Dear friends and readers,
I continue my report of the fine conference (East Central Region meeting of ASECS at Penn State) centering on the concept of liberty in the long 18th century. Over the course of three days, there emerged a developing definition for different groups of people, much pursuit, much thwarting. Gambling emerged as a mode of liberty rather than enslavement; controlling your image in public (a form of self-restriction) so as not to tell of your real private life provides a modicum of liberty; I heard defended cases of people turning away from friends so as to protect themselves (a paradoxical use of liberty). We all at the business lunch heard of the courage of the scientist and radical thinker, Priestley.
As in my first, my summaries of the papers are just part of the gist of what I heard: what I was able to take notes about and interested me. I enjoyed all the papers I heard very much and (as at Bethlehem), you’d think someone had my interests in mind. Then it was Burney; this time (for me) women seeking liberty as professionals, especially actresses as presented in their memoirs.
So, in the later afternoon on Friday, we had our first plenary lecture: Jennifer L. Morgan in “‘Their Children shall be bound:’ Freedom and Family Life in New World Slavery.” Prof Morgan began by quoting Toni Morrison’s Beloved that marriages in slavery occurred in the darkness: it could not exist during the day. The slave trade turns enslaved people into commodities and black women disappear from the record. Women were treated brutally over and above their sexualized labor (for sex and to produce babies), enmeshed in systems of violence. The rhetoric justifying slavery claimed that African women were different from European: they had no pain in childbirth, could put their distended breasts behind their backs to feed a child while they were laboring in the fields; the purpose of their existence was to work and work hard, and mercilessly whipped to force this. She quoted someone who had written a description of family forcibly parted; showed us an Abolitionist image of the hold of a slave ship in the middle passage where one can see a slave women in a tiny space giving birth while she is shackled. There was a tradition in Africa of women doing hard agricultural work. She told of why African people sold others as slaves (you make more than when you farm); of the diseases African were and were not subject to; the difference in a life of rice versus cotton or tobacco cultivation
Despite all this black people were able to experience aspects of family life however checkered and anguished. Much of the lecture was taken up with showing whatever remnants are left of whatever kind of family life: slave owners wrote that one way to stop a man from revolting is to provide him with a wife, and there is much evidence enslaved parents cared intensely about their enslaved children; there are records of terrible punishments for women (working harder in fields, given worse jobs) when they try to cling to their children longer than allowed. This was a grim sobering talk about how slavery shaped and deformed slave families. I thought of speaking in the discussion afterwards of how George Calvert freed his slave family at Riverdale house and tried to provide for them, but I know these ameliorating sort of anecdotes because whites wrote them down.
An hour after the lecture, we had our reception of drinking and snacks at the Nittany Inn and then a banquet to which many people came. Suffice to say I enjoyed the talk with friends and acquaintances very much, especially some more women friends, Erliss, Sylvia and mingling with all sorts of people and the talk with yet others over dinner.
And then it was back to our room, some Riesling wine, books and bed.
The next morning (Saturday) I went to two more sessions on professional women: these went beyond actresses to include novelists and letter-writers. Marilyn Francis’s paper on Hester Thrale Piozzi began the sequence. She began with the real problem that the definition of professional is not fixed in this era. Professionalism in the 16th century was defined as someone with a vocation; it has a religious sense as of one professing a faith. By 1784 it means someone engaged in a profession, someone with training and a skill; and by the end of the 18th century professionals were to be distinguished from amateurs in something of the 20th century way, but either word can be found used derogatorily. What do you do with a scientist like Caroline Herschel? Her paper was about women achieving professional status or recognition and respect for their kind of work (from writing to saloniere) even if we cannot see an outward recognizable shape in the sense of consecutive steps (and salary). Thus Sarah Fielding is a professional woman of letters if you study her life and work.
Marilyn felt, however, that Hester Thrale Piozzi represented someone unusual because she really commanded respect the way men who set standards do: say, Johnson with his dictionary, Reynolds with his Discourses of Art, Burney’s history of music. This, even if what she wrote was not conventionally recognizable as say a biography (her writing about Johnson is titled Anecdotes). Reviewers were unable to discuss her work according to their preconceived categories about genre, style, purpose, yet her content is liked. She was consistently writing, consistently inventing new genres and new criteria for genres. She existed in a liminal space between amateur and professional which allowed her to “take liberties” which were creative.
Gambling scene from Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 Barry Lyndon
Loring Pfeiffer discussed gambling in women and men’s plays, with Susannah Centlivre’s Basset Table and Gamester, Mary Pix’s Beau Defeated, and Colley Cibber’s Lady’s Last Stake providing her example texts. Gambling was wildly popular in the 18th century, and when written about the concern was over “depravity,” loss of money; Collier said it leveled class distinctions. It displayed wealth and seemed immoral. Many characters in the era’s plays gamble, especially women, e.g., Lady Townley in Vanbrugh and Cibber’s Provoked Husband. Gambling compromised women’s chastity, shows that women are not easy to control. In Cibber’s Lady’s Last Stake, Lady Gentle is challenged when payment is sex; that frightens her into reform. In Centlivre’s Basset Table, Lady Reveler does not repent, marries and does not stop gambling, carries on with life of pleasure. Mrs Sago steals from her merchant husband to fund her habit of gambling and Mr Sago is blamed for not controlling his wife. Similarly in Mary Pix’s Beau Defeated, the middle class female character, Mrs Rich, learns to eschew gambling. Ms Pfeiffer felt that those heroines who at the end of their plays still have access to money parallel Centlivre’s own financial success and independence.
In her paper on Elizabeth Farren (1759-1829), Nora Nachumi asked what enabled Elizabeth Farren to escape the calumny and sexualizing of actresses in the period so that Farren’s presentation of herself as chaste and not having sex with Lord Derby was believed. On 14 March 1799 Derby’s first wife died; April 8 Farren played her last role on the stage (Lady Teazle); May 2nd she married Derby and was fully accepted by his people and all others too. Very little survives in her letters; her story was told by others, including Memoirs of the present Countess of Derby, told by Petronius Arbiter, by Scriptor Veritatis; the work is snobbish and presents Farren as lady-like, innocent, not ambitious, but had integrity, good breeding — though when she was dying she did not support her family. In her theatrical career, she was willing to take lessons; she followed Mrs Abington with her own Lady Teazle; she separated herself from a woman architect who wanted to be her lover, Anne Seymour Damer. Farren worked very hard on her roles, and managed her career so that her identity was thought to be glimpsed in well-bred and lady-like characters. Nora thought Farren created for herself an artificial identity; she is a strong contrast to what we know and surmise about Georgiana Spencer, Countess of Devonshire. Derby got her the respectable friendship with Emily Fitzgerald, duchess of Leinster. She became friends with respectable actresses like Sarah Siddons and Elizabeth Inchbald. The “amateur” theatricals she mounted also added to her respectability.
Anne Seymour Damer (1748-1828) by Giuseppe Ceracchi
In the discussion afterward, Jessican Rickman’s Romance of Gambling was recommended. I rose to say that the definition of women as professional women of letters by virtue of making money, or a visible promoted career, or high postion would exclude many women today. On my Wompo listserv women poets and others have agreed with me and Paula Backscheider in her book on women’s poetry in the 18th century that one has to define a woman poet by asking if this is truly her vocation, the way she spends her time, not if she makes money by it, how much publication she has or if she is on some ladder of promotion in an institution. The label “professional” is still a sore one since most women today are not able to encompass all of these categories. So-called poet models include Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti. Someone suggested maybe we had to look at women in different genres differently. Perhaps.
I only briefly suggested this to the larger group, but I was struck in the two sessions thus far on how hard most of the women’s lives were and how rarely a happy older life (when the woman aged). Those who escaped to marriage or got some permanent funding or land through a man or family were able to be stable and seemingly contented. Some exceptions among those mentioned at the sessions include Elizabeth Inchbald who supported her family — though she did destroy her memoirs and it seems was under the thumb of priests. I did notice too there seemed to be a pattern among the successful women of dropping beloved or close women friends or family members or just associates who seemed to give the writer, actress a real or meaningful relationship of her life. There was overt pressure from others to drop these women (like Derby pressured Farren to drop Damer). It puts me in mind of Charlotte Lucas who has to distance herself from Elizabeth quite tangibly to be safe.
On gambling, I thought of how Louise d’Epinay’s Montbrillant, Georgiana Spencer’s Sylph, and Edgeworth’s Leonora all contain stories of husbands bullying (menacing, threatening, physically forcing in the case of Montbrillant) their wives (the book’s heroine) to have sex with a man the husband owes money to. To be sure, Leonora (Austen’s Lady Susan was modelled on her perhaps or just such another type) doesn’t really mind. Also that George Sand’s Lelia is about a woman who recklessly and pleasurably engaged in gambling and sex. She was excoriated for it to the point that afterward she ceased writing openly heroine’s texts, and put males at the center of her stories. I told this to Loring Pfeiffer though she was not interested. perhaps because these are novels. What I liked about Sand’s was the heroine was having a deeply alive time.
The second session of papers on professional women began with Jan Stahl’s paper on Mary Davys’ The Reform’d Coquet. Jan said that Davys’ problem was she wanted to present and critique male violence, and yet not lose her own reputation for chastity and virtue because she wanted to continue to write for money and for the respect her friends showed her when she produced her books. Davys also produces a novel where the heroine learns lessons from her guardian and her reward is marriage to the hero; here, though the apparently major story is blended into one that seems to count more than the central one: the heroine’s friend is raped and nearly murdered, and the two women characters have a homoerotic relationship important to them. Davys allows them to engage in role-playing in ways unusual for women characters. It’s a novel which presents itself as about the education of the central characters, but this is a sort of outward disguise.
Mary Robinson (1757-1800) by George Romney
Lisa Wilson presented a long talk on Robinson from a book history perspective: the thrust was that the way Robinson’s books were packaged (paratexts, illustrations, what was said about her life) were all calculated to make Robinson into a respectable poet and woman of letters (they resemble aspects of Accademia della Crusca poetry books). Prof Wilson divided Robinson’s life into 3 careers: 1) amateur writing of poetry, stage acting; 2) mistress of George IV (a short career); and 3) a return to poetry, novels, memoirs. Wilson said she used the recognizable identity of the woman poet of genius; she claimed sensibility, artlessness. (It seemed Prof Wilson didn’t care Robinson’s poignant senusual poetry much; she never discussed any of Robinson’s poetry as poetry.) John Bell had a long career of publishing well-made books of find literature, and his accepting, recognizing and helping Robinson when others rejected her makes him an appealing figure.
The last of these papers on professional women that I heard was Temma Berg’s “Becoming a Professional Woman: the Career of Elizabeth Hamilton.” The session was running out of time and Temma had to cut short her paper unfortunately. Temma set two of her novels, The Letters of a Hindoo Rajah (1796, where she pretends she’s a translator), and Memoirs of Modern Philosophers (1800) in the context of Hamilton’s life, her brother’s early death and other literary texts where political stances were debated. Temma said that Hamilton wanted to present herself as on the side of reform in these books, but that the reform is not a radical one; women need and want to be lovers, mothers, wives, mistresses, a helpful aide. She partly wrote Hindoo Rajah to solace herself after her brother died. I liked the relativity of the novels’ structures, their tone, their kindness (at least as described by Temma). They do have strongly anti-Jacobin elements and one anti-feminist caricature: Bridgetina, through whom she makes fun of herself. Temma felt these books are post-modern, register an experience of post-modern self-reflexive learning, of alienation.
The discussion afterward had to be short, and most of the questions were addressed to Lisa Wilson about book sales in the era.
Two more events to record. During the business lunch, Lisa Rosner gave a splendid lecture on Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), radical thinker, scientist, land- and library owner. It was great fun to see her do some of these experiment sin front of us; she had an attractive power-point presentation of images of Priestley, his books, his home, his experiments. Lisa began with Priestley’s political and educational work and issues; later her discourse on his experiments (some shown to us), and, finally, briefly, her later sad years. After the lunch for Roy Wolpert, a small group went with Christine Clark-Evans, who teaches at this conference, and together with Linda Merians (the society’s central organizer), she made this conference happen and have all the lovely events we did. Well she took us to the Paterno Library where we saw spread out on tables, rare precious books from the 18th century. Christine performed the function of curator herself. I could see what a rich place Penn State is for a scholar, and enjoyed looking over the separate volumes on the tables, hearing their stories (as it were).
While we were there, the scandal over the exploitation and sexual abuse of boys by one of the lead coaches at Penn State was beginning to saturate the newspapers. Ironically, this is a story of thwarted and exploited liberty too: of how the trust others had in these men to give them free access to these boys (a kind of liberty) was abused. Other similarly trusted and powerful people allowed one man directly to hurt the boys seeking success and promotion (he raped them), of how other people, his colleagues and other boys allowed this to happen rather than risk their careers, the reputation of Penn State, and the income football generated, of how norms of masculinity and heterosexual sexuality twist, limit, and direct and enslave children and adults (see links in comment).
My last and third blog covers a session and lecture later in the afternoon (on Thomson’s The Seasons, and then on Joseph Boulogne, Le Chevalier de St George, known sometimes as “the black Mozart”), and two of Sunday’s presentations: Did Aphra Behn write the short fiction and Letters between a Noble-man and His sister? Edgeworth’s Leonora as an epistolary novel of Continental sensibilities?