Dear friends and readers,
This is the 2nd of 3 reports on the papers I heard at the Nov 6th – 8th conference of the Eastern Region division of ASECS at the University of Delaware. I hope it won’t seem utterly narcissistic if I concentrate on the two panels whose papers were sent in response to my Call for Papers, or placed on my panel as closely connected; as I went to both, and took good notes on both, if I ignore them I will not have much more to say about the conference’s papers. So, to begin with, here’s the call for papers (and early thinking on this topic). For the record, including my own, 7 proposals were sent in, 6 became papers.
The first panel occurred mid-Friday afternoon. The first paper was Sue Howard’s “Chronicling the Liminal State: Fictional and Non-Fictional Expressions of Married but Separated 18th century Women’s Experience.” Hers was a tale of two Charlottes, Charlotte Lennox and Charlotte Smith, both married, both mothers, both badly treated by domineering husbands (Smith’s a lot worse); they both supported themselves and their children by writing and both separated from these husbands but could not escape the husband’s rights, say in Lennox’s case to determine what schooling her children would have, and in Smith’s, his right to come and take all the earnings she had from her and beat her with impunity. Lennox was 30 years older than Smith. In the 1770s Lennox wanted to live with a friend and was thwarted; she wanted to try for a theatrical career, again thwarted. In the 1790s she wrote begging letters to her husband on behalf of her son. He would not support them; he tyrannized over her and yet took her earnings; they did not sleep together. True, he was not violent and did not intrude himself into her presence without warning her first. Ms Howard felt that Lennox handled her situation well by not allowing this private situation to become widely known; she used her novels to express her happiness and show the the vulnerability of women indirectly. Her last novel, Euphemia, an epistolary one, which takes place partly in the US, is the most open: Euphemia’s husband takes their son into the wilderness and loses him; she gains financial control, a separation from her husband, US laws were more favorable for women. Charlotte Smith’s was a devastating experience: her husband ended in a debtor’s prison where she had (it seems) to join him; he inflicted 12 children on her, had mistresses, threatened her life. She was fiercely frank about the autobiographical sources of of the misery of the older married women in her novels (surrogates for herself), and aggressively angry in her sonnets over the way the courts, the lawyers, and society in general treated her complaints and demands. Smith was criticized severely for her radical political opinions and presentation of a rape in Desmond. Ms Howard suggested that over time Smith was forced to write more indirectly, and that when she became more elusive her novels improved (she instanced Old Manor House, and The Young Philosopher).
Marie McAllister’s subject was the real correspondence between John Flaxman (1755-1826) who became a successful sculptor, draughtsman and painter, and his eventually bethrothed, and later wife, Ann Denman. they left love letters they wrote before marriage, a journal of their tour together. The love letters tell the story of a young couple where the girl’s parents are fiercely opposed to the marriage, because they felt his status was low and he would not make enough money. The letters read like a novel of the era; the lovers see themselves as tormented people; there are incidents of misunderstanding and she breaks off with Flaxman at one point. An uncle and aunt intervene, the couple are permitted to court at a distance, and eventually they do marry. The letters are poignant, melodramatic, show intense reveries; the language used is that of novels partly because they had no other language with which to encompass their emotional extremes. Ms McAllister quoted these letters to great effect. One cannot say this paper was about women living alone but it showed the mores and economic circumstances and social realities of the era.
I have since revised my paper, “The Depiction of Widows and Widowers in the Jane Austen canon,” and sent it to Persuasions on-line to see if this Jane Austen periodical will publish another more detailed and somewhat differently focused version of the paper. I’ve also been encouraged to write a book proposal on the topic of The Anomaly and call for papers by someone at a well-respected academic press; at that time I will revise my paper so as to fit the topic more closely. What I wrote was a survey of the way widows and widowers are treated in the Austen canon: in her novels, in her letters, and what we see in the contemporary family documents. I have uploaded it to my space in academic.edu for anyone who wants to read it: The Depiction of Widows and Widowers in the Austen canon. A few snippets:
In a recent study of widowhood in the ancien régime, Bardet remarks the obstacle to understanding the condition of widowhood is what we have are sociological studies badly served by sources (7) … The Austen canon, her fiction, letters and contemporary family documents, mirrors these distortions and adds a few, but is valuable because of her strict adherence to social verisimilitude and the successful attempt of some later Austen relatives to save her relatives’ life-writing.4 Thus widowhood is as common as marriage in the novels: at least 19 widows , and nine widowers. …Her particular limitations must be noted. Her fiction depicts the genteel … she often refuses to believe people are ill and confronted with mental suffering she spits out mostly caustic and wry references … There is though a realistically enough rendered depiction of these circumstances and of the social mores and instinctive behavior shaping the reactions of the widowed to make visible probable conditions and their motives from the standpoint of how the afflicted characters cope and the social advantage or damage (and it is mostly damage) they or others close to them bring upon themselves and others. In her female characters, a fear of widowhood pervades the novels … while the widows we remember are well-heeled and menopausal, Austen has three widows in need of security, with children, in tenuous circumstances. Most of her widowers are an even eagerly marrying or marriageable bunch … a saturnine perspective contrasting or and confirming Austen’s unmarried and married women’s anxieties emerges: [three central widowers] are suggestively presented as having contributed to the early deaths of their wives … The fictions include central now widowed people who themselves make unwise remarriages, and the fiction’s plot-design hinges on how a new marriage is ruining the other central character’s lives (or so they feel)… Austen also pays attention to the relationship of the widowed with their children, and how the absence of a moderating parent influences the fate of these children …Several of Jane Austen’s wives and widows’ calamities parallel those of her great-great grandmother, Elizabeth Weller Austen who writes about the calamity she experienced and exposes the injustice of the primogeniture system … The letters of Jane around the time of Henry’s first wife’s death and for a year or so after need a thorough re-seeing to understand what is fully going on …The frequency of death in people’s lives from a young age in Austen’s era is not enough to account for her uses of widowhood or obsession with the deaths of women in childbed .. she delineates and attacks not just those who confront their disasters with strong sensibility to show the high price such people and their involved relatives pay for feeling and/or finding themselves in vulnerable places in the social and economic arrangements of the later 18th century.
The second or continuing panel occurred on Saturday morning at 9. In her “The Protestant Nunnery: Richardson’s Take on a Proto-Feminist Term,” Dashielle Horn discussed Astell’s A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (to advance their education, opportunities, improve their lives), mentioned Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall (there was not time to discuss it but its content is relevant), and went closely over Richardson’s proposal for a Protestant nunnery in Sir Charles Grandison. Astell was seeking to help women personally develop themselves; Richardson a solution to the problem of single supposed non-productive women. Astell thought a moral and practical education cold enable women to be fulfilled and useful. Sarah Scott develops a feminist Utopia. Richardson recognizes the plight of women: his Clarissa’s sees marriage bleakly and finds the single life preferable; the harsh severity and exploitation she meets with makes her want a refuge, but the presentation of a nunnery in Grandison seems in the service of controlling women, of serving society; the women are regarded as having failed in life.
Elizabeth Keenan Knauss’s paper, “Unbounded: The Many Empowered Women of Thomas Southerne’s Oroonoko” presents women characters living outside the traditional roles of wife and daughter, and given ususual positions of power. Marriage, it’s suggested, is a kind of slavery; in this colony where there is a slave rebellion, women experience agency, e.g., the Widow Lackett. Other women characters are hunters rather than hunted; they choose their husbands; they would rather be an anomaly than lose their liberty. She interestingly told how the many female characters broke with passive stereotypes; Imoinda takes control of her situation by killing herself. The fantasy empowerments reveal where in life women have no power.
Lastly, Joanne Myers discussed Jane Barker’s vocation in her prose fiction. Only recently have Baker’s texts become available, and the interest has been her loyalty to the Jacobite cause. Ms Baker’s argument was that Baker achieved autonomy subjectively, from within by her commitment to her religion. The conversion experience is an assertion of selfhood and virginity the center of her strength. There is much ambivalence in the writing, suffering becoming beauty is pathological perhaps. Myers conceded that Toni Bowers has seen in this kind of intangible fidelity to self a pseudo-choice, a painful escape from life.
Before and after both sessions there was much talk about the status of women who were without men. It was suggested that women lived in groups or with another woman or that a lady’s maid was of paramount importance to her as a protection, essential helper, and to give her more status. People thought that there were more women living without men than we realize. The problem of violence (by implication) rape was brought up: a woman without a man was a target for thugs. People were (of course) interested in women who were able to exercise power. Older women and widows were thought to be powerful; but my research suggested the powerful widow was rarer even than widows left a good deal of money. Some did carry on the business they had exercised with or by their husbands, but many sought to remarry. Since there were no papers on actresses, as a group they didn’t come up, but they do fit into the anomaly and they exercised power in building a career, in moving about when they had to, in creating a reputation. The fantasy element in books dramatizing women’s communities was talked about, women dressed up as as men, in breeches’ parts on stage; how in many novels middle class women were represented. Institutions were usually set up to control women, not help the individual “find herself.” There was little talk about the stereotypes of the era which depicted women alone hostilely and cruelly, and hardly any talk about the real emotions of such women living alone (whether widowed, or never married by choice or as a result of the society’s response to her, or separated); we did discuss how women who were beaten terribly were often still expected to carry on living with a husband.
Today I thought I’d read an essay on the legal status of single adult women, and found an essay whose title suggests the author was going to discuss the legal status of married and single women, but after a paragraph stating with that in theory the single woman had the same legal status as a man, and that this was not in practice true as women had no place in public law (they couldn’t hold office, couldn’t be on a jury, &c), the author said since marriage was the goal of the majority and most did marry, she would devote her essay to the legal status of married women. I judge that there were far more single unmarried adult women living alone, spinsters, divorced, separated, and widowed women than has been supposed. It was in their interest to keep themselves invisible: many may have lived quietly with other women; there has been startling little effort to discuss them as a group, which is going to be the start of my book proposal. This is fertile ground which could open up new areas of research and kinds of women’s lives.