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.

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.

Haiti’s First Novel: Expanding the Study of the Age of Revolutions

We might say that of the many topics we 18th-centuriests study, the “Age of Revolutions” tops the list.  The French and American Revolutions have long been examined as crucial turning points in the history of the modern world, and we tend to think of the “before” and “after” as two distinct periods.  However, for almost as long, we in the West studied the “Age of Revolutions” without paying much attention to what is arguably the most important of the era’s political transformations:  the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804).

In recent decades, important work has been done to deconstruct processes of “silencing” the Haitian Revolution and to reconstruct the Haitian archive.  The most successful revolt by enslaved persons in history, the Haitian Revolution resulted in a completely autonomous antislavery, postcolonial nation in 1804, and shocked the wider world.  Haiti has struggled to deal with this shock for most of its existence.  It took decades for Great Britain and France to recognize Haitian independence.  The United States waited over half a century.

Unsilencing Haiti’s Revolution and inserting it into the intellectual framework of the “Age of Revolutions” requires conceptual as well as material reexaminations.  An important step is the recovery and reading of Haitians’ own words about their country’s history.  For example, until now, few students of the Revolution have read the first novel written by a Haitian author, Stella (1859), which is also a text about the Haitian Revolution.

Émeric Bergeaud wrote Stella hoping that the form of the novel would draw more interest to his country’s history.  Describing a tension between history and literature, he writes:

History can tell only what it knows.  Its sight, limited to the horizon of natural things, has trouble knowing the truth that shines behind that horizon.  The miraculous is not within its domain.  History leaves the field of mystery to the Novel.  (86)

In his explanation, Bergeaud was being clever even as he was being poetic.  Tired of reading the slanderous accounts of the Haitian Revolution published in France, Great Britain, and the United States, the novelist wanted to be sure that his readers would instead know Haiti’s great foundational myth and recognize the story as the miracle that it was.

A note providing clues as to the provenance of one of the rare copies of the second edition of Bergeaud's novel, published at the behest of his widow in 1887. This copy was acquired by the University of Florida in 1961 from the Librairie d'Histoire d'Haïti, which was a famous library and bookstore in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Thanks to this note, we know that the work did circulate in Bergeaud's homeland even though both of its nineteenth-century editions were printed in Paris.

A note providing clues as to the provenance of one of the rare copies of the second edition of Bergeaud’s novel, published at the behest of his widow in 1887. This copy was acquired by the University of Florida in 1961 from the Librairie d’Histoire d’Haïti, which was a famous library and bookstore in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Thanks to this note, we know that the work did circulate in Bergeaud’s homeland even though both of its nineteenth-century editions were printed in Paris.

Out of print for over a century, Stella has often been overlooked.  This neglect is partly due to a nineteenth-century colonial mentality that denigrated Haiti and Haitians, constantly judging them against standards established for the purpose of exclusion.  It is also due to Bergeaud’s own obscurity—he died in exile in 1858—and the fact that few, if any, physical copies of the original editions survive.  These circumstances have meant that literature by early postcolonialists like Bergeaud has never received the attention that it deserves.

A new English translation of Émeric Bergeaud’s 1859 novel aims to aid in the unsilencing processes and to invite Anglophone readers to examine this period more fully.  Bergeaud’s insistence that Haiti is the true inheritor of republicanism helps us to understand how Haitians viewed their history in terms of the “Age of Revolutions” well before Western academics began making similar connections.

Recovered texts and new translations like this one offer a means to chip away at the power of the colonial mentality and to challenge the silencing of what we might call the most significant of the age’s revolutions.

Austen’s Domestic Fiction and the Network Form

The Sense of Sight (1744-7).  Philippe Mercier, active in Britain (from 1716). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

The Sense of Sight (1744-7). Philippe Mercier, active in Britain (from 1716). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Counter to my own argument in Desire and Domestic Fiction (1987)  that domestic fiction proposes a self-enclosed household as a model for the modern nation, I’m contending that each Austen novel tears open the traditional household and disperses its members (especially daughters) by putting them into circulation. This is indeed what it means for a woman to be “out.”  It is thus because Austen’s novels propose a network as the model of a nation increasingly dependent on international trade that I now see them as the very examples of what a novel is and does.

If Austen’s households eventually settle down and the boundaries of her imaginary shire prove less permeable than at the novel’s opening, it is because she figured out a way of regulating the risk of self-devaluation that accompanies the dispersal and circulation of propertied families through a relatively open system of courtship. “The social season” was supposed to ensure that women of some breeding but little claim to property traveled in what Leonore Davidoff calls “the best circles.”  But Austen’s pump room and country dances never fail to include a few people–usually men–who exploit the rules of civility in order to put romance at odds with finance.  Those who engage with such people risk happiness, on the one hand, and security of position on the other.  In exposing the gap between emotional and economic value, the destructive energy of romance allows Austen to reorganize her household as a hub–a kind of relay station in a network whose managers minimize the risks of courtship.