October 30th, 2009

Harriet Vane

Backscheider and Ingrassia: British women poets of the long 18th century

Dear Friends,

While away at a recent 18th century regional conference, I splurged on two books, the first Devoney Looser's very enjoyable. British Women Writers and Old Age, 1750-1850, and the huge paperback version of Paula Backscheider and Catherine Ingrassia's British Women Poets of the Long Eighteenth Century. What a milestone. 906 pages!  I was chuffed to see the picture I used as mascot here at first and still have on on Library Thing is on the cover: Georg Friedrich Kersting's (here called) Woman Embroidering. I had thought she was writing or reading, but looking now, staring intently I can make out a thread hanging from the table.  The background is a fashionable green of the era; it comes out too dark; it was thought to be contemplative and appropriate for quiet private rooms, which were a new thing then).

But when I began to read it, I was disappointed.  Alas. The same problem I discerned in Backscheider's book is here: they can't seem to tell a good poem from a bad or poor one. It's a representative selection.  Oddly, they are aware of this for in their introduction, they go on about how subjective aesthetic decisions are, and half-say they just give up on it. No. One evaluates; that's a central task of anthology makers, histories of literature, and criticism.

This matters: so Paula Feldman's British Women Poets of the Romantic Era, Joyce Fullard's British Women Poets 1660-1800 where an unerring sense of not only great (exhilarating, alive, interesting, moving, satiric) poems are chosen especially from a woman's ponit of view, and Roger Lonsdale's masculinist approach in Eighteenth-Century Women Poets, and the more general but still alive to what's good Andrew Ashfield's Romantic Women Poets (1770- 1848) will be those that keep women's voices alive.

This is a historical volume; it has some great poetry and is set up very interestingly -- the scholarly parts of the book are very good -- and it is so big that there is much beauty here. Maybe the problem is they eschew feminism too; there is very little anger in this volume at all. Scotched out. But the real problem is the anthology doesn't make the argument from the texts themselves as such.

I will however read it slowly and learn and share what I can.  I am now wondering if she got the idea for the picture from my review where it is placed at the bottom :)