Workshop report: ‘Writing Women’s Literary History: Problems and Possibilities’, University of Kent November 2009

The workshop on genre was the first of three workshops co-organised by the University of Kent’s Centres for Studies in the Long Eighteenth Century, Medieval and Early Modern Studies, and Gender, Sexuality and Writing.

The first speaker was Gillian Wright (University of Birmingham) who examined the idea of genre through the poetry of Anne Bradstreet. Wright’s research has led her to reclassify Bradstreet’s poem ‘The Four Monarchies’ in a framework of political history, rather than verse history.

This interrogation of the boundaries of genre was further radicalized by Catherine Richardson (University of Kent), who raised the question of “How low can we go?” in terms of what we identify as literature. Richardson questions the narrow definition of literary works and believes it is important to discuss objects that were touched and employed by women as text. In order to understand how the majority of women read and wrote, she believes ‘literature’ is an unhelpful classification.

The possibilities offered by the genre of life-writing emerged as another key area of investigation. Marion O’Connor (University of Kent) used the letters of Lady Bedford, a woman whom she has been pursuing in archives for over twenty years, to inform her discussion of genre. O’Connor reviewed a variety of examples of Bedford’s letters to bring her from a historical figure into life. She rejected the notion of the recovery of women’s writing being complete, stressing the importance of continuing the recovery of letters as a way of recovering women’s writing history as a whole.

Amy Culley (Lincoln) has been working with Elizabeth Fox’s journals, which has led her to question what is at stake when thinking about the generic instability of texts and their circulation. Culley questioned the trend to historicize women’s literature and the position available to women in the historical moment of writing. She examined the journals’ combination of seemingly incompatible genres and their ability to not only give insight into a former age, but to help explore the dialectic between readers and writers.

Elaine McGirr (RHUL) discussed the plays of Cibber, written for women audiences and women stars, to demonstrate how misreading Cibber can lead to a misreading of the genre of the early seventeenth century Reform comedies. McGirr believes that feminism ignores the tradition of reform comedies that held stage for a generation and which were written to appeal to the women in the audience who were the acknowledged center of taste – and thus crucial to writing women’s history.

Jennie Batchelor (University of Kent) spoke on women’s writing, work, worth and merit, and the problem with aesthetic judgment. Batchelor demonstrated, through an examination of the debate on Charlotte Smith “the Poet” and Smith “the Novelist”, that privileging aesthetic judgments shaped by past hierarchies of gender and genre has led to distortions not confined to prose. Smith’s challenge to the narratives of literary history proves that the questions of work, worth, and merit are important ones – and that our answers concerning aesthetic merit often originate in a literary history which has been unfair to women writers.

The series of discussions on genre raised polemical, and fascinating, questions about the complicated role of genre in the literary history of women’s writing.


Conference Report: ‘New Directions in Austen Studies’
Chawton House Library 2009

In July 2009, Chawton House Library hosted a three-day conference to celebrate the bicentenary of Jane Austen's arrival in Chawton Village in 1809. The conference, ‘New Directions in Austen Studies’, was attended by academics, postgraduates, and independent scholars from across the globe, creating a discussion that centred around insightful literary criticism within a variety of cultural contexts.

It opened with an address from Isobel Grundy and Juliet McMaster, exploring ‘new understandings’, both within Austen’s novel plots and in recent critical theory. Topics of women’s reading and accomplishments, and the constraints and influence of genre were addressed. Several panels explored Austen’s prose in the contexts of nationalism and feminism, commenting upon the pervasive influence of revolutionary politics.

Of particular interest were sessions presented by John Wiltshire (La Troube) – ‘Mr. Darcy’s Smile,’ and Emma Clery (Southampton) – ‘Gender Trouble in Austen Studies.’ Wiltshire’s exploration of Darcy’s softer expressions revealed some interesting ideas with regard to Austen’s use of narrative positioning, whilst Clery made an insightful and entertaining examination of the artificiality of gender constructs within Northanger Abbey. Starting with Simone de Beauvouir’s famous quote, ‘One is not born a woman, but becomes one’, Clery went on to examine the heroine’s rapid development: from a child playing ‘boyish games’ to a woman expressing a disconcerting interest in the ‘strange’ and fashionable Tilney.

Within the conference panels, I particularly enjoyed papers by Jacqueline Labbe (Warwick) and Sandra Alagona (Claremont). Labbe’s paper, exploring Jane Austen’s interaction with the work of Charlotte Smith, examined the theme of surveillance, particularly within a scene in Celestina that is rewritten in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Alagona’s paper, ‘Reading England in Mansfield Park and Emma,’ explored the actions and representation of the Navy in 1812-14 and its subsequent portrayal in these two novels, identifying a ‘cycle of moral education’ for both heroines.

The conference closed with a concert displaying music from the Austen family music books, drawing upon material from the Jane Austen house and the museum at Chawton, and complementing the papers which had discussed creativity in the home, domestic music-making and dance.

A selection of papers from the conference will appear in a special edition of the Spring 2010 issue of Persuasions On-Line.

Deborah Brown
University of Chichester