The Great Forgetting: Women Writers Before Austen

GreatForgettingThe Great Forgetting: Women Writers Before Austen is a free podcast series addressing the lives and works of eighteenth-century women writers,  devised and produced by one journalist and three academics.  One day while chatting on Twitter, Helen Lewis (deputy editor of the New Statesman, a leading British weekly magazine focusing on politics and culture) Jennie Batchelor (University of Kent), Sophie Coulombeau (Cardiff University), and Elizabeth Edwards (University of Wales) discovered that they shared not only a love of eighteenth-century women’s writing but also a conviction that the world needed to know more about it.  An idea was born: a six-part podcast series, aimed at the non-specialist listener, about the lives, works and legacies of the women who changed the face of literature – but had, from the beginning of the nineteenth century, been gradually subjected to what Clifford Siskin calls “The Great Forgetting.”

Each week, we came up with a different theme to shape our conversation.  In the first week, Rewriting the Rise of the Novel, we asked: who gets overlooked when we let Defoe, Fielding and Richardson hog the “rise of the novel” narrative?  In this episode we aimed to explain the importance of some of the eighteenth century’s most prolific and innovative female novelists; from Aphra Behn and Frances Burney to Eliza Haywood, Maria Edgeworth, and Delarivier Manley.  We asked what sorts of challenges these women overcame in order to make it as successful writers, and what flak they received in return.  And we spoke about some of our favorite moments in female-authored novels: from Evelina’s odd monkey to the glorious butch of Harriot Freke.

In the second week, we put Bluestocking culture under the microscope.  Who were the Bluestockings, why did they matter, and was their footwear really as lurid as we’ve been led to believe?  We explained how, through salons hosted by the likes of Elizabeth Montagu, Elizabeth Vesey, and Hester Thrale Piozzi, this group of highly educated women helped shape a new age of sociability and creativity, making it commonplace rather than controversial to assert that a woman might be the intellectual equal of a man.  And we also revealed juicy details about Elizabeth Carter’s snuff-snorting habit.

Week three saw us turn to the subject of Sociable Spaces.  We focused first on the Lady’s Magazine, asking who wrote it, read it and published it, and how far its subject matter might be defined as “feminine.”  We then turned to think about the proliferation of all-female debating societies, such as La Belle Assemblée, in the early 1780s.  What topics did women want to chew over?  How were their debates alternatively valorised and satirised?  And why did these societies die out?  Highlights included discussions of eighteenth-century mansplaining in the pages of the Lady’s Magazine, and #everydaysexism in the galleries of the debating chamber.

In week four, we examined the Unsex’d Females, advocates of radical politics – and the conservative powerhouses who opposed them.  Novelists, poets and pamphleteers including Charlotte Smith, Anna Barbauld, and Mary Wollstonecraft all engaged with major political questions of their day including the French Revolution, the slave trade, and women’s rights – and argued for radical reforms.  But not everyone approved of their zeal: Hannah More and Hester Thrale Piozzi argued in favour of conservative agendas, and Richard Polwhele lamented the “Female Band, despising Nature’s Law” in his memorable poetic rant, “The Unsex’d Females.”

Week five saw us roll up our sleeves and enter the ring for Fight Club, each of us slugging it out on behalf of our favorite woman writer of the eighteenth century.  Sophie was in Frances Burney’s corner, Liz flew the flag for Hester Thrale Piozzi, and Jennie championed an unusual candidate – “Anomymous.”  Who won? Listen to find out…

In the sixth and final week of the podcast, we put the idea of “The Great Forgetting” under the microscope.  Why, exactly, do the vast majority of people now draw a blank at the mention of these women’s names?  How did they go from enjoying fame and success to obscurity?  How did their works shape the literary canon?  And why is it important that we remember and celebrate them in an age when female writers and scholars still face disadvantage and marginalization?

The podcast was devised and recorded in early 2016 and broadcast in April and May via the website of the New Statesman.  It remains available to stream or download here and through iTunes.

Our hope in creating The Great Forgetting was that we would be able to help a wide non-academic audience to become familiar with these writers and their works, and to stimulate reflection on the gendering of literary prestige in the past and present.  In that, we seem to have succeeded: in just the first three weeks, the podcast received almost 3000 listens, exclusive of iTunes downloads.  We continue to be delighted and excited to think that, as the podcast remains online, more thousands of people might encounter the writing of women like Aphra Behn, Eliza Haywood, Delarivier Manley, Frances Burney, Hester Thrale Piozzi, Mary Wollstonecraft, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Hannah More, Ann Yearsley, Phillis Wheatley, Elizabeth Montagu, and Charlotte Smith.  We’re beginning to think about ways in which we might integrate the podcasts into our teaching curricula, and we would love to hear from anyone else who has done so.

But, although making the podcast was a rewarding experience, it also provoked some sobering reflections about what happens when traditional academic methodologies meet new media.  For example, we were chagrined to discover – even faced with the luxury of over three hours’ airtime – how many women writers we still ended up leaving out.  We were abashed to realize that we hadn’t managed to give novelists such as Sarah Scott and Sarah Fielding any attention, while our paucity of female playwrights was another sore point.  We spoke far more about the second half of the eighteenth century than the first.  In light of this, we were forced to ask ourselves what criteria (aesthetic? biographical? canonical?) we had unthinkingly imposed on our selection process for subjects for the programe, even as we railed against ideas of “literary value” that had been dominant in the past.  On a similar note, it was difficult – almost impossible – to credit the academics whose works we drew upon, heavily, in our conversations with Helen.  In other words, you can’t add a footnote to a podcast (though we did try to remedy this a bit by providing reading lists every week – see here).  With initiatives like this, then, might we run the risk of appearing to present ourselves in glorious intellectual isolation – ironically erasing the work of previous scholars (many of whom are women) even as we argue against that very process?

These, and other issues, preoccupy us as we evaluate the success of the podcast series.  If readers of The 18th-Century Common have any feedback, we’d be delighted to hear it.

Open Anthologies and the 18th-Century Reader

openanthologycollageAs any reader of The 18th-Century Common knows, the last quarter century has witnessed the astonishing digitization of thousands of texts from the past:  novels, poems, essays, histories, plays, many of them available for free.  For scholars, the creation of this Digital Republic of Learning has (on the whole) been a boon, enabling new modes of inquiry that could barely have been imagined a generation ago.  For students, however, the digitization of the archive has been a more mixed blessing.  As newcomers to the field, students can very easily find themselves overwhelmed by the sheer abundance of material that shows up in the simple Google search that is likely to be their first means of access.  Students are unlikely to know how to judge of the quality or authenticity of what they find, or to be able to recognize the difference between a well-edited text and something with virtually no authority whatsoever.  Texts are haphazardly distributed, some behind commercial paywalls such as Gale’s ECCO collection, while others are in reasonably well-curated but still imperfect archives like Project Gutenberg. Still others seem to have been put together with no thought whatsoever.  In keeping with the tendency of the Internet to level the field of information, all such texts come decontextualized in several senses.  Rarely are the texts that students or general readers are likely to find annotated to provide the kind of historical contextualization that most readers need to make sense of works from this period.  And, too, the fact of digitization decontextualizes all works from the past from the conditions of their production and dissemination; everything looks the same on the screen.

openanthologyOur projects intend to improve the quality of eighteenth-century texts available for students, general readers, and scholars, and to enlist students in the project of producing them.  The Open Anthology of Literature in English aims to build a digital anthology from the ground up, offering digitized texts that have been edited for accuracy and annotated for modern readers.  Students are crucial collaborators and makers in this project.  Using the TypeWright tool at the 18th Connect project, they can correct the OCR of original texts, and in the process get to see what eighteenth-century print looked like.  And they can identify what should be annotated (who knows better than they do what they need in order to make sense of a work from the past?), and then research what they and readers like them need to know.  They get to work with TEI/XML, which means that they get to see the digital tools of the twenty-first century print shop.  As students complete texts, they become part of a permanent, open-access archive of reliable works, encoded in TEI/XML that is available for the use of teachers who want a place to which they can send their students.  Students thus create something that lives on past the term in which they are enrolled in the class, and the community of students and readers get an archive of free and reliable texts that take full advantage of the resources offered by digitization.

novelsincontextNovels in Context is a web-accessible TEI/XML database application focused on a particular moment in literary history.  Drawing on the practice of public scholarship, the free code ethos, scholarship around the digital archive and digital edition, and the Open Educational Resources movement, Novels in Context seeks to provide a curated, extensible, searchable, and reusable collection of primary source materials focused on the eighteenth-century English novel.  This project is unique not only in its use of database technology and the standardized TEI Simple markup but also in its commitment to the material page–each item is accompanied by quality page images sourced by hand from libraries and special collections.  If everything looks the same on the screen, so too in print anthologies, which deracinate the text from its reality in time and space.  Without understanding something about how a text or an utterance or a performance comes to be in our purview, agile, contextualized engagement with literature—much less the world at large—is impossible.  By involving students in its creation, Novels in Context works to fulfill the promise of feminist pedagogical theory that  urges both collaboration and connection, seeing students as critical makers—full, capable partners in the scholarly work of keeping our cultural heritage alive.

While these projects work to improve the quality of digital texts in an open, collaborative, and scalable way, they also speak to another concern with the market-driven tendencies of academic publishing.  The construction of a Digital Republic of Learning is and has been underway in myriad forms on the Internet since the 1990s, to be sure, but the past decade has seen a noted rise in the number of corporate fingers in the pot.  To be committed to the public goods of education, we need texts and pedagogies that are public and open, but they also need to be critical, rather than affirmative.  A user-generated open anthology of the kind we are imagining is a step in this direction.  As the eighteenth century teaches us, power in the public sphere is in large part a product of one’s ability to negotiate its social and technical components.  Looking toward the eighteenth century, which witnessed its own technological and social revolutions in the dissemination of knowledge, can also be of real use in our current educational context.  Knowledge and power, knowledge-power:  one of our most salient charges as teachers and scholars today must be to enable the fullest possible participation in public conversation.  And when we say “fullest,” we mean it in the broadest sense—rich, responsible, free, purposeful, ethical, capable of enabling new relations of power, new relationships between our present and our past, newly connected selves.

To that end, we seek collaborators on both projects, teachers and students who want to make creating digital editions eighteenth-century texts.  We will provide TEI/XML templates and lessons to enable students to become active, critical contributors to the textual commons.  Please contact [email protected] or [email protected] to find out how you and your students can join in the task of creating open, curated digital editions of texts from our collective past.

The Lady’s Magazine (1770-1818): Understanding the Emergence of a Genre

LadysMagazineThe Lady’s Magazine (1770-1818): Understanding the Emergence of a Genre’ is a two-year project funded by the Leverhulme Trust Research Project Grant scheme.  The team of academics behind it is based at the University of Kent and is led by Jennie Batchelor, who works closely with the project’s two full-time Postdoctoral Researchers:  Koenraad Claes and Jenny DiPlacidi.  Our aim is to shed new light on one of the first and longest running women’s magazines of all time.

In an 1840 letter to Hartley Coleridge, Charlotte Brontë wrote that she wished “with all [her] heart” that she “had been born in time to contribute to the Lady’s magazine,” a periodical that ran for 13 issues per annum from more than six decades and had an estimated circulation of 10,000 monthly copies at the height of its popularity.  170 years later the history and cultural and literary importance of a publication, the vast majority of the original content of which was produced by unknown and unpaid reader-contributors, remains undocumented.

Our project fills this significant gap through a detailed bibliographical, statistical and literary-critical analysis of one of the first recognizably modern magazines for women from its inception in 1770 until the launch of its new series in 1818.  In its two-pronged book history/literary critical approach, this project sets out to answer three key research questions:

  • What made the Lady’s Magazine one of the most popular and enduring titles of its day?
  • What effects might an understanding of the magazine’s content, production, and circulation have upon our conceptions of Romantic-era print culture?
  • What role did the Lady’s Magazine play in the long-term development of the women’s magazine and the history of women’s writing?

In response to these questions, we are producing an open-access fully annotated, downloadable index of the magazine’s content for its first 50 years, which will launch in September 2016.  Titles of articles are accompanied by the names or pseudonyms of their contributors, and their contributors’ status (author, translator, extracter, or pilferer) is given wherever it can be clearly ascertained.  Attributions are made where possible.  In fact, we are amassing a small but growing body of evidence about a number of regular and mostly unknown contributors to the magazine and their lives or careers beyond its pages.  We regularly publish about these discoveries, and many other topics besides, on our project blog.

In addition to illuminating the production and composition of the magazine, we also pay detailed attention to its diverse, text-based contents.  Since the titles of articles in the Lady’s Magazine are often misleading (an article purporting to be about women’s dress might make an impassioned plea for reforms in female education, for instance), our index tags content by genre, key stylistic features and prominent keywords (marriage, education, politics, for example) making it easy for readers to find items of particular interest.

We are mining the data we are collating and will be presenting our findings in the form of web, book, and journal articles on attributions, the career profiles of magazine contributors, and statistical and interpretive analyses of the shifting content of the magazine over the course of its long history.  Jennie is also in the process of writing a book about the magazine’s place in the Romantic literary marketplace.  By making the annotated index of contributor signatures and content analysis freely available online, we also hope to promote further research by scholars and other interested parties on the Lady’s Magazine, late-eighteenth-century periodicals, and authorship and print culture in the period more generally.

One of the greatest joys of the project has been disseminating and talking about our research in progress via our Twitter feed, Facebook page, and blog, all of which are regularly updated. Through social media, we have entered into conversations about the magazine, its diverse content, and the issues it debates and generates with modern-day readers all over the world.  Establishing a community of interested parties who felt they had a stake in the publication was vital to the success of the Lady’s Magazine, whose readers and subscribers were also its authors.  We like to think that, in a small way, the online community that has grown around the project captures and perpetuates something of the spirit of the magazine itself.

It has certainly been a genuine and generative collaboration that has advanced the project in ways that we could not have anticipated when we began.  For instance, Jennie’s happy acquisition of a copy of the periodical from one of our blog’s readers, which contained a number of rare surviving embroidery patterns, led to a flutter of Twitter excitement that snowballed into ‘The Great Lady’s Magazine Stitch Off,’ a non-competitive sewing bee in which dozens of people all over the world have recreated 10 Lady’s Magazine patterns for display at an exhibition at Chawton House Library to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Emma (1816), a novel whose hero and a major plotline are taken from a short story in the Lady’s Magazine.

To find out more, do visit the project website and blog, or contact Jennie ([email protected])

The Novels Reviewed Database, 1790-1820 (NRD)

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Novels Reviewed Database, 1790-1820 (NRD)

The period from 1790 to 1820 was a significant moment in British women’s literary history.  During this period more women published novels than men, even as the novel was solidifying as a respected literary genre.  By the end of this period the novel was reputable enough a medium for Sir Walter Scott, celebrated poet, to pen the wildly successful Waverly series (1814).  His success, however, came on the backs of the many women novelists who paved the way before him in the previous thirty years.

But what was the contemporary critical response to such a momentous period in the history of the British novel?  The Novels Reviewed Database, 1790-1820 (NRD) seeks to uncover just that.

The NRD is the first and only database to focus on one genre’s historical reception.  Cataloging reviews of novels from the period’s two foremost review periodicals, the Monthly Review and the Critical Review, the NRD brings together book reviews and book market data, providing a repository of criticism reacting in print to this period in the novel’s, and women’s, literary history.

The NRD includes 1,836 book reviews, representing 1,215 novels and 445 identified authors.  It features transcriptions of review criticism as well as data on women writers, novels, and review periodical makeup.  The NRD contains a unique combination of contemporary primary sources that speak to the novel’s solidification as a literary genre during this period, including review articles, advertisements, and novel prefaces, many from archival sources not available digitally.

The NRD also offers a data-set by which distant reading of this period in literary history can be explored, uncovering for the first time the Reviews’ role in shaping our modern novel canon.  Distant reading studies of the novel, such as this study from the NRD of publisher William Lane, offer a new means of asking questions about the history of the novel and how contemporaries experienced its evolution.  Its scope enables the NRD to encourage a broad survey of the literary marketplace in which the novel grew in the late eighteenth century, one that brings forward the many anonymously published and still obscure women novelists from this period that are often neglected in our study of the novel.  The NRD presents opportunities for text mining review criticism, tracing economic market changes in novel production and sales, or publishers’ trends, tracking the novel’s evolving gendered authorship, understanding how reviewers discussed and understood a novel’s authorial gender, and excavating growing genre parameters by which the novel was evaluated and effectively produced.

The NRD is currently in Phase I of three phases of development.  Phase I features transcriptions of review criticism—criticism that due to poor OCR in digital archives and scattered periodicals collections, are currently unavailable to most scholars.  The NRD seeks to make this text corpus available to scholars in an open-access relational database platform.  This platform, Phase II, which introduces a review bibliography, novel publication data, and authorial gender demographics, is under construction with hopes of a 2017 release.  Phase III will provide users with review page images and the ability to read issues of the Reviews in their entirety, tagged review subjects and the power to create their own tagging profile, and a formula builder to manipulate NRD data for their own research.

Early Novels Database

Every reader of eighteenth-century literature is familiar with the paradox of the Google Books era: while the archive of digital texts has expanded exponentially in recent years, our ability to locate them has diminished.  Even basic bibliographic details such as complete titles, prefatory materials, narrative forms, and tables of contents are often missing from digital facsimiles.  The Early Novels Database (END) project reunites missing metadata with digital facsimiles of early fiction to make them easier to find and categorize.  Uniting twenty-first-century data structures with the sensibility of eighteenth-century indexing practices, the project creates detailed metadata about novels published between 1660 and 1850.  END captures detailed information about the organizational structures eighteenth-century readers relied on—title pages, tables of contents, author claims, narrative forms, prefaces, epigraphs, advertisements, and more.  Transforming these paratextual elements into machine-readable, searchable data, END offers researchers and readers new ways of connecting and exploring digital collections of fiction.  END’s metadata will also expand the possibilities of corpus analysis of early fiction, allowing users to create more sophisticated models of large full-text corpuses.

END is a collaborative, multi-institutional project based at the University of Pennsylvania and Swarthmore College.  Faculty, staff, and fellows from both institutions lead a team of undergraduate researchers drawn from Penn and the Tri-College Consortium (Swarthmore, Haverford, Bryn Mawr) as well as Williams College.  In Summer 2016, END is expanding to NYU’s Fales Library, whose rich holdings in early fiction will expand the END dataset significantly.  After intensive training alongside the core END team based in Philadelphia, a team of NYU staff and students will catalog selections from the Fales Collection; expansion to additional New York repositories is planned for Summer 2017.