Had I been born a hero

Helen Deutsch

  • Eighteenth-Century Women Poets and Their Poetry: Inventing Agency, Inventing Genre by Paula Backscheider
    Johns Hopkins, 514 pp, £43.50, January 2006, ISBN 0 8018 8169 2

What would the 18th-century poetic canon look like if women were included? Imagine women poets being venerated alongside Alexander Pope, who held that ‘Most Women have no Characters at all,’ or Jonathan Swift, who, at the conclusion of that catalogue of excremental horrors ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room’, has his speaker remark: ‘Should I the Queen of Love refuse,/Because she rose from stinking Ooze?’ Or even Samuel Johnson. If women’s writing were taken into account, would it change the way we read and judge the poetry of an era long assumed to be magisterially Augustan and masculine? In her passionate and wide-ranging study of 18th-century women’s poetry, Paula Backscheider quotes Isobel Armstrong’s framing of such questions in a suggestively entitled essay, ‘The Gush of the Feminine’ (1995):

We have had two hundred years to discover a discourse of and strategies for reading male poets. They belong to a debate, a dialectic; we know how to think about politics, epistemology, power and language, in productive ways that … make these poets mean for us. A hermeneutics has evolved. Not so with the female poets. We are discovering who they are, but there are few ways of talking about them.

Armstrong was writing about the Romantic period, and the professional women writers of the time have now largely been restored to their original prominence. But we know substantially less about the 18th-century women poets on whom they relied: much of their work is still unpublished; some is excerpted and redacted. Tucked into topical corners of the Norton Anthology, they have views on marriage and argue with Pope and Swift, or hobnob in a separate section with writers with whom they have little in common except for their sex. In A Room of One’s Own, a meditation on ‘women and fiction’ to which Backscheider’s study might be read as a prequel, Virginia Woolf acknowledges a crucial debt – the birth of the possibility of £500 a year and the freedom to write for oneself – to Aphra Behn, the first professional female writer, on whose tomb ‘all women together ought to let flowers fall.’ ‘The extreme activity of mind which showed itself in the later 18th century among women – the talking, and the meeting, the writing of essays on Shakespeare, the translating of the classics – was founded on the solid fact that women could make money by writing,’ Woolf goes on. ‘Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for.’ Yet for the most part she leaves earlier generations nameless, pausing only for ‘the crazy Duchess’ Margaret Cavendish, whose ‘wits were turned with solitude and freedom’, the obscure and melancholy Anne Finch, Elizabeth Carter, ‘the valiant old woman who tied a bell to her bedstead in order that she might wake early and learn Greek’, and of course her own creation, the mute inglorious poet buried opposite the Elephant and Castle, Shakespeare’s sister, Judith, whom she implores her young audience of Newnham and Girton students to allow to ‘put on the body which she has so often laid down’.

The novel, Woolf believes, is the form that suits women best: less burdened by male tradition, easier to write while distracted (remember Jane Austen, composing in the sitting-room, hiding her manuscript behind a sheet of blotting-paper when friends came to call), more congenial to the social observation that comes of having been confined indoors for centuries. Yet before the great flowering of the 19th-century novel, Woolf notes, ‘the original impulse was to poetry. The “supreme head of song” was a poetess.’ Looking to the future, she imagines the female writer finding ‘some new vehicle, not necessarily in verse, for the poetry in her. For it is the poetry that is still denied outlet.’ Backscheider reminds us that the 18th century showed a ‘remarkably consistent, hospitable atmosphere for women poets’, from the leisurely ladies with access to libraries of the century’s first two decades to the working-class poets who in the second half of the century ‘joined an increasingly disparate group of women who published, and perhaps more notably, could earn at least some part of their sustenance’ by writing verse. Woolf would have had no access to this work; she is likely, for example, to have read only Wordsworth’s version of Finch’s ‘Nocturnal Reverie’. Why have these women poets been denied the opportunity not to gush but to speak?

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