Alexander Pope and His Eighteenth-Century Women Readers

Alexander Pope and His Eighteenth-Century Women Readers

Alexander Pope and His Eighteenth-Century Women Readers

Alexander Pope and His Eighteenth-Century Women Readers

Synopsis

Throughout the 1980s, scholars debated Alexander Pope's attitude toward women by applying such critical methods as Marxist or deconstructionist theories to his texts. In this book, Claudia N. Thomas instead adopts reader-response theory in order to present what she regards as a more accurate analysis, mindful of the historical reception of Pope's various works.

Thomas specifically responds to modern allegations that Pope was a misogynist and a literary victimizer of women. If Pope thought women inconsequential, she argues, why did he bother to cultivate a female audience? Furthermore, how did eighteenth-century women readers receive his writings?

Thomas answers these questions by examining the literary responses to Pope of his eighteenth-century women readers: their prose responses to Pope, their poems addressed to him or replying to his poems, and their poems strongly influenced by him. These responses not only clarify Pope's works and their relation to cultural history; they also advance women's literary history by reconstructing the female experience of eighteenth-century culture.

A surprising amount of testimony survives to illuminate the ways eighteenth-century women read Pope. Women referred to, quoted, and commented on his poems and letters in a variety of writings: diaries, letters, travel books, translations, essays, poems, and novels. They wrote poems of praise and criticism and designed companion pieces to his poems. A number of women poets learned their craft by studying his work; their poems frequently appropriate and recontextualize his themes, language, and imagery.

For many women, a response to Pope was a reaction to cultural issues ranging from women's emotional and intellectual qualities to their creative capacity. Women's responses to Pope demonstrate that they were often shrewdly critical of his gendered rhetoric, yet in contrast, women often claimed him as a sympathetic ally in their quests for education and for a more dignified role in their culture.

Excerpt

Alexander Pope and His Eighteenth-Century Women Readers is not a catchy title, but I hope it suggests a study not merely of Pope's influence on women writers but of the complex interactions between Pope and women readers and between women and Pope's writings throughout the century. Pope's attitude toward women is not simple to define; nor did women often receive his texts passively. I have tried to elucidate some of the choices Pope made in addressing women readers and some of the strategies women used in responding to him. Their imitations, appropriations, and repudiations of Pope constitute part of the history of women's entrance into the literary marketplace.

Alexander Pope did not function, to his contemporary women readers, as the bogey he sometimes appears to be in current criticism. For reasons both professional and personal, young Pope courted (some might say exploited) a newly identified female readership. His maneuvers succeeded; Pope's Homeric translations and such poems as "Eloisa to Abelard" remained favorites among women for generations. But Pope's inclusion of women had another, perhaps unanticipated, result: from his earliest readers on, women responded in kind to his writings. During his lifetime, women addressed themselves to Pope, some assuming his genuine interest in their welfare, others outraged by his affronts. To most, Pope was a potential correspondent rather than a distant inhabitant of Mount Olympus.

After his death, Pope increasingly took on the role of forefather to women writers, in a feminized version of what Harold Bloom has described as the struggle between an aspiring writer and a chosen predecessor. Since her death in 1689, Aphra Behn had been all but banished as an admissible foremother, and few women seemed eligible for that status until Elizabeth Rowe's death in 1737. In Pope, however, women discerned a male precursor not only sympathetic to their cultural predicament but in some ways sharing it, due to his physical, religious, and political liabilities. Pope's writings—unlike . . .

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