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British Women Writers and the Writing of History: 1670-1820.

British Women Writers and the Writing of History: 1670-1820. By DEVONEY LOOSER. Baltimore, MD, and London: Johns Hopkins University Press. 2001. xi + 272 pp. 35 [pounds sterling].

Lucy Hutchinson: Order and Disorder. Ed. by DAVID NORBROOK. Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell. 2001. lviii + 272 pp. 55 [pounds sterling]; $64.95 (pbk 16.99 [pounds sterling]; $29.95).

Devoney Looser's British Women Writers and the Writing of History: 1670-1820 is an excellent pioneering study of women's contribution to historiography in the long eighteenth century. In an impressively researched introduction, which recognizes the large and varied dimensions of British history writing, Looser sketches an account of historiography as a genre which moved away in the mid-eighteenth century from a literary emphasis to a more scientific approach, 'which led gradually to nineteenth-century professionalization' (p. 13)" Looser also readily admits that she does not believe in a special, characteristic women's relationship to history: 'Instead, the information I have gathered suggests that early modern British women writers enacted various and often competing relationships to historical discourse, depending on their political commitments and class affiliations, their perceptions of developing genres and markets, and their ability to manipulate authorial circumstances and reputations' (pp. 7 8). Refreshingly, this book does not take a teleological approach to our predecessors by reductively reading these women writers somehow as the mothers of contemporary feminist historiography. Inevitably, any initial exploration of this field will be incomplete and to some extent troublesome: Looser's work opens up several potential theses and books on historiography by women by drawing attention to the sheer range of possibilities of engagement with history as a form of writing. At the same time, her work raises challenging questions about generic definitions which the separate chapters about these highly disparate writers cannot fully address. The exploratory questions about audience and genre hierarchy are particularly worthy of further study: the connections, for instance, between women writing history and the encouragement of girls to read history as a genre that was superior to novels and romances, and the 'rise of the novel' and its association with female writers and readers which complicates the nineteenth-century reception of seventeenth-century texts in which elements of romance, life writing, and historiography are combined. The generic ramifications of history writings are considerable, and it is to Looser's credit that she has neither shied away from addressing this complex issue, nor reduced it to one particular thesis which purports to accommodate a highly different group of writers.

Looser's approach is mercifully straightforward:

In each chapter I examine how one woman writer of the long eighteenth century perceived, used and manipulated the genre of history in her texts. I then look at how her texts were evaluated by critics and by other members of the reading public. In my revisionary account, British women writers frequently fall short of our feminist hopes for them. I argue that many trailblazing women writers did not identify with or construct a women's historiographical tradition to be joined, copied, or perpetuated. (pp. 23-24)

The writers Looser has included in her discussion (Lucy Hutchinson, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Charlotte Lennox, Catharine Sawbridge Macaulay, Hester Lynch Piozzi, and Jane Austen) all share 'an interest in and commitment to writing history' (p. 27), and that is where their similarities usually end. The chapter on Lucy Hutchinson's Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson is arguably the most convincing one in the book. Looser's superb research skills are particularly prominent in reception history: her discussion of how nineteenth-century assessments of Hutchinson's life and work have been taken on by twentieth-century feminist scholars is a wonderful example of how each age relies on the hermeneutics of the previous one. I was not, however, entirely convinced by the inclusion of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's 'Turkish Embassy Letters' in the third chapter, and I am not quite sure whether Looser was either. Discussing Montagu's remarkable, but ultimately ahistorical, contemporary account of a privileged travelling outsider in terms of historiography struck me as a rather forced attempt to include cultural difference. Both chapters on Charlotte Lennox and Jane Austen convincingly reveal the thin boundaries between fiction and history, and these writers' way of responding to their contexts and its historiographical traditions in their fictions. The chapter on the 'British Clio', Catharine Macaulay, the first eminent woman historian of England, benefits greatly from all the issues about contemporary reception raised in the other chapters: Looser's reading focuses on the potentially dated linkage between Macaulay's body and writings (particularly in the wake of her second marriage to a younger man) without lapsing into simple oppositions. Finally, the chapter on Mrs Piozzi deals with her now largely neglected magnum opus, Retrospection. Looser once again demonstrates how well she has done her homework; she attributes the ostensible failure of the work to the incomprehension of its readers and reviewers, compounded by Piozzi's lack of delivering on her promises. In all chapters, Looser's arguments are substantiated by pithy interpretive summaries of the works discussed, a courtesy to readers who may not be familiar with the original texts but who are nevertheless well enough versed in the period and its authors to understand its issues.

The subject of Looser's second chapter, Lucy Hutchinson, is heading for a major critical revival if the scholarship devoted to her is anything to go by. Originally famous for her Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson, Hutchinson has been put more firmly on the literary map with David Norbrook's edition of Order and Disorder. In this epic Hutchinson addresses the themes of the book of Genesis, which makes it not only a relevant text for any discussion of women's position in society, but also a worthy companion piece for the study of Milton's Paradise Lost. The most striking feature of this edition is Norbrook's meticulous editorial research: the first five cantos were published anonymously in 1679, but Norbrook has attributed fifteen further cantos to Hutchinson. Norbrook's introductory section, 'Order and Disorder: The Poem and its Contexts', is both lucid and lively, which makes the text highly recommended for both scholarly study and classroom use. Both Looser and Norbrook are representatives of a school of thought that attempts to put female writers in their larger social and political historical contexts, as opposed to making their writings subservient to a more narrowly defined overtly ideological critical perspective. Both are excellent contributions to a burgeoning interdisciplinary field.

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Author:Thomson, Heidi
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 2002
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