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.

Gendering the maritime world

James Gillray, Dido in despair, satirical print, 1801, BM P&D 1868,0808.6927 © The Trustees of the British Museum
James Gillray, Dido in despair, satirical print, 1801, BM P&D 1868,0808.6927 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Building on last week’s post linking the study of women to broader issues of gender and sex, the Journal for Maritime Research has published a special issue on ‘Gendering the maritime world‘, in which long-time WSG member Margarette Lincoln has an article on ‘Emma Hamilton, war, and the depiction of femininity in the late eighteenth century‘.  Emma Hamilton, the artist’s model and creator of her famous ‘attitudes’, is today best remembered for her affair with Admiral Horation Nelson. Margarette’s article explores the caricaturist James Gillray’s depiction of Hamilton as Dido, which hints at her pregnancy, Gillray’s more sympathetic uses of the Dido figure to represent other public women, and the particular restrictions on female conduct in wartime.

Maritime history is an evolving field which in recent years has focused on the broader social, economic, political, and cultural trends which link “ship and shore”.  One of the most fertile recent areas of inquiry has been gender, especially during the early modern period and eighteenth century, and some of the articles in this special issue, from sailor’s tears to sodomy, reflect this growing interest.

Gillian Williamson: British Masculinity in the Gentleman’s Magazine

Gillian Williamson, front cover of British Masculinities (Palgrave, 2015)
Gillian Williamson, front cover of British Masculinities (Palgrave, 2015)

This is a great post with which to kick off 2016, for all readers who believe the history of early modern and 18thC women should be considered (and practised) as part of a broader history of sex and gender.  WSG member Gillian Williamson has published her study British Masculinity in the ‘Gentleman’s Magazine’, 1731-1815 with Palgrave Macmillan (£63 hardback).  Gillian is an independent historian.  She read classics at the University of Cambridge then worked in corporate finance. She returned to academic study after editing a lottery-funded local history book.

Launched in 1731, the monthly Gentleman’s Magazine was the dominant periodical of the 18thC, drawing its large readership from across the literate population of Great Britain and the English-speaking world. Its readers were highly responsive. By the 1740s their letters, poems and family announcements, especially obituaries, filled at least half its pages, sitting alongside articles by a circle that included Samuel Johnson. It was a Georgian social network as readers engaged in a continuous dialogue with each other, but not all these readers were as comfortably established as gentlemen as the title implied.

Gillian’s study traces how, from launch to the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, the magazine developed as a vehicle for the creation and national dissemination of a new middling-sort masculine gentlemanliness in a Britain that was increasingly commercial, fluid and open. You can read a sample chapter here.

Teaching Hannah Cowley in Dubai

WSG member Tabitha Kenlon, Assistant Professor of English at the American University in Dubai, reflects on a recent teaching experience…

In an attempt to integrate my personal research into my Introduction to Literature course, I assigned my students selections from Mary Wollstonecraft’s Thoughts on the Education of Daughters and Dr John Gregory’s A Father’s Legacy to His Daughters, as well as Hannah Cowley’s play A Bold Stroke for a Husband in its entirety.

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 members online: Early Modern Medicine blog and the Orlando Project

Now that the academic summer break is well and truly over, WSG wants to highlight the rigorous research of WSG members online.  Over the past twenty years the internet has allowed new academic formats to take root and flourish and two great examples are the Orlando Project, co-run by WSGer Isobel Grundy, and the Early Modern Medicine blog, co-edited by WSG committee member Sara Read.

Orlando Project logo
Orlando Project logo

The Orlando Project is a textbase of women’s writing in the British Isles from the beginnings to the present.  Collaboratively authored and published by the University of Cambridge online since 2006 and available by subscription, the database is usually open access every March, Women’s History month.  Recent entries from WSG’s time period include Lady Hester Pulter (1605-1678) a significant poet who has remained unknown because she did not circulate her work, even in manuscript; Margaret Calderwood (1715-1774) a journal writer; Maria Susanna Cooper (1737-1807) a novelist and poet; and Isabella Hamilton Robinson (1813-1887), an erotic (possibly fantasist) diarist.

The Early Modern Medicine blog was founded by the University of Hertfordshire’s Dr Jennifer Evans and is a fast-growing collection of short essays on all aspects of early modern health, medicine, and gender.  Previous posts include discussions of postpartum incontinence, the therapeutic use of human body parts, and prayer and spa cures.  Jennifer and Sara also welcome guest bloggers and book reviewers.

In some ways the Orlando Project and the Early Modern Medicine blog represent two poles in the kind of innovative scholarly work, on women’s and gender studies in the early modern period and eighteenth century, that can be presented and disseminated online.  And as a group that prides itself on its independent, radical approach, WSG is happy to have connections with both.