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Archive for the ‘American long 18th century’ Category


Detail of Murray’s face from painting by John Singleton Copley


A print of Foster’s face under a large hat

Friends and readers,

The last of this set of foremother blogs: two women writers, very enjoyable to read: Judith Sargent Murray and Hannah Webster Foster; and several others whose lives show the American colonialist environment: Susannah Rowson, Sarah Wentworth Morton, and Leonora Sansay. Murray is a deeply appealing writer of feminist essays; Foster’s novel brought me close to tears. Leonora Sansay was the Creole mistress of Aaron Burr.

I am taking such a long time writing about this early modern American women writers course: I was away in Milan last week for more than 12 days, which has occasioned this hiatus. I hope to be more regular on this site from here on in at least for some time to come.

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The last session in terms of the writing we read in Prof Tamara Harvey’s course was the most fulfilling because it was the most pleasurable and insightful as writing. Judith Sargent Murray (1751-1820), wrote fiction and essays, poetry, plays, and was an effective advocate for women’s rights. Hannah Webster Foster (1758-1840), wrote a epistolary novel still in print because it’s still read for its own sake, a prose commentary on education for women in the US, had two daughters who themselves became professional popular women writers. They write in an attractive available style, with sustained intelligent thought, and humanely. Both had careers in or through periodicals that appealed to the educated common reader of the era.

Like many a woman reader before me, I much enjoyed Murray’s essay On the Equality of the Sexes, which is an important text in feminist intellectual history. Calling herself Constantia, she anticipates Wollstonecraft in arguing that women are born with equal gifts to men and would contribute much to society, be better people if they were permitted to develop these. That it is the thwarting of these gifts, and inculcating of behaviors false to nature that inhibits their abilities. She anticipates Virginia Woolf too in showing how in a family the brother of such a girl is given all opportunities and she is repressed into instrument to support him and the family. The strength of her reasoning and a foundation in reading other feminist women writers (Mary Askew is quoted; also Charlotte Corday) show a wide range of reading in the classics and European authors.

She has a more overtly moralizing tone because in the US religious organizations were far more more forceful (taking the space that perhaps class adherence had in the UK), but her horizons are secular in aim. I delighted to discover she had read Vittoria Colonna (as the Marchioness of Pescara), and other Italian Renaissance women (Isotta Nogarella), Marie de Journay, Madame Scudery, Anne Murray Haklett and other women from the English civil war, and then the list of 18th century women writers is long and formidable (Genlis, Barbauld, Seward, Cowley, Inchbald, Smith; Radcliffe , Williams, Wollstonecraft). Alas one author she does not know was Jane Austen. Except for Austen, I felt Murray had been reading the same books I had. This is rare for me. Stories of an individual woman's capability in the public sphere are accompanied by an insistence in the importance of building women's self-esteem ("complacency"), as a foundation for economic independence. She was indeed radical. She reminds of me of other women in the later 17th century (Lucy Hutchinson) who were educated in a religious tradition (in her case "universalism") became devoted to a husband who helped her develop her gifts. John Murray was her second husband and it was his status (a rich shipping mercant) and career (a teacher) that enabled hers.

She wrote in magazines and produced fiction and a play centered on women as a group interacting with one anther rather than women seeking men (husbands, with courtship all the book would be about). Her The Traveller Returned and epistolary novel (really a series of essays with stories exemplifying), The Story of Margaretta is are over-didactic, with the latter more effective in showing how the development of sensibleness and abilities prevents women from making self-destructive miserable choices during the period of what might be called sexual and adult awakening (the theoretic point of say Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall).


Sarah Wentworth Morton, said to have been very pretty as seen in this portrait by Gilbert Stuart

Harvey wanted to stress how Murray was involved in building a career for herself and devoted what class time there was to a quarrel she had in print with another woman journalist and poet at the time, Sarah Wentworth Morton (1759-1846), who had called herself Constantia too. Morton’s husband had gotten Morton’s sister (staying with them at the time) pregnant, and the sister killed herself,and this private trouble emerged in public. Morton claimed the name was hers first, and she used it to signal her constancy to her husband.

I felt this focus undermined the respect for them Harvey was meaning to build. Morton wrote verse featuring non-white characters, a popular elegiac poem on behalf of abolition of slavery (The African Chief, based on the life of a slain St Domingo enslaved man) and Ouábi; Or the Virtues of Nature: An Indian Tale in Four Cantos, a European style love-conflict poem featuring native Americans (the story reflects Morton’s life troubles). These works sound much less readable than Murray’s (or Foster’s), but it used to be thought Morton wrote another epistolary novel, The Power of Sympathy (printed with Foster’s in a Penguin classics volume edited by Carla Mulford), with a believable enough psychological acuity.

It’s noteworthy almost all these early modern to later 18th century women writers were given these over-the-top romance names (Morton was also called Philenia & a Sappho), which had the effect of leading to their being taken less seriously than male writers.

Harvey spent all the time we had for Foster on The Coquette, which I have heard papers on before (see my report on a paper on The Coquette at the 2015 ASECS). There is nowhere near as much known about Foster as there is about Murray, probably because most of Foster’s publications are in fiction; essays invite a certain amount of autobiography, but The Coquette has been written about academically even frequently since the feminist movement.

The story is as follows: Peter Sanford, a libertine male seduces Eliza Wharton, a flirtatious young woman; he has no intention of marrying her (as beneath him), marries someone else while as his mistress she is gradually isolated; she becomes pregnant, gives birth, and dies shortly thereafter; no one attempts to go to her to help her. Ironically, there is information on the story’s source in real life scandal and death of an isolated mother and her stillborn baby.

What rivets the reader is the personality of the heroine, Eliza. She has escaped marrying a elderly clergyman she did not like, and finds herself pressured to marry another clergyman, Rev J Boyer, who is a decent man and would be a good husband to her but bores her as he attempts to control and thwart what are her enjoyments. Influenced by Richardson’s Clarissa, Foster has Eliza attracted to a rake, Sanford who is well educated and attractive, a secular young man; she is a reasoning secular young woman. Each major character has a separate correspondent and their voices are all individuated, believable.

The novel becomes a satiric philosophical debate on what is friendship. Eliza’s confidant responds to Eliza’s frank talk and real needs with mild but steady and unsympathetic moralistic scolding. What is proper entertainment? what do people want out of marriage? In this book they marry for money and rank, and Eliza’s refusal to follow this pattern isolates her, and gradually the novel turns into a poignant tragedy. She is never a libertine like Madame de Merteuil in Les Liaisons Dangereuses or Austen’s Lady Susan. Gradually her voice vanishes from the book, and we feel her punishment is unmerited. This is in contrast to a didactic parallel popular American novel by Susannah Rowson, Charlotte Temple (also with a source in real American life at the time). Forster’s book leaves the reader with a sense of grief for Eliza and indicts the rigidity of her society. It moves away from the religious morality of the time more than Samuel Richardson’s novel which equally indicts the other characters of his novel but rather for their greed or inhumanity or cruelty.

I found myself unexpectedly really enjoying reading the novel; it was a page-turner until Eliza understandably falls into her strained depression and moves towards death. She is so dependent on letters. I found tears coming to my eyes as I read about her death. She could not find a world to belong to and in this new country could not exist without one.


This may be a depiction of Leonora and one of her children (by John Vanderlyn)

Professor Harvey hurried on to bring in yet another American novelist of the era, probably a Creole Leonora Sansay (1773-1821), born Honora Davern, who became the mistress of Aaron Burr. Very like Jane Austen’s aunt Philadelphia, Leonora was married off to the powerful man’s client (Hancock was Hasting’s client); it’s not irrelevant both lives in colonies run by the empire of which they regarded themselves as a sort of member (women are only sort of members). As Hancock became obsessed with controlling the daughter who was fobbed off on him, so Louis Sansay eventually became intensely jealous of Leonora and violent, and she fled him and Haiti rejoining Burr and supporting him when his ambition led to his being accused of treason. Eventually after a few aliases, Leonora disappears from the public record; she appears to be yet another American woman writer of this era more interesting for her (amoral in her case) life than what she wrote.

If you followed along, the course did open a terrain of American women writers and their lives and the environment they had to live in politically, socially, religiously, one of dangerous wars, ruthless slavery and for most women obedience to repression or erasure. Judith Sargent Murray was a rare lucky woman in this colonialist world. For myself I most enjoyed communing with the women’s texts I had once known and had had no one to talk to about, and being introduced to new ones, though I concede had I had such a course as an undergraduate I might have been sorely tempted to research the origins of the women’s literature in America some of which when by women I do so enjoy today.

Ellen

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