Living by the Pen: Women Writers in the Eighteenth Century

Living by the Pen: Women Writers in the Eighteenth Century

Living by the Pen: Women Writers in the Eighteenth Century

Living by the Pen: Women Writers in the Eighteenth Century

Synopsis

Living by the Pen traces the pattern of the development of women's fiction from 1696 to 1796 and offers an interpretation of its distinctive features. It focuses upon the writers rather than their works, and identifies professional novelists. Through examination of the extra-literary context, and particularly the publishing market, the book asks why and how women earned a living by the pen. Cheryl Turner has researched and lectured widely in the field of eighteenth-century women's writing.

Excerpt

The eighteenth-century literary landscape was rich in prose. Books, periodicals, newspapers, pamphlets, broadsheets, and chapbooks offered quantities of fiction and non-fiction to an expanding reading public whose tastes encouraged the growth of an increasingly sophisticated and commercial market. New genres emerged, grew, and obtained important positions within the contemporary popular culture, and none more so than the novel.

Many years ago, Ian Watt (1957) outlined a convincing role for the novel in the rise of middle-class cultural priorities. Identifying such elements as realism, individualism, and a puritan sexual code (which idealized marriage and advocated sexual continence) within the work of Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding, Watt helped to locate the emergent form within a wider social historical context and to establish its significance therein. Recently, Michael McKeon (1988) has offered a revision of this view, perceiving ‘the novel’ and ‘the middle class’ during the eighteenth century as simple abstractions whose ‘origins’ during the early modern period were founded upon a considerable pre-existence.

Thus, as both contributor to and reflector of changes in Georgian (and earlier) society, the novel has received a wealth of attention. There is, however, one element of its development that has been relatively neglected and misinterpreted, namely the contribution of women writers. Why should this be? In the past, some historians have advanced an evolutionary answer to that question: the fittest will survive (like Shakespeare or Milton) and the unworthy will disappear or be preserved as literary curiosities. Ergo, women’s fiction is relatively unknown because it deserves to be. Yet clearly, we are not dealing with an immutable process of natural selection. On the contrary, decisions are made and selections are obtained by historians and critics on the basis of certain criteria of aesthetic value which, until recently, have largely excluded women’s material. Moral considerations are part of the web of ideas underlying such assessments of literary worth and these have been used by some historians to support their rejection of women’s fiction—particularly their early eighteenth-century fiction—on the grounds that it is lubricious. Sustained disapproval or indifference to women’s writing, for aesthetic or moral reasons, has contributed to a high level of ignorance about . . .

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