Orianne Smith (Chicago, Loyola University), British Women Writers and Eighteenth-Century Representations of the Improvisatrice
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.