Abstract and Keywords
While the individual essays in this collection each examine a particular aspect of women’s literary networks during the Romantic period, when taken as a whole, larger patterns begin to emerge and invite further exploration. Broadly speaking, these patterns might be organized according to five tentative claims: (1) networks led to a densely interconnected Romantic world; (2) manuscript letters and life writing were vital parts of literary networks and deserve re-examination as literature; (3) men were an important part of women’s literary networks, but not necessarily in all the ways we have come to expect; (4) women used networks to become active in political, social, and religious causes and debates from which they were otherwise excluded; and (5) women’s networks were intergenerational and trouble easy distinctions between literary periods....
While the individual essays in this collection each examine a particular aspect of women’s literary networks during the Romantic period, when taken as a whole, larger patterns begin to emerge and invite further exploration. Broadly speaking, these patterns might be organized according to five tentative claims: (1) networks led to a densely interconnected Romantic world; (2) manuscript letters and life writing were vital parts of literary networks and deserve re-examination as literature; (3) men were an important part of women’s literary networks, but not necessarily in all the ways we have come to expect; (4) women used networks to become active in political, social, and religious causes and debates from which they were otherwise excluded; and (5) women’s networks were intergenerational and trouble easy distinctions between literary periods.
1. An Interconnected Romantic World
The essays in this volume suggest that the era’s fundamental alterations to the means and conditions of mediation not only made Romanticism possible, but drew in groups and writers often excluded from traditional accounts of the period. As has been well-documented elsewhere, the eighteenth-century world was a place of expanding social networks, buoyed by structural transformations in how information was produced, mediated, and circulated. Beginning with Habermas’s foundational study of how print and periodical culture altered bourgeois public space at the beginning of the eighteenth century, a generation of scholars has productively explored, expanded, and challenged Habermas’s work, producing a rich body of scholarship that illustrates the extent to which the eighteenth-century world was interconnected. More recently, Siskin and Warner have offered an important addition to this body of scholarship in (p.299) This is Enlightenment, arguing that transformations to the means of mediation themselves – what they term ‘cardinal mediations’ (the post-office, turnpike, associational practices, coffee houses, etc.) – help to explain some of the larger social, political, philosophical, and literary projects that we have come to think of as the ‘Enlightenment’.1 What has been less well documented or considered is how these fundamental shifts in the conditions of mediation played out during the Romantic period, and what these changes meant for how Romantic-era writers thought about themselves, their relationships with one another, and their relationship to a rapidly-expanding public space.
Amidst this shift in the conditions of mediation, both women and men not traditionally considered ‘writers’ in the literary sense were often a vital part of Romantic-era networks, lending emotional, spiritual, and even financial support in addition to addressing more ‘literary’ matters. Henrietta Fordyce, for example, wife of Reverend James Fordyce, corresponded with Sally Wesley as a friend and on religious subjects, but also with publishing house Cadell & Davies about the business of her deceased husband’s publications. The relatively unknown ‘bluestocking’ Marianne Thornton, daughter of Clapham abolitionist Henry Thornton, would have been known to Elizabeth Heyrick’s and Susanna Watt’s network in the Midlands, but she also corresponded with Sally Wesley about financial matters, as Thornton’s father subscribed £10 a year for the maintenance of Sally and her mother Sarah during a particularly difficult time following the death of Charles Wesley. The variety of women just in Wesley’s lesser-known network reminds us that the sheer number of writers, male and female, who participated in the literary marketplace and literary conversations expanded exponentially in the Romantic era. At the same time, access to this marketplace (even for writers at the ‘margins’ in Ireland or provincial England) and to the marketplace of ideas inculcated in letters and polite conversation was quicker and more expedient than during any previous literary era. Even if individual writers did not know one another, the proliferation of print texts made it easier than ever before for women to respond to other authors through ‘networks of citation’ of the type Linkin considers in Chapter Seven.
The depth and breadth of the connections fostered by women in Romantic-era literary networks thus indicates just how little we still know about the nature of the interconnected Romantic world. For one thing, the networks traced in this volume of essays ask us to rethink what it meant to be ‘marginal’ in this period: to what extent do our standard accounts of the literary margins persist, and to what extent must they be revised? These kinds (p.300) of questions have significant implications for how we think about literary production and the role of the individual author. Not only was Romantic-era work not produced in isolation, it was produced in conversation with many other voices – a conversation that was made possible by increased letter and manuscript circulation.
2. Letters and Manuscript Circulation
As we continue to reassess the canon of Romantic literature, heightened attention to the letter as a literary genre can help us dislodge the gendered hierarchies that prevent us from seeing the Romantic world in all its nuance and complexity. The essays in this collection suggest that reading the letter as literature – rather than as ancillary material whose primary purpose is to contextualize some other more ‘important’ text – opens up new ways of thinking about how texts and audiences were constructed during the Romantic period, what types of writers and readers had access to different forms of literary production, and how letters and other types of manuscript texts were intended to be read and circulated. Letters and manuscripts were not only the primary means through which literary networks formed and were sustained, they provided a discourse structure which women could and did adapt when they made the move to print. As Levy points out, during this time period, ‘many works that began in more private or sociable contexts rapidly migrated to more social and public media’.2 Letter-writing in particular came to occupy what Clare Brant has described as a ‘personal’ space, as opposed to a fully public or private one.3 This idea of the ‘personal’ space of the letter is useful in that it recognizes letters as fundamentally social texts, produced and circulated in community. It also highlights the productive liminality of letters – neither wholly ‘this’ nor ‘that’ – and therefore their status as a genre ripe for experimentation and innovation.
Recognizing letters and manuscripts as innovative literary texts thus troubles many of the (often gendered) assumptions we have come to rely on about what constitutes a text – or, for that matter, an author – worthy of critical attention. Scholars of women’s writing have been arguing for the importance of letters as literature for at least a decade (in part due to necessity), and scholars who study more canonical male authors have also begun to demonstrate the fruitfulness of reading letters in this light. At a 2017 Modern Language Association panel on (p.301) ‘Re-Loading the Romantic Canon’, for example, Pamela Clemit and Michael Rossington argued for the importance of better understanding how letters functioned in the Godwin–Shelley circle. In particular, Clemit argued that the form of the letter itself, in its expression of social ‘regard’, could be read as explicitly literary.4 Continued study of how women used letters, and the rhetorical and authorial possibilities letters provided them, helps us challenge the all-too-common assumption that letters by men like Godwin or Percy Shelley are inherently more ‘literary’ than those by their female counterparts.
More work is needed, then, not only on how letters circulated and formed literary networks, but also on the form of the letter itself within the context of manuscript exchange. Runia’s essay in this volume (Chapter Eight), for example, usefully explores how Maria Edgeworth’s Letters to Literary Ladies internalizes the conventions of eighteenth-century letter writing; when we forget how letters operated and the functions that they performed for contemporary readers and writers, Edgeworth’s text loses legibility. As Brant usefully reminds us, ‘many women writers in eighteenth-century Britain were not novelists, poets, or dramatists. They were writers of letters, diaries, memoirs, essays – genres of sometimes uncertain status then and certainly liminal status now’.5 We might then ask: how did women exploit the uncertainty of the genre? How might the letter’s liminality connect to women’s construction of authorial identity? How did the letter’s generic conventions influence the wider Romantic-era literary culture? These questions will help us re-examine not only the ways in which women formed and sustained connections with one another, but with men as well.
3. Men’s Roles in Women’s Networks
While men were an important part of women’s literary networks – as editors, publishers, mentors, and means of financial support – the essays in this collection indicate that theirs was not always the authoritative position we might have come to expect. As Beshero-Bondar and Donovan-Condron point out in Chapter Six, for example, the networks surrounding Mary Russell Mitford show the author performing a wide variety of roles in relation to the men in her network over the course of her long life. While she, like many of the Cadell & Davies authors discussed in Chapter Five, may have relied on powerful men to ease her entry into public space early on, by the time she (p.302) was older it was she herself who occupied a central network node; she became someone whom others – women and men – approached in order to advance their careers. Furthermore, what we may tend to see as primarily commercial and hierarchical interactions, such as those between authors and publishers, also have important (and more nuanced) social dimensions. While Cadell & Davies was undoubtedly a business, in Chapter Five Levy and Irwin convincingly argue that the publishing firm’s relationship with its female clients was more than that: it was also a social relationship that helped foster the entry of numerous women into the marketplace of print.
Rethinking the scope and the gendered nature of ‘influence’ in the Romantic period – ‘influence’ as textual as well as lived interaction – thus destabilizes longstanding gender binaries. Nesvet, for example, argues in Chapter Nine that Mary Shelley was consciously influenced by and responding to the Marquis de Sade despite the sexually-taboo nature of his work. Shelley’s place in Sade’s global network of literary influence, which Nesvet shows is generally constructed as exclusively male, reveals that the cultural ideas about female propriety that might have shaped literary reception in this period were not the barriers to literary production that we might assume. More broadly, Chapters Eight to Ten of this volume illustrate the need for a more complex exploration of how networks of influence shaped sexuality and female authorial identity, particularly those involving women writers and controversial male figures such as Sade, Thomas Day, and Charles Fourier. Along with interrogating our own assumptions about literary influence in this period – as twenty-first-century scholars have at times tended to replicate the Romantic-era ‘gentlemen’s club’ – we might also ask: how did women signal or disavow different forms of ‘influence’ in their work? Re-examining the ways in which women writers influenced and were influenced by their male peers might also help us see more clearly the innovative possibilities presented by single-sex networks.
4. Women’s Networks and Public Space
Though women sometimes relied on men for access to public space, the essays in this volume reveal that single-sex networks often provided women with creative points of entry into conversations about the major social, political, and religious questions of their day. Moreover, these single-sex networks allowed them to act outside social boundaries. Consider, for example, the abolitionist work of Elizabeth Heyrick and Susanna Watts in the Midlands, which James and Shuttleworth detail in Chapter Three. While Heyrick and Watts were connected to the main body of the abolitionist movement led by men like William Wilberforce and Henry Thornton, their publications and local abolitionist activities often diverged from what these male leaders thought was (p.303) appropriate. By advocating for immediate emancipation, going door to door campaigning for abolition, and even by sewing abolitionist tracts into work bags, these women challenged cultural assumptions about the proper roles for women within public space.6
Single-sex networks also allowed women to participate in conversations from which they were almost entirely excluded otherwise. For example, the women in Sally Wesley’s network, examined in Chapter Two, were deeply invested in the major theological and religious debates of the period. Long before Percy Shelley was expelled from Oxford for publishing The Necessity of Atheism, the Methodist Sally Wesley was on friendly terms and corresponding regularly with the avowed atheist Rachel Lee. While atheism itself was still unspeakable in public space, women in this network were nonetheless comfortable discussing taboo theological questions without rancor using the semi-public space of the letter. Sally Wesley even went so far as to invite Lee to visit with Thomas de Quincey’s family while she was governess to his younger sister – an invitation that eventually resulted in her dismissal from her position.7 Thus, while women were increasingly excluded from public conversations, their networks illustrate the creative ways that they circumvented these cultural restrictions. To better understand this social and political practice, we might ask: what various forms did single-sex networks take? How might these forms have been shaped by the issues with which women engaged? To what degree did single-sex networks cohere to or deviate from the protocols of networks that included women and men? These questions might also help us better understand the ways in which women from different generations formed bonds with one another.
5. Intergenerational Networks and Periodization
The essays in this volume suggest that the idea of literary periodization is inherently limiting, given how writers spoke and related to each other across generations, with older writers shaping their own reputations and legacies while mentoring and influencing younger writers. Culley’s and Linkin’s essays (Chapters Four and Seven, respectively), for example, illustrate how female writers molded their literary reputations into old age and built these reputations through what Linkin deems ‘citational networks’. In addition, Beshero-Bondar and Donovan-Condron (Chapter Six) give a bird’s-eye view of how the literary reputation of Mary Russell Mitford was formed over her (p.304) lifetime in conversation with multiple generations. Such intergenerational links often cross the boundaries drawn by literary scholars. Mitford, for example, mentored the young Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who is the subject of Hood’s essay (Chapter Ten) on Aurora Leigh. While Barrett Browning is not traditionally considered a Romantic poet, she was in correspondence with and clearly influenced by writers firmly ensconced in Romanticism and in fact only barely outlived Joanna Baillie, Mary Berry, and Mitford herself. These links should lead us to ask: how or why is an author defined as ‘Romantic’? How might labels such as ‘Romantic’ occlude other – perhaps more important – connections? Scholarly attention to networks, we propose, is one important way of approaching these questions with renewed vigor.
As a final note, working on this volume was itself a collaboration within a scholarly network, and as such, we intentionally strove to open up new avenues and possibilities for scholarly work and publication. The network that produced this volume is diverse and includes scholars on both sides of the Atlantic and at different points in their academic careers. Some of us are distinguished scholars with long careers and publication records behind us, some are tenured or on the tenure track, while others labor in the new scholarly economy of full time, non-tenurable positions. Others of us are graduate students, just beginning our academic careers, invited into the project by more senior scholars. In each case, however, what we found working on this volume was that the models of collaboration and sociability that women used during the eighteenth century are still very much alive today and provide exciting and alternative models of scholarly production. This project began as a collaboration between Andrew Winckles and Angela Rehbein in 2013; it has now become two projects, and along the way we have been privileged to welcome some of the kindest and most generous scholars we have ever known into our network.8 At a time when the scholarly monograph is still king, and those of us who are privileged enough to obtain funding to travel to archives jealously guard our information, it has been refreshing to work together with these men and women to produce something larger than the sum of its parts.
We also found that writing about networks, trying to describe their contours and reach, is difficult work by its very nature. Networks during the Romantic period were diverse and wide-ranging; even a small sample of many of these women’s networks yielded such a wealth of information that it became difficult to analyze concisely or to organize findings around a central idea or argument. (p.305) These women’s lives were rich and diverse and even the limited scope of this book illustrates just how much we still do not know about their lives and work. Perhaps that, however, is the greatest contribution of this volume. Our hope is that the lines of inquiry we open up here will bring even more people into our scholarly network and that the work we have begun will represent just the beginning of scholarly inquiry into this unruly ‘tribe of authoresses’.
Brant, Clare. Eighteenth-Century Letters and British Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
—. ‘Varieties of Women’s Writing’. Women and Literature in Britain 1700–1800, ed. Vivien Jones. Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Clemit, Pamela. ‘The Signal of Regard: William Godwin’s Correspondence Networks’, Reloading the Romantic Canon: New Texts and Contexts from Godwin, Shelley, and Hazlitt. Modern Language Association Convention, Philadelphia, PA, 5 January 2017.
Colley, Linda. Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707–1837. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.
Levy, Michelle. ‘Women and Print Culture, 1750–1830’. The History of British Women’s Writing, 1750–1830, ed. Jacqueline Labbe. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
De Quincey, Thomas. The Collected Writings of Thomas De Quincey, Volume I. London: A&C Black, 1896.
Rehbein, Angela and Andrew O. Winckles. ‘Reassessing British Women Writers of the Romantic Period’. Women’s Writing 22.2 (2015).
Siskin, Clifford and William Warner. ‘This is Enlightenment: An Invitation in the Form of an Argument’. This is Enlightenment, ed. Clifford Siskin and William Warner. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.
(1) Clifford Siskin and William Warner, ‘This is Enlightenment: An Invitation in the Form of an Argument’, in This is Enlightenment, ed. Clifford Siskin and William Warner (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), pp. 1–33, (p. 1).
(2) Michelle Levy, ‘Women and Print Culture, 1750–1830’, in The History of British Women’s Writing, 1750–1830, ed. Jacqueline Labbe (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), pp. 29–46, (p. 34).
(3) Clare Brant, Eighteenth-Century Letters and British Culture (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), p. 5.
(4) Pamela Clemit, ‘The Signal of Regard: William Godwin’s Correspondence Networks’, Reloading the Romantic Canon: New Texts and Contexts from Godwin, Shelley, and Hazlitt, Modern Language Association Convention, Philadelphia, PA, 5 January 2017.
(5) Clare Brant, ‘Varieties of Women’s Writing’, in Women and Literature in Britain 1700–1800, ed. Vivien Jones (Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 285–305 (p. 285).
(6) See Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707–1837 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).
(7) For De Quincey’s account of Lee and this episode see Chapter Five, ‘The Female Infidel’, of The Collected Writings of Thomas De Quincey, Volume I (London: A&C Black, 1896), pp. 134–48.
(8) See Rehbein and Winckles, eds., ‘Reassessing British Women Writers of the Romantic Period’, in Women’s Writing 22.2 (2015). (p.306)