In recent decades, academic research has brought to light the contribution of women to the development of eighteenth-century literature. Moving on from Ian Watt’s dismissive statement that a vast number of women merely contributed to the number of novels published during the period, academics have strived to unearth the bigger picture of women’s writing in the eighteenth century. What The Great Forgetting as a series aims to do is make this knowledge accessible to a wider audience, bringing eighteenth-century women’s writing to the fore for non-specialists interested in the literature of the period. The series is a set of six thematic episodes focusing on different aspects of eighteenth-century women’s writing, from Bluestocking culture to radical politics. Reiterated throughout the series is a need to make these women’s voices heard today, offering a different perspective on eighteenth-century literature to those interested in the period, both academic and non-academic. All the speakers stress the importance of making these writings accessible to anyone interested, even including a weekly reading list on the New Statesman’s website to go alongside the podcast.
Helen Lewis introduces the final episode with the question: ‘So how did the women poets, novelists, essayists, and letter-writers of the eighteenth century slip so easily out of the canon?’ The final episode, also entitled ‘The Great Forgetting,’ attempts to answer this question. The episode sums up the series as a whole and begins to discuss the reception of women writers both classic and contemporary during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Some of the causes of ‘The Great Forgetting’ are highlighted in the episode as issues of gender and genre expectations and the non-recognition of the influence of women’s writing on ‘big’ names like Dickens and Wordsworth, leading male authors to occupy a ‘privileged position’ in terms of canon formation. The discussion suggests that not enough is known by the general public about eighteenth-century women writers as they have been dismissed in the past by prominent academics such as F. R. Leavis and Ian Watt. At best, eighteenth-century women writers have been represented as a whole by the inclusion of Jane Austen in the canon. The speakers in this episode state that Austen has been ‘too dominant’ in the picture of eighteenth-century women’s writing, outside of academia, and that this imbalance needs to be addressed. Overall, the discussion of the detrimental effects of dismissing eighteenth-century women writers from the canon or discussions of writing in the period was informative and interesting, and painted an accessible picture of ‘The Great Forgetting’ for the podcast’s listeners.
As an example of how ‘The Great Forgetting’ caused women writers of the period to fade into the background, contributor Sophie Coulombeau describes Burney’s fall from eighteenth-century fame, becoming ‘a footnote to Jane Austen’ in Ian Watt’s Rise of the Novel in the 1950s. John Wilson Croker is described as having ‘[bound] up her physical body with her book’ in his 1814 review of Burney’s final novel, The Wanderer, signalling the descent of her fame. As the nineteenth century progresses, Burney becomes better known as a diarist and for her observations of Samuel Johnson, ‘frozen’ in the image of ‘Fanny’, ‘a young girl who observes the greats and writes in her diary.’ Thankfully, the story has a happier ending with the recognition of her work in the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first century by scholars of women’s writing, leading into the aim of the series: bringing eighteenth-century women’s writing into the public eye.
1986 is discussed as the ‘big year’ in terms of reclaiming women writers, with the publication of Dale Spender’s Mothers of the Novel and Jane Spencer’s Rise of the Woman Novelist. Spender’s work is described as a huge project, involving the reading of over 550 eighteenth-century novels, the aim of which was to answer the question: ‘where are all the women novelists?’ Edwards notes Spender’s dry response to the absence of Maria Edgeworth in Watt’s earlier work: ‘The only reason I can think of why you wouldn’t mention Maria Edgeworth is if you just hadn’t read her.’
Alongside these academic texts reclaiming women writers, Sophie Coulombeau and Elizabeth Edwards also highlight writers such as Hester Lynch Piozzi and Frances Burney, as mentioned earlier, as an introduction to women’s writing in the period. Episode six’s reading list includes Clifford Siskin’s The Work of Writing: Literature and Social Change in Britain, 1700-1830, the origin of the series’ and episode’s title ‘The Great Forgetting.’
Throughout this final episode, Lewis, Coulombeau and Edwards build-up a fascinating picture of the concept and history of ‘The Great Forgetting’ of eighteenth-century women’s writing. They not only explore the initial question of how these writers slipped out of the canon, but they also start to demonstrate the beginnings of the reclamation of women’s writing since the 1980s, and emphasise why it is important for scholars and the public to dispel ignorance on the subject. In short, they argue, there are many eighteenth-century women writers who are more than worth rediscovering and exploring because they were just so influential – even if that influence was ignored in later centuries.
Finally, to further the aim of making these writers more visible, all the speakers called for more affordable editions of women’s writings to be available, as well as TV adaptations of eighteenth-century novels from women writers other than Austen. Burney’s Evelina was highly recommended for adaptation – the bizarre scene with the monkey would, indeed, be spectacular. I think all scholars of early women’s writing can agree, it would be wonderful to see early women’s writing become more easily accessible to the general public.