Women and Literature in the Goethe Era 1770-1820. Determined Dilettantes

By Rossa, Denise M Della | German Quarterly, April 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Women and Literature in the Goethe Era 1770-1820. Determined Dilettantes


Rossa, Denise M Della, German Quarterly


18th and 19th Century Literature and Culture

Fronius, Helen. Women and Literature in the Goethe Era 1770-1820. Determined Dilettantes. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. 275 pp. $99.00 hardcover.

Fronius's monograph strives to fill a gap in literary history by taking a sociologicalhistorical approach to the study of women writers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The author identifies the gap as the "recovery of the real position of women authors in German society" by "revisitfing] [their] real historical identities" (1). Fronius's starting point is the 18th-century gender discourse which places men and women in separate, but complementary, public and private spheres. She does not challenge this ideology as it was advocated by the men of the Enlightenment; rather she challenges contemporary feminist scholarship's adoption of the same principles in its own evaluation of women's writing from the time period. Whereas contemporary feminist scholarship has used this gender ideology to explain the absence of women from the literary canon, Fronius's approach is to broaden our understanding of women's presence in German literary life. She is not interested in what ways women were relegated to a position "outside" the literary cultural sphere, but rather what opportunities existed to allow women to be "insiders" as both readers and authors. Fronius boldly calls for "a change in perspective, whereby scholars of the period acknowledge women's agency, as well as their oppression" (3).

The author's background in history, German literary studies and women's studies brings a truly interdisciplinary perspective by combining archival research, literary analysis, and statistical evidence. I found the eight tables and graphs with a focus on such questions as reading and writing habits, and production statistics particularly illuminating. The introduction includes an excellent review of scholarship on women's presence in the expanding literary market from 18th- and early 19th-century writers' , dictionaries and bibliographies to the most recent scholarship since the late 1990s. In five well-argued, admirably-researched chapters, Fronius reclaims an historical reality fashioned by 230 years of buying into the gender ideology of the Enlightenment.

The first and second chapters establish the Enlightenment's (Rousseau's) ideology of gender and the subsequent extension of that ideology to the question of female authorship; hence, Schiller's labeling of female writers as "dilettantes. …

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