Gender Studies and Eighteenth-Century British Literature

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A chronological sketch of the kinds of questions and methods characteristic of recent work in eighteenth-century gender studies, drawing on representative book-length studies as examples. It compares the histories and purposes of Women's Studies,
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  Gender Studies and Eighteenth-Century BritishLiterature ToniBowers* Universityof Pennsylvania Abstract A chronological sketch of the kinds of questions and methods characteristic of recentwork in eighteenth-century gender studies, drawing on representative book-lengthstudies as examples. It compares the histories and purposes of    Women’s Studies,Feminist Studies and Gender Studies, and concentrates on critical work dealingwith early novels. What difference does gender make? Since the 1970s, the study of eighteenth-century Anglophone literature has been fundamentally, perhaps permanently,revised by scholars interested in answering that question.   This article tracessome important chapters in the story of that change. It offers a roughlychronological sketch of the kinds of questions and methods characteristicof recent work in eighteenth-century gender studies, drawing on repre-sentative book-length studies as examples. 1 ‘Gender studies’ requires definition.   The youngest of three sisters – Women’s Studies, Feminist Criticism, and Gender Studies – the topic ismarked, like its siblings, by a complex inheritance. But exactly how   it ismarked, and what relations pertain among the three terms, appears quitedifferent depending on where you are standing.‘Women’s studies’ was bornin the 1970s and took its momentum from the larger women’s movementafoot at that time. Scholars of women’s studies work to include female voicesand experiences where once only men’s were significant, and to make anawareness of gender difference part of the intellectual inheritance of their students. In its earliest literary-critical manifestations, women’s studies wasoften occupied with what scholars now call ‘recovery projects’– archivalsleuthing that brought to light the work of female authors whoseachievements had been systematically obscured between the eighteenthcentury and the late twentieth century. 2 Along with this recovery effortcame a new interest in (and valuation of) women’s everyday lives, past andpresent.   Women’s perspectives came to be seen as valuable  per se   by scholarsof women’s studies, some of whom posited a peculiar ‘female imagination’. 3 Today,‘women’s studies’ can carry limiting disciplinary associations for some literary critics. Something of the victim of its own success among social © 2007 The AuthorJournal Compilation © 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd LiteratureCompass 4/4 (2007): 935  –  966, 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2007.00446.x  science researchers, in particular, the very phrase ‘women’s studies’ nowoften suggests work in those disciplines.   And precisely because of its vitalpresence on today’s college and university campuses,‘women’s studies’ alsotends by now to suggest primarily an institutional/pedagogical entity (theWomen’s Studies Department or Program), rather than a creative,theoretically informed critical discourse that crosses disciplinary andinstitutional boundaries.During the 1970s and increasingly in the 1980s, literary critics began totake on board revisionist theories about language, culture, society, andliterature. Scholarly approaches to eighteenth-century texts by and aboutwomen, along with much else, changed. Many literary critics began topractice new methods of analysis: structuralist criticism, poststructuralistcriticism, psychoanalytic, Marxist, and – most relevant to this article – feminist criticism.‘Feminist criticism’ tended to be more oriented towardthe past than women’s studies, and offered theoretically engaged scholars acoherent, interdisciplinary discourse. But feminist criticism could beproblematic, too. Notoriously, leading feminist critics of the early ‘secondwave’ tended to proceed as if the experiences of white, middle-class,well-educated American women like themselves could stand in for theexperiences of all women.   And because it was more theoretically driventhan women’s studies, feminist criticism came to be associated with academic‘high theory’, a set of discourses that came to repel some readers (even whileit fascinated others) by its difficulty and abstraction.   The felt need to bridgea gap between the theoretical abstraction of feminist criticism and the realitiesof real-life women’s experiences can be perceived in titles such as  Applicationsof Feminist Legal Theory to Women’s Lives . 4 ‘Gender studies’, the most recent development, takes in not onlyscholarship concerned with the experiences and utterances of women (paradigmatic subalterns in virtually every culture), but also scholarshipconcerned with broader issues of  gender difference  , especially gay/queer studiesand what is now often called ‘men’s studies’ or ‘studies of masculinity’. For scholars of gender concerned with the construction of dominance andsubalternity in many kind of human relationships, constructions that relyon fictitious binaries such as male/female, straight/gay, civilized/primitive,and so on,‘gender studies’ is a welcome coinage, an apparently moreinclusive way of naming what they do than designations like ‘women’sstudies’ or even ‘feminist criticism’ which, for some, seem to presupposethe very categories of analysis.   Among both self-identified feminist critics(not all of whom align themselves with women’s studies) and practitionersof women’s studies (not all of whom are necessarily feminists), some consider that ‘gender studies’ has its own problems. Particularly for those criticsinvested in writing by women, this strain of criticism can seem to bedangerously co-optable by patriarchal interests, interests still very much aliveand well in scholarship and in institutional structures and procedures.‘Gender studies’ seems to some scholars to threaten the displacement of women’s 936.Gender Studies and Eighteenth-Century British Literature © 2007 The Author Literature Compass 4/4 (2007): 935  –  966, 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2007.00446.xJournal Compilation © 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd  lives and writings as a discrete subject for scholarly analysis, and even perhapsthreatens to become just another name for the kind of scholarship againstwhich both feminist critics and scholars of women’s studies have long struggled.From my own vantage point – that of a late-second-wave, capital-F,unreconstructed Feminist literary critic who has long taught in a universityWomen’s Studies program and who is also  a student of gender as onemanifestation of difference –‘feminist criticism’,‘gender studies’, and‘women’s studies’ can all be useful flags under which to sail.The three termsare not synonymous, but neither need they be mutually exclusive. Instead,they contain points of overlap that can profitably be exploited, and their points of divergence challenge narrowly conformist thinking.‘Women’sstudies’ is most useful, I think, in pedagogical and institutional contexts,while ‘feminist criticism’ and ‘gender studies’, in different ways, name thekinds of work that female-oriented literary and cultural critics engage in.Even so, some readers might think (indeed, one early reader did   think)that this article would more accurately have been called a survey of recent‘feminist’ work.   After all, the article brackets out studies of eighteenth-century masculinities and their representations, has little to say about queer theory or gay studies, and offers a quite obviously feminist critique.   Whythen retain the title I was srcinally asked to write about,‘ Gender Studies and Eighteenth-Century Literature’? I hope my reasons for doing so willhave become clear by the end of the article, but I’ll briefly state them hereanyway.For one thing, though the range of concrete examples I draw on isnecessarily narrowed by my own specialized knowledge, I seek to cast aswide a net as possible. Secondly, though I am a feminist deeply interestedin women’s writing, I also want to suggest a distinction between reductivelygynocentric studies of women’s writings and women as writers, on onehand, and, on the other, studies that remain alive to the fecund predicamentsthat characterize relations of difference  per se   – an enormous, historicallyspecific set of phenomena of which women’s difference, for all its uniquespecificities, is after all only one manifestation. So here is the choice I ammaking: to take difference itself   as my fundamental underlying subject – myanalytical bottom line, as it were – but to treat  gender   difference, particularlyas such difference is constructed in women’s writings during the eighteenthcentury, as a resonant, in some ways unique specimen of that broadphenomenon.At the very least, the last few paragraphs ought to have demonstratedthat ‘women’s studies’,‘gender studies’, and ‘feminist criticism’ arecomplicated topics with many (and changeable) constituent features. Onlysome of those features will occupy center stage in this article.   Though I willname a few names, a great many influential scholars will necessarily remainunnamed; and those few who are invited to step forward, as it were,do so less as special cases than as representatives of trends or movements.‘Eighteenth century’ is assumed here to include the late seventeenth century, © 2007 The Author Literature Compass 4/4 (2007): 935  –  966, 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2007.00446.xJournal Compilation © 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd Gender Studies and Eighteenth-Century British Literature.937  and ‘eighteenth-century studies’ is understood to take in the broadest possibleinterdisciplinary and polyglot scholarship.   When this article comes down tocases, though, it will concentrate mostly on the specific corner of that vastfield that this writer knows best: gender-oriented studies of eighteenth-century British prose fiction by (or sometimes, about) women.This contracted emphasis is most certainly not   the result of any dearth of noteworthy gender-oriented studies of other genres and subjects: eighteenth-century poetry, drama and/or performance studies, and non-fictional prose;eighteenth-century book production, distribution, and consumption; politicaland partisan history, art history, fashion history, religious history, performancehistory (all subjects once considered extra-literary but now firmly withinthe purview of literary scholarship); sexuality; or the literatures and culturesof the Americas, Continental Europe, or the East(s). 5  On the contrary, it isprecisely the richness of gender studies in all these fields that leads me tobracket them out: each calls out for a review essay of its own. So althoughthis article takes occasional note of work in these fields, and although itventures a few general observations about eighteenth-century gender studiesmore broadly defined, I will most often be considering investigations amongscholars of gender who are primarily interested in women’s voices andrepresentations in eighteenth-century British prose fiction. I offer that setof investigations to readers with different specialties, as a template for considerations of other eighteenth-century categories of difference – ethnic,racial, and class difference, differences of sexual orientation and religion,differences of age and geographical location, and so on.Even so, the quantity and variety of work to be considered remainsformidably vast.   To name only some of the larger categories  of analysis of eighteenth-century British women’s prose fiction: Scholars are workingtoday on considerations of gender and authorship, gender and politicalauthority, gender and domesticity, gender and genre – and education, andnational identity, and commerce, and social class differences, and geographicalexploration, and imperialism/empire, and sensibility, and aesthetics, andreligion, and race, and the ‘public/private spheres’ (itself a highly contestedformulation), and ‘possessive individualism’ (likewise), and partisan ideologies,and book production/distribution, and readership (readers’ expectations,readers’ habits, readers’ demographics, etc.) – the list is potentiallyendless.   And readers should remember that each of these pairs schematicallysimplifies the sophisticated questions that are actually being asked in scholarlywork – work that, at its best, tends to mix up and multiply the variables.But the fact that our subject remains untamable even after it’s been quitenarrowly corralled is by no means something to lament. On the contrary,it signals just how rich the field has become.The sheer number   of gender-oriented studies of eighteenth-century fiction, while in itself nodirect indicator of quality, suggests exceptional energy, resonance, and reach.Studies of eighteenth-century British women writers and their writinghave created a community of interdependent scholars engaged in a broad 938.Gender Studies and Eighteenth-Century British Literature © 2007 The Author Literature Compass 4/4 (2007): 935  –  966, 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2007.00446.xJournal Compilation © 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd  conversation, despite differences of emphasis and nomenclature like thoseI have briefly described above.Awareness that gender does indeed make adifference has by now permeated virtually all work in eighteenth-centurystudies, profoundly re-shaping the assumptions and methods even of scholar-ship not ostensibly concerned with gender. Current queer studies, masculinitystudies, studies of material culture, and colonial/postcolonial studies, inparticular, can be understood as direct heirs of pioneering work in gender studies during the last decades of the twentieth century. 6  Gender studies, inshort, has provided not only a new subject and a vastly expanded set of textual objects and authorial personae, but also a whole new set of methodsand purposes for thinking about eighteenth-century writing and culture. Before the 1970s Scholarship, like so much else, tends to proceed in fits and starts, accordingto the somewhat mysterious momentum of trends . 7 Widespread interest ina new subject or method often builds from an initially slow response togroundbreaking research that only gradually comes to influence other scholars’ work. Pioneering scholars republish previously out-of-print primarytexts, or deploy innovative interpretive methods toward unlikely textualsubjects, or produce provocative rubrics for previously overlooked or dismissed categories of writing, writers, textual production, or readers.   Whenthere has accrued what we might call a critical mass of this kind of groundbreaking research – enough to suggest a significant body of previouslyobscured work and   to demonstrate the value of recovering and reading it and   to suggest appropriate methods for interpreting it – scholarly focus shifts,first to recognize the existence of the new object or method of study, thento take it fully on board. More and more scholars get interested; momentumgrows. Subsequent critics build on the work that came before and over time,together, map out a new discipline.Gender-oriented study of eighteenth-century novels emerged in preciselythis way.   At first, such studies introduced a new subject unfamiliar to manyscholars, even threatening to some. 8  Gradually, through the efforts of a greatmany scholars over many years, long-lost women’s voices came to theattention of scholars and students – in academic journals and books, oncourse syllabi, and in scholarly editions on library shelves.   Women’s studies,feminist criticism, and gender studies became intellectually and professionallyacceptable, then indispensable, scholarly undertakings. By now, as we haveobserved, gender studies has in its turn spawned other previously unthoughtdirections for research.What this slow process of assimilation and inheritance means, of course,is that in order to understand the importance of gender studies to currenteighteenth-century British literary scholarship, it is necessary to remember the efforts of earlier scholars who made today’s work possible. During thefirst half of the twentieth century, attention from John Wilson Bowyer, © 2007 The Author Literature Compass 4/4 (2007): 935  –  966, 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2007.00446.xJournal Compilation © 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd Gender Studies and Eighteenth-Century British Literature.939
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