Teresa Barnard (ed.), British Women and the Intellectual World in the Long Eighteenth Century (Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate, 2015), 194pp. ISBN: 978-1-4724-3745-7; £60.00 (hb).
In her excellent essay on the dramatist Joanna Baillie, Louise Duckling quotes Lord Byron reflecting on Voltaire’s assertion that ‘“the composition of a tragedy required testicles”—If this be true’, Byron writes, ‘Lord knows what Joanna Baillie does—I suppose she borrows them’ (p. 153). One of the striking features of Byron’s backhanded compliment is his failure to consider female creativity in its own terms, outside of a distinctly masculinist mode of literary production. The essays in this volume draw upon a rich tradition of feminist scholarship that, in contrast to Lord Byron, has identified and explored what Teresa Barnard terms ‘the female view of the intellectual world’ (p. 6). Barnard’s introductory essay, co-authored with Ruth Watts, sets out the underlying ambition of this collection, which is to present ‘new information about women’s experiences of their engagement with male-dominated academic and professional fields in the long eighteenth century’ (p. 2). To this end, the essays in this volume explore how eighteenth-century women negotiated and responded to the barriers they faced when encountering male-dominated discourses, institutions and practices.
This theme is exemplified in the chapters by Daniel J. R. Grey and Malini Roy. Grey focuses on the role that Lady Mary Wortley Montagu played in introducing smallpox inoculation to England, while Roy discusses Mary Wollstonecraft’s unfinished child-rearing manual, ‘Letters on the Management of Infants’. These essays share a concern with the way in which women writers worked outside of the increasingly professionalized and male-dominated sphere of medicine; both Montagu and Wollstonecraft drew upon ‘practical observation’ (p. 28) and ‘personal experience’ (p. 54) in order to formulate alternative bodies of knowledge. In Montagu’s case, the ability to travel famously enabled her to witness smallpox inoculation first-hand during her stay in Constantinople. Elsewhere in this collection, attention is paid to writers who were denied such opportunities, but who compensated by extensive reading and imaginative experience. A case in point is Anna Seward, whose interest in volcanoes is discussed in Teresa Barnard’s essay. Despite never having visited it in person, Seward composed a poetic tribute to Mount Etna based upon her reading of Patrick Brydone’s A Tour through Sicily and Malta. Barnard discusses Seward’s poem alongside the work of Eleanor Anne Porden Franklin, carefully tracing how the ‘female poetic imagination […] builds on and complements the scientific deliberations of male travellers and scientists’ (p. 34).
Barnard’s concern with the role that women writers played in the dissemination of specialized forms of knowledge recurs throughout several essays. A particularly fruitful example is provided by Natasha Duquette’s engaging chapter on the authorial strategies that Dissenting women writers employed to publish their theological ideas. The central argument of Duquette’s stimulating and wide-ranging essay is that women ‘veiled’ their ‘provocative hermeneutic claims and calls for social action’ in ‘acceptably “feminine” modes of expression’ (pp. 107–08)—a claim that reverberates in Louise Duckling’s essay on another Dissenting writer, Joanna Baillie. Duckling convincingly argues that the innovative form of Baillie’s Plays on the Passions enabled her to ‘participate in the medical and philosophical debates of her day’ (p. 143).
Duckling’s chapter offers a helpful reminder that while women’s writing of the period may have served various ideological agendas, it could also be startlingly original and accomplished in aesthetic terms. Kaley Kramer’s chapter on Elizabeth Inchbald’s A Simple Story bears this out. In a carefully historicized and admirably detailed discussion, Kramer identifies how Inchbald manipulated the generic conventions of the ‘Protestant literary form’ of the novel to produce an examination of the nature and identity of Catholicism in late eighteenth-century Britain (p. 88). The generic possibilities of narrative fiction are also explored in Imke Heuer’s insightful discussion of Harriet and Sophia Lee’s The Canterbury Tales. Heuer vividly conveys the aesthetic experimentation of the work, demonstrating how Harriet Lee’s disruption of conventional Gothic narratives of inheritance and legitimacy reflected social uncertainty in the wake of the French Revolution.
As this account has suggested, the majority of this volume tends towards women’s literary endeavours. A notable exception is presented by Laura Mayer’s essay on Elizabeth Percy, 1st Duchess of Northumberland. Mayer presents Percy’s introduction of Robert Adam’s ‘light Gothick’ style at Alnwick Castle as a significant engagement with the period’s ‘emerging picturesque aesthetic’ (pp. 133, 130). The essay is particularly attentive to the decline in the Duchess’s posthumous reputation—a trend that extends from the nineteenth into the twenty-first century. Indeed, many of these essays self-consciously take up the task of reappraising writers who fell into obscurity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In her essay on Hannah More, Susan Chaplin offers a thoughtful and sensitive consideration of a writer whose significance cannot be denied, but whose politics remain challenging to contemporary feminist criticism. Focussing on More’s Sacred Dramas, Chaplin’s essay offers a lucid account of the complex gender politics that result when More appropriates ‘a masculine creative voice’ only to articulate her own ambivalent account of the feminine (p. 81).
The essays in this book interweave and enter into dialogue with one another in a particularly satisfying and productive manner—to the extent that the three sections into which they are divided hardly seem necessary (the sections are ‘An Engagement with Science’, ‘Religious Discourses’ and ‘Radical Women, Politics, and Philosophy’). Overwhelmingly, these essays are united in offering historically detailed and carefully nuanced examinations of their primary sources. My only frustration is that on occasion the relative brevity of these essays means that they can provide only fleeting glimpses of figures about whom one desires to know more (such as Mary Wollstonecraft’s former pupil Lady Mountcashell, who reportedly attended university lectures dressed as a man before running a medical practice in Pisa with a male physician). Of course, the positive outcome of this frustration is that it provides the impetus to conduct further research. Similarly, it offers a salutary reminder that the work of recovery is an ongoing endeavour. The essays collected in this book provide a valuable and significant contribution to that process.