The Rise and Fall of the Woman of Letters, by Norma Clarke

The lost lionesses of English literature
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The Independent Culture

In February 1756, the Whitehall Evening Post ran an obituary of Eliza Haywood, the renowned author of over 70 works. Her early novel Love in Excess ranked with Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver's Travels as one of the most successful of its time. Listing her best-known creations, the Post predicted they would remain as "monuments of her merit" forever. Yet within decades, she had slipped into obscurity, remembered mainly for an unfortunate appearance in her enemy Alexander Pope's Dunciad as a "Juno of majestic size,/ With cow-like udders and with ox-like eyes".

In February 1756, the Whitehall Evening Post ran an obituary of Eliza Haywood, the renowned author of over 70 works. Her early novel Love in Excess ranked with Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver's Travels as one of the most successful of its time. Listing her best-known creations, the Post predicted they would remain as "monuments of her merit" forever. Yet within decades, she had slipped into obscurity, remembered mainly for an unfortunate appearance in her enemy Alexander Pope's Dunciad as a "Juno of majestic size,/ With cow-like udders and with ox-like eyes".

Such things can happen to any author, and neither a devoted readership nor a long bibliography offers protection against future indifference. Norma Clarke argues, however, that something particularly strange happened to female authors during the 1700s: by Jane Austen's day, they had disappeared en masse from the nation's memory. Most have never been rediscovered, even by literary archaeologists like Virginia Woolf.

Yet this lost generation were once formidable arbiters of taste who demanded and received great respect. From the Anglo-Saxon specialist Elizabeth Elstob to philosophers like Mary Astell and Catherine Trotter, from the playwright Susannah Centlivre to the poets Elizabeth Singer ("Philomela") and Katherine Phillips ("The Matchless Orinda"), they were literary lionesses who, alongside male colleagues, laid the foundations of a new English literature. Many of these female Samuel Johnsons had their own Boswells. So what went wrong?

Clarke concludes that their fall into oblivion resulted in part from the very conditions that made a later golden age possible: the rise of popular publishing, and an explosion in the number of authors. Writers had once been rare, patrician figures, but scribblers now swarmed in such quantities that their value declined. Literature became tainted with the grubbiness of Grub Street and, for women, low associations brought suggestions of sexual impropriety.

Younger writers therefore sought invisibility, hiding behind male names or emphasising their blushing timidity. More assertive forebears were ignored and hushed up, with the paradoxical result that the bold lionesses were not remembered, only the shrinking violets. Woolf said that recovering literary history was "thinking back through our mothers" - but these were the kind of mothers who were likely to get drunk and embarrassing in public. It was safer not to invite them to parties.

This book achieves far more than the rehabilitation of forgotten authors. In fact, Clarke takes a dim view of those who declare writers "lost" merely to raise a sense of drama about rediscovery. Instead, she investigates the broader mechanisms of fame, the formation of authorial personae, and the mysterious reasons why some names rise while others fall. Avoiding polemic, she nevertheless urges an important shift in perspective and turns much of traditional feminist literary history on its head. This is a subtle, persuasive and engrossing study.

The reviewer's 'The Smart' is published by Vintage

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