Mona Narain and Karen Gevirtz,(eds.), Gender and Space in British Literature, 1660-1820 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014). 239 pp. £95.95 Hb, PDF, ePUB. ISBN: 978-1-4724-1508-0
This book covers the period of British history and literature between 1660 and 1820 when borders and boundaries including gendered geographies of power began to be reconfigured due to structural transformations in class, politics, arts and literature. The essays analyse works that model contemporary reality in ways that communicate cultural and social information effectively. The collection offers fresh approaches to reconsidering the narrative representation of space and gender in the long eighteenth century.
In the introduction, the editors emphasise that looking across the timeframe from 1660 through 1820 opens up perspectives neglected so far, highlighting that the era in question was a rich and diverse one, in which space was being conceptualised in gendered terms. They identify clear-cut differences between such terms as "space" and "place" (respectively, "space" simply refers to a geographical area, whereas "place" stands for an area defined by the combination of geography, ideology and memory). Furthermore, they argue that accounts of spatiality, mobility and the early modern experience of globalisation are not as abstract as they may seem; neither is the portrayal of gender, which is a "lived reality with concrete forms and different manifestations in different spaces" (2).
The contributors examine a variety of genres including novel, poetry, letter and even laboratory notebooks to explore the engagement of literature of the period with issues surrounding gender and space. Their analyses cover many of the usual texts but also a significant selection of literature from women writers (such as Aphra Behn, Hortense Mancini, Frances Burney and Germaine de Staël). They investigate how literary texts demonstrate conscious efforts to transform the (gendered) divisions of space by redefining ideas and practices that were often restrictive and limiting. The essays are carefully organised in three groups entitled 'Outside', 'Borderlands' and 'Inside', exploring the interplay between spaces and shifting gender roles in British culture and literature.
The opening contribution, Laura L. Runge's 'Constructing Place in Oroonoko', examines how the awareness of new spaces contributed to the construction and understanding of identity. The approach adopted here proceeds from the starting point that being someone and being somewhere are coexisting modes of decoding individuality within a specific space. The narrative of Oroonoko (1668) - which explicitly portrays colonial violence, the brutality of slave trade and the infantilisation of the other - constructs three places: Surinam (the British colony lost to the Dutch), Coramantien (the birthplace of Prince Oroonoko) and London (from where the narrator speaks). Runge draws attention t0 Aphra Behn's biased stance in presenting the cruel behaviour of the Dutch as a contrast to the allegedly more civilised conduct of the English. Accordingly, the Dutch colonisers are portrayed as savages who choose to envisage the slaves' bodies as a territory without agency, a kind of uninhabited land they can take possession of and must control. She further supports her claim by quoting passages that signify contestations over the meaning of place between English and Dutch, African and European, female and male, owned and owner. She also highlights how in the book a grove of citrus trees is compared to the length of the mall at St. James and the size of the Amazon to the size of the Thames. The narrative of Oroonoko, therefore, positions readers within an English worldview and tries to make sense of the other this way.
Oroonoko is written from a mixture of first and third person viewpoints, as the narrator recounts life in London, actions in Africa and conflicts that she witnessed taking place in the West Indies. 'Constructing Place in Oroonoko' demonstrates how Behn drew on debates about the self (generated by travels) to establish literary omniscience as a point of view and, by extension, how she dealt with the process of constructing the meaning of places on the grounds that the value attached to a place is subjective. The author's treatment and representation of spaces and places reveals that identity and otherness interrelate. Reading Runge's essay from a psychoanalytic viewpoint, it becomes clear that Behn's technique of providing details of the other forces the individual to analyse himself/herself in relation to the other, which then leads to the understanding of the other as well as the self. The otherness that Aphra Behn as writer and narrator takes on as a role enables her to consider ideas about the essence of specific places in order to represent the act of knowing and what it means for the self to possess knowledge. Given these aspects of Behn's treatment of otherness, Laura L. Runge's essay collates some of the most thought-provoking assessments of space, and paves the way to an understanding of the function of space and gender in the rest of the collection.
The contributions that follow Runge's interpretation of space include a variety of analyses of how "outside" and "inside" as spaces, places and states are constituted and portrayed in contemporary literature. Aleksondra Hultquist's essay on the narrative representation of Creole space concentrates on constructions of exile as well as related notions of exilic spaces for gender. A further three essays – including Pamela Cheek's analysis of Frances Burney's The Wanderer and Germaine de Staël's Corinne, Zoë Kinsley's essay on Charlotte Smith's The Young Philosopher and Courtney Beggs's account of Hortense Mancini's writing - demonstrate that different places with different cultural and historical values define the meaning of exile in different ways. For example, exile could mean travel to freedom, leaving behind negative experience, or a return to an ancestral home during wartime. Ambereen Dadabhoy examines Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's Turkish Embassy Letters, arguing that the author uses place to establish but also to interrogate constructions of gender, transforming defined spaces (including national, domestic and physical ones) into sites of connection. On the contrary, Kristine Larsen investigates British women's science writing in the late 1700s. She reviews the restrictions that women in science were subjected to at the time and she illustrates the process of creating a female voice in science writing by studying astronomy and physics texts produced by Margaret Bryan and Jane Marcet. Mary Crone-Romanovski addresses gendered portrayals of space in women's amatory novels of the 1720s. She contends that, ironically, public spaces such as gardens often enclosed private spots, giving women access to both interior and exterior spaces which they could use to convey thought, desire and self. Similarly, Jeong-Oh Kim argues that the poet Anne Finch utilised the isolation of the private country house as a public platform in which she could express herself overtly (after being excluded from society and sent to the country by a monarch). Adding to the gendered perspective, Laura Miller considers the narrative representation and importance of the privacy of laboratory related to late seventeenth-century alchemical practices. She claims that the laboratory did not simply denote work place but also social space for men, and the scientific activities carried out in laboratories delineated space. On the issue of men's spaces, Kathleen M. Oliver's analysis of Charlotte Smith's Emmeline focuses on the author's interrogation of gendered domesticity. Women had to fulfil the role of domesticated, confined wives and mothers, who were positioned within the "home". Nonetheless, because the home was also a house, it – together with the woman – was seen as the property of the man. Heather Ann Ladd, on the other hand, studies the notion of domestic space in Charlotte Smith's The Banished Man by expanding the traditional meaning of "home" to incorporate such ideas as empire and nation as "home".
Gender and Space in British Literature, 1660-1820 succeeds in achieving its goal of providing an ample summary of a prominent era in literature that dared to challenge the normative understanding of identity, gender and space. The cover image (Georg Friedrich Kersting's painting entitled Embroidery woman, 1817) on the glossy dust jacket is also worth mentioning. The scene of a woman doing needlework in solitude evokes multiple interpretations. She is viewed from the back, which not only highlights that she engages privately in an activity traditionally perceived as feminine, but her solitary character invites debate on the meaning of silence around her as well as that of the outside space (alluded to by an open window) which is unseen yet existing. The painting's emphasis on the elusive portrayal of gender and space thus corresponds well to themes interrogated in the essays.
Dr Teodora Domotor, University of Surrey