Teresa Barnard (ed.), British Women and the Intellectual World in the Long Eighteenth Century (Oxford: Routledge 2015) xviii + 194 pp. £70.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781472437457
This collection of nine essays is divided into three thematic sections dealing with the sciences, religion, and radical politics. The book aims, as stated in Teresa Barnard and Ruth Watts’s introduction, 'to rediscover women’s usurpations of masculine subjects and to examine their interventions into the intellectual world' (11). This complements other recent work, particularly in the history of travel and the sciences, in respect of the strategies women employed to overcome gendered barriers to their participation in the sciences, theology, and literature. The case studies presented in this book address late eighteenth-century arguments both in support of women’s participation in public life (Mary Wollstonecraft, Elizabeth Percy), and against it (Hannah More). The volume emphasises women with whom readers will already be well acquainted – Wollstonecraft, More, Joanna Baillie, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Anna Laetitia Barbauld – with just passing references to the likes of the fossil collector Jane Talbot. This is not necessarily a criticism, however, as some of the essays highlight heretofore unstudied aspects of these women’s lives and writings.
The first section, dealing with the sciences, is in many ways the most lively, and the one that most clearly engages with the book’s stated focus on women’s intellectual pursuits. Daniel Grey’s chapter on Lady Montagu’s championing of smallpox inoculation contains interesting observations on resistance to the vaccine in Britain, which stemmed in part from the fact that in Turkey, most of its practitioners were working-class Greek women. Grey also demonstrates how in Montagu, knowledge based on direct experience (travel) combined with an elite social position to create an image of expertise. Teresa Barnard’s own chapter on volcanoes in ‘the female literary imagination’ demonstrates how Eleanor Anne Porden Franklin and Anna Seward harnessed the ‘scientific deliberations of male travellers and scientists’ (34) and repackaged these in their poetry as a means by which they, as women, could engage with the sciences. In an interesting addition to the section, Malini Roy considers how Wollstonecraft’s ‘Letters on the Management of Infants’ at once represents both her breaking into the male-dominated science of paediatrics, and her assertion of traditional female authority in the arena of child-rearing. Similar to the gendered objections raised against the smallpox vaccine, the crisis of childhood mortality in eighteenth-century England – the London Bills of Mortality showed that 60% of baptised children died by the age of two (58) – was harnessed by male practitioners and commentators as evidence of the dangers inherent in traditional female nursing and midwifery.
The second section of the book, titled ‘Religious Discourses’, is less clearly related to what might be described as the ‘intellectual world’. Indeed, the essays in this section seem to speak more strongly to the ways in which women’s religious or non-religious lives found expression in their literary works. Susan Chaplin reads More’s Sacred Dramas as complicating More’s image, suggesting that her foray into the ‘public sphere’ was in itself an act of defiance against the patriarchy she defended. Further, Chaplin argues that the Sacred Dramas ‘open up a space for the emergence of a maternal feminine agency that exists as a radical counterpoint to the word of God, his prophets, and poets’ (81). Natasha Duquette’s chapter develops this theme by considering how dissenting women – Anna Barbauld, Joanna Baillie, Mary Anne Schimmelpennick – disseminated theological ideas through 'feminine' modes of expression (108). Kaley Kramer reflects on the influence of Elizabeth Inchbald’s (lapsed) catholicism on her Gothic tale, A Simple Story, and the book itself as a portrayal of catholic life in eighteenth-century Britain.
The book’s third and final section, ‘Radical Women, Politics, and Philosophy’, holds together less effectively, but the individual essays make valuable contributions in their own right. Laura Mayer presents a welcome reconsideration of Elizabeth Percy’s aim to ‘Enjoy my Liberty’ (129) through travel writing, travelling, and political campaigning. Percy’s A Short Tour of the Low Countries (1775), and her Gothic remodelling of Alnwick Castle have long been lampooned as epitomising bad taste in travel writing and in architecture – but Mayer unveils the previously unacknowledged contribution to the picturesque embodied in both projects. Louise Duckling considers Joanna Baillie’s A Series of Plays ... (first published in 1798) as a ‘dramatic experiment in which she could participate in the medical and philosophical debates of her day’ (143). When, buoyed by the wildly positive reception to her anonymously published plays, Baillie stepped forward in 1800 as their author, she was met with unexpected hostility as readers shifted their focus to the unsuitability of the passions as the piece’s organisational subject-matter. Finally, the book closes with another example of women’s participative strategies, in Imke Heuer’s consideration of Harriet and Sophia Lee’s use of ‘narrative fiction as a medium for social and political commentary’ on the French Revolution, positioning themselves as ‘professional writers’ to intervene in a male-dominated sphere (157).
Overall, there is much to commend in this book’s bringing together of a variety of case studies, even if the majority of them relate to the later part of the century. The concept of the 'intellectual world' is not clearly defined, however, and the chronology at the start of the volume might have been made more useful if accompanied by an explanation for its focus on works of fiction and translations, and exclusion of vital genres such as women’s travel writing. Barnard's and Watts’s introduction emphasises how eighteenth-century women were excluded from travel, coffee-house culture, formal education, and learned societies – yet their periodization of the years up to the French and Napoleonic Wars as featuring only a 'limited few' women who were able to 'make cultural tours abroad' (2) overlooks the hordes of genteel and aristocratic women who left Britain and Ireland for Continental watering-places (particularly Spa) in the period. Most of these travelling women did not publish, but it was certainly commonplace for them to relate their experiences in private correspondence, or by allowing friends and family access to their journals and diaries, thereby participating in dialogues about politics, literature, religious practices, architecture, and so on, in the epistolary and conversational format of 'polite science' as outlined by Alice Walters in her article in History of Science in 1997. Individual contributions will certainly be of interest, adding as they do to our understanding of how women circumvented and thwarted patriarchal attempts to sideline and silence their voices and contributions.
Angela Byrne, Ulster University