The Rise And Fall Of The Woman Of Letters (Pimlico Original) Paperback – 27 May 2004
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"A book of subtlety and distinction, a reminder of just how far feminist literary scholarship has come" (Guardian)
"This book achieves far more than the rehabilitation of forgotten authors... Instead, she investigates the broader mechanisms of fame, the formation of authorial personae, and the mysterious reasons why some names rise while others fall...This is a subtle, persuasive and engrossing study" (Independent)
"Inspirational...reveals a rich history of literary women who not only made a living from writing but were treated as the equals of their male peers... [It] should be a set textbook in English classes" (Herald)
While many nineteenth-century women writers - such as George Eliot, Mrs Gaskell, the Brontés - are now widely written about, the women who paved the way for them in the eighteenth-century are only now being given the attention they deserve.See all Product description
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Instead, the pages of Chapter 1 (“The Female right to Literature”) are devoted to a comprehensive account of Anna Seward (1742-1809) before back tracking in Chapter 2 to describe the life and works of Elizabeth Elstob (1683-1756). I thought at this point that the author was of the same view as George Ballard who considered that the trailblazing writers Aphra Behn, Delarivier Manley and Susannah Centlivre were “ a slight sisterhood” and not women of learning. But no, Centlivre (1667-1723) is covered in Chapter 7; Manley (1663-1724) in Chapter 8, and Behn variously in Chapters 5 and 7.
To confuse matters further the titles of chapters do not always give a clear indication of their content. For example who, to the interested reader, are Philomena and Orinda, the title of Chapter 5, and why is Chapter 6 “Love and Marriage” (the lives of Elizabeth Singer and Ann Finch) , whereas the following chapter, dealing with the same issue, is entitled “Susannah Centlivre and Catherine Trotter and others”. I was surprised in this context to see Hannah More given no more consideration than a few disconnected paragraphs. Surely her origins, stature and her relationship to William Turner and David Garrick deserve more than this?
There is no doubt as to the author’s scholarship, but even accepting the current vogue is for “themes” rather than a historical perspective surely the latter would have been more suitable approach in a book of this title? As it is the consideration of each writer, often fragmented in three or more chapters is further clouded because of their changing titles. Hence Elizabeth Singer is elsewhere referred to as Mrs Rowe and Elizabeth Singer Rowe; Elizabeth Finch as Countess Winchilsea, and Hester Chapone as Mrs Mulso.
The overall impression is that the book is a gathering together of loosely connected papers on women writers of English enlightenment, indeed the author acknowledges this. As a result this reader was left with no clear overview of rise and fall of the woman of letters. Indeed was there really a fall? Many describe Dickens as a man of letters and ” the literary colossus of his age”. Yet he was less well educated and his works less popular at the time than those of his contemporary Mrs Henry Wood (1812-1870). Perhaps as with engineering, which had become a socially acceptable pursuit by the mid 19th century, popular writing for profit rather than literary acclaim had become a respectable occupation for authors of both sexes.