Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Reflections on the Present Condition of the Female Sex

TERRA INCOGNITO, Gaia - Whereas, over the course of fifty-eight years I have mastered near complete ignorance of the subject of women, I am, naturally, going where sane men fear to tread, yet to insure my ongoing safety amongst the double-X chromosome set, I unequivocally assert that today's headline is not mine - really! - but, rather, the title to a most interesting book from 1798 written by Priscilla Wakefield, its subtitle, "With Suggestions for its Improvement," being left out because what I know about women you could put on the head of a pin and have room left for a copy of The Feminine Mystique and Our Bodies, Ourselves, and as far as offering suggestions for its improvement, my only feeble - and desperate - suggestion is, "say yes, I beg of you."

female sex030.jpgWakefield's knowledge, however, is another matter; women, apparently, have greater insight into themselves than men. Who'd a' thunk it?

Wakefield (1750-1832)  "wrote seventeen books, principally moral tales... She was well known as an author for the rising generation at a time when the developing field of children's literature offered welcome opportunities to women...

"Wakefield succeeded because she produced improving and didactic works of non-fiction that middle-class parents were choosing to buy. Unlike Romantic writings that celebrated imagination and fantasy Wakefield's books have a deliberate moral tone, are filled with information, and focus on real-life experiences in the present day. Characteristically they have a family setting and promote a new-style progressive pedagogy based in domestic conversations; mothers often teach their own children, and girls receive attention as much as boys...

"Personally and politically Wakefield shied away from radicalism but she advocated reform in many areas of public and private life. Her books contain extended criticisms of the slave trade and cruelty to animals; letters to magazines weigh in on social topics such as the plight of apprentices and equal wages for women and men. Wakefield believed that education was the key to the improvement of individuals and society. In Reflections on the Present Condition of the Female Sex (1798), her one book for an adult audience, she called for more educational and occupational opportunities for women. Advocating economic self-sufficiency she offered practical and vocational suggestions, such as establishing institutions to train teachers and encouraging women to be farmers. Wakefield did not contest the division of society into social classes; she directed her ideas about female improvement to women of the nobility, the middle classes, and the labouring poor. Nor did she contest gendered ideas about the 'female character'. She wrote:

"''There are many branches of science, as well as useful occupations, in which women may employ their time and their talents, beneficially to themselves and to the community, without destroying the peculiar characteristic of their sex, or exceeding the most exact limits of modesty and decorum (Reflections, pp. 8-9).'" (Oxford Online DNB).

Though way ahead of her time as a reformer, she was squarely in and of her time. In Reflections..., Wakefield suggested that the "first and second classes" of women be employed in writing, painting, engraving, sculpture, music and landscape gardening - but not the theater - the moral hazard too great. Women of the "third class" were suitable for teaching, working in shops, the stationary business, apothecary's work, pastry and candy-making, light lathe work and toymaking. Farming was on her list as as a suitable occupation for women.

At approximately the same time, other female writers were making their mark but in fiction; the novel had become increasingly popular since Richardson's Pamela. Minerva Press was the leading publisher of novels during the late 18th century, most of its stable of writers were women, and many of these writers sympathetically focused on the plight of contemporary womanhood.

One such Minerva Press novelist was Mrs. Bennett.

bennett.jpgIn her last novel, Vicissitudes Abroad (1806), the heroine, Julia, unsuspectingly marries a gambler, who soon abandons her in London. Alone and penniless, she finds that she cannot even pay for a hired carriage, and when the driver abuses her and a crowd gathers, presuming her to be a prostitute, she goes mad and is delivered to a charity hospital. As final insult to injury, the hospital's doctor offers to waive her hospital care costs if she will become his mistress.

Of Anna (or, Agnes) Bennett (c.1750-1808), the European Magazine, 1790, said her father and husband were customs officers. But other sources claim that her father was a grocer and her husband a tanner with whom she moved to London. She left her husband and began work as a shopkeeper, workhouse matron, and then mistress ("housekeeper") to Admiral Sir Thomas Pye, whose name she gave to two of her children. He died in 1785, the year her first novel, Anna, or Memoirs of a Welsh Heiress, was published.

In 1763, William Lane decided to cash in on the novel reading craze. He opened a circulating library in Whitechapel. Around 1790, the operation moved to Leadenhall Street in London where he established Minerva Press, a publishing house noted for creating a lucrative market in sentimental and Gothic fiction in the late 18th century and early 19th century.

Over the next fifteen years, Lane dominated the novel publishing industry and made a fortune. In addition to Mrs. Bennett, his stable of writers included many other female authors including Regina Maria Roche; Mrs. Eliza Parsons; and Eleanor Sleath whose Gothic fiction is included in the list of the seven Northanger Horrid Novels, recommended by the character Isabella Thorpe in Jane Austen's novel, Northanger Abbey (1818). Six of the Northanger Seven were published by Minerva. However many titles were anonymous, including such novels as Count Roderic's Castle (1794), The Haunted Castle (1794), The Animated Skeleton (1798) and The New Monk (1798). Authors who wrote for Minerva Press are obscure today, and its market became negligible after the death of its charismatic founder who, according to the poet, Samuel Rogers, was often seen tooling around London in a splendid carriage, attended by footmen with cockades and gold-headed canes.

In 1804, he took on Anthony K. Newman as his partner. And while Minerva's market share fell to about 39% between 1805 and 1819, it continued to crank out copious amounts of the types of novels that became synonymous with its name. Few authors who wrote for Lane and Newman are critically acclaimed today. And after its founder died in 1814, Minerva Press' share of the print market became negligible, giving evidence to the fragmentation and diffusion occurring within the industry at the time.

It is in the non-fiction works of Wakefield and the novels of the Minerva Press that we gain our best insights into contemporary womanhood, and those seeking a place to begin collecting early women writers should consider Wakefield and Minerva Press as an excellent starting point.

As for this writer, I divide women into two classes: Those who will date me - a suitable but low-paying occupation - and those who won't (seeking suitable occupation elsewhere). Both have my sympathies and respect, the former for their good taste, the latter for their good sense.

________

Garside, et al., English Novel, 1806.18. Blakey, Minerva Press. Bloch, The English Novel 1740-1850. Cardiff University, Center for Editorial and Intertexual Research, British Fiction 1800-1829. NSTC B1579. James Burmester, Catalogue 75, no. 188. Thanks to David Brass for permission to quote from my catalog description for Vicissitudes Abroad.

Images courtesy James Burmester (Reflections...; alas, James does not have a website) and David Brass (Vicissitudes Abroad).

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