Writing the Lives of Women: Recent Biographies of Eighteenth-Century Women Writers

By King, Kathryn R. | Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, April 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Writing the Lives of Women: Recent Biographies of Eighteenth-Century Women Writers


King, Kathryn R., Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies


Writing the Lives of Women: Recent Biographies of Eighteenth-Century Women Writers

ANNIBEL JENKINS, I'll Tell You What: The Life of Elizabeth Inchbald. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2003. 596 pp. $39.95.

LYNDA M. THOMPSON, The "Scandalous Memoirists": Constantia Phillips, Laetitia Pilkington and the shame of publick fame." Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2000. 243 pp. $74.95.

LORAINE FLETCHER, Charlotte Smith: A Critical Biography. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001. 401 pp. $24.95.

For a while there it seemed every third book on early modern culture bore the image of a woman reading on its cover. The iconic image mirrored the aspirations of a new generation of academic feminists, gave notice that man as proper object of study had given way to woman as center of her own consciousness, and hinted at a refocusing of scholarly attention that has re-shaped the way we think and write about women's lives. Stories about female casualties of the patriarchy have become, it would seem, a thing of the past. The subjects of the three biographical studies under review were all active agents in the print world, eager to exploit the repertoire of opportunities whose emergence Paula McDowell traced in The Women of Grub Street: Press, Politics, and Gender in the London Literary Marketplace 1678-1730 (Oxford, 1998), and engaged participants in that "extreme activity of mind" (the phrase is Virginia Woolf's) that characterized female existence in the second half of the eighteenth century. The story of women's lives that compels academics these days is a story of female agency enacted within a cultural field accessed through the democratizing possibilities of print.

The subjects of two of these biographies-I'll Tell You What: The Life of Elizabeth Inchbald (2001) by Annibel Jenkins and Charlotte Smith: A Critical Biography (2003) by Loraine Fletcher-were leading figures in the literary culture of their day. Inchbald (1753-1821)-actress, playwright, novelist, and critic-began publishing in 1784 and for a twenty-year period was in effect playwright-in-residence at Covent Garden (winter) and the Haymarket (summer), writing or adapting twenty-one plays. Smith (1749-1806), a novelist and poet who wrote to support the needs of her large family, produced lengthy novels at the rate of about one per year for nearly a decade. Although she began writing relatively late in life, aged thirty-eight, she quickly became England's most popular novelist. Where the biographies of Inchbald and Smith belong to the venerable life-and-works tradition, Lynda M. Thompson's The "Scandalous Memoirists": Constantia Phillips, Laetitia Pilkington and the shame of "publick fame" (2000) is not so much a life of Constantia Phillips (1709-65), Laetitia Pilkington (c. 1706-1750), and other self-vindicating female memoirists as it is an analysis of the discursive self constructed by each in an effort to take control of a public image and parlay a scandalous life into material gain. Their collusion with exploitative constructs of women and willingness to project themselves as victims has made them tricky figures for feminism but fascinating subjects for a meditation on the complexities of female self-representation at mid-century.

In Reflections on Biography (1999), Paula Backscheider pointed out that biographies of female subjects, even those attuned to feminist concerns, often overlook a theme of defining importance in women's lives, that of "a woman's realization of economic independence" (143). If the works under review are any indication, the economic theme is now front and center. Each is a survival story turning upon a woman's struggle to use print to achieve financial independence (Inchbald) or to hold pecuniary distress at bay (Phillips, Pilkington, Smith). Each subject had a professional if not jaundiced attitude toward writing-Smith famously declared that she "loved novels no more than a grocer does figs" (1)-and an obsession with economic security. …

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