Scandalous Categories: Classifying the Memoirs of Unconventional Women

By Breashears, Caroline | Philological Quarterly, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Scandalous Categories: Classifying the Memoirs of Unconventional Women


Breashears, Caroline, Philological Quarterly


In the last two decades, feminist scholars have recuperated a number of "scandalous memoirs," life-writings by and about transgressive women in the eighteenth century. As a result, works from Laetitia Pilkington's groundbreaking Memoirs (1748-54) to Mary Robinson's Memoirs (1801) have received increasing scholarly attention. (1) The usefulness of the designation "scandalous memoir," however, has aroused skepticism. Clare Brant, for instance, observes that "generic complications" arise due to the different subjects and formats of works that have been classified as "scandalous memoirs." (2) Susan Goulding finds this term too broad to capture the generic complexity of Laetitia Pilkington's Memoirs--supposedly one of the first of this genre--while A. C. Elias objects to classifying Pilkington within that genre alongside "semi-professional sex objects like Con Phillips." (3) These brief criticisms suggest the need for further analysis of the category "scandalous memoirs," which continues to frame discussions of memoirs by unconventional women.

This article performs that work, examining the assumptions embedded in the term "scandalous memoirs" and the consequences of those assumptions. It exposes those assumptions by adopting the methodology used by Margaret Ezell in her work on women's writings before 1700. As Ezell has shown, the writing of women's literary history has been shaped partially by unexamined ideologies in privileged texts from the past, with the result "that we have unintentionally marginalized or devalued a significant portion of female literary experience." (4) Our history of the genre "scandalous memoir" reflects this flawed process, and like Ezell, I believe we have prematurely constructed a tradition that marginalizes and misrepresents many writers.

The first part of this essay examines how and why feminist scholars constructed the transgressive woman life-writer and the genre "scandalous memoir." This category is nebulous, applied in ways that differ not only from eighteenth-century usage but from each other. Rather than advocate any particular definition, I would like to propose that all of our definitions are flawed because they were shaped partially in response to the scholarship of early to mid-twentieth century critics. Those earlier scholars produced an image of the unconventional female memoirists as untrustworthy and immoral, an image that incorporated their own values and often reflected those of eighteenth-century moralists. This figure provided a crucial point of resistance for later twentieth-century feminist scholars, who attempted to recover these women's memoirs and incorporate them into their narrative of a tradition of women's writing. Rather than propose new directions, however, many feminist scholars returned to the issue of transgression, inverting the values of the mid-twentieth-century scholars' labels by assigning positive connotations and generic significance to them. Wicked courtesans became strong women; badly written autobiographies became the eighteenth-century tradition of the "scandalous memoir."

This feminist strategy has enabled us to recuperate a number of works by women writers, and I do not wish to de-emphasize that progress or to engage in what Bonnie Kime Scott calls "one-upwomanship." (5) Rather, I would like to further that progress by showing how and why this strategy continues to limit it--how, as Kathryn King has recently observed, "feminist theory ... may be working against the broadest interests of feminist recovery." (6) The second part of this essay therefore outlines several problems with our current construction of the "scandalous memoir." First, we have silenced many writers by reducing them to their transgressions rather than attending to their strategies for self-fashioning. We have also marginalized them through stressing the transgressive women writers' otherness, their difference from reputable women as well as men life-writers. …

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