ENL 6236 Eighteenth Century Women Writers                                               

Spring 2009                                                                                              

Monday 3:05 – 5:50 / CPR 343                                                                


Jan. 12    Ezell, Writing Women’s Literary History

               Staves, “Introduction” pp 1-26;

Jones, chapter 8, “(Re)Discovering Women’s Texts” by Isobel Grundy;

Judith Phillips Stanton, “Statistical Profile of Women Writing in English from 1660-1800.” In Eighteenth-Century Women and the Arts, edited by Susan E. Lorsch. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988 (course docs)



The readings for this week set the stage for a critical and historical discussion of literature by women between the years 1660 and (roughly) 1800.  Ezell’s provocative analysis of the models of literary historiography and feminist criticism, published in 1993, addresses the shape of the field fifteen years ago and some of the problems we encountered as a result of the groundbreaking scholarship of the seventies and early eighties.  Writing Women’s Literary History poses significant questions about the ways in which we envision the past, authors and writing itself, and these questions have been taken up in the scholarship of the past decade.  Isobel Grundy’s essay, “(Re)Discovering Women’s Texts,” provides a later counterpoint in the field of eighteenth-century women’s writing and suggests some of the ground that has been covered since Ezell’s important work.  Susan Staves’ A Literary History of Women’s Writing in Britain, 1660-1789 (Cambridge 2006) posits one authoritative and substantial literary history for our subject, and we will use her work along with Paula Backscheider’s on Eighteenth-century Women’s Poetry to outline and guide our investigations.  Judith Phillips Stanton’s short, bibliographic study supplies the data for women writers and the types of works that they published, one index of the field of eighteenth-century women’s writing that may surprise you.  Taken as a whole, these writings should give you some basis from which to begin your study of eighteenth-century women writers and provide a critical and historical context with which to work.



Notes and Discussion


Margaret Ezell summarizes the state of research on early women writers (p. 2-3) in 1993 and builds her argument about the models of literary history based on the available scholarship.  To what extent is the scholarship she cites still in play, still instrumental in the field of women’s literature?  (For instance, how many of you have read the works or heard of the works she engages?)  How has the field changed?  Compare the state of the field described by Grundy in her article, “(Re)Discovering Women’s Texts.”  How different is the perspective represented in Susan Staves’ “Introduction”?



What are some of the primary differences in literary production between the seventeenth century and the nineteenth century?  What impact does this have on literature by women?  What does it mean for feminist scholarship?  For example, what are the problems with imposing a commercial model of literary production on an evaluation of seventeenth century coterie writers?


Ezell writes: “I intend this book to be a provocative and polemical study rather than one offering an expanded list of authors to supplement the existing model or imposing a ‘new’ theory of the ‘tradition’” (7).  What is so provocative and/or polemical about Ezell’s argument?  What new works or writings does her challenge to feminist criticism make visible for the first time?


More intriguingly, perhaps, what does it mean to suggest that feminist recovery (that she engages) reproduces the literary models of the patriarchal society it aims to criticize?  How does feminist criticism accommodate early female writers who are not “feminist” by twentieth-century standards?  How does feminist criticism engage works of literature by women that fail the standards of “excellence” articulated by Virginia Woolf?  How do we discuss/engage literature that falls outside of the celebrated genres of poetry and fiction?  Again, in what ways does Staves’ respond to these issues in her literary history?


On page 9, Ezell quotes Elaine Hobby’s insightful warning: “’In many ways we find in the past what we look for:  by and large, we only come up with answers to questions we think to ask.’ This type of self-conscious historicism intentionally makes us re-vision what we think we know about the past and the ways in which it has been transmitted to us.”  As we discover, recover, interpret and analyze the writings by women from the eighteenth century, it will be important to keep this reference in mind and try to be open to things that we might not think to ask.


The contentious topics of Ezell’s research that merit our attention include:

Publication (desireability, availability, commercial production, genres)

Coterie writing


Notions of privacy


Novels and Poetry


Aristocratic writers / middle class writers / laboring class writers


Authorship (what does it mean to be an “author”?)



Political writing



It is worthwhile to consider what each of these terms might mean in the historical context at the beginning of our period (1660) in comparison with the meaning at its end (1800).  The differences underscore that the eighteenth century is a period of extreme importance for women writers given the changes that take place and the complexity of the history as unfolds.


Ezell’s assessment of anthologies of early women’s writings is instructive (and influential – the NALW changed significantly in its second edition).  She writes: “By emphasizing professional publications as the indicator of the start of a unique female tradition, such texts as Gilbert and Gubar’s, Greer’s, and Goreau’s imply that the most interesting questions about the earlier periods are how and why women were silenced.  The issue suggested by the anthologies to the scholar and student alike to solve is ‘why weren’t there any female Shakespeares?’ and the answers focus on the means of repression, not the modes of production” (43).

What questions do we miss when we pursue this focus?  What are the consequences?


Note:  for a counterpart to Stanton’s bibliographical study for the seventeenth century is Patricia Crawford’s “Women’s Published Writings 1600-1700” in Women in English Society 1500-1800, ed. Mary Prior (London: Methuen, 1985), 211-82.  It is interesting to contrast the two. 


“For the majority of the anthologies discussed in this chapter, the best are texts that provide a mirror for us to see ourselves, that is, a view of the past as being very like the present.  Under these conditions we are encouraged to read the selections as autobiographical statements about the author’s personal experiences as a woman, to evaluate her responses as if she were our contemporary” (61).

How is this problematic?  What might be said of art?  What might be said of literary influences/knowledge?  What does this suggest about the very notion of “best” and the scales upon which we measure it?


Pay attention to the ways in which the eighteenth-century anthologies construct a literary tradition.  We will be reading the Feminiad later in the semester, and George Ballard’s Memoirs of Several Ladies of Great Britain will be put on reserve.  How do these traditions persist in our study today?  In what ways does our syllabus (and the scholarship we are reading) challenge these early canon-making gestures?


What are criteria for inclusion in Ballard’s celebration of certain women writers?  What are its limitations?  (88-89)


Perhaps the most convincing and disturbing aspect of Ezell’s argument is that she shows how clearly the perception of women’s literature (as linear and evolutionary) derives from the anthologies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the models of feminine / feminist writing as androgynous or difference likewise descend from this discourse. (Roughly  p. 102 but throughout)  Evaluate.


Note Ezell’s comments on the treatment of writers from the syllabus – Rowe and Wortley Montague, Behn and Barber, Finch and Barbauld, others?



Bibliographical work on women writers from the eighteenth century is one of the current exciting, growing fields of research.  Stanton’s work, done 20 years ago, illustrates some of the fundamentals – who wrote what and when.  Her numbers may stand correction now, because there has been ongoing recovery work done through the ESTC and individual researchers.  For contrasts, you can perform your own searches on the electronic database ESTC available the libraries databases.  Still, Stanton presents in concise form essential information based on publishing records.


Her description of methodology in the opening pages supplies a ready-reference list for bibliographical work in our period.  If you are not familiar with the names of the resources, feel free to ask questions or – better – look them up in the library and see what valuable information they provide.


Consider her finding:  “The rate at which women took up the pen, however, far outstripped the population growth rate. Their numbers increased at around 50 percent every decade starting in the 1760s” (248).  What can explain this rise?


What do Stanton’s finding suggest about the fields of interest in women’s writing?  Does this surprise you?  Why or why not?


Note her “explanations” for the rise in poetry and novels on pp. 250-251.  Given Ezell’s methodological example, what questions might we ask about this analysis?  What questions might we bring to her data that she doesn’t ask?  How does this information square with Staves’ methods and conclusions?


Stanton writes: “Interestingly, a high proportion of these works (translations, history, grammars) was written after the 1750-1800 explosion was under way, suggesting further that these genres appealed to women who wrote professionally” (251-2).  How might this be explained in terms of the history of the modes of literary production (a la Ezell)?


Please note that the statistics on novels from 1750-1800 that she references at the end of her article can be confidently updated by James Raven in his 2000 work: The English novel, 1770-1829 : a bibliographical survey of prose fiction published in the British Isles. Eds. Raven, James, Peter Garside and Rainer Schowerling, 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000). PR851 .E64 2000



Grundy’s brief article gives us some food for thought as we begin our research into eighteenth-century women writers.  “Rediscovery” she says, “ is not an event; it is a process” (181).  This class is part of that process, and you have an instrumental role in determining what we accomplish as we re-discover these women and their literature.


Evaluate her standards of what constitutes full canonical status:  a) cheap availability (i.e. paperbacks) and b) scholarly or research availability (the state of knowledge on a particular writer).


Compare and contrast Grundy’s take on the state of feminist scholarship in 2000 with Ezell’s in 1993.  What do they have in common?  What can Grundy take for granted that Ezell could not?  (Consider issues of scholarship, genre, overlooked writers.)


“The argument from literary quality is doomed to get bogged down in the incompatibility of subjective judgements” (184).  “The case for rediscovery must be made on other grounds as well….  The argument from literary quality needs reinforcement from the argument for the value of knowledge” (185).  What does Grundy mean by these terms?  How are they at odds?  Complementary?  Why are both needed?  What are the implications for our study?


Grundy offers what I see as the essential dialectic we must keep alive as we teach these early writers – the need to engage both the alterity of the past and its continuity with the present.



Staves presents her work as rather boldly making claims for aesthetic value in women’s writing of the era. How is this innovative?  What is at stake in evaluating newly recovered women’s writing in terms of aesthetics or literary value?   (Cf. Ezell’s warnings regarding Woolf.)


Staves is very concerned with the motivations, methods and plot of representing the past in her literary history of women writers.  Why is the representation of the past in tension with the presentist motivations of feminist scholarship?  What (should) take(s) priority?


What plot does Staves ultimately claim for her narrative of history?