The eroticism under the surface of the words of a conduct manual for young women written by an anonymous Hackney clergyman; the meteoric career of the now-forgotten actor Eliza O’Neill; the radical Marys – Hays, Robinson and Wollstonecraft; obituaries of women in The Gentleman’s Magazine – there’s plenty for lovers of the long 18th century in this collection of scholarly essays from the Women’s Studies Group.
The remit of the WSG (disclosure: I am a member) is to promote studies of women in the early modern period into the long 18th century. It has been going for an astonishing 30 years, which is, as the preface states, ‘a testament to the intellectual generosity and enthusiasm of its members’.
One aspect of the book – and this is a particular hobbyhorse of mine – is that, while putting intellectual rigour as the highest priority, it manages also to be a good read. Often I have to steel myself before plunging into academic publications, frustrated at the over-complex language and seeming reluctance to give an overview of what the research actually means. This volume avoids this, and indeed broadens the offering by including a number of poetic ‘riffs’ on the themes. A refreshing approach. It reinforces my own belief that scholarship can come in all shapes and sizes.
Among my favourite chapters are ‘Rivalry, Camaraderie and the Prima Donnas: Elizabeth Billington and Gertrude Mara’ by Brianna E. Robertson-Kirkland, looking at the professional conflict between two particular female opera stars and how Elizabeth Billington adapted her singing style to ramp up her rivalry with Mara, despite their mutual personal admiration. The end result was an increase in popularity for both.
I particularly loved Peter Radford’s ‘Better Than the Men’, an exploration of women’s sport and industrial endurance. This is such an interesting area and deserves more attention. As Radford says, ‘There was, perhaps, no other area of human endeavour in which women were adjudged to be as good as any man, unless men did not consider it a man’s activity.’ He has identified 68 running races for women and girls in Britain at 53 locations, plus further races in Ireland. They were not impromptu affairs, but well organised with committees, rules and officials and the ‘matches’ attracted large crowds. Running was not the only sport; women also participated in hunting, prize-fighting, throwing, stoolball and football. That they were also cricketers is well documented. The essay also covers ‘exertion in the art of spinning’ – there was a competition at Sedbergh in 1767 in which there were prizes for spinning and knitting, as well as pedestrianism and the herculean by women working in the coal mines.
This is not a conventional history of the period or a reference work but a collection of carefully curated studies, which makes it perfect for dipping in to rather than reading straight through. The editorial team is to be congratulated for putting together a good-looking volume on such a wide variety of thought-provoking subjects.
Exploring the Lives of Women 1558-1837
Edited by Louise Duckling, Sara Read, Felicity Roberts, Carolyn D. Williams
Pen and Sword, 2018