Edited by George Justice

Giving Women a Voice

Revising Women: Eighteenth-Century "Women's Fiction" and Social Engagement

Edited by Paula Backscheider.
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. xiii + 273 pages. 5 B/W illustrations. Hardcover, $42.95.

Reviewed by Nora Nachumi.

Edited by Paula Backscheider, Revising Women: Eighteenth-Century "Women's Fiction" and Social Engagement is a collection of essays about the eighteenth-century novel, in general, and about gothic fiction, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen, in particular. The title, Revising Women, refers both to the revisionary spirit characterizing the essays and to the authors, who are themselves examples of women who revise. It also refers to the writers considered in each piece, emphasizing their challenges to culturally dominant ideas about women's nature and roles. The phrase Revising Women thus suggests an affinity between eighteenth-century British women's writing and feminist scholarship today.

The essays also reflect this correspondence. They demonstrate that women writers in both eras believe in the power of literature to give women a voice. To this end, they focus on intersections between literature and culture. These are scholarly pieces that are intended to deepen "our understanding of individual texts, careers, and women, as well as our thinking about … the history of the English novel and how texts and some of their themes are marginalized or even obliterated."

The collection is organized so that broader topics precede narrower ones. Backscheider asks the big questions so her two essays come first. In "The Novel's Gendered Space," she integrates feminist scholarship and traditionally male-oriented work on the history of the novel. Backscheider concludes that the formative decade for the English novel was not the era of Richardson and Fielding, but the 1720s, an era dominated by women writers like Penelope Aubin, Eliza Haywood, and Delariviere Manley. Along with Daniel Defoe, these writers developed and experimented with a unique literary form characterized by three distinct kinds of space that "interact dynamically." These "constituting spaces "are what made this literary form a new species of writing, one that would be recognized as the novel by the following generation.

In "The Rise of Gender as a Political Category," Backscheider grapples with the popular image of Samuel Richardson as a "Friend to Women … [and] as a father to respectable women writers." Long before Richardson, she argues, women wrote fiction that criticized contemporary attitudes and practices regarding courtship and marriage. Moreover, they did so in a culture that recognized familial structures as metaphors for the state. Focusing on Clarissa, Backscheider demonstrates that Richardson "extend[ed] the discussion of issues of crucial importance to women." However, she argues, Richardson imposed resolutions that "deflect attention away from feminist concerns" and "protect existing power structures." Backscheider concludes that Clarissa "spawned as many revisionary texts as imitative ones by women" and calls for a detailed study of the "resistances and rewritings within them."

The following essays do just that. In "Renegotiating the Gothic," Betty Rizzo argues that women writers employed the gothic as a genre or mode to contest a sexual economy that assigned reason to men and sensibility to women. She demonstrates that writers like Charlotte Smith and Ann Radcliffe took a genre that was "officially the medium of the irrational and hysterical, [of] women and homosexual males," and used it to insist that both the "hero and the heroine combine sensibility and reason." Rizzo's effective use of examples illuminates a tradition in which women writers used the gothic to contest sexual stereotypes, dramatize women's powerlessness, and criticize abuses of patriarchal authority.

Fathers also loom large in "My Art Belongs to Daddy?" by Mitzi Myers. This revisionary reading of Belinda contests the "reductive mythology" of Maria Edgeworth as "daddy's good little girl." According to Myers, Belinda undermines beliefs about women espoused by Edgeworth's mentor, Thomas Day. Unlike Day, a fan of Rousseau's Emile, Edgeworth demonstrates that there is "no Maginot Line between the attributes of the sexes, nor is the private sphere impermeable to the public world." By writing her novel, Myers concludes, Edgeworth testifies "to the permeable boundaries between the culturally feminine and culturally masculine, between the domestic happiness she values and the public good she writes for."

The final essay, Barbara M. Benedict's "Jane Austen and the Culture of Circulating Libraries," examines Austen's depiction of women's literary consumption in light of "the changes in the production, marketing, and reception of books during Austen's lifetime." According to Benedict, Austen's fiction reflects the impact of circulating libraries on the format of novels and on their readers. In different ways, Benedict contends, each of the novels manifests Austen's concern with the power of literature, both to shape one's identity and to reflect it to others. All condemn "the abuse of reading by mocking pretentious or stupid readers, and by demonstrating the emotional costs of immersing oneself in literature rather than life." At the same time, they demonstrate that individuals, regardless of gender, may acquire and demonstrate virtue by "reading the right things the right way."

Written to illustrate "the maturity of a discipline," the essays in Revising Women demonstrate that women writers used fiction to participate in debates taking place in the public sphere. In doing so, these essays suggest an affinity between eighteenth-century women writers and readers and those of us engaged in reading and writing today.

Nora Nachumi is an assistant professor in the Department of English at Stern College for Women/Yeshiva University in New York. She is writing about Austen criticism, popular culture, and the internet.

JASNA News v.17, no. 3, Winter 2001, p. 19

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