The Professionalization of Women Writers in Eighteenth-Century Britain

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  3. Anonymity in the Eighteenth Century

As we shall see, even this list minimizes the literary accomplishments of 18th century women. In the 20 years since I began teaching, the field has expanded greatly both in terms of scholarly attention and availability of classroom texts, though it lags behind Romantic and Renaissance women in the latter. As Toni Bowers and Betty Schellenberg demonstrate in recent LC articles, the very structure of literary history has shifted considerably to make room for and understand the contributions of women from the long 18th century, and the process is far from being over.

Given the flux, this particular historical moment may be messy, but it is possible and, indeed, important to open up the space to discuss how we teach 18th century women. This essay begins such a conversation by sketching the questions and contents that shape the teaching of 18th century women writers at this time.

In recogni- tion of the fact that teaching is both geographically and institutionally situated, I wish to identify at the start that my experience in teaching has mainly been at a large public research institution in the southern United States. While I address issues and concerns that inevitably arise from my position, I hope this essay illuminates classroom conditions in a wider context.

Moreover, recent conversations on accountability in higher education suggest the need to be very thoughtful about the choices we make in the classroom. In response to the perceived marginalization of humanities disciplines, the MLA paper argues forcefully for the meaningful integration of language and literature in post-secondary education. Eighteenth-century women writers offer as rich a potential for achieving these ends as any other literature, and per- haps more.

With attention to the resources available in teaching now, such courses can inte- grate technological and information literacies as well, particularly if instructors are mindful of the technological transition from manuscript to print that 18th century women negoti- ated themselves.

Teaching 18th century women writers today begins with the deceptively simple question of identifying who they are. While we can expect few readers outside of academia to know what women wrote in the Enlightenment, the visibility of 18th century women writers remains an issue even within the field. This is true, in part, because, according to Judith Phillips Stanton, 18th century women writers pub- lished more poetry than any other genre.

These important scholarly contributions have re-energized the discussion of 18th century women writers by shifting the focus away from novel studies and angry poets toward what was actually written and how it was valued. After learning that 18th century women wrote in such varied quantity, students may naturally wonder why they have seen so little. By recovery, I mean the recognition of certain forgotten writers of the past as important to read and study.

In a recursive process that characterizes feminist recovery, 20th century writers from Woolf to Gilbert and Gubar sought to uncover literary foremothers who better fit their esthetic and ideological values. The process that continues through today emphasizes expanding intellectual agendas from human and animal rights to print culture.

While it is expected that scholars make sense of history using the data at hand and the cultural expectations of their own eras, it is equally important for students to see the ways in which the conversation on recovery changes from one historical moment to the next, and that the process itself is deeply connected to the values of the present while making claims about the distinct facts of the past. One stage of it is more like noticing something which was there all the time, in full view but nevertheless overlooked.

They alone can teach us something of how it felt to live as a woman in a culture so different from our own, yet sharing so much with it in which the inferiority and subordination of women was utterly taken for granted. They can teach us something important, too, about the impulse to literature — the sources of poems, stories, and so on — something of how to read the work of those who broke into literature from the outside, who in taking up the pen were claiming a privilege which in general was denied to them.

Work on 18th century book reviews, for example, shows that by the end of the century, women novelists achieved fame and respect as authors on par with or exceeding their male con- temporaries Runge. The classroom is one site where this takes place. Seeing the material book — albeit in image — instructs the students on the technologies of writing and provides opportunities to discuss what it means for a woman to publish her work in print.

Students can experience dramatic differences between the poems in modern anthologies, with numbered lines and footnotes on onion skin paper, versus the appearance of handpress books from the 18th century, with their multiple font types and sizes, front matter, and obsolete print mark- ings.

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Putting the handwritten text next to the printed text helps to visualize the very different ways writers and readers approached texts in both modes. We also have a range of women-only anthologies, although instructors of the 18th century have fewer options than our counterparts in Early Modern literature or Romanti- cism. Notoriously, instructors wrestle with the decisions editors make with regards to excerpting and selection in anthologies.

Slashed and narrow representation — do we really need that many Fantominas? Fortu- nately, Internet databases and Web sites provide some cheap alternatives to fill out the syllabus.


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Early English Books Online EEBO and ECCO provide full scans of the books in print from Britain and its colonies through the year ; while the databases are not complete, they grow more so every day and are extremely valuable. In addition to EEBO and ECCO, to which some institutions may not subscribe, there are a number of full text databases that make possible teaching a wide range of complete texts by 18th century women.

Google Books, for example, offers images of many printed texts for free, although instructors should carefully review the PDF before assigning because there are some documents with missing pages and other scanning problems. Literature Online, a widely adopted subscription database, also has many texts from our period available for download.

Reading unannotated texts from the 18th century may be difficult for students who are used to having every allusion footnot- ed, but these raw texts provide teachable moments. In addition to exploring the material strangeness as discussed above, instructors can assign students to annotate a passage and send them off with a list of recommended resources for research. This exercise asks students to identify what they do not know and to find ways of getting that information; it is an inquiry-based technique that fosters curiosity and information literacy.

While giving students the whole of a work exactly fitted to the syllabus is ideal, some- thing can be said for teaching excerpts in these anthologies. Teachers are always dealing with the constraints of time in the classroom, and practically speaking we can only assign so many long works. In a survey class, anthologies are useful and generally less expensive than assigning many separate texts. The excerpts included tend to be short and illustrative of a major idea or accomplishment for the author. In the case of Frances Burney, whose novels tend to be very long, teaching excerpts from her journals and letters can be a satis- factory alternative to no Burney at all.

The excerpts in the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women can be incorporated into broader course themes and paired with scholarly writing and a movie to deepen the class investment in the author. Discussion of medical science in the letter could be compared with that in the movie Madness of King George directed Nicholas Hytner and paired with the excerpt on Burney meeting the King in the NAEL. Julia L. Playing to the dramatic sense of character that Burney creates in every genre, the instructor assigns a speaking part for each character as well as the narrator in an excerpt.

The instructor can prepare a photocopy handout highlighting the speaking parts or assign students to do so before they come to class. In class, assign one student to each role, and have the students read the passage out loud in parts in char- acter.

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Eighteenth-century women also now appear in multiple classroom editions. There are a number of publishers providing inexpensive, paperback editions with sufficient scholarly apparatus, such as Broadview Press, Penguin, Oxford University Press, and University Press of Kentucky. Susan Staves helpfully lists the recommended modern editions of 17th century women writers in the back of her Literary History, but these are not necessarily classroom, paperback editions. Moreover, new editions arrive continually. How to Organize and How to Teach?

My Year in Nonfiction | 18th-century women writers – the [blank] garden

This article cannot anticipate all pedagogical contexts for which it would be appropriate to teach 18th century women, but it may be helpful to sketch some possibilities for orga- nizing a course or section on 18th century women writers. The bold Restoration writers, such as Katherine Phillips, Margaret Caven- dish, and Aphra Behn, were anomalous by comparison with the community of women writers in the s e. The narrative of her rise thus also inscribes a loss of political power and a circumscription of the field of knowledge. Following the historical contexts that Staves describes, a course might sample the variety of genres in which women wrote successfully, including philosophy Astell , religious writing Rowe , letters Wortley Montagu , histories Macauley , and translations and essays Lennox with an aim to expand our idea of literature in keeping with 18th cen- tury cultural expectations.

Further, the course might include writings from the colonies, such as the poems of Anne Bradstreet, letters from Abigail Adams or the essays of Judith Sargeant Murray. It would be diffi- cult, therefore, to teach with an anthology, and many works would need to be supplied in alternative formats. Backscheider advocates for seeing poetry through the eyes of 18th century readers and writers who had yet to embrace the novel. Her introduction celebrates the diversity, intelligence and influential participation of women in a predominant cultural phenomenon. A case study of each poet would invite serious reconsideration of the poetic forms they made their own: the fable and pastoral dialog Finch and the sonnet Smith.

In between the course could take up various manifestations of the religious poem, friend- ship poem, retirement poems and elegy, hopefully representing some of the accomplished but frequently overlooked poets such as Jane Brereton and Elizabeth Hands. It may be worthwhile to consider how current scholarship connects to critical prob- lems our students face, such as aging in society, technological and information transi- tion, sustainability and global issues.

As suggested earlier, scholarship in book history has greatly enriched our understanding of women authors of our era. A course that com- bined bibliography, textual studies and literature could be focused on Eliza Haywood whose oeuvre and reputation are simultaneously being revised by scholars such as Alex- ander Pettit, Christine Blouch, Patrick Spedding and Kathryn King. Such a theme could work within the goals of the historical course described earlier with the objective to read beyond the novel and include the successful genres each used to enter the increasingly public and market-dri- ven print culture.

Just as the process of recovery balances between historical artifact and the needs of the present, so teaching moves back and forth between the remote past — its strangeness — and continuities with the here and now. A model of recursive thinking proves especially helpful for this material, because it allows students to acknowledge the confusion they initially experience and then provides for a way to work through it by returning to the object and reconsidering new information until they reach some tentative conclusions about its meaning.

Give students an opportunity to become familiar with the object without any identify- ing features. Then solicit observations or paraphrase from around the class, encouraging students to begin with what might seem obvious. Try not to stigmatize wrong statements, but rather recognize them as moments of strangeness when students confront the past and try to make sense of it. Have students articulate what they do not understand and list questions. Gradually the class builds a tentative understanding of the object and a list of questions that remain unanswered. Indeed, it is helpful if the instructor acknowledge his or her own limits of knowledge so as to enter the group struggle for meaning.

For a multi-day exer- cise, an instructor can ask students to discuss what they would need to do to answer the remaining questions and assign each question to a student as a research project. Alterna- tively, one can provide a few pieces of critical information in class through lectures on history, authors, genre, etc. Allow students to process the new information, then return to the object and review what the class now knows.

Anonymity in the Eighteenth Century

Ask them to discuss how the new information alters their understanding of the piece. What questions remain? What new questions arise? Suggest that although they have learned much about the piece and from the piece, there is more to research and more to learn.

This is an exercise, inci- dentally, that develops the skills of all four types of literacy: cross-cultural, technological, historical and informational. It also gives the instructor insight into the cognitive struc- tures that shape the way a contemporary student views an 18th century work, things we tend to forget after our immersion into the culture. We want to encourage this process of recursive thinking in our students as they encounter the writings of the past.