In a dialogue between Anne Elliot, the heroine of Jane Austen’s 1818 novel Persuasion, and Captain Harville, Harville seeks to defend the greater constancy of men by “‘observ[ing] that all histories are against you--all stories, prose and verse.’” Anne disagrees, pointing to the bias of his sources:
‘Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.’
Women of Austen’s day voiced their belief that histories “‘were all written by men.’” They also actively sought to tell their own stories. Our spotlight series for Women’s History Month focuses on a just a few of these important and collective efforts, as women took the pen in their hands.
It helps to begin by asking, what precisely is meant by the yoking of women and history? Asked to speak at Cambridge on the subject of “Women and Fiction” in 1929, Virginia Woolf struggled with the capaciousness of the subject, and the question of Women and History is equally large. To paraphrase Woolf’s comments in her lecture, we might say that women and history might mean women and what their history has been; or it might mean women and the histories that they write; or it might mean women and the histories that are written about them; or it might mean that somehow all three are inextricably mixed together. Our spotlight series considers all of these threads, as well as their inevitable entanglement.
The spotlight series launches today, March 12, with "Cataloguing Catharine Macaulay", Kate Moffatt’s consideration of Catharine Macaulay’s eight-volume The History of England, which appeared during a twenty-year period between 1763 and 1783. Macaulay is a natural starting point for the series, as her foray into what had formerly been an exclusively male realm stirred controversy. As the first Englishwoman to become an historian, Moffatt considers her use of sources and the reception of her major achievement.
On March 15, Isabelle Burrows considers Felicia Hemans’s 1828 Records of Woman. With Other Poems in her spotlight, "Leaving Something Immortal: History in Felicia Hemans's Records of Woman." As Hemans's most commercially successful book of poems, the volume demonstrates her interest in women’s domestic lives, and her belief that it was a “woman’s heart,” that “Outlives the cities of renown” (“Image in Lava”).
On Mar. 19, Amanda Law’s spotlight, "Taking Up the Cause: Mary Hays's Female Biography," will examine Mary Hays’s 6 volume Female Biography; or, Memoirs of Illustrious and Celebrated Women, of All Ages and Countries (1803), which includes records for 300 women.
On Mar. 26 Caelen Campbell explores women's natural history writing aimed at juvenile readers by way of Charlotte Smith's A Natural History of Birds Intended Chiefly for Young Persons (make sure you check out the illustration of the parrot).
Our spotlight series ends on April 2 with a spotlight on Lucy Aikin by Michelle Levy, "Lucy Aikin, Feminist History, and the ‘Sisterhood of Womankind’." This spotlight brings specific attention to Aikin’s writing on women’s history, her 1810 epic poem, Epistles on Women, Exemplifying their Character and Condition in Various Ages and Nations and her Memoirs of the Court of Queen Elizabeth (1818). Through extensive research, Aikin sought to rewrite histories that had been told about women, from Eve in Genesis to England’s greatest Queen.
This month’s episode of The WPHP Monthly Mercury will also consider how women engaged with capturing history — how it is recorded, curated, influenced, and rewritten. Guest Kate Ozment will be joining hosts Kate Moffatt and Kandice Sharren to talk about Delarivier Manley, author of the famous ‘secret histories’ The New Atalantis and The Adventures of Rivella, which represent fictionalized versions of contemporary political scandals. Tune in on March 17 to listen to Episode 10: A Brief and Scandalous History of Delarivier Manley!-