen and Cicero’s De Officiis.
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.
“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.
Our initial discussion of the play focused primarily on clarifying the plot and some eighteenth-century terminology (we had a debate on the true meaning of “making love”). By Act 2, though, the battle lines were being drawn. Most of the male students didn’t understand how Victoria’s male disguise could possibly be convincing and thought her scheme was “psychopathic,” while most of the women admired her decision to take action to get back her husband and the family fortune.
All the students seemed to recognize quickly the rules guiding eighteenth-century conduct. They knew that Olivia was supposed to obey her father when he told her who to marry. The women were particularly amused by her behaviour to the suitor Don Vincentio, when she followed her father’s guidelines so exactly that she parroted back some of his suggested topics of conversation word for word.
But many of the discussions split on gender lines. When a male student joked about Olivia’s passion for Don Julio, which was based on just a glimpse of him at a party, a young woman pointed out that the men in the play judge the women by their physical appearance and asked why the women couldn’t do that too. By Act 3, the same male student was willing to concede that the male characters only seemed interested in “physical stuff” with women.
I was curious about the reception the play would receive among students living in a predominantly Muslim society, at a school in which some female students have been rumoured to fail classes so they can stay longer in Dubai, a comparatively relaxed environment. One of my students last semester told me that her husband made fun of her when he caught her reading or doing homework.
Unsurprisingly, the students never made explicit links between the material and their own lives. Some of them made passing comments that even in the twenty-first century marriages were sometimes arranged and took place when women were young. Most of these observations came from female students. When students consulted me about their essays analysing the play, they often did make more direct connections. One young woman explained that she wanted to write about how parents who arranged marriages for their children only had their best interests in mind and that children should trust their parents since they had more knowledge and experience. I asked her how she would feel if her parents arranged a marriage for her. She hesitated and then said she wouldn’t mind, but her parents wouldn’t do that – hers, she said, was not a “typical” Muslim family.
I am now toying with the idea of staging the play here, set in twenty-first century Dubai. One of my students (for fun!) created a poster and explained how the veiled women’s eyes revealed their characters. The idea of women in veils is not new to these students; that was one plot device they accepted with ease, and they seemed intrigued that their culture did not have a monopoly on the concept.
Overall, it was a good experience, and I will certainly assign the play again in the coming semester. Students said the play is still relevant today because, as they put it, society doesn’t really change – we still deal with sex, cheating, arranged marriages, social networks, gossip, and responsibility.
WSG member Miriam Al Jamil has written a round-up of our recent Annual Workshop, this year titled What is the place of Aphra Behn in Restoration Culture, at which Professor Elaine Hobby and Claire Bowditch gave a keynote talk on this important playwright, translator, and spy for Charles II…
“The annual workshop this year had Aphra Behn as its theme, and her significance was amply demonstrated by the variety of presentations made by attendees.
Elaine Hobby began the day by introducing the 8-volume Cambridge Edition of the Writings of Aphra Behn which is currently in progress. She pointed out the huge advances made in Behn scholarship since Janet Todd’s edition of the 1990s, highlighting the recent interest in attribution and translation studies. Assisted by Claire Bowditch, we explored possible literary and cultural allusions in example texts such as The False Count(1681). Comparisons of printed editions of Behn’s work prompted questions about authorial interventions and their motivations, and the practicalities of corrections made by printers. Elaine outlined the advantages which computerised textual analysis can offer debate concerning attribution, so that forms of expression can be collated to clarify any judgement. Her insights into the complexities of editing such a large and varied literary production were intriguing and much appreciated.
The variety of connections that can be found in Behn’s work was reflected in the topics covered in the presentations in the afternoon. We considered the participation of women in the creation of the Mostyn Library and the objectification of book and women alike in the correspondence of Thomas Mostyn; the achievements of significant female publishers such as Mrs. S.C. Hall; Lady Anne Halkett’s MS autobiography; along with issues such as the bitter rivalry between Delarivier Manley and Richard Steele. We learned that Behn like Anne Finch was from the Wye area in Kent, and we read Finch’s poem referencing her sister poet. We heard about the difficulties of finding details about the dances which were part of Restoration plays.
If the discussions of the day are any indication, there is a wealth of interest in Behn and the women writers who succeeded her, so there is great cause for optimism and anticipation of new discoveries to come.”
Thanks to the organisers and all the contributors to the workshop for making this year’s event such a success, and to Miriam for taking the time to give us her thoughts.