Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Review: The Rise and fall of the Woman of Letters by Norma Clarke


Whilst my run through the Oxford anthology, Popular Fictions by Women has been enjoyable, I did need a little something to split up the succession of novels without being too distracting or slowing the momentum. I settled on Norma Clarke’s The Rise and Fall of the Woman of Letters as I thought the information in it would supplement the novels nicely - which it did to a certain extent. 

The book started, not with the rise or the fall of a woman of letters but with a glimpse at the woman in her hey-day with the example of Anna Seward. This proved a problem for me at first, as I have already ‘met’ Anna Seward in other contexts and have found her utterly infuriating. Her judgmental biography of Erasmus Darwin I found pedantic and irritating, nor do I accept or appreciate her comments about Samuel Johnson being rude, overrated and a poor critic. I initially felt that if she was the typical example of the woman of letters, I was quite happy doing without. But Norma Clarke won me round. She highlighted the moments of joy in Seward’s writing, the dedication and love of poetry - the close reading that I had written off as pedantic could also be seen as a labour of love. That Anna Seward was seen as an inspiring figure, an arbiter of literature who operated through letters from a provincial town. What’s more, Anna Seward sacrificed much to maintain this position and when she fell in love, she bloody-mindedly and bravely celebrated that love (even if she probably never consummated it). The fact that is is irritating is as much a part of her strength as anything else - yet Anna Seward was one of the last of her breed. The rising women authors of the mid-nineteenth century wouldn’t feel they were a part of a tradition that went back to the seventeenth century, nor that people like Anna Seward were their fore-mothers in literature.


How this fall happened, I have to admit the book didn’t go into much detail. Indeed the whole rise and fall of The Rise and Fall of the Woman of Letters was probably the weakest part. The book seems to jump around in time, starting with Seward, then going to the 1730s, then the late 1600s and so back and forward throughout. If I can extrapolate, the rise of the women of letters start in the court of King Charles II. Under the King there is a network of patronage from King to Lords and Lords to others. One of the ways to show wealth and taste is to patronise writers, and eventually some of these writers are women. At first these women circulate their writings privately, much as Katherine Phillips did. However, after a while these works are published (in a way that is usually claimed to be against the author’s wishes) and the wit of the writer became more widely known. With the ‘glorious’ revolution, James II set up court in Saint Germain and some of these women writers, such as Jane Barker, went with him.

Back in England, the power of literary fame moves from the patron to the marketplace. This means that women writers have to navigate it and create authorial personas. The two broad (and I do mean broad) ways of doing this was to have the reputation of an exciting, possibly immoral but certainly entertaining woman or to adopt an almost hermit-like, virginal persona. Those who took the first, such as Delrivier Manley and Eliza Haywood managed to sell exceptionally well (out old pal Curll being involved in many of these) but as the reputation of the writer started to overshadow the reputation of the work, the memory of the work faded.

For those adopting the hermit-like persona, this developed into the bluestocking. As both male and female writers rushed to decide who was the good, moral authors and the bad, immoral ones, the notion of the hermit-like author becomes the Exceptional Woman. The trouble then, is that authors spend so long defining who is or is not an Exceptional Woman, that the whole category seems useless and those authors are forgotten (or faintly ridiculed as dowdy spinsters).

Or at least, that’s what I took from the book. Rather than telling this story, the book is far better at introducing its reader to a myriad of fascinating people, stories, attitudes and literature. 

Among those we are introduced to are; Elizabeth Elstob, an expert on the Anglo-Saxon language who found her access to raw materials blocked when her brother died and found herself stranded as a small town primary school teacher. As someone who now works in a primary school and who also tries to write a full day’s writing (and reading) when I get home, I agree with Elizabeth Elstob that; “when my school is done, my little ones leave me incapable of reading, writing and thinking, for their noise is not out of my head till I fall asleep.” She was later freed from being a teacher but at the expense of being essentially a pet. She never wrote again. (Incidentally, it’s interesting to see how important brothers were as bridges to learning and access to books, and how when they die, that access is removed.)

Other interesting people are Elizabeth Singer (later Elizabeth Singer Rowe). She wrote a poem to John Dunton’s Atheneum Mercury, the first magazine to include an agony aunt column. This poem being very popular, the magazine asked for more, building her audience up. She later wrote the extraordinarily peculiar, Friendship in Death, which I shall review portions of later.

Then we have Catherine Trotter, a playwright of such popularity that George Farquhar tries to piggyback off her fame. Her reputation was a little sketchy, as being a playwright was too connected to the theatre to be completely respectable. When she married a reverend, she stopped writing for the theatre and dedicated herself to motherhood for nearly twenty years. When her children had grown up, she went back to writing but concentrated on philosophy, especially unpacking and defending the writing of John Locke. Now, as the widow of a reverend with a different name, Catherine Cockburn rather than Trotter, her reputation was spotless and allowed her to partake in serious philosophy. 

Then we have the twin stories of Susanna Centlivre and Mary Davys. The first was a strolling player who fell into penury and became a beggar on the streets, whilst the second was a refugee from the strangulation of Ireland. Centlivre was found on the road and under patronage became one of the most successful playwrights of the eighteenth century. Mary Davys wrote about her refugee experience before marrying a reverend. When he died, she set up a coffee house in Cambridge and her writing was passed around. This built her an audience that launched a number of successful novels (one of those coming up also).

The final person I wish to mention is Katherine Phillips, known as Orinda. She started writing poems amongst her friends which were predictably published ‘against her will’. I never knew how influential she became, how every female poet for the next one-hundred years wished to be Orinda and the fact I’ve never heard of her is absolutely indicative of the fall of the women of letters. Which is an utter shame, I hate missing out.

(Also, our old pal Automathes turns up in parenthesis in a nod till his wife.)



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