If you were to examine a copy of the inaugural edition of the 1962 Norton Anthology of English Literature (NAEL)—which quickly became the leading anthology in the discipline—and turn to the period 1750-1836, you would find exactly one female writer, represented by a single page, from Anne Radcliffe’s four-volume novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). While there can be no question that the canon has been reconfigured in the past half century, it overstates the case to say that these reconfigurations have been revolutionary. The 2012 edition of the Norton includes 16 women for the period 1750-1836, a significant improvement to be sure, but this number is still less than half of the 34 men included from the same period. Moreover, despite the increased representations of individual female authors for the Romantic period in the most recent edition of the NAEL, the selections still constitute less than 22% of total pages (Levy and Perry, 2015, 137).
Of course, no student edition could hope to capture the entire range of women’s involvement in book culture. To date, it has been through a variety of scholarly outputs—anthologies, digital resources, critical editions, biographies, articles, and monographs—that we have begun to reconstruct a more complete understanding of the literature of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries, and women’s prominent place within it after centuries of neglect. Ground-breaking studies, first appearing in the late 1980s, began the process of recovering and reintegrating women into the eighteenth century and Romantic canon (Ferguson, 1985; Spencer, 1986; Spender, 1986; Ross, 1989; Todd, 1989; Landry, 1990; Ezell, 1993; Mellor, 1993, 2000; Gallagher, 1994; Feldman and Kelley, 1995; Beherendt and Linkin, 1999; Guest, 2000; Eger, 2001; Haslett, 2003; Schellenberg, 2005, 2007; Beherendt, 2009). In addition to these important studies, feminist literary historians have revolutionized our understandings of women as literary professionals through their careful examinations of the careers of individual women of the period, including Jane Austen (Fergus, 1991, 1997; Mandal, 2006; Sutherland, 2005, 2013), Frances Burney (Fergus and Thaddeus, 1987; Justice, 2002; Thaddeus, 2000), Maria Edgeworth (Butler, 1972), Sarah Fielding (Schellenberg, 2005); Felicia Hemans (Feldman, 1997; Wolfson, 2000), Mary Robinson (Pascoe, 1995), and Charlotte Smith (Batchelor, 2010; Stanton, 1987). Even larger-scale accounts of women’s literary history—such as Susan Staves’s A Literary History of Women’s Writing in Britain, 1660-1789 (2006) and Paula Backscheider’s Eighteenth-Century Women Poets and Their Poetry: Inventing Agency, Inventing Genre (2005)—understandably devote themselves to careful analysis of a small selection of women’s writing and professional lives. Of the few attempts to survey women’s commercial engagements with print, all are at least twenty years old, and none as a result employ computational approaches (Fergus and Thaddeus, 1987; Stanton, 1988; Turner, 1994).
As important as they have been in aiding the recovery of women writers, critical editions, monographs, articles and even curated digital collections can only cover a small fragment of women active during the period. Early attempts to quantify and theorize women’s contributions to print culture include Raven’s and Garside’s two introductions to their Bibliography of the English novel, 1770-1829; and two articles: “Women and Print Culture, 1780-1830,” and “Do Women Have a Book History?” (Levy, 2010, 2014). These articles, based upon existing sources of data, fail to offer the promise of more rigorous computational approaches enabled by digital resources and tools. According to Devoney Looser:
In this era of big data in the humanities, many have set out to determine just how much women’s writing has been published in English. The Cambridge Orlando database, first released in 2006, included 850 biographical and writing-career entries on British women of all eras. By 2013, that number was up to 1300 and counting. Major online databases such as British Fiction 1800–1829 and The Poetess Archive, as well as magisterial print books on macro-patterns of authorship and publishing, allow for the counting, assessing and comparing of Romantic-era women’s writings. More than half of the 3,000 novels in the British Fiction database have been identified as female-authored, and a list of the most prolific fiction writers shows women outnumbered men four to one. The number of women publishing verse in Romantic-era England, Scotland and Ireland is estimated at 500. Precise accounting will no doubt continue to elude us, as we debate what it is that we ought to count, what it meant to be an author and what publication consisted of, not to mention how to define “Romantic.” But it is beyond questioning that big data is necessary—integral—to our writing better literary histories of this watershed moment for the professional woman writer. (Looser, 2015, 165-6)
The Women’s Print History Project shares Looser’s claim that big data approaches are necessary to usher in the next phase in rewriting women’s literary history. If, as the references Looser cites and our results demonstrate, women authored thousands of books during the period, we need to know more about these women and their books, as well as about women’s involvement in print more broadly, in order to recreate the literary and print history of the period. Our project will also help to situate major figures, about whom a great deal is known, within a much larger field of women about whom little or nothing is known.
Our data-intensive project seeks to answer the very question Looser poses—“just how much women’s writing has been published in English?”—for one of the most explosive periods in the history of the press. We know that, circa 1775, print production as a whole accelerated dramatically. In Britain, between 1750 and 1775, the number of print titles rose by 50%, from 2,000 to 3,000, and between 1775 and 1800, they rose even more sharply, from 3,000 to 8,000, or 167% (Raven, 2007; see also Siskin, 2005). Book historians have for some time sought to explain the print explosion that began around 1775 (Erikson, 1996; Garside, 2000; Raven, 2007; Sher, 2006; St. Clair, 2005), advancing claims about shifts in copyright, technology, and literacy. This scholarship has not made gender integral to its analysis: only one chapter (out of 49) in Volume 5 of The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain 1695–1830 (2009) addresses the topic. Isobel Grundy’s “Women and print: readers, writers and the market asks, “What difference did women make to the book trade during the long eighteenth century?” (146), and reaches the conclusion that much remains unknown. There are reasons to believe that the influx of female authors contributed, possibly significantly, to the print explosion. With quantitative data supplied by the WPHP, we will be able to account for this difference, by observing when, how, and where women’s contributions to the book trade were most significant.
We adopt a focused temporal frame for reasons of practicality, but also to concentrate our attention on a period in which women’s contributions to print underwent consequential expansion. We might recollect Virginia Woolf’s famous, if somewhat hyperbolic, description of women’s entry into print: that sometime “towards the end of the eighteenth century a change came about which, if I were rewriting history, I should describe more fully and think of greater importance than the Crusades or the Wars of the Roses. The middle-class woman began to write” (Woolf, 2004, 18). Of course, women of all classes had been writing for some time, but to assess her hunch—that the late eighteenth-century marks a turning point—we need a more rigorous bibliographical history. We reach back to 1750 in order to trace the rise in women’s contributions to the printed book and see how it tracks against the general rise in printed output. We extend to 1830—as traditional periodization serves us by marking the threshold of the industrialization of the press—even though this attempt to push beyond 1800 presents great challenges, given the lack of bibliographical resources (important exceptions are The English Novel, 1770-1829 and the Jackson Bibliography of Romantic Poetry; see, Suarez, "Historiographical" 145, 147).
By Michelle Levy, Kandice Sharren and Brenna Duperron
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