Dear friends and readers,
The second of two reports on the conference of 18th century scholars I attended 3 weeks ago at Philly. While “Retirement, Renewal and Reappraisal” comprised the central theme of the gathering, other themes engaged panelists. I heard a marvelous plenary lecture on the male classical ideal of retirement, attended three panels whose focus was women writers, women’s books, women’s issues (a festschrift for Betty Rizzo, violence towards women so retirement as recovery, re-evaluating retirement) and, in lieu of attending, read a couple of the papers on “the empty nest syndrome,” which brings together aging and women’s experience’s of (forced) retirement.
Give me Great God (said I) a Little Farm
in Summer shady, & in Winter warm
where a cool spring gives birth to a clear brook
by Nature slideing down a mossy Rock
Not artfully in Leaden Pipes convey’d
Or greatly falling in a forc’d Cascade …
— Mary Wortley Montague, Written January 1718 in the Chiosk at Pera overlooking Constantinople
The plenary speech on later Friday afternoon by John Richetti, “Retirement or Retreat” was particularly fine. He began by remarking that retirement was not understood then as it is now. Today if someone here were asked, “Are you retired?” that would be asking (if you are an academic) “if you have stopped teaching, but carry on doing everything else” (research, writing, meetings, civic duties). In the 17th and 18th century what would be meant might be, “Have you retired to the countryside? away from the world.” Two words are significant here. “Otium” means to be free from public duties, “negotium” is the Latin word for business. Defoe never sought otium for himself; otiose today implies a lazy nature, practically speaking ineffective behavior. People then honored the contemplative life. The puritan sensibility includes winning a good life (peaceful, moral) but distrusts not carrying on a battle against evil.
Prof Richetti then went over a number of key texts. Pomfret’s “Choice” was enormously popular, a banal poem about a wholly self-indulgent man whose women seem to be paid prostitutes. This type of poem is studied in the old-fashioned foundational text of Rostvig on “The Happy Man” where Pope is frequently quoted; his “Windsor Forest,” a sort of retirement community for the well-connected, central. By contrast, Dryden’s work (translations and original texts on this topic) shows a real philosophical perspective on contentment.
Prof Richetti then suggested that the era’s novels reject retirement throughout the long 18th century (and again in our 20th to 21st century books). In novels characters want to change their environment and circumstances. Robinson Crusoe lives in a world of expanding economic opportunity; he cannot stay still; he is too busy to fall into depression. In Fielding’s Tom Jones the hero is betrayed by the Man on the Hill. Tom Jones implies the man is utterly selfish and amoral. Tristram Shandy makes mocking use of the classical ideal of retirement. Rasselas meets failed hermits going mad.
In the course of the lecture, Prof Richetti discussed various individuals and comments about them. For example, Pope’s relationships with various writers: Bolingbroke acted out the happy man retirement trope for public consumption, but he had been fired, exiled for treason, and his reaction was misanthropy. Mary Wortley Montagu’s “Constantinople: Written in the chiosk at Pera overlooking the reality of Constantinople is in the classical mode of Pope’s, though her poem project how alone she feels. He mentioned poems that show disorder results from retreat (Mary Leapor’s Crumble Hall). Pope recognized in Defoe a different spirit: “restless Daniel” of the “unceasing movement;” but Swift carelessly (posing) snubbed him as “the fellow that was pilloried, I forget his name.” Prof Richetti talked a lot about Swift and his relationship with Stella: Swift in his verse jeers at women seeking retirement (in 20th and 21st day off), for he combines attitudes: leisure is unearned privilege, yet he celebrates retirement when he imagines it with Stella: they will built a private alternative of mutual affection and rest from the world; Stella herself has lived a worth while life, reliant on her self.
In the discussion afterward, it emerged that Richetti felt the ideal for retirement as understood in the 18th century is possible for only upper class males, even though it’s a fiction. Female experience, he suggested, does not allow for retirement; it is too different (female friendship may part of a woman’s version of retirement) and impossible to fit in.
Three women’s panels. At 8:30 Saturday morning, the “empty nest” panel had two remarkable papers. Rosemary Wake talked of the life of Beatrice Grant, apparently a cousin of some sort to Anne Grant: hers is the story of a woman who was quietly unconventional and when both her children left her and then pre-deceased her, turned to writing as an outlet, advice sort of books where she recreates the presence of her son especially. Frances Singh’s paper was filled with highly original research into the life of Jane Cumming, an illegitimate and mixed race Scotswoman the phases of whose existence show her to have been very hurt at how she was treated and to have taken a little understood revenge. Her experience and the accusations of sexual misconduct she accused two of her teachers of became the basis for Lilian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour.
At 10:15 am I attended Jan Stahl’s “Violence against Women, Recovery and Renewal.” Kristen Distel compared the memoir of Hortense Mazarin and her life after she escaped the abuse of her fanatically abusive and controlling husband to the depiction of Pamela and Mr B’s relationship in Richardson’s Pamela,and she discussed solutions for giving women independence and respect in Mary Astell’s work. The Duchess was forced to seem to retire, and the many miseries of her position formed part of the basis of Astell’s project to improve the education of women.
The other three papers were about books where female friendship is central. Tracey Hutchings-Goetz argued the important shaping relationship in Richardson’s Clarissa is that of Anna Howe and Clarissa Harlowe. They would like to escape the roles forced on them as women, and retire together as friends. Ms Hutchings-Goetz saw a parallel between Richardson’s fictional heroines and the real life lesbian relationship of Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill. Mary Harris discussed an American epistolary novel, Leonora Sansay’s 1808 Secret History; or the Horrors of St. Domingo: the back story of one of the heroines is of repetitive terrifying violent abuse by her husband. Finally Chloe Smith’s paper on Charlotte Lennox’s Euphemia, a 1790 epistolary novel provides a diptych of two friends’ perspectives: marriage brings hardship, male tyranny; they cannot choose for their children. The two women recuperate through their correspondence, but need men’s money to help themselves. Buried in this novel is a captivity narrative, recalling Behn’s Oroonoko.
After lunch, there was book launch, a round table chaired by Temma Berg on behalf of a book she and Sonia Kane edited, Women, Gender and Print Culture in 18th Century Britain: Essays in Memory of Betty Rizzo. Eight women briefly described their contributions to the volume where ideally the writers had known Betty and could combine talk about their relationship with her and the shared topic of research. Sylvia Casey Marks discussed Sarah Fielding’s The Governess and paid tribute to Betty as a friend and scholar who wrote about unappreciated authors and books. Betty had given an assignment to Stephanie Oppenheim, a graduate student at the time, which led to Stephanie reading 100 issues of the London Gazette (1750-80) where one can recover the lives women led (travel stories), find bankruptcies they shared in and criminal cases. Beth Lambert discussed the published and unpublished letters of Gilbert Elliot (1751-1814) his wife, Maria Amyand, Lady Elliot (1752-1829); the family estate was Minto; Betty alerted Beth to an interesting love story the family had hidden, Elliot’s relationship with Ann Hayman, a lady at court. Mary Margaret Stewart, another of Betty’s friends, talked about how she and Betty corresponded about Lady Francis Coningsby whose mental troubles and distress led to her being treated as mad, and Francis’s relationship with her caregiver, Mary Trevor (whose letters were unfortunately not saved).
Three people did not know Betty but their interests coincided. Lorna Clarke had written about the lesser known Burney women writers, the whole artistic and writing environment in which they grew up. Frances Singh again talked of Jane Cumming and her relationship with her teachers, about which archival research is the only way to find out anything close to the truth. Lisa Berglund wrote about Hester Lynch Piozzi’s British Synonymy; Lisa said that fortitude is a feminine word (all its connotations and uses). Lisa had had an encounter with Betty on-line where Betty was seeking to work out some charades; later on she was able to move the woman known as Johnson’s great woman friend from the periphery of Johnson studies to a center of her own.
Beverly Schneller seems to have known Betty Rizzo best and gave a portrait of her character and career (the essay in the volume is titled: “A New and Braver Point to Make”) Beverly argued that Betty ran counter to aspects of academic culture and took risks, spending years researching unfashionable authors and topics. She was a scholar who disrupted things, who kept an open mind, followed her curiosity, found unexpected links.
There was a discussion afterward where people talked of their relationship with Betty and/or her scholarship and work. I mentioned that her editing of the 2nd volume of Burney’s early journals is far more thorough, detailed, and tells of incidents in a dramatic and candid way unlike what is found in the other volumes. I have a story to tell here too (which I didn’t mention in the session): after I came on-line on C18-l, Betty emailed me and said she thought she had met me on the steps of the New York Public Library when I was in mid-20s and at the Graduate Center. She said she had met this young graduate student whose conversation struck her and my photo on my blog made her think that young woman had been me. We then exchanged emails about ice-skating in the later 18th century: why women often didn’t do it and some beautiful sequences of ice-skating in Trollope and the early 20th century novel by H.E. Bates, Love for Lydia.
For the last session of the conference on late Saturday afternoon, two panels were combined under the topic of “Retirement Re-evaluated.” Three papers were on women’s novels. Aleksondar Hultquist discussed Eliza Haywood’s philosophical views on passion and reason as reflected in her novels: amorous inclination leads to knowledge: if you follow our passion, you teach yourself about yourself. Spiritual relationships cannot last, move must move into the body. In the novels, love plays out differently for men and women; ironically, the person who is more intelligent, capable of receiving a depth of impression is at greater risk for pain; love and friendship are positives for women in relationships with one another, with marriage is as generally not beneficial. By contrast, Michael Genovese gave a stimulating paper where he read Eliza Haywood’s Betsy Thoughtless against its grain and I can only indicate a couple of the insights he offered. He suggested that a wildly anarchic group of desires are resisted by the novel’s overt teachings: in reality Trueworth is sadistic, aggressive; Eliza enjoys giving pain to men; Betsy is supposed to be learning to choose sensible prudent men when what happens is she enjoys triumphing over male characters.
Catherine Keohane discussed Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall, an novel about exemplary busy retirements for upper class women helping the world’s female victims. The histories told bely what we see: in the world women are powerless, have no control over their lives, suffer. The novel means to offer an alternative to a life where the woman is not valued and is abused. The hall is a place of refuge which becomes publicly oriented, charity behind which the women make a new life for themselves. Rebecca Shapiro’s paper was on how dictionaries address women, specifically Robert Cawdrey’s which dwells on a vocabulary thought appropriate to women’s refined and leisured lives. She also suggested that by being included in the lexicography women gain a status and can seek a way out of the private sphere.