Hags, Whores, and Heroines: Popular Feminocentric Narratives, 1750-1765 Back

Veronica Litt’s Feminocentric Narratives is a commendable contribution to the scholarly trend in eighteenth-century studies to rediscover and update our knowledge of female voices from the period. Litt’s web exhibition and its wonderfully detailed critical bibliography seek to provide a fresh look at the often-overlooked novels from the mid-eighteenth century written about women. The novels from this period, Litt explains, have been received either as a ‘disappointing sequel’ to the novels of the 1740s, or as the ‘underdeveloped predecessors’ to later emerging genres, like the gothic. The aim of the exhibition, then, is to reveal the ‘hodge-podge’ nature of literary production in the period, suggesting that the ‘strangeness’ of the texts themselves is what makes them exciting and, indeed, worth studying.

Litt’s manifesto for the project is conceptually simple: ‘if one wants to represent a period of time realistically, then one must attend to every aspect, from the exciting and likable, to the boring and confusing, no matter how unpleasant this evidence may be.’ The range of the project reveals all manner of intricacies, with short essays explaining authorship, book design and print culture, advertising, critical reception and pricing. As a whole, these essays paint the desired picture of the mid-century printing industry as vast and energetic.

The project shows a deep concern with recovering some of the lost voices of the eighteenth century, but willingly accepts some of the problems of such an enquiry: in writing about Jeremy Leaf under ‘Authorship’ it is acknowledged that so little is known about the novelist that ‘anything is conjecture’. It is later acknowledged that the name Leaf is possibly a pseudonym. Nevertheless Litt approaches such potentially problematic methodological issues with a scholarly rigour and the page ‘Authorship’ offers biographical details in ‘broad-strokes’ on each English writer in the bibliography (the French and Swiss writers who were translated are not included). The writers are here classed under three headings – genteel writers, scribblers (primarily hack writers and Grub Street scribblers) and theatrical writers (whose careers move ‘between page and stage’) – and Litt provides some information on each author. Naturally, some descriptions are longer than others. The discussion on either claiming or not claiming a novel was especially fascinating, though at times graphs were used when perhaps a simple statistic in the body of the essay itself would have sufficed.

In ‘Book Design and Print Culture’ Litt ponders the ways to ‘hook’ a reader (novelty, design, price points, veracity and additional material), but also how to lose a reader (piracy and mistakes, the latter an indication of the rapidity of the eighteenth-century print industry). ‘Midcentury books’, Litt here concludes, ‘thus hover between haphazard productions and appealing, pleasantly designed objects.’ ‘Advertising’ looks at the direct, if formulaic, process of selling books in the period and neatly delineates how some books targeted specific literary audiences by promoting multiple books in one advertisement (the Fieldings were advertised together), which might signify the emergence of discreet genres, but also that some groupings did not make sense. For example, one such pairing was Henry Fielding’s Amelia and Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison. These paratextual features, ‘if only one cares to look’, can provide a wealth of information for readers and Litt’s analysis thoroughly explains some of these points with more research to be done. The two shorter essays on ‘Critical Reception’ and ‘Pricing’ are informative and move towards completing Litt’s image of the print industry of the eighteenth century.

There are four criteria for choosing the authors in the critical bibliography: that the titles indicate a lead female character; that the work is ‘long form prose’, though it can be either fiction, auto-fictional (a fictionalised autobiography) or biographical; that the work went through two distinct editions within five years of each other; and that the work was first published between 1750 and 1765. Of the four criteria, the third is potentially the most problematic: Litt explains that the project wishes to ‘[produce] a bibliography of popular narratives about women’ and so places emphasis on popularity over canonicity. Given the erratic and frenzied nature of eighteenth-century print culture, this factor undoubtedly confines the project significantly. Yet Litt’s third criterion somewhat consolidates, rather than rejecting, the canon: a text that went through two editions in six years, perhaps, would seem only marginally less popular (if indeed this is an apt method of determining such) than one that did so in five, and yet such texts are excluded. To holistically capture what Litt terms the ‘bizarre bunch of prose’ from the period and further achieve the project’s intention, this criterion should be relaxed.

Progressing chronologically through the designated period, first impressions of the document reveal it to be neat and well organised. A few footnotes offer translations, signposts for further reading, or, as in the case of footnote six for example, a detailed engagement with the publication date of a later edition of Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote. To take a text I am personally working on currently, there are two entries for Sarah Fielding’s The Lives of Cleopatra and Octavia (1757), and in the first a review from Sir Tanfield Leman from the Monthly Review assumes the writer’s ability and the reader’s familiarity with Fielding’s classical content. The second, later edition from 1758 has bibliographical advertisements for both Henry and Sarah Fielding, and it is recorded that the pagination of the edition at the University of Toronto is different. Such detail cannot be praised enough and, with the essays outlined above, such examples hopefully reveal how useful a resource Litt has compiled.

As a downloadable PDF the bibliography is seventy pages long. On a single screen, this can be unwieldy but, with an electronic search, the work becomes an efficient tool. Modern scholarly editions of eighteenth-century texts, especially the Broadview and Norton series, often include contemporary reviews of texts. Yet, instead of being in an appendix at the back of a printed book, Litt’s resource directly copies the reviews below each text’s entry, providing an immediate sense of a text’s reception alongside the paratextual features. More widely as an online resource, the interface is clean and accessible across the site. As a ‘Web Exhibition’ the slideshow of mid-century title pages on the Home page, ‘from both canonical and forgotten works’, certainly reveals the usefulness of the digital format in providing a space for lesser texts to be displayed for a wide audience, for example The Genuine Memoirs of the Celebrated Miss Nancy D—N (1760). And, to take the notion of an ‘Exhibition’ further, the digital nature of Litt’s resource is not obviously confined by geography or even cost, and thus is a tool for all scholars to use.

Though an undeniably enticing and provocative title this reviewer admits he is unsure if the ‘hags, whores and heroines’ of the website’s title are dealt with enough. To improve the educational use, the inclusion of a bibliography of secondary reading would also be welcome. However the usefulness and high quality of Feminocentric Narratives cannot be denied. Through the introductory essays Litt crafts a superb exhibition, whilst the bibliography offers numerous treasures for any reader to enjoy, the focus on paratextual features providing a certainly thorough introduction for any visitor to the print culture of the eighteenth century.

Hags, Whores, and Heroines is curated by Veronica Litt and was launched on 5th March 2017.