Incorporating Feminist Social Satire into the Early British Survey

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Incorporating Feminist Social Satire into the Early British Survey

In curricular transformation projects which attempt to make literature classes more inclusive, and more representative of the multiple realities underlying every society, attention seems to be most often paid to the fields of American and World literature. Those of us who teach pre-19th century British literature also wish to present to our students what James A. Banks calls "a more truthful, complex and diverse version of the West" (34). Furthermore, following Elizabeth Minnich's lead, we should be working towards curricular transformation, not merely relying on an additive model. We need to create syllabi where new voices interact with the old, questioning and problematizing canonical concepts about period and genre, concepts which become only more complex, contradictory, and interesting as myths of monoculturalism evaporate. The purpose of this paper, then, is to suggest how high school and college teachers of early British literature can use two specific poems by eighteenth-century English feminists to facilitate an ongoing dialogue about the period's aesthetic, generic, and social concerns, leading the class to a new, more subversive definition of satire, which is usually presented as a patriarchal, conservative genre. (This is not to suggest that these poems are the only works by women that should be included in the course, but simply to focus in on the value of these two particular texts.)

Despite the exciting and rewarding scholarship done in the last two decades, editors of standard anthologies of early British literature have been slow to incorporate literature that reflects the important work of women writers. A case in point is The Norton Anthology of English Literature (Sixth Edition). In its Restoration and 18th-Century section, it offers only four women writers, and while it does include Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, the remaining women have barely two pages of anthology space. The editors' introduction to the section severely underplays the significant achievements of women during the time period. Lady Montague is dismissed as one of the "many practitioners of the delightful art of letter writing, one of the minor literary achievements of the 18th century" (1778). Indeed, the four writers chosen - Behn, Montague, Anne Finch, and Mary Astell - are all talented writers whose works merit inclusion in any anthology. Nonetheless, if students are restricted to these authors - and then to only a handful of examples from each - they miss some of the most important and earliest calls for equality for women, not to mention a wide variety of other forms of literature, and themes by women that richly deserve reading and study. Without reading a wider range of the literature written by women, students are also unprepared for the work of later women, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, whose ideas wrongly seem to emerge out of a vacuum.

To redress this distortion of literary history, teachers who wish to give their students a deeper survey of early British literature should incorporate examples of this literature - even given the demands of the survey, which normally ranges from Beowulf to Samuel Johnson. The literature is too important to ignore. We would like to recommend two representative feminist poems which could easily be covered in a single class: "To the Ladies" by Mary Lee, Lady Chudleigh (1656-1710) and "The Emulation" by Sarah Fyge (1669/72-1722/23). (See the appendix for both poems.) Chudleigh and Fyge stand out as notable early writers whose works range from frank descriptions of female sexuality to arguments about religious issues. Marilyn L. Williamson considers Chudleigh "among the first English women to view women as a social group with a unique set of problems" (94), and Moira Ferguson praises Fyge's "unflagging will and opposition to the tyranny of many women's lives" (153). Of their work, their feminist social satires, which examine and criticize the social institutions that disempower women, are some of the richest poems for a survey. …