Amy Prendergast »

Amy Prendergast is currently based in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin. She completed her doctoral studies there in 2012 after being awarded a four-year PRTLI Government of Ireland scholarship. She was subsequently the recipient of an Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellowship, which allowed her to work on her first monograph. This work, Literary Salons across Britain and Ireland in the Long Eighteenth Century, is forthcoming with Palgrave Macmillan.

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Date of acceptance: 30 March 2016.

Referring to this Article

A. PRENDERGAST. Review of Melanie Bigold, Women of Letters, Manuscript Circulation, and Print Afterlives in the Eighteenth Century: Elizabeth Rowe, Catherine Cockburn, and Elizabeth Carter (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), Romantic Textualities: Literature and Print Culture, 1780–184022 (Spring 2017)

Online: Internet (date accessed):
PDF DOI:10.18573/j.2017.10161

Melanie Bigold, Women of Letters, Manuscript Circulation, and Print Afterlives in the Eighteenth Century: Elizabeth Rowe, Catherine Cockburn, and Elizabeth Carter (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 312pp. ISBN: 978-1137033567; £55 (hb).

Despite the widespread espousal of print culture during the eighteenth century, manuscript circulation continued to be embraced by many writers as a viable and indeed attractive option. Several participants in literary salons across Britain and Ireland, for example, often chose to deliberately disseminate their writing in this form, and much salon correspondence includes discussion of the various merits and implications of such circulation. Acclaimed work on manuscript publication has been conducted since the late 1980s by Margaret Ezell, while Pam Perkins has recently argued, in relation to Scottish writers, that by shifting focus away from print (and individual authorship) we can gain ‘a clearer sense of the cultural roles played by eighteenth-century women’. [1] Melanie Bigold’s Women of Letters, Manuscript Circulation, and Print Afterlives in the Eighteenth Century offers us this clearer understanding, presenting the reader with three fine, well-chosen case studies to illustrate her various arguments.

IndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentWomen of Letters explores the works of Elizabeth Rowe, Catherine Cockburn and Elizabeth Carter, dedicating two chapters to each writer. The book’s preface is clear and useful, immediately engaging the reader and carefully delineating the author’s various arguments and aims. In addition to Bigold’s central theme regarding manuscript circulation, her work is also very persuasive in its engagement with reception history and its efforts to convince us of her chosen authors’ significant involvement in the republic of letters, outlining their contributions to various Enlightenment debates. One of the key strengths of Bigold’s work is that she offers the reader a more inclusive literary history, providing extensive evidence for a more varied female literary tradition. Early on, Bigold outlines her wish to include women often overlooked in twentieth-century studies. Celebrated in their day for piety, virtue and learning, Rowe, Cockburn and Carter later became neglected, in part due to their chosen subjects, although Carter has experienced significant recent attention due to growing interest in the Bluestockings.

IndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentA key element of the work, and one that makes it much more effective, is that it does not simply exclude consideration of print to emphasize manuscript, but rather ‘actively explores the interface of the two mediums’ (p. xiii). Bigold is quick to signal that the three authors she has chosen are not anxious about print, but instead use different media for various purposes at different moments in their writing lives. The texts chosen for analysis by Bigold are well-balanced offerings of print and manuscript publication and come with very useful summaries. Bigold has undertaken solid archival work, mostly conducted in the Bodleian library and British Library, but also makes good use of online databases, particularly Eighteenth-Century Collections Online and the English Short Title Catalogue, a fact that is clearly signalled throughout, rather than relegated to footnotes. Letter writing is presented to the reader as a valid subject for textual criticism, and Bigold’s engagement with these ‘meritorious literary products’ is extremely rewarding and informative (p. xiv). Her exploration of Elizabeth Rowe’s Friendship in death, in Twenty Letters from the Dead to the Living (1728) and Letters Moral and Entertaining, in Prose and Verse (1729, 1731, 1733) is particularly satisfying, and features sustained discussion of their epistolary genesis, outlining thematic and stylistic continuities between the printed letters and those contained in the letter book of one of Rowe’s primary correspondents.

IndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentThroughout the book, Bigold meticulously situates her three writers and their writing in their cultural contexts, while the reader is also presented with carefully balanced biographical detail, which supports rather than detracts from the author’s arguments. Rowe is placed at the centre of a ‘community of writers’ interested in religious devotion and ethical philosophy, while Catharine Cockburn is introduced as the ‘foremost female philosopher of England’s Enlightenment’ (p. 145). In a section entitled ‘Did women have an Enlightenment?’ Bigold responds with a resounding yes. The author makes an impassioned case for the intellectual importance of Cockburn’s writing: her interest in reforming education, her role in ‘clerical Enlightenment’, and her influence on later thinkers, are all proffered as evidence, as Bigold argues that Cockburn participated and shaped Enlightenment thought rather than just benefiting from the writings of others.

IndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentAs the title indicates, literary afterlives represent another central topic of consideration and this is very useful for those of us who often engage with the (heavily) edited letters of Elizabeth Carter or indeed the ‘Queen of the Bluestockings’, Elizabeth Montagu. Close attention is given to the print afterlives of these women through their biographies and posthumous collections of letters. The accounts of women’s own agency in shaping their literary reception is an additional highlight of the book, as Bigold challenges the common disparagement directed at the women’s male biographers, including Mathew Pennington’s construction of his aunt Carter. Bigold charts the attempts by all three authors to shape and develop their own personas during their lifetime, detailing Rowe’s crafting of a voice and her insistent self styling, Cockburn’s complicity in the creation of the image of the retiring scholarly author, and Carter’s ‘construction of a writing self’ (p. 176). She also makes convincing arguments for these authors’ control over their posthumous reception. Elizabeth Carter in particular is presented as someone especially concerned with this and Bigold describes her as having ‘lived for posterity’ (p. 170).

IndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentBigold’s work defies any possible misconceptions of manuscript writing as ‘unfinished, marginal and tenuous’ and instead displays its merits, and reveals the benefits to be gained when one engages with both print and manuscript (p. 103). Bigold’s writing style is engaging throughout, and the author’s enthusiasm for her topic is evident, such as in the notes of excitement regarding Cockburn’s links with Mlle de la Vallière. Women of Letters is valuable reading for those interested in the eighteenth century, women’s writing, biography, Enlightenment, book history and print culture. The work is an excellent contribution to literary studies and offers us a clearer understanding of the female literary tradition: one less restrictive and ultimately much more interesting.


[1] Pam Perkins, ‘Enlightenment Culture’, in The Edinburgh Companion to Scottish Women’s Writing, ed. by Glenda Norquay (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), p. 47.