Our British nymphs’: Women Writers and the Classics, 1700-1789
This project aims to recover and re-examine how women writers of the eighteenth century used classical material in their works. Despite being traditionally denied a classical education, eighteenth-century women’s writing is surprisingly permeated with the classics. The eighteenth century is prone to revisionist criticism: Jane Spencer’s seminal ‘The Rise of the Woman Novelist’ (1986) infused the canon with numerous women writers, whilst Susan Staves’s ‘A Literary History of Women’s Writing in Britain’ (2010) demonstrates an encyclopaedic range of women’s writing. However, both fail to provide a detailed account of how female poets used classical literature. Paula Backscheider’s provocative assertion that ‘Women are famous for taking texts by men and responding, “Not that way, this way”‘ implies a fascinating model for how women used the material so common to men of the period. Classical texts were fundamental to the eighteenth century, and this project aims to re-evaluate the relationship between women and the classics in the period.
This thesis thus takes up the call, set forth by Edith Hall and Rosie Wyles in ‘Women Classical Scholars’ (2016), for the ‘excavation’ of those ‘female classical scholars whose contribution to the classical tradition […] has fallen, unfairly, into obscurity’. Beginning in 1700 with ‘The Nine Muses’, written upon John Dryden’s death, the thesis will end with Clara Reeve and an exploration of whether James Boswell’s celebration of a bookish writer as the new English hero is applicable to women. Everything in between will (excitingly) be up for consideration.
Despite the growth of work on classical reception studies, the relationship between women and classical literature remains under-examined. In improving our understanding of how women writers used classical material, this project will enable a more detailed consideration of eighteenth-century classicism and develop the current understanding of the role of classical learning in literature of the period.