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British Women Writers and Eighteenth-Century Representations of the Improvisatrice

  1. In her Letters from Italy, Mariana Starke-the poet, playwright and travel writer-notes that Florence has been the birthplace of some of the most influential Italians throughout the ages, including Dante, Petrarch, Machiavelli, Galileo and, rather surprisingly (at least to us now), Corilla, the eighteenth-century improvisatrice (1.299). Starke's estimation of the significance of Corilla's talents was not a minority opinion. As the most famous improvisatrice in the eighteenth century, Corilla Olimpica was regularly feted by royalty, and the most distinguished visitors to Florence vied for admission to her receptions. Even the popular travel writer John Moore, who took a dim view of the phenomenon of improvisatori in general, makes an exception for Corilla when he gives a glowing account of her performance:

    After much entreaty, a subject being given, she began, accompanied by two violins, and sung her unpremeditated strains with great variety of thought and elegance of language. The whole of her performance lasted above an hour, with three or four pauses, of about five minutes each, which seemed necessary, more that she might recover her strength and voice, than for recollection; for . . . nothing could have more the air of inspiration, or what we are told of the Pythian Prophetess. At her first setting out, her manner was sedate, or rather cold; but gradually becoming animated, her voice rose, her eyes sparkled, and the rapidity and beauty of her expressions and ideas seemed supernatural (2.177-78).

    The connection that Moore makes between Corilla and the Delphian oracle was typical of how the figure of the improvisatrice was perceived by Britons before she became shorthand for the suffering female artist in the early nineteenth century. To the British imagination, the improvisatrice represented a type of female genius directly associated with an historical tradition of women visionaries that predated, and perhaps even superseded, the Pauline injunction against women: "But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence" (1 Timothy 2.12). Given the tensions surrounding enthusiasm and women in Britain in the eighteenth-century, the general approval and widespread acceptance of Corilla in England as a public figure seems somewhat contradictory. But Corilla's foreignness, even her aura of pagan mysticism, exempted her from the intense scrutiny to which British women were subjected. She was exotic without being threatening-a contemporary Sappho who enthralled an international audience with her displays of wit and charm.

  2. Significantly, when British women writers attempted to appropriate the model of the improvisatrice, this climate of approval disappeared abruptly. What worked for Corilla in Italy proved a double-edged sword for Romantic women writers in England. Although positioning themselves as improvisatrice established a precedent for their public endeavors, this model of spontaneous public performance also exposed British women writers such as Hester Lynch Piozzi, Mary Robinson, and Letitia Landon to accusations of immorality and enthusiasm. In a time of political and social instability, the idea of the improvisatrice, when translated into a British idiom, brought with it uncomfortable memories of a less benign precedent for women's contributions to public life: the sectarian female prophets of the Civil War decades. During this period of profound religious and political upheaval, a series of women visionaries-compelled by the urgency of the moment-launched themselves into the public sphere, offered themselves as intermediaries between God and his people, and interpreted contemporary political events as the catastrophic ushering in of the Last Days predicted in the book of Revelation. Calling themselves the handmaids of God, these women visionaries cited the passage from Joel to assert their rights to publish and prophesy in an era of revolution: "And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and daughters shall prophesy . . . and also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit" (2.28-9). The apocalyptic speculations which swept through England after the French Revolution created an opportunity for women to once again assume the mantle of the female prophetess. However, assertions by women of divine or secular inspiration were treated with suspicion by Britons, mindful of the precedent of the Civil War prophetesses and fearful of the contagion of revolution. British women writers who represented themselves as improvisatrice were, therefore, viciously attacked by critics, who associated their claims of innate sensibility with the radical religious and political enthusiasm of the seventeenth-century regicides.
  3. This essay explores the appropriation of the figure of the improvisatrice by British women writers within the context of the vexed notion of sensibility in England at the end of the eighteenth century: investigating the appeal of the model of the improvisatrice to millenarian thinkers like Hester Lynch Piozzi, and discussing the attempts by other writers such as Hannah More to purge female sensibility of its radical associations. In the first section, I suggest that the exemplar of Corilla's public and impromptu display of genius, set against the backdrop of the political and social crisis in Florence in the 1780s, inspired Piozzi's self-representation as an improvisatrice and political prophet in The Florence Miscellany. I contend that Piozzi's decision to deliberately invoke the figure of the improvisatrice, in spite of its subversive political and religious connotations for Britons, illustrates her awareness, and strategic exploitation, of the pivotal role of the model of the improvisatrice within the gendered debate over the nature and source of true inspiration in a time of revolution. This debate became increasingly censorious after the French Revolution, as I demonstrate in the final section, when writers like More, concerned about the contagion of French sentiments and atheism transmitted through the medium of modern novels, warned the women of England about the dangers of an unregulated and unregenerate sensibility. In spite of its ostensibly apolitical and pagan roots, during the 1790s, the model of the improvisatrice became overtly politicized, and linked to what was perceived as a plague of dangerous precedents for female literary authority in the eighteenth century which threatened to undermine the moral and social stability of England.
  4. The controversy over the connections between gender, enthusiasm, and politics began during the Civil War decades, when a series of women, united solely by their shared conviction that they were the vehicles for God's messages to his people, catapulted themselves into the public sphere. Although the phenomenon of the female prophet can be found throughout Judeo-Christian history, and can arguably be traced back even further back to the sibyls of antiquity, the Civil War created a new and entirely different type of woman visionary. Written in a time of extreme uncertainty about the future of England, the prophecies by the seventeenth-century female prophets tended to be political and apocalyptic in content. The Fifth Monarchist Mary Cary petitioned two members of Parliament to read her interpretation of the socio-political conditions in England as the fulfillment of St. John's prophecy in the book of Revelation. Couching her argument in apocalyptic language, Grace Cary (no relation) warned Charles I not to trust Archbishop Laud and Queen Henrietta Maria, and tried to persuade Parliament to reconcile with the king. In her address to the Council chamber in 1649, the female prophet Elizabeth Poole condemned the monarch, but cautioned Oliver Cromwell against regicide.[1] These women and many others believed that they were writing and prophesying during a critical juncture in British history-a point in which sacred and secular history converged-and this shared belief gave their prophetic discourse a political edge and provided them with an audience willing to listen to their interpretations of God's will.
  5. In the wake of the Civil War, charges of enthusiasm in the Restoration and the early eighteenth century were reactionary and protective of the status quo.[2] During the course of the eighteenth century, enthusiasm came to be positively identified with the cult of sensibility and the powers of the imagination; yet, in the Romantic period, as Jon Mee has recently argued, the rehabilitation of enthusiasm was still motivated by the fear of becoming what one meant to be transforming. This fear, I suggest, was particularly toxic in the case of Romantic women writers, since women were already considered emotionally more vulnerable than men in the eighteenth century, and, it was thought, could easily succumb to the vulgar and degenerate aspects of enthusiasm unless carefully policed. The case was regarded as more serious still for women writing in the age of sensibility, whose capricious imaginations were thought to be doubly susceptible to the dangers of fancy and feeling.
  6. The difficulty of weeding out the more pernicious aspects of enthusiasm while retaining its beneficent qualities is apparent in Hannah More's essay, "On the Danger of Sentimental or Romantic Connexions," written in 1778. Early in the essay, More describes sentiment as "the varnish of virtue," which serves only to "conceal the deformity of vice." Later, however, she makes a distinction between the show of false sentiment and "genuine sentiment" or enthusiasm:

    But notwithstanding I have spoken with some asperity against sentiment as opposed to principle, yet I am convinced, that true genuine sentiment, (not the sort I have been describing) may be so connected with principle, as to bestow on it its brightest lustre, and its most captivating graces. And enthusiasm is so far from being disagreeable, that a portion of it is perhaps necessary in an engaging woman
    . . . I will even go so far as to assert, that a young woman cannot have any real greatness of soul, or the true elevation of principle, if she has not a tincture of what the vulgar would call Romance, but which persons of a certain way of thinking will discern to proceed from those fine feelings, and that charming sensibility, without which, though a woman may be worthy, yet she can never be amiable (Works 6.295-307).

    More's awkwardness when she attempts to clarify her position demonstrates the ambiguous social status of female sensibility and enthusiasm in the second half of the eighteenth century. The problem for More was a problem of proportion and control: carefully regulated sensibility was a desirable and necessary attribute in an exemplary woman, but undisciplined and excessive sensibility could easily degenerate into a vulgar and dangerous enthusiasm.

  7. It is in the context of the semantic instability of sensibility, and the difficulty of properly recognizing and evaluating it, that some Romantic women writers, casting about for positive models for literary authority, gravitated towards the figure of the improvisatrice. This was the case for Hester Lynch Piozzi who met Corilla at a crucial moment in her personal and professional life. Hester Thrale's proposed second marriage at the age of 43 to Gabriel Piozzi-a Catholic, a foreigner, and a musician-had scandalized London society, including her closest friends and relatives. Samuel Johnson wrote her a letter pleading with her to change her mind, and when Piozzi refused, the formidable lexicographer ended their friendship of twenty years. One by one, Piozzi's friends amongst the Bluestockings, including Elizabeth Montagu, Sarah Scott, and Elizabeth Vesey, dropped her socially. Even her own daughter, Queeney, publicly denounced her mother's decision and took steps to declare herself the guardian of her younger siblings. Undeterred, Hester Thrale became Hester Lynch Piozzi on July 23, 1784.
  8. For their honeymoon, the Piozzis spent two and a half years, from September, 1784, to March, 1787, on a Grand Tour, leisurely exploring France, Germany and Italy. Like most eighteenth-century travelers, Hester Lynch Piozzi considered the trip to Italy the most important part of the Continental Tour. For many Britons, visiting Italy was like being able to take a time machine back through time, tracing the history of mankind through the ruins of Rome and the art of the High Renaissance. This experience tended to reinforce their belief in the inevitable progress of the world-and the superiority of British culture to anything that has come before-and they returned home to England with a comfortable sense of complacency. Piozzi's thoughts, however, took her in an entirely different direction. What she saw in Italy was evidence that convinced her of the historical accuracy of the biblical account of the Deluge, and corroborated her suspicions that the world, instead of progressing, was actually in a state of steady decline.
  9. In the spring of 1785, Hester Piozzi was given the opportunity to view a collection of petrified fish in Verona. As she writes in the published account of her travels, Observations and Reflections Made in the Course of a Journey through France, Italy, and Germany (1789), these fossils struck her as unquestionable proof that the Deluge had happened just as it was recorded in the Bible:

    Nothing in natural history appears more worthy the consideration of the learned world, than does this repository of petrefactions, so uncommon that scarcely any thing except the testimony of one's own eyes could convince one that flying fish, natives, and intending to remain inhabitants, of the Pacific Ocean, are daily dug out of the bowels of Monte Bolca near Verona, where they must doubtless have been driven by the deluge, as no less than omnipotent power and general concussion could have sufficed to seize and fix them for centuries in the hollow cavities of a rock at least seventy-two miles from the nearest sea (69).

    Piozzi notes that the owner of the collection, Vincenzo Bozza, tells her that she is the first person to attribute the petrified fish to the flood described in Genesis, and that most people thought that their existence merely showed that the world was eternal and unchanging. This explanation, writes an indignant Piozzi, was "repugnant to faith" and "the Doctrines of Revelation; which prophesied long ago, that in the last days should come scoffers, walking after their own lusts, and saying, Where is now the promise of his coming? for since the time that our fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation" (69).
  10. Piozzi met Corilla several months later in the summer of 1785. I suggest that Piozzi's increasing conviction that the world was poised on the brink of Apocalypse-linking her to the millenarianism of the Civil War decades and the early modern tradition of female prophecy-contributed to her subsequent recasting of the figure of the improvisatrice as a political prophet in The Florence Miscellany. Piozzi's uncertain social status in England and her desire to launch her own career as a professional writer immediately attracted her to the famous improvisatrice. What impressed Piozzi the most about Corilla was how her genius and enthusiasm seemed to triumph over social prejudice, writing in Observations and Reflections that

    Mankind is at last more just to people of talents than is universally allowed, I think. Corilla, without pretensions either to immaculate character (in the English sense), deep erudition, or high birth, which an Italian esteems above all earthly things, has so made her way in the world, that all the nobility of both sexes crowd to her house; that no Prince passes through Florence without waiting on Corilla; that the Capital will long recollect her being crowned there, and that many sovereigns have not only sought her company, but have been obliged to put up with slights from her independent spirit, and from her airy, rather than haughty behaviour (1.161).

    In addition to her ambiguous social status, Corilla-whose real name was Maria Maddalena Morelli Fernandez-was also rumored to have abandoned her husband and children for her career, and although Piozzi describes her as old, Corilla was actually very close in age to Piozzi. Despite the fact that Piozzi took great pride in her own roots as landed gentry, the similarities between her situation and that of Corilla must have been striking.

  11. Witnessing Corilla's tremendous success in the public sphere-overcoming many of the kinds of obstacles that Piozzi herself faced-was an incentive for Piozzi to begin writing professionally. Significantly, that summer in Florence marked the beginning of Piozzi's literary career. While hundreds of visitors flocked to Corilla's house to witness her performances, Piozzi became the center of her own salon on a much smaller scale, a literary coterie, which included the British expatriates Bertie Greatheed, William Parsons, and Robert Merry, as well as the Italian poets Ippolito Pindemonte, Count D'Elci, and Lorenzo Pignotti. In a letter to her daughter Queeney, Piozzi described herself and her new friends as "verse mad," and confided to a friend that "I have been playing the baby, and writing nonsense to divert our English friends here, who do the same thing themselves, and swear they will print the collection" (Thrale 202; Bloom and Bloom 1.160). As Jerome McGann, Judith Pascoe, and a number of other critics have recently reminded us, this important collection, The Florence Miscellany, was privately printed at the end of the summer, with Piozzi as one of the principal contributors, writing the preface, the conclusion and eight poems.[3]
  12. In the preface, Piozzi describes The Florence Miscellany as a spontaneous, inspired performance-a form of entertainment as seemingly apolitical as the art of the improvisatori-and claims that she and her friends wrote it merely to "divert ourselves, and say kind things of each other" (5). What Hester Piozzi omits here and in her letters back to England is any mention of its explicit political content. The Florence Miscellany was written as a response to the closing of the Accademia della Crusca in 1783 by the Habsburg Grand Duke Leopold. Because of the academy's significance as the repository of national literature, many Italian patriots-including the Italian poets who contributed to the collection-were infuriated at what they believed to be the ultimate expression of despotic rule. While Piozzi's biographer, James Clifford, accepts her denial of the radical political subtext of this work, stating that she "was completely oblivious of various undercurrents which influenced much of the writing of her fellow contributors," since the meetings of these Italian nationalists and their British supporters took place in her home, it is hard to believe that Piozzi was being anything but disingenuous (251).
  13. On the contrary, although Piozzi felt the need to downplay the political nature of this project, her position in the center of the group as the muse for the other (male) poets, her excitement at the recognition of her own talents as a writer, and her recent encounter with Corilla, compelled her to don the mantle of the improvisatrice, a role that had, as we've seen, profound political implications for a British woman. Like the sectarian women prophets during the Civil War, Piozzi could justify her presence in the public sphere by claiming that extraordinary times called for extraordinary measures, and like the eighteenth-century improvisatrice, she could defend her public performance as her participation in a long-standing tradition of female enthusiasm that predated Christianity.
  14. This heady mixture of divine inspiration and female enthusiasm is apparent in the poetry Piozzi contributed to The Florence Miscellany, including her "Imitation of an Italian Sonnet on an Air Balloon":

    In empty space behold me hurl'd
    The sport and wonder of the World;
    Who eager gaze while I aspire
    Expanded with aerial fire.

    And since Man's selfish race demands
    More empire than the seas or lands;
    For him my courage mounts the skies,
    Invoking Nature while I rise.

    Mother of all! if thus refin'd,
    My flights can benefit Mankind;
    Let them by me new realms prepare,
    And take possession of the air.

    But if to ills alone I lead,
    Quickly, oh quick let me recede,
    Or blaze, a splendid exhibition,
    A beacon for their mad Ambition! (57)

    What begins as a rather typical poem about human greed that fuels empire-building quickly becomes apocalyptic in Piozzi's hands. The question of whether the air balloon -a symbol for progress and the ideals of the Enlightenment-will "benefit Mankind" has evaporated by the end of the poem, and is replaced by "a splendid exhibition" of a balloon bursting into flames.

  15. Piozzi's transformation from improvisatrice to political prophet in a climate of revolution is a significant early example of how the atmosphere of social and political instability could cause these two precedents for female literary authority to coalesce in the imaginations of Britons in the eighteenth century. Any hopes that Piozzi had of masking the revolutionary subtext of The Florence Miscellany from the British public were dashed after the revolution in France when the radical political dimensions of Piozzi's poetic experiment in Florence were thrown into high relief. Piozzi's representation of herself as an inspired prophet and improvisatrice in The Florence Miscellany was one of the triggers that provoked William Gifford's infamous vitriolic attacks on the Della Cruscan movement in The Baviad (1790) and The Maeviad (1795). What Gifford objected to most about the school of poetry which evolved out of the collaborative efforts of Piozzi, Robert Merry and the others in The Florence Miscellany was its dangerous blend of political and literary enthusiasm, producing

    Abortive thoughts, that right and wrong confound,
    Truth sacrificed to letters, sense to sound,
    False glare, incongruous images, combine;
    And noise and nonsense clatter through the line (Baviad 41-45).

    According to Gifford, the privileging of emotion over and above reason combined with the liberal political sentiments displayed in The Florence Miscellany aligned Piozzi and these other writers with the very worst aspects of female enthusiasm-a dangerous, potentially anarchic, enthusiasm which threatened to undermine the institutionalized authority of church and state.

  16. Gifford's condemnation of Piozzi and the Della Cruscans reflected a dramatic shift after the French Revolution in British attitudes towards precedents like the improvisatrice for female literary authority and genius. Although Piozzi's apocalyptic speculations before the French Revolution were fairly unique, after 1789, many Britons shared her conviction that the social and political convulsions taking place throughout the world at the end of the eighteenth century were signs of imminent Apocalypse, and the formerly benign model of the improvisatrice came to be perceived by conservative writers as a dangerous example of radical female enthusiasm.
  17. One of the most vehement critics of female enthusiasm at the close of the century was Hannah More. Revealingly, after the Revolution, More revised her earlier argument about the merits of sensibility in Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (1799), substituting "propriety" for "sensibility" in her reconfiguration of the requisite attributes of an exemplary woman:

    A woman may be knowing, active, witty, and amusing; but without propriety she cannot be amiable. Propriety is the centre in which all the lines of duty and of agreeableness meet. It is to character what proportion is to figure, and grace to attitude. It does not depend on any one perfection; but it is the result of general excellence (1.15).

    More's emphasis here in 1799 on the necessity of propriety underscored her conviction that the impropriety of modern women writers was a significant factor in the degradation of morals throughout England, particularly evident in the most vulnerable members of the British reading public-young and impressionable women. According to More, the pernicious example of contemporary women authors encouraged naïve young women to abandon their domestic duties and take up the pen:

    Who are those ever multiplying authors, that with unparalleled fecundity are overstocking the world with their quick-succeeding progeny? They are novel-writers; the easiness of whose productions is at once the cause of their own fruitfulness, and of the almost infinitely numerous race of imitators to whom they give birth. Such is the frightful facility of this species of composition, that every raw girl, while she reads, is tempted to fancy that she can also write . . . The glutted imagination soon overflows with the redundance of cheap sentiment and plentiful incident, and by a sort of arithmetical proportion, is enabled by the perusal of any three novels, to produce a fourth; till every fresh production, like the progeny of Banquo, is followed by
    Another, and another, and another! (96-7)

    Anticipating Victor Frankenstein's horror at the thought of a female monster reproducing and threatening the extinction of mankind, in More's Gothic analogy, women's literary production had become a perversion of female reproduction: women writers give birth to monstrous offspring, which in turn create new monsters out of young susceptible female readers.

  18. More's representation of the threat of enthusiasm as the threat of reproduction gives us a better understanding of what was at stake when Corinne was published in 1807. For Britons like Piozzi and More, in a period of revolution, the politicization of the model of the improvisatrice was a foregone conclusion. The radical potential of the performance of spontaneous female genius was perceived as an opportunity by writers like Piozzi, Robinson and Landon to justify their contributions to the public sphere, and as a virulent threat to the social order by More, Gifford and others. While it is easy to read the attacks on female enthusiasm after the French Revolution as nothing more than overly-dramatic histrionics, the precedent of the religious and political enthusiasm of the Civil War visionaries, and Piozzi's recasting of the figure of the improvisatrice as a political prophet in The Florence Miscellany, reveals the political implications of assertions of female genius for British women authors. The figure of the improvisatrice, even in its chastened version in the nineteenth century, inevitably raised the spectre of the dangerous enthusiasm of the tradition of female prophecy-a tradition that continued to reverberate in the self-representations of British women writers in the Romantic period and beyond.




[1] See Mack, Visionary Women 99. [back]
[2] Pathologized by Robert Burton, Henry More and Meric Casaubon, "enthusiasm" was characterized as an infectious disease, or a form of madness, that attacked the lower regions of the body and was especially contagious amongst the lower and middle classes. See Burton 3:371; More, Enthusiasmus Triumphatus; and Casaubon 141-145, 187. [back]
[3] See McGann, The Poetics of Sensibility, chapter 9; Pascoe, Romantic Theatricality, chapter 3; and Jacqueline Labbe, The Romantic Paradox, chapter 2. [back]


Works cited

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Casaubon, Meric. A Treatise proving spirits, witches, and supernatural operations. London: R. Pawlet, 1672.
Clifford, James L. Hester Lynch Piozzi (Mrs. Thrale). Oxford: Clarendon P, 1987.
Gifford, William. The Baviad, and Maeviad. London: J. Wright, 1797.
Labbe, Jacqueline. The Romantic Paradox. New York: St. Martin's P, 2000.
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McGann, Jerome. The Poetics of Sensibility. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1996.
Mee, Jon. Romanticism, Enthusiasm and Regulation: Poetics and the Policing of Culture in the Romantic Period. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003.
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- - - . "On the Danger of Sentimental or Romantic Connexions." Works. London: H. and R. Fisher and P. Jackson, 1833.
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Pascoe, Judith. Romantic Theatricality: Gender, Poetry, and Spectatorship. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1997.
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- - - . Observations and Reflections Made in the Course of a Journey through Italy, and Germany. London: Strahan and Cadell, 1789.
Starke, Mariana. Letters from Italy, between the years 1792 and 1798. London: R. Phillip, 1800.
Thrale, Hester Maria ("Queeney"), The Queeney Letters. Ed. Marquis of Lansdowne. London: Cassell, 1934.


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