Eighteenth-Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology

By Roger Lonsdale | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

(i)

IN the first decade of the eighteenth century two women published collections of their verse. In the 1790s more than thirty did so. Even so crude a measure may suggest that there had been an emphatic change in the literary status of women in the period. Reviewing such a collection of verse in 1798, Ralph Griffiths, for almost half a century the editor of the Monthly Review, felt able to celebrate

the Age of ingenious and learned Ladies; who have excelled so much in the more elegant branches of literature, that we need not to hesitate in concluding that the long agitated dispute between the two sexes is at length determined; and that it is no longer a question, whether woman is or is not inferior to man in natural ability, or less capable of excelling in mental accomplishments (New Series xxvii. 441).

Griffiths would be well aware of all the books, pamphlets, and. periodical essays which had tirelessly enquired whether the mental powers of women were 'naturally' inferior or equal to, or merely different from, those of men, and debated the kind of education appropriate to their station in life. What can hardly be doubted is that the education and literary reputation of women, particularly in the middle and upper classes, had markedly improved in the course of the century and that they had come to play an increasingly significant part, both as producers and consumers, in the rapidly expanding book trade.

In retrospect Griffiths' complacency about this situation must seem ludicrously unjustified. Apart from anything else most of the verse written by women in the eighteenth century has disappeared from view: only Lady Winchilsea ' A Nocturnal Reverie', some witty verses by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Mrs Greville ' A Prayer for Indifference', and a few songs by reticent Scottish women seem to have found a place in the margins of the canon of the period's verse. Anyone admitting to an interest in eighteenth-century women poets will soon learn to live with the politely sceptical question, 'Were there any?' There were in fact dozens of women at all social levels who, with variable ambition and competence, experienced the mysterious urge to express themselves in verse and, by one means or another, found their way into print. The exact nature of their achievement, and of its literary interest, will be for the reader to assess. The purpose of the biographical headnotes is to assist such understanding by providing evidence about the social background of the writers, their educational disadvantages or opportunities, the means of publication available to them, and the reputation, if any, they enjoyed. For some readers the only relevant perspective on such literary activity will be that it all took place in the shadow of an oppressive patriarchy. Closer to the ground, the evidence, including that of the writers themselves, may seem to point in all sorts of directions,

-xxi-

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