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Churls and Graybeards and Novels Written by a Lady: Gender in Eighteenth-Century Book Reviews

  1. The book review as a periodical print genre began in the eighteenth century, although its character underwent radical and nearly permanent change in the early nineteenth century. [1]  Before the advent of the Edinburgh and Quarterly Reviews, review journals operated by a set of reasonably standard principles.  Their original purpose was to clarify for the reader and potential book buyer what works might be of interest in the vast sea of publications. As a result, Reviews like the Monthly and Critical adopted the mission of universal coverage of all published books, regardless of merit or fame.  To educate the reader about the work under consideration, reviews focused on description more than evaluation, often providing full summaries and detailed excerpts from the publication.  Critics initially understood their role as a “taster” for the public, and so they eschewed open partisanship in favor of a stance of neutrality. [2]  These parameters shaped the eighteenth-century book review in unique ways that ultimately had a positive impact on female novelists in that works by women received due attention in a public forum.  Indeed, book reviews included female novelists, at least nominally, within the republic of letters.  Women writers may not have achieved the same kind of fame that male authors did, as Frank Donoghue recently suggested (Donoghue:6), but their presence in the pages of the flourishing and well respected organs of criticism contributed to certain public knowledge about two closely related phenomena: women writers and the popular novel.  The book reviews constitute a record of women’s gradual accession into literary professionalism.  They also document the ways in which ideas about gender shaped the categories of literature that emerge by the end of the century. 
  2. What makes this record more significant is that it only exists for a brief moment in history, roughly the latter half of the eighteenth century.  The genre of the book review changes with the arrival of new journals in the early nineteenth century that abandon the nearly impossible mission of universal coverage and make the form into a vehicle explicitly for opinion.  Clifford Siskin identifies the founding of the Edinburgh Review in 1802, with its privileging of masculine disciplinary divisions of politics and economics and its fostering of “an old-boys network” of reviewers, as a turning point in literary culture that led to the denial of female literary expertise (Siskin: 224).  While women writers continued to publish and, indeed, to achieve fame throughout the nineteenth century, the critical organs of review established more exclusive criteria for literary excellence and professionalism, and they informed a primarily male-authored canon of literature that was subsequently regulated and reproduced as a field of study.  These reviews thus set in place the conditions for what Siskin calls “[t]he Great Forgetting,” whereby the vital and omnipresent writing by women of the late eighteenth century disappears from literary history.
  3. Siskin’s study, The Work of Writing, forms part of a recent focus in scholarship on the professionalism of literary culture in the 1780s and 1790s with which this article interacts.  Paul Keen’s  The Crisis in Literature in the 1790s covers a similar historical trajectory as Siskin, but his work offers a focus on the political turmoil of the 1790s as a crucial element precipitating the change in conceptions of literature.  Keen describes a transition from an Enlightenment understanding of literature as the rational exchange of knowledge within the public sphere to a more isolated sense of the literary that has subsequently come to be associated with Romanticism.   Triggered by the excesses of the French Revolution, the decade of crisis in England was characterized by a thorough fragmentation of the public ideal of literature, when the critical discourses negotiated conflicts among elite and, what Nancy Fraser terms, “subaltern counterpublics,” such as working class and female authors, through highly polarized political rationales (Keen: 7).  The Reviews play a fundamental role in carrying on the public debates, and reviews on female novelists in the 1790s, unsurprisingly, illustrate precisely the ways in which discourses of gender nourish the conflicts on literary, political and public values.
  4. More focused on gender than Siskin or Keen, Harriet Guest’s subtle analysis of domesticity in Small Change: Women, Learning and Patriotism 1750-1810 investigates the complicated relationships among “nation, sensibility, public and private, and gender difference” (Guest: 16).  Her title alludes in part to the historical process she registers in the book: “a series of small changes takes place in the position of women, or the way women are perceived; and the cumulative effect of these changes is that by the early nineteenth century it had become possible or even necessary for some women to define their gendered identities through the nature and degree of their approximation to the public identities of political citizens” (Guest: 14).  These changes cannot be reduced to a single moment or a single narrative, and she insists on tracking these changes through multiple and discrete discourses and genres.  She offers a twist on and development of the widespread thesis of the domestic woman who emerges as the icon of natural femininity in the nineteenth century, and she positions herself within critical arguments of the last two decades that attempt to imagine more complexly the gendered relations between public and private.  The treatment of women writers in the Reviews can be seen as another important discourse in which to trace the negotiation of public and private expressions of gendered identity, especially as this process relates to disciplinary divisions that emerge within that genre. 
  5. With regard to issues of gender, one of the most striking conventions that arises in eighteenth-century book reviews is a sense of the critic as a consolidated character.  Book reviews were unsigned in this period, and the Reviews tended to agree that anonymity in some sense assured objectivity.  This disavowal of the critic’s personal identity combined with the prescribed duties of neutral description, universal coverage and an urge to educate the reader, tended to shape the print identity of critics as a group. Critics speak of themselves as a corporate entity, often employing the plural first person, “we believe” or “we have understood that”; they affect a curmudgeonly character – the churl – and they frequently make reference, for example,  to dirtiness of their spectacles – the graybeard.  Taken collectively, these self-descriptions construct the image of a reviewer as old, male and unflattering (Raven: 113-120).   In a particularly revealing instance, one reviewer proclaims, "We are not without suspicion that in anonymous publications, the words written by a lady are sometimes made use of to preclude the severity of criticism; but as Reviewers are generally churls and greybeards, this piece of finesse very seldom answers the purpose intended"  (CR 37 (1774): 317).  This example illustrates many of the complicated ways in which gendered expectations were played with and performed in book reviews.  What little evidence we have suggests that most reviewers were in fact men, despite the celebrated example of Mary Wollstonecraft, who reviewed extensively for the Analytical Review, and the lesser known reviewing of Mary Hays and Elizabeth Moody (Waters: 220-3; Raven:17).  An overwhelming majority of the identified critics in Ralph Griffith’s annotated volumes of the Monthly were male, and many of them were clerics.  Raven even posits that the didactic tone of many of the reviews may be attributed to the fact that so many of the reviewers were clergymen supplementing their income through professional reviewing (Raven: 115-7). 
  6. More salient to this argument, however, is the discursive construction of the critic as male, “churls and greybeards.”  This composite critical character directly conflicts with gallantry, a highly rhetorical and standard code of behavior for men in polite culture. Reviewers obviously strain under the contradictory gendered expectations, and reviews of works by women consequently reveal significant pressure points in the emerging discourse of literary professionalism striated by gendered ideology.  In the example from the Critical above, the reviewer addresses an anonymous publication – the most common situation encountered by a reviewer of novels in the late eighteenth century – where the author tag “by a lady” substitutes for a name.  The tactic conceals the identity of the author, which could be desired for any number of reasons, but it also creates a primarily gendered expectation of authorship.  The reviewer acknowledges the belief that female authors receive less severe criticism than their male counterparts, a commonplace in critical discourse that confirms the role that gallantry plays in shaping literary judgment.  However, this critic refuses the gallant critical leniency  which polite society might seem to demand and asserts instead the standards  of the reviewer.  The character of churl and graybeard exempts the reviewer from the rhetorical niceties and exaggerated compliments of gallantry and, presumably, leaves him free to issue correct judgment.  Moreover, this critic suggests that the claim to be written "by a lady"  is a ruse staged by a male author to escape from critical rigor, an act of rhetorical cross-dressing that miscarries doubly.  For if this tag is indeed adopted by male authors to protect their literary egos, than the exposure of the female posture humiliates them as much as the literary judgment they feared.  Finally, the example suggests that because gendered identities in this print world are unstable and malleable, critics regard them as preliminary, and they are reluctant to use them as the primary or exclusive basis for literary judgment.  This gender fluidity opens the reviews as a pathway for female authors’ literary professionalism.
  7. While book reviews did provide women novelists with both advice and professional visibility in a culture learning how to read and evaluate novels, this article focuses on the points of conflict between reviewers and their female subjects as particularly informative discursive moments.  Because novels themselves were suspect cultural vehicles, and because gendered expectations about reading, writing and publicity were notoriously volatile in this period, women novelists posed a number of difficulties for book reviewers that brought cultural values and literary conventions into conflict in different ways.  These conflicts pushed book reviewers to define their understanding of the novel as a disciplinary object in their reviews, and these essays contribute to the emergence of the critical categories of literature at the turn of the nineteenth century.  In particular I focus on three typical situations that invoke the character of churl and graybeard: when critics submit an unfavorable judgment of a woman’s novel, when they lecture women writing in male disciplines, and when they proscribe the representation of the personal in published works.
  8. As a fairly complete and ostensibly neutral record of the immensely expanding print world, eighteenth-century book reviews offer an unparalleled compendium of data for research on the professional and public representations of female authors.  Because the dictates of the reviews require the coverage of works by women regardless of the attitudes of the reviewers, a requirement that would change after 1802, these reviews open a window in time when the female author could not be ignored.  This article draws on some 325 reviews of eighty novels by more than twenty female novelists from the years 1749-1800.  While the Monthly Review and the Critical Review, being the earliest, supply the greatest number of reviews, the scope of this analysis includes the other major reviews of the 1780s and 1790s, the magazines of a general nature that provided reviews and various specialized or short-lived periodicals. [3] In total, the reviews derive from twenty different journal titles. Like the Reviews, the novelists included range in fame and achievement, from Anabella Plumptre to Frances Burney. [4] This study draws on the majority of reviews for all of the novels by the most respected and most popular female novelists of the latter half of the eighteenth century, as well as those of a handful of less significant writers.  Such a sample offers the most essential critical writing on these female novelists as a group, and provides a broad coverage of the discourses of gender and professionalism that develop through them.
  9. I.          Submitting an Unfavorable Judgment

  10. A reviewer in 1794 states the obvious: “It is the duty of a critic to be no respecter of persons; and his native [province of] gallantry must be checked by a superior attachment to sincerity and truth” (BC 4 (94): 313) speaking, when a reviewer refers to himself or the body of reviewers, he points to a conflict in expectations that requires explanation.  In this case, he refers to the sacrifice of gallantry for sincerity and truth.  With the rise in the number of works published by women especially after 1788, critics frequently repeat the claim.   The need to state this duty, however, suggests gaps in the still emerging codes of literary professionalism.  Thus the critic who advances negative or even constructive criticism frequently issues a polite qualification or apology to soften the blow.  The British Critic’s review of Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) exhibits such caution: "If at the end of these extracts we subjoin a few animadversions on this performance, it will be considered, we trust, by the fair author, as a discharge of professional duty, the object of which is really her advantage, and the increase of her well-earned reputation" (BC 4 (94):111)
  11. The gender of the “fair author” combined with her established fame lead this critic to uncertainty, and he spends equal energy preparing her – and the reader – for his criticism as he does criticizing.  In the process he makes visible his professional obligation.  In fact, he attempts to make gallantry and criticism consistent by suggesting that his “few animadversions” will be to “her advantage,” thus making himself her champion. 
  12. In a similar way, the Critical Review of the anonymous History of Georgina Neville (1791) attempts to disguise its decidedly ungallant rejection as a gesture of kindness toward the young author: with all our partiality for female authors, and our anxiety to raise a drooping or promising genius, we cannot commend this novel.  Praise would be cruelty; and the young lady, who may possess numerous good qualities, in the end might condemn us, for tempting her to sacrifice more solid accomplishments, to the unprofitable labour of the pen" (CR 2 (91): 477). 
  13. The critic’s rationalization – “praise would be cruelty” – demonstrates clearly how the codes of polite culture fail to be effective in the professional literary world.  While he testifies to his wonted gallantry, “with all our partiality for female authors,” the critic’s role is ultimately to decide which works succeed and which fail to merit praise.  The critic literally separates the lady from her work – she “may possess numerous good qualities” – in order to signal the movement away from social codes to strictly literary ones. Within the literary realm, he can be unsparing in his critique, regardless of the youth and gender of the author, because what is at stake is a rational truth determined in the public sphere.  The tone and tentativeness of these statements indicate that these critics are introducing something new; they want to educate the reading public to respect literary values over merely social values; they want to professionalize the literary public.
  14. That not all critics share this dispassionate ideal becomes glaringly obvious in the reviews of Mary Robinson’s first novel, Vancenza; Or the Dangers of Credulity (1792), a two-volume novel of chivalry and sensibility, interspersed with lyric poetry.  The exaggerated gallantry with which reviewers treat Robinson proves an exception tied to her personal circumstances, because it feeds on her established reputation as an illustrious courtesan and popular poet.  Robinson commenced author as a poet even before her very public life as an actress and mistress of the Prince of Wales.  Her famous beauty and fashionable friends regularly brought her to the attention of newspapers in the 1780s, and the reviews of her novels in the following decade often reflect the author’s star quality.  Even by late eighteenth-century standards, Robinson’s brief first novel tests the credulity of its reader with an abundance of underdeveloped episodes of coincidence and intrigue counterbalanced by moral digressions and scenes of natural description written in an overly sentimental language of ornate metaphors.  Such flaws generally draw attention to themselves in the reviews.  The staid reviewer of the Monthly begins along these lines with shrewd observations on the propriety of styles, but he concludes his assessment by claiming that Vancenza “is written, and in our opinion well-written, in the style of elegance peculiar to Mrs. R.  The richness of fancy and of language, which the fair author had so successfully displayed in her poetical productions . . . she has transferred to prose narration; and has produced a tale, which, we venture to predict, will be much read and admired” (MR 7 (92): 299).   Critics from the English Review and the European Magazine simply fawn over Robinson: 
  15. There have been so many elegant proofs of the poetical powers of Mrs. Robinson, that the most churlish critic cannot refuse to bear testimony in favor of her genius.  Indeed …we are disposed to think that she has more successfully climbed Parnassian heights than any female votary of the muses which this country has produced. (ER 20 (92): 111)

  16. Abandoning his role as a churl, this critic “cannot withhold from [this first novel] a tribute of warm commendation; and such, we hope, will induce her to persevere in a species of literature for which she seems to be admirably qualified” (111). In a truly unconventional gesture, the critic actually thanks her “for the pleasure she has excited, and the feelings she has exercised, by her elegant and affecting little tale” (111).  He pauses to note the florid style, but he excuses it as “the effect of warm [112] affections, and an exuberant fancy, that has been chiefly conversant with poetical images” (111-12).  The critic’s language of warmth and passion undermines his critical objectivity and suggests the power and allure of Robinson’s sexuality. 
  17. The reviewer for the European Magazine adopts Robinson’s own language in praise of her writing:  “[O]ur fair enchantress,” the critic claims, decorates her tale “with peculiar taste, elegance, and variety” for the benefit of
  18. many a youth and many a maid, who will eagerly pursue all its winding mazes with unremitted attention, till the long confined swelling tear, gushing from its lucid orb, shall fall involuntarily on the concluding pages, and half obliterate the dreadful catastrophe. (EM  21 (92): 345)

    This lengthy review continues its approval in this vein and even includes an obsequious compliment to Robinson’s daughter as the original for the heroine. 
  19. The Critical Review, however, returns us to the mode of churl and graybeard.  The general approbation and even superlatives that Robinson’s rather weak novel receives prompt the reviewer to a daring revolt against the current of opinion:

    Mrs. Robinson's eager, partial, and injudicious friends, have misled and injured her; nor are we wholly free from the inconveniencies which they have occasioned. The merits of Vancenza (sic) have so often met our eyes; it has been so often styled excellent, admirable; the world has been so frequently called on to confirm this suffrage with their plaudits, that we dare not hint a fault, or hesitate dislike.  What we disapprove, we must speak of plainly, and, if our gallantry is called in question, the blame will fall on those who have compelled us to be explicit. (CR 4 (92): 268). 

    In a superbly churlish rencontre, this critic takes on the misplaced accolades of those who have published before him in an effort to establish critical clarity.  Their flattery forces him to the “inconvenience” of abandoning politeness, issuing his condemnation much more forcefully than if the novel had been treated impartially elsewhere.  The convention of gallantry shadows the critic’s bold defense, as it does the reviews of Udolpho and Georgina Neville, but this Critical reviewer identifies an intolerance of ambiguous – or egregious – compliment because of its baleful effect on novel readers and authors.  While all three negative reviews insist on the superior call of critical priorities, the previous examples first assure their authors of kind intentions.  Robinson’s review opens with a rejection of kind intentions, implying a direct criticism of the judgment of the author’s friends and supporters.  Because the critic can be “no respecter of persons,” he needs to separate the personal from the authorial in order to present critical “truth.” 

  20. While this reviewer takes the opportunity to analyze precisely the author’s language, and in doing so offers solid judgment and literary advice, he unfortunately directs his anger in gendered ways.  He snidely alludes to the author’s reputation, “the source of which it is not our present business to examine” (CR 4 (92) 268), and he makes several casual criticisms based on stereotypes of female authors and readers.  “[W]e find, in these volumes,” he writes, “the true criterion . . . of a female pen, the indiscriminate use of the epithet ‘fine’” (270).  He educates the presumed readers of the novel on some points of geographical and religious discrepancy, hoping that “the young ladies, in their rapid glances over these enchanting volumes, can be for a moment supposed capable of imbibing information” (271).  And he criticizes the conspicuous signature of femaleness in the hero’s concluding speech: “this we suppose the ladies may consider as ‘quite in nature;’ but we are too old to join in the opinion” (271).  While the image of the reviewer as churl and graybeard greatly facilitates the expression of critical judgment, its overlay with misogynist discourses begets the possibility for dismissive, sexist commentary.
  21. II.         Novelists who write beyond their feminine sphere

  22. While critical protestations against gallantry reveal the strain of gendered and professional codes, the female authors’ forays into masculine fields of knowledge engender more complicated responses from the critics.  Examples might be drawn from earlier periods, but the 1790s provide the most illustrative moments of conflict, because it is a decade, as Keen argues, where the ideal of literature undergoes rapid fragmentation due to both political ferment and the ever increasing number of publications.  While the new professional men of letters, among whom we can number most reviewers, generally embrace the Enlightenment ideal of a Republic of letters, female authors of novels raise particular problems when they forge this dubious new literary genre to more respected fields, such as history or politics.  Whether critics support or condemn the attempt, they tend to adopt superior and condescending manners to the female author.  In the last years of the century, however, the bitter hostility of some reviews represents a marked departure from the graybeard character of the critic.
  23. Clara Reeve’s historical fiction Memoirs of Sir Roger de Clarendon (1793) receives agonizing reviews that detail the ways in which even her apparent zeal for virtue cannot compensate for the harm she inflicts on history.  The Monthly Review cautiously applauds her enthusiasm for the heroic valor of the Middle Ages but swiftly condemns every aspect of the production.  "We are, however, sorry to observe that the subject and detail of her history are tedious, that the manners are for the most part insipid, and that the characters are generally uninteresting" (MR 14 (94): 153).  The critic calls on the image of the female author to justify his claim:  “On the whole, the style of the fair authoress appears to be little suited to the dignity of history; and it may be added that her observations are often either trite or frivolous” (154).   While ironic invocations of the “fair author” frequently arise in book reviews, this critic further trivializes Reeve with the feminine form “authoress,” while he posits history itself as dignified.  If the gendered divisions are not decisive enough, he dismisses Reeve’s intellectual work as “trite or “frivolous” to underscore her inferiority.  Less categorically severe, the Critical reviewer carefully enumerates historical sources, anachronisms and structural problems in Reeve’s text, and his criticism points both to literary as well as generic failure:  “Upon the whole, though these volumes display much reading and ingenuity, though the style is pure, and the sentiments (those excepted which tend to give a false gloss to rank or antiquity) favourable to virtue, we must confess there is a want of interest which renders the general effect but feeble; and as to the end of historical information, that, as we observed before, is destroyed by the omission of historical authorities” (CR 10 (94): 284).  A novel should entertain, and history should provide information:  Reeve’s Memoirs of Sir Roger de Clarendon apparently does neither sufficiently.   While history as a field of knowledge gained much feminine support in the late decades of the eighteenth century, it still possessed the masculine aura of intellectual achievement, particularly when it was combined with political analysis (Woolf; Temple). 
  24. This is even more apparent in the sarcastic British Critic review, which draws the gendered spheres most explicitly:  "Whether the best of Mrs. Reeve's genius evaporated in her first performance, or whether Ariosto's remark on the sex be too well founded, that they are unfit for works of painful elaboration, we shall not venture to pronounce decisively.  Most certain it is, that we found Sir Roger de Clarendon rather dull, and his memoirs little worthy of remembrance" (BC 2 (93):384).   This critic, too, finds the mixture of truth and falsehood in historical fiction problematic, though interestingly, “the prevailing and fashionable fault” in novel writing (385).   He objects strenuously to the violation of history: “it seems clear that forming the modern romance to a deceptive imitation of history, is producing something like Sir Roger de Clarendon himself, more likely to disgrace the better side of its parentage, than to dignify that which is inferior” (386).  In this bawdy metaphor, which draws on the critic’s earlier joke, history is a heroic knight; novels are whores, and historical fiction is the bastard offspring.  In each of Reeve’s reviews, history stands as the dignified, valued masculine field while novels appear as the nursery or boudoir of unlicensed femininity.  The gendered conflicts in these reviews reveal the critics’ protective urge to define novels and history as distinct and hierarchically ordered disciplines.  To do so, critics employ stereotypes of female triviality and imaginative promiscuity.
  25. A similar fate ultimately meets women’s political novels.  Charlotte Smith’s vacillating political allegiances in novels of the 1790s provide for a range of critical opinions on the fictional representation of politics.  The Critical reviewer sagely observes that Smith’s views on France "will be differently judged of according to the taste, more properly according to the political opinions of the readers” (CR 6 (92): 100).  He identifies a difference between the political and aesthetic evaluation of a novel, which suggests that he will rise above party in order to fulfill his duty as a neutral reviewer. However, like most other reviewers, he cannot refrain from political partisanship. After detailing the considerable literary merits of Desmond (1792), he decides, “Her politics we cannot always approve of" (CR 6 (92): 100).  If the book reviewer’s role is to provide unbiased description, he faces an inconsistency when he feels differently about the literary matter of a book and its political import; the first is a matter of educated taste within the republic of letters, while the latter, particularly in the volatile period before and following the September massacres, is a matter of opinion.  Throughout the decade, the distinction between critical values and political opinion vacillates, and this reflects the changing perception in the “proximity of the literary and political public spheres” (Keen, 1999: 7).  Keen argues “the more reformist the critic, the more he or she tended to insist on their close connection, whereas conservative critics tended to think of them as distinct cultural domains” (7).  Accordingly, more liberal critics from the Analytical or Monthly reviews tended to support female authors in their attempts to merge the political and domestic in their novels, whereas conservative reviews in the British Critic and Anti-Jacobin strictly limited the appropriate subject matter of a novel to domestic and private issues.
  26. In response to Smith’s prefatory remarks, reviewers of Desmond often raise the question of disciplinary propriety in a political novel:  “She has thought proper,” writes the critic from the European Magazine, “to apologize for the introduction of political matter in a work professedly of another kind.  To those who think an apology necessary, this will be sufficient.   She is likewise supported by precedents by those of Fielding and Smollett, both of whom introduce more than allusions to the political state of their country” (EM 22 (92): 22). Here and elsewhere the reviews capture a sense of Smith’s inventiveness, her experimentation with form and content in novels, which, despite the precedents of Fielding and Smollett, requires justification.   The masculine authorship of those precedents suggests one reason why they fail to provide obvious authority for Smith.  Interestingly, critics reach general consensus on Smith’s literary success, but her politics destabilize their final assessment of her novels.
  27. Unlike their forbears, the critical Reviews in the 1790s increasingly draw literary boundaries with political implications, precipitating the changes that would come with the Edinburgh.  In Smith’s earliest works, reviewers exhibit tolerance and sometimes respect for Smith’s introduction of political sentiments into reading material, particularly aimed at women.  Smith’s liberal sentiments in Desmond (1792) receive warm praise in the Monthly Review and the Analytical Review.  William Enfield, writing for the Monthly, opens his review with a surprising encomium on the national importance of novel writing as a feminine forum for political instruction.
  28. Among the various proofs which the present age affords, that the female character is advancing in cultivation, and rising in dignity, may be justly reckoned the improvements that are making in the kind of writing which is more immediately adapted to the amusement of female readers.  Novels, which were formerly little more than simple tales of love, are gradually taking a higher and more masculine tone, and are becoming the vehicles of useful instruction. (MR 9 (92): 406)

    Enfield presents a somewhat utopian vision of approaching gender equality, and he figures novels, and Desmond in particular, as both evidence of and cause for this rise in feminine character.  Significantly, he does not challenge the masculinity of politics or the femininity of novels, but he registers for us another aspect of Guest’s “small changes” in praising Smith’s recognition of the importance of politics for women: 

    Being very justly of opinion, that the great events which are passing in the world are no less interesting to women than to men, and that in her solicitude to discharge the domestic duties, a woman ought not to forget that, in common with her father and husband, her brothers and sons, she is a citizen; Mrs. Smith introduces, where the course of the tale will easily admit of such interruptions, conversations on the principles and occurrences of the French revolution. (406) 

  29. In order to emphasize the originality and propriety of Smith’s plan, he deliberately chooses all extracts in his review from political sections of the novel.  In Enfield’s opinion, Smith’s novel does something new in its literary form, and the experiment is successful – the tale easily admits of political interruptions.  Moreover, the generic hybrid reflects a similar crossover of gendered traits, which is not only favorable but in keeping with other developments in the advancement of female cultivation, a certain and salubrious sign of the “present age.”
  30. Other reviews are less wholly supportive. The European Magazine praises the narrative form of Desmond, but it follows with an equivocal comment: "It is not be expected that much information is to be found here, but our Authoress has certainly vindicated the cause of French liberty with much acuteness" (EM 22 (92) 22).   Laden with the gendered language that critics would use to disparage Reeve’s attempt at historical fiction, the review stops short of complete dismissal of Smith’s depiction of the revolution in France.  Reviews of the Banished Man, published two years later, realign Smith with the conservative Reviews, much to the outrage of her former critical supporters. The Analytical reviewer expresses the greatest regret for Smith’s changing attitude toward France, but he or she ultimately casts political criticism under the banner of literary propriety: “But we think it a matter to be seriously lamented, that even the lighter productions of the press, which are intended for amusement, and ought to promote gaiety and good humour, must now so often be deeply shaded with the gloom of political controversy” (AR 20 (94) 255).  As a response to Smith's treachery, this ordinarily reformist Review takes refuge in a conservative impulse to separate the literary and political spheres.  Smith presents the critics with a compelling dilemma.  Here is a highly successful and well-regarded novelist breaking the bounds of generic consensus by introducing political narratives into her stories.  By common acclaim, the critics can praise her literary work, and generally speaking, they positively comment upon the plotting, episodes, characterization and descriptions in her novels. However, they separately address the issue of politics as a literary subject, the propriety of which appears to depend upon whether the agenda of the Review accords with the political sentiments of the particular novel. 
  31. By the end of the decade, as has been documented in various studies, there is less tolerance for political novels by women (Butler; Johnson; Ty).  The Anti-Jacobin review, first published in 1798, was the first Review to claim an explicit socio-political purpose, but its range of targets exceeded the Jacobin sympathizers and included an agenda to enforce the “right sentiments about heterosexuality” (Johnson: 10).  Not surprisingly, the review of The Young Philosopher (1798) in the first volume of the Anti-Jacobin issues the strongest prohibition against Smith’s political writing with the clearest gendered implications:
  32. The political opinions and sentiments are unconstitutional, and would be dangerous, were they not so trite and frivolous….  As an amusing describer of private life, and an affecting representer of interesting situations, considerable praise is due to Mrs. Smith; but we must whisper in her ear that she has not any depth in political philosophy. (AJR 1 (98):189) 

    As in the treatment of Reeve’s historical fiction, the disciplinary divisions emerge much more forcibly in this passage than in earlier reviews of Smith’s political fiction.  The critic asserts a gendered propriety for novels, which consist of amusing descriptions of private life and the affections, while he claims that a female author reaches beyond her sphere and presumably into the public, masculine domain when she tries to write political philosophy.  Given the hostile climate for political writing and its pointedly gendered focus following the death of Wollstonecraft in 1997 (and the publication of the Memoirs of her life by Godwin shortly thereafter), this Anti-Jacobin critic maintains a bemused and condescending tone toward Smith while at the same time registering her opinions as a vague threat.  The critic minimizes the unconstitutionality and danger of Smith’s writing by dismissing its intellectual import as “trite and frivolous,” the very same gendered adjectives applied to Reeve.  Still, this critic does not entirely dismiss Smith, and he offers her advice predicated on this gendered disciplinary division so as to encourage her successful representation of useful domesticity:

    With her talents we think that she may still produce entertainment, and even advantage to society, if she will abstain from politics. . . . The best of our female novelists interferes not with church nor state.  There are no politics in Evelina or Cecilia (sic). (AJR 1 (98):190)

    The article chillingly proposes a quid pro quo for female novelists: abstain from politics and be assured of the literary patronage of the reviewer.  The terms of critical evaluation appear to have changed from the relative merits of an author’s skill and understanding to the propriety of the author’s accession to specific forms of knowledge.  Furthermore, the consequences for literary conformity seem higher.  The churl and graybeard give way to the political censor who appears to wield the power of future success or erasure.

  33. In the same year, reviews of Mary Robinson’s novel, Walsingham (1798) explicitly echo the comments on Smith’s novels:
  34. Her judgement is frequently distorted by very false notions of politics.  Like Charlotte Smith, she has conceived a very high opinion of the wisdom of the French philosophers, and, like many other female writers, as well as superficial male writers, she considers the authority of those whom she admires as equivalent to argument (AJR 1 (98):161).

    Here, as before, gender plays a role in establishing disciplinary divisions between politics and novels, but we can identify a more precise feminization of Jacobin political views as well.Masculine politics, by implication, are British, conservative and considered.  Like Smith, from whom little information can be expected, women writers in this review only superficially understand politics.  Robinson stands in for a phenomenon of liberal, female authors, and the critic dismisses her work by packaging it as such.  Significantly, these reviews posit gender as a determinant in intellectual quality.  As a critic says in a review of The False Friend (1799), when Robinson “attempted to dive into moral and political causes, she went far beyond her depth” (AJR 3 (99): 39).   The disciplines of religion and politics prove to be too deep and complex for female aptitudes.  Although the Anti-Jacobin reviews articulate the most extreme of conservative and gendered opinions, the gestures of disciplinary division underscored or aided by established gendered constructions resonate with other journals and critics.  These examples share the impulse to separate and define the literary field apart from other intellectual fields – be it politics, history, or religion – and they employ gendered distinctions to do so.  The Anti-Jacobin reviews also abandon the curmudgeonly critical character, and their reviews ring with hostility and vehemence aimed at disciplining the female author into specifically private and domestic intellectual arenas.

    III.               Eschewing the personal

  35. Given that critics tend to see private life and manners as the most secure realm of the novel, it is perhaps surprising that an author’s representation of her private life receives nearly universal critical censure.  On the other hand, efforts to establish critical standards by which the reviewer will be “no respecter of persons” suggests a desire to maintain detachment from the author’s personal life.   Engaging the personal in literature and criticism, consequently, provides a third locus of conflict where gender intersects with emerging professional standards.  Commonly, a female author’s personal reference, whether voiced through satire, sentimental appeal, or allusion, engenders reproach from otherwise well-mannered critics. 
  36. In one instance, the author’s mode of addressing the personal in her fiction makes her a target for personal abuse in the reviews.  Frances Brooke’s ­The Excursion (1777) is a satire on Chesterfieldian morals and the hypocrisy of the bon ton.  It was, perhaps, her misfortune to include in her novel an extended portrayal of David Garrick as a pompous, narrow-minded tyrant of stage management who thoughtlessly dashes the hopes of the novel’s ingénue female playwright.  It is a story that apparently resembled Brooke’s own entrée into the London literary world a little too closely.  Garrick took the opportunity to write the anonymous review of The Excursion in the Monthly, and he clearly used the forum for revenge and self-justification.  His opening gesture toward gallantry rings hollow and suggests the perfunctory ends to which critics put such conventions:
  37. We are sorry, that our supreme regard to truth obliges us to animadvert with more severity than we could wish, on the production of a lady; a lady too, who had by her former publications, justly obtained some degree of fame.  It is with reluctance we confess that the present performance can only pretend to a small share of literary merit; but the spirit and temper which are almost constantly visible throughout the work, deserve a much severer censure. (MR 57 (77):141)

  38.  According to the review, the story’s spirit is “compounded of novel and libel” (141) and its temper is “malice” (142).  Exploiting the anonymity of his review, he includes a self-serving portrait of Garrick as “the best actor in the world” and “a worthy man too” (141) and defends his reputation as a support to genius by citing praise from Mr. Cumberland, Mrs. Griffith, and Mrs. Cowley.  Significantly, he identifies the heroine’s story as Brooke’s own, in that when she came to London some twenty years earlier, she too brought a portmanteau with a tragedy, named Virginia, which never saw production on stage.  This leads Garrick to some mean-spirited allusions comparing Brooke’s heroine’s attractiveness to the physical appearance of the author, who was reportedly not a beauty (Backscheider and Cotton: xxxii). This example suggests the problems that engaging the personal presents for the female author.  By publishing her story, whether it reflects her personal history or not, Brooke invites public criticism; all authors acknowledge as much in their prefatory comments and reflections on the critics.  However, by adopting the mode of satire and using actual, living people as characters in this satire, Brooke clearly oversteps the bounds of polite femininity, and Garrick is quick to use the means of gendered humiliation to discipline her.  Not only does he make prominent her personal story of theatrical failure, but he also posits her physical body as a site for public scrutiny, and, implicitly, public scorn.
  39. In a more humorous vein, George Edward Griffiths treats Elizabeth Inchbald to a mock-harangue for her attempt to represent herself in the preface to A Simple Story.  He coyly suggests that her modesty only heightens her beauty in this self-representation, but he is sincerely pained by her recitation of problems, such as her speech impediment, long years of literary labor, and financial need, all of which, she indicates, prompt the writing of this novel.  While playful, Griffiths’ criticism underscores the dilemmas for a female author who introduces the personal into her published writing:
  40. [B]ut let Mrs. Inchbald now be told, that, for seven years of her life, she has pursued her literary plan, free from an invincible impediment; and she now seems highly favoured by the Muses, though, with a stroke of ingratitude, not uncommon among ladies, she chuses to deny any obligation to her own sex.  We are not inclined to use the tone of rudeness to Mrs. Inchbald:  but, let her say what she will, truth requires that we should tell the world, the Muses have had a hand in her work. (MR 4 (91) 435)

    By a conceit whereby the Muses are a female coterie to which Inchbald belongs, the reviewer places the author in a gendered double-bind: as a female author, convention requires that she demonstrate her modesty as she enters into the public domain, but doing so involves her in a falsehood because she is indeed a very talented writer.  Because Inchbald says she writes from need and not inspiration, the critic can turn requisite female diffidence into a species of female-specific cattiness. His playful mockery complicates the gendered response in his criticism.  Unlike Garrick, Griffith’s token gallantry – “We are not inclined to use the tone of rudeness” – ironically justifies his flattery and makes Inchbald the conspicuous target of his flirtation.   Intriguingly, the preface is withdrawn after the second edition.  Whether the review sufficiently embarrassed her or some other reason prompted its removal, she offered subsequent versions of the novel without her personal preface (Tompkins: note on text). 

  41. By and far, Charlotte Smith attracts the most frequent and most irate responses to the representation of the author’s personal life.  From the earliest reviews of Emmeline throughout her career, critics point to Smith’s pathetic domestic situation, and not without cause.  She frequently includes characters who suffer in a pattern after her own distress, or she pointedly alludes to the outrageous actions of lawyers and family members who deprive her children of their rightful money, as in the preface to Desmond.  She introduces her history, ostensibly to forestall criticism of her work, but instead the representations engender consistent condemnation, from political foe and friend alike.  After addressing the author’s changing political ideas in the disappointed review of Smith’s Banished Man, the Analytical reviewer adds: "that we cannot think it any recommendation of this novel, that the authoress has so frequently introduced allusions to her own affairs" (AR 20 (94) 255).  On the other side, the politically satisfied British Critic similarly condemns Smith’s self-representation:
  42. The only reprehensible part of the work before us, is the extreme eagerness with which our irritated and perhaps injured novelist introduces her own story, and paints, with pencils dipped in corrosive sublimate, those persons (respectable ones, and her own relations) who have been concerned in her affairs. ( BC 4 (94): 623)

  43. The critic’s strong response to Smith’s self-representation overrides an otherwise solid endorsement of the novel: it is the only reprehensible part of the work.  Given the political sympathy the review expresses for the novel, Smith’s violation of an emerging code is severe indeed.  Moreover, the critic objects to the “eagerness” with which she pursues the personal.  The critic’s adjectives indicate three separate but overlapping codes that inform the prohibition of the personal.  As a woman, Smith should be pleasant, not irritated.  Her novel should be pleasing and invented, not corrosive and implicated in real life.  Finally, as a morally responsible individual, she should never expose her own family to infamy.  The prohibition of the personal involves gendered propriety, generic standards and moral principles. 
  44. The Anti-Jacobin review of Smith’s The Young Philosopher, which so starkly outlines the political choices for the successful novelist, underscores the connection between the prohibition of the personal and the danger of democracy.  This review begins with an outline of the personal details Smith introduces into each of her novels, claiming “Her desire of obtruding on the public her own private history, has given a sameness to her tales, which much less genius than she can boast, might have easily avoided” (AJR (98): 187).  Her “egotism” is a terrible literary fault, but it causes a more egregious moral one when she sketches her husband as the reprobate character of Mr. Stafford:  “We must here remark, that whatever her husband’s foibles might be, it was her duty not to blazen them abroad, but to conceal them, as far as possible, from the eyes of the world” (187).  Such admonition for this female form of concealment is of a piece with his prescription for amusing and affective novels of private life.  Her moral failing directly follows from her failure to remain within the gendered spheres of domesticity, and both the political and the moral flaws determine his literary judgment.
  45. The British Critic draws a general conclusion that sums up the tendency in these particular critical confrontations: “Private history should not be introduced for public perusal” (BC 4 (94): 623).  These critics universally endorse the self-censorship of the author, a consensus that raises interesting possibilities for the emergence of professional standards for female authors.  The demand for an author’s silence regarding herself may function primarily as a gendered dictate for female modesty, or it may function primarily as a generic criteria for the novel as an imaginative work of art.  The prohibition of the personal may reflect moral standards that seek to keep private concerns safe from the dangers of general public evaluation.  All of these are true.  Additionally, we might see the call to censor the self in published writing as part of the move toward professionalism, as Wollstonecraft apparently did when she urged Mary Hays to limit her self-representation in her prefaces and critical reviews.  Mary A. Waters writes, that “In her anonymous reviews, … Wollstonecraft had learned to present herself as credible in a masculine discourse addressing a broad audience, and her experience shows in her counsel to Hays” (Waters: 424).   When Wollstonecraft advises Hays to eliminate prefatory compliments she received on Letters and Essays, she explains, “till a work strongly interests the public true modesty should keep the author in the background” (Collected Letters, 219-20, quoted in Waters, 2004: 424).  In one sense, a woman writer risks trivialization and marginalization when she writes from the position of explicit femaleness.  As evidenced in reviews by churls and graybeards, she clearly did not gain leniency by asserting her femininity.  Moreover, if she wanted to participate in the masculine fields of knowledge, whether history, politics, or even book reviewing, her professional demeanor only gained respect by minimizing the feminine in her writing.  The prohibition of the personal in female authors’ published writing at the end of the century seems over determined by the intersection of gendered propriety, literary standards, and moral principles, but it is perhaps less apparent that this self-censorship also aids the female author in achieving a public professional identity.  
  46. *****

  47. The moments of conflict highlighted in this article indicate a fundamental dialogue and interaction between the changing discourses of gender and literary criticism.  Significantly, this conflation of gendered and literary values in the critical discourse occurs precisely at the moment when female authors briefly appear to dominate the field of novelists (Raven, 2000: 48).  While female authors are only part of the great expansion of the print world in the eighteenth century, their presence creates unique problems for critics in their attempt to establish standards and conventions for a reputable profession of writing.  The prevalence of female novelists pushes book reviewers to abandon social codes defined by gender, in particular gallantry, in favor of a discourse of critical “truth.”  The repetition of this conflict between gallantry and criticism forces critics to define for themselves a stronger position as judge than they were at first willing to undertake.  The churlish character of the critic adumbrates, in part, the opinion journals that would come to dominate literary criticism of the nineteenth century.  Unfortunately for female authors, the rhetorical strategy that abandoned gallantry also provided a template for anti-female prejudice in its place, as seen in the churlish response to Robinson’s Vancenza in the Critical Review.   Innovative female novelists prompted book reviewers to define the terms of their literary evaluation, in particular when the women experimented with historical and political fiction, because their works presented both generic and gendered transgressions.  In Keen’s formulation, these reviews witness the ways in which female authors threatened the republic of letters with their accession to its privileges.  The examples of Reeve and Smith offer insight into the complex ways in which gender informed the literary judgment of reviewers in their articulation of politically charged disciplinary divisions.  At the end of the century, the novel emerges in its conservative assessment as the safe and profitable domain of feminine domesticity.  Reviewers insist, however, that although the novel properly investigates private life, it clearly should not be the author’s own.  The prohibition against the representation of the personal in published works derives from multiple, overlapping discourses that veil the female author in discreet ways.  While the critical discourse endows the successful female author with fame and a professional reputation, it does so according to increasingly strict requirements of gender propriety, as indicated most starkly in the Anti-Jacobin review of Smith’s Young Philosopher
  48. Like Guest, we can conclude that women, and in this case female novelists, maintain a complex relation to public political identities by the end of the eighteenth century.  The female novelist’s public status as a professional writer was in some cases paradoxically contingent on remaining within a specifically domestic or private arena and masking her gender and private life.  Reviews of novels by women in the eighteenth century provide an opportunity to see how critics try to resolve sticky problems of gender, literature and shared public values.  Such moments offer glimpses of the cultural articulation of new codes.  Despite the outcome in succeeding years, the “Great Forgetting” that erases the memory of these vital female authors, the reviews examined here demonstrate that in the give and take between professional standards of the art and gendered codes of proper behavior, the efforts of female novelists played an important role in the emergence of the critical categories of literature.

Laura L. Runge – University of South Florida

This article is copyright © of the author, and is the result of the independent labour of the scholar or scholars credited with authorship. The material contained in this document may be freely distributed, as long as the origin of information used has been properly credited in the appropriate manner (e.g. through bibliographic citation, etc


[1] As is customary, throughout the article, the word “Review” is used to signify a type of journal, whereas “review” indicates an individual article or essay.  The following abbreviations have been used in the citations:  MR for Monthly Review, CR for Critical Review, ER for English Review, AR for Analytical Review, BC for British Critic, AJR for Anti-Jacobin Review, and EM for European Magazine, also known as the London Review. [back]

[2] For general information on eighteenth-century book reviews, see Forster’s introductions to both Index to Book Reviews in England 1749-1774, and Index to Book Reviews in England 1775-1800.  For information on how eighteenth-century reviews differ from the early nineteenth-century reviews, see Roper, Reviewing Before the Edinburgh 1788-1802. [back]

[3] For example, the following titles have been consulted: English Review, Analytical Review, British Critic, Anti-Jacobin Review; Gentleman's, London, Town and Country and European magazines; New General Magazine, Monthly Mirror, Monthly Visitor, New Review, and New Annual Register. [back]

[4] Those mainly considered are Frances Burney, Frances Brooke, Sarah Fielding, Eliza Haywood, Elizabeth Inchbald, Charlotte Lennox, Ann Radcliffe, Clara Reeve, Mary Robinson, Sarah Scott, Frances Sheridan, Charlotte Smith and Mary Wollstonecraft. For contrast, reviews of work by Georgiana Cavendish, Amelia Opie, Annabella and Anne Plumptre, Mary Ann Radcliffe, Maria Elizabeth Robinson and a few others are considered. [back]

Works Cited and consulted

Backscheider, Paula and Hope D. Cotton. 1997. “Introduction.” The Excursion by Frances Brooke,  ed. Backscheider and Cotton. Lexington: UP of Kentucky.

Butler, Marilyn. 1975. Jane Austen and the War of Ideas. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Forster, Antonia. 1990. Index to Book Reviews in England 1749-1774. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP.

-----. 1997 Index to Book Reviews in England 1775-1800. London: The British Library.

Donoghue, Frank. 1996.  The Fame Machine: Book Reviewing and Eighteenth-Century Literary Careers. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP.

Guest, Harriet. 2000. Small Change: Women, Learning, Patriotism, 1750-1810. Chicago: U Chicago P.

Johnson, Claudia L. 1995. Equivocal Beings: Politics, Gender, and Sentimentality in the 1790s. Chicago: U Chicago P.

Keen, Paul. 1999.  The Crisis of Literature in the 1790s: Print Culture and the Public Sphere.  Cambridge Studies in Romanticism 36.  New York: Cambridge UP.

Raven, James. 2000. “Historical Introduction: the Novel Comes of Age,” The English Novel 1770-1829: A Bibliographical Survey of Prose Fiction Published in the British Isles, ed. James Raven, Antonia Forster, and Stephen Bending. Vol. I: 1770-1799, Gen. Eds. Peter Garside, James Raven and Rainer Schowerling, 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford UP: 15-121.

Roper, Derek. 1978. Reviewing Before the Edinburgh 1788-1802. Newark, DE: U Delaware P.

Runge, Laura. (forthcoming) “Momentary Fame: Female Novelists in Eighteenth-Century Book Reviews.” Blackwell’s The Eighteenth-Century Novel: Companion to Literature and Culture, ed. Paula Backscheider and Catherine Ingrassia. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Siskin, Clifford. 1998. The Work of Writing: Literature and Social Change in Britain 1700-1830. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP.

Temple, Kathryn. 2000. “‘Manly Composition’: Hume and the History of England," Feminist Interpretations of Hume, ed. Anne Jaap Jacobson. University Park, PA.: Pennsylvania State UP: 263–282.

Tompkins, J. M. S. (ed.). 1967, 1988. Elizabeth Inchbald’s A Simple Story  Intro. Jane Spencer. Oxford: Oxford UP.

Ty, Eleanor. 1998. Empowering the Feminine: The Narratives of Mary Robinson, Jane West, and Amelia Opie, 1796-1812. Toronto: U Toronto P.

Waters, Mary A. 2004. “’The First of a New Genius’: Mary Wollstonecraft as a Literary Critic and Mentor to Mary Hays.” Eighteenth-Century Studies. 37.3: 415-434.

Woolf,  D. H. 1997. “A Feminine Past?  Gender, Genre, and Historical Knowledge in England, 1500–1800.” American Historical Review (June): 645–679. 





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