Women's Historiography and the (Dis)embodiment of Law: Ann Yearsley, Mary Hays, Elizabeth Benger

By Kucich, Greg | Wordsworth Circle, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Women's Historiography and the (Dis)embodiment of Law: Ann Yearsley, Mary Hays, Elizabeth Benger


Kucich, Greg, Wordsworth Circle


Elizabeth Benger--influential abolitionist, champion of female genius, and writer of female biography in the early nineteenth century--signals a new kind of cultural orientation toward the past when she describes history as a "mournful . . . school of suffering" (A 34). Her sensitivity to the sorrowful lessons of that school is deepened by a particularly keen identification with the bodily pain of historical women undergoing legal persecution. Thus, in writing the history of Anne Boleyn, Benger initially "recoil[s]" at the "ignoran[t]" world of Tudor England (19) but then feels palpably touched by Anne Boleyn's physical duress after King Henry's legal sabotage of her engagement to Lord Percy:

The long gallery she so often traversed with impatience, still seems to re-echo her steps. . . . In reverting to the tragical history of the passions, we cease to measure the distance that separates us from a departed age . . . we revert with lively interest to those records of suffering and feeling which can never become obsolete: the image of one, whose heart has long ceased to throb with human emotion, still speaks to our sympathies, and imperatively appeals to our pity or our justice. (150-51)

This visceral connection with a distant age partakes of what Stephen Bann identifies as a new and pervasive desire to "touch" the past among many Romantic-era writers, painters, and antiquarians (Invention 109). Yet Benger's vivid impression of women's bodily pain seems more distinctive of an emergent feminizing approach to historical physicality, especially in her alertness to the often conflicting imperatives of pity and justice. Her sympathetic embodiment of female suffering under the rigors of masculine law actually typifies one of the more striking motifs in women's historical writing of the Romantic era. My topic queries this specific historicizing practice, which encapsulates the political strengths and liabilities of the period's female historiography, particularly in its relation to Romantic-era women's rights debates. I will focus on three examples representative of the similar yet divergent strategies in this gendered mode of historical embodiment: Ann Yearsley's 1791 historical play, "Earl Goodwin " Mary Hay's 1803 biographical essay on Joan d'Arc; and Benger's 1823 Memoirs of the Life of Mary, Queen of Scots.

It will be useful to start by mapping out the general contours of Romantic-era women's historiography, which shaped the ground for these specific historical representations of legal violence practiced upon the female body. In his comprehensive survey of women Romantic-era writers, Stuart Curran stresses their "pervasive engagement with history" (191), notable in the writings of Catharine Macaulay, Helen Maria Williams, Hester Piozzi, Mary Wollstonecraft, Joanna Baillie, Maria Edgeworth, Anna Barbauld, Lucy Aikin, and, it would seem, the great majority of women writers of the time. Excellent studies by Gary Kelley, Nanora Sweet, Anne Wake, and Devoney Looser have begun to trace the various aesthetic and political strategies at work in these historical writings, establishing an important new foundation for the kind of analysis of women's discursive intervention in public sphere politics that Anne Mellor conducts in her new book, Mothers of the Nation. Yet we remain at a relatively early phase of theorizing the conceptual and ideological frameworks underpinning this massive historiographical investment, just as considerable work lies ahead on the multiple, often conflicting forms it could assume. I will briefly address the theoretical level of what we might now call an emergent feminist historiography, so as to posit an explanatory model for the particular records of suffering I will discuss in more detail.

Historical modes of thought emerged in the later eighteenth century, to use Bann's phrase, as "the paradigmatic form of knowledge to which all others aspired" (Romanticism 4). The narrative ground of history, punctuated by dominant truth claims about past and present as well as by countering strokes "against the grain" of the official record, to use Walter Benjamin's phrase (257), consequently became one of the main discursive sites of contestation where Romantic-era ideologies of class, empire, nation, and gender clashed.

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