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Beyond recovery: feminism and the future of eighteenth-century literary studies. (Commentary).

When I consider the future of feminist English literary studies in the eighteenth century, I'm led to contemplate the legacy--both good and bad--of its most significant accomplishment: the project to "recover" women's texts. This retrieval of seemingly lost or overlooked women writers has been of particular importance to feminist scholars who study the period between 1660 and 1800. On the one hand, the eighteenth century was a time when record numbers of women were both writing and publishing their work. On the other, notwithstanding this prolific record, later generations of readers defined the period as predominantly masculine. Despite Virginia Woolf's praise of the playwright, poet, and novelist Aphra Behn, the eighteenth century had no canonized women writers to compare with Jane Austen, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, George Eliot, and Christina Rossetti; anthologies did not include eighteenth-century women writers, and scholarly studies largely ignored them.

The recovery project sought to rediscover these women and their literary works, many of which had been out of print since their own time. This effort involved massive archival work and was, of necessity, dedicated not only to unearthing forgotten literature but also to uncovering as much information as possible about the women behind the texts. Scholars performed painstaking manuscript work and spent months or even years combing documents for shreds of information. Their goals were threefold: to bring long-lost women writers and their works to light, to bring them into scholarly discourse, and to make their works available to students and scholars. Yet recovery has brought its own share of problems. I want here to consider both the legacy of recovery and the theoretical and political problems with which it has left us. I would like also to look beyond recovery, to consider what avenues are open for feminist literary studies now that so much good work has been done.

No one can deny the impact of recovered women's texts upon the field of eighteenth-century English literature. During my undergraduate and graduate years in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I did not study a single Restoration or eighteenth-century woman writer; it was as if they simply did not exist. The obliteration was so complete that when a fellow graduate student asked an eminent speaker about Behn and gender in Jonathan Swift's The Battle of the Books, he was told that "Aphra Behn wasn't really a woman." In 1991, when I taught a graduate seminar on eighteenth-century women writers, I had to scramble for books, relying heavily on photocopies and microfilm; in 1999, as I planned the syllabus for the same class, I happily agonized over which books to teach. Figures such as Delarivier Manley and Mary Hays, Jane Barker and Anne Finch, who have been absent from the historical landscape for centuries, appear regularly on reading lists and in conferences.

Yet much remains to be done. One scholar reports that she received a rejection from a top eighteenth-century journal questioning not the quality of her scholarship but the seeming obscurity of the object of research: the editor declared that his readers would not be interested in "Jane Who? Barker." Although the piece was eventually accepted by the editor after some correspondence, the explanation still had to be made. Experiences such as this make clear that recovery work, and the education that accompanies it, is not and, perhaps, can never be completely finished. It is equally obvious, then, that we cannot wait until this recovery is completed before we examine the ramifications of focusing so intently on writings by women.

Questions regarding the primacy of recovery have been raised before, in works such as Margaret Ezell's Writing Women's Literary History, which focuses on the difficulties inherent in reading women writers ahistorically, and Ros Ballaster's Seductive Forms, which addresses women's writing within the generic conventions that affect both female and male writers. (1) My own concern incorporates not only these issues of context but also, perhaps most crucially, the ways in which we project ourselves onto the writers we recover and the consequences of such projection for our scholarship. These questions first began to surface when I was asked to review a collection of essays some years ago. Although some contributions to the volume were rigorous and challenging, the majority followed a pattern in which the author presented a woman writer whom she had unearthed, described her work, and ultimately--inevitably--discovered that this early woman writer was a feminist. In this manner, figure after figure was revealed to be a foremother not just of feminism but, more specifically, of late-twentieth-century feminism. This pattern so disturbed me that as I wrote I found myself questioning the direction of feminist studies and asking whether this tendency to read ourselves into the figures we studied was inescapable. In the end, the problem became so daunting that I never finished the review, but the questions it raised have remained with me. It is easy to account for individual examples of weak scholarship in which crucial information is misrepresented or ignored; it is more difficult to explain why this occurred so often in one particular volume and why it continues to happen. Such a pattern suggests dangers not just for eighteenth-century scholars but for feminist studies in general. I believe the "woman-only" framework in itself creates a share of problems.

The unconscious desire to read ourselves into our foremothers, recreating them in our own image, is understandable. By unearthing long-ignored women's writings and detailing their relevance to current feminist issues, we are able to envision a new literary history, one distinct from the traditional masculine canon that had alienated so many women. Writing about early women and enumerating their specific qualities provides a way to connect ourselves with a literature that previously seemed to ignore important feminist concerns. This connection can be both powerful and illuminating, as seen in an article by drama critic Kendall, who deliberately reads the works of playwright and novelist Catharine Trotter (1679-1749) through the lens of her own experience as lesbian. As Kendall admits, "I wanted her to be like me." (2) But not all scholars are as self-aware as Kendall or as explicit in incorporating the autobiographical impulse, and not all seem willing to acknowledge that, although some early writers can legit imately be identified as feminist or lesbian, others cannot. Although these scholars may not bring their own experience directly into their criticism, their assumptions regarding gender relations, sexuality, and what might be termed "proper" feminist concerns shape their responses to and interpretations of earl women writers.

This tendency, however understandable, has serious implications for feminist scholarship. It can encourage us to make value judgments regarding the worth of a woman's literary contribution based on her similarity to our own, late-twentieth-century ideology. Obviously, in some cases, value judgments are inevitable and even necessary as in, for example, identifying the antisemitism of The Merchant of Venice and the society that produced it. Nonetheless, we must ask whether it is appropriate or even fair to let value judgments based on criteria that did not exist two or three hundred years ago guide our scholarship. Most crucially, we might ask whether such value judgments lead us to study or even recover only those writers who prefigure our own concerns. The answer, unfortunately, can be seen in the almost complete dearth of feminist scholarship dedicated to Hannah More, popular poet, moralist, and outspoken critic of Mary Wollstonecraft. (3) Similarly, even with better known writers, we can be overly selective in our approach, choosing to ignore the ways in which, for example, Aphra Behn advances her political aims or replicates the scenes of rape that appear in male-authored plays while we focus instead on her more satisfying depictions of strong female characters. The recovery project, and the feminist discourse that accompanies it, seemingly does not extend to figures whose views we find distasteful.

The twentieth-century response to three late-seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century female playwrights provides a useful case in point. Mary Pix, Catharine Trotter, and Delarivier Manley all saw their first plays performed in 1696. Each wrote and staged at least four plays in her lifetime (Pix had twelve). Known collectively as the "Female Wits" after a burlesque play that satirized Manley's tragedy, The Royal Mischief the three women wrote poetry in praise of each other and, at least for a time, saw themselves as participating in a common endeavor. Yet, even though the three women are frequently considered together, scholars have evaluated their works in very different terms. Trotter and Manley have been praised for their depiction of "feminist" themes. Trotter's plays, with their absence of heterosexual desire and their insistence on feminine virtue, have contributed to critics' assessment of her as a potential lesbian and proto-feminist. Manley's depiction of strong, if sometimes villainous, heroines ha s likewise endowed her with the label of "feminist." Pix, on the other hand, is described as conservative and even as an "intellectual lightweight." (4) Her works are often dismissed by both feminist and nonfeminist scholars; feminist scholarship in particular reveals a distinct discomfort with Pix's sensational representation of rape and her willingness to depict women as pure, emotional, and helpless--a stereotype we have come to detest.

Yet, viewed within the context of late-seventeenth-century and earlyeighteenth-century English drama, Pix's plays are more innovative in terms of form and subject matter than are those of Manley and more successful than are those of either of her female contemporaries, facts rarely acknowledged by scholars writing on any one of the three women. Pix can be seen as conservative only within a twentieth-century feminist context; her plays looked forward to new generic developments in serious drama rather than rehashing the techniques of a bygone era, and her works addressed contemporary social issues such as class upheaval. Despite her strong heroines and racy plots, Manley also attacked many women, including her former friend Catharine Trotter, when their political stances ran counter to hers. Yet, Manley's impulses are no more anti-woman or anti-feminist than are Pix's; they are, rather, an indication of her adherence to party politics.

I am also concerned that, by focusing so heavily on female writing, we have created an implicit expectation that feminist scholarship will focus on women or on works by women. This expectation also has its liabilities. Do women have an obligation to study women's texts? Although this question is not endemic to eighteenth-century studies, it takes on a special urgency for us because the recovery of women's texts has been such a necessary focus. Whereas common sense clearly says that we do not, emotionally the answer is less simple--perhaps especially so for my generation, who felt the absence of women in the canon. More directly, we cannot ignore the generic constraints that recovery can impose on feminist scholarship, which perhaps prompt us to focus on the novel, where women writers are plentiful, rather than on drama, where the percentage of women writing is smaller. The effect of this constraint is already apparent: the great bulk of feminist scholarship in the eighteenth century has concerned the novel. F eminist studies of drama are considerably less common, and even fewer have moved beyond newly recovered women's texts to extend feminist approaches to male-authored texts.

It is probably impossible to escape from our contemporary ideology, as that would mean escaping from and even denying who we are and how we got here. Nonetheless, a recognition of historical change needs to exist. Without a consideration of cultural context, scholars and critics face the potentially risky tendency to lump women together monolithically, regardless of class, race, creed, and even historical period. This legacy, unwitting as it may be, leaves us at a nexus of problems that are both historical and theoretical. At its worst, ignoring difference in favor of sexual solidarity lays us open to charges of essentialism. Were early women writers necessarily feminist or liberal simply because they possessed the requisite sexual organs? Are we willing to accept the implication that women can be lumped together solely on the basis of sex rather than on the nature of their achievements? Women writers come from a wide range of educational, class, religious, and political backgrounds. By disregarding issues su ch as these that separate women rather than unite them, we may perform errors of scholarship and, by looking only for parallel concerns, we may forget that a privileged woman of the upper class may have less in common with, for example, a Quaker woman than with her male peers. We run the risk of neglecting the vast range of women's experiences if we read them only in terms of other women and not in terms of the issues of their times, which, of course, included those issues that we traditionally consider feminist. We even risk overlooking the contribution a woman writer may have made to a "non-feminist" cause, as Ezell observes of later seventeenth-century Quaker women. (5)

Having outlined what I have termed the legacy of recovery, both good and bad, how do we move beyond? Are there ways to circumvent or minimize the problems while continuing to reap the many benefits that recovering and studying "lost" women writers have brought us? First, recovery work and other research that focuses on rediscovering the women of the eighteenth century, bringing them back into the canon and our collective memory, must continue and must be respected as the major accomplishment that it is. There is still much that needs to be accomplished. At the same time, we must be willing to participate in a continual scrutiny of our work and ourselves. We must be willing to look for difference as well as for the ways in which early women writers are "like us," even if that means giving up the ideal of sisterhood across the centuries. We must remember that the women we celebrate may have more in common with their male peers than with their female contemporaries--or with us.

Our greatest hope lies in the newest generation of scholars, those in graduate school or just beginning their careers, for whom the experience of doing women's studies within the extended eighteenth century is very different from my experience and that of the first generation of scholars who began the recovery project. I hope that, for them, choosing to work on women is neither a political statement that could damage their careers nor a source of pressure to conform to a different standard in which feminism is affirmed by working only on women writers. At the same time, may they never take for granted the groundwork that has been laid for them as they read the plethora of texts now available. We are never truly "beyond" recovery in our scholarship or in our goals.


(1.) See Margaret J.M. Ezell, Writing Women's Literary History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993); and Ros Ballaster, Seductive Forms: Women's Amatory Fiction from 1684-1740 (Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1992), esp. 21-30.

(2.) Kendall, "Catharine Trotter Cockburn and Me: A Duography," in The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993), 278.

(3.) A notable example of these views appears in Jacqueline Pearson, The Prostituted Muse: Images of Women and Women Dramatists, 1642-1737 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988).

(4.) F.P. Lock, "Astraea's 'Vacant Throne': The Successors of Aphra Behn," in Women in the Eighteenth Century and Other Essays, ed. Paul Fritz and Richard Morton (Toronto: Hakkert, 1976), 30. A rare exception to this trend is Nancy Cotton's Women Playwrights in England, c. 1363-1750 (Lewisburg, Penn.: Bucknell University Press, 1980), which claims that "of the plays offered by women in the 1695-1696 season, Pix's are the most entertaining and stageworthy" (90).

(5.) See Ezell, chap. 5, where she discusses how overlooking the important and prolific group of Quakers has distorted our understanding of women's literary history.

Jean I. Marsden is associate professor of English at the University of Connecticut. She is the author of Reimagined Text: Shakespeare, Adaptation, and Eighteenth-Century Literary Theory (University Press of Kentucky, 1995), and editor of Appropriation of Shakespeare: Post-Renaissance Reconstructions of the Works and the Myth (St. Martin's Press, 1992). She recently completed a study of women and the stage and has published numerous articles on women and Restoration drama.
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Author:Marsden, Jean I.
Publication:Feminist Studies
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Sep 22, 2002
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