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«GENDER MEMBER-GENDER MENDER: CHARLOTTE RAMSAY LENNOX AND HER FICTIONS Sonia Maria Melchiorre3 Dept. DISUCOM – University of Tuscia, Italy Abstract ...»

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Sonia Maria Melchiorre3

Dept. DISUCOM – University of Tuscia, Italy


Charlotte Ramsay Lennox is one of the many women novelists long forgotten by

scholars that only very recently has received the critical attention she deserves.

This paper aims at the reconsideration, and the inclusion in the tradition, of one of the greatest talents of the British literary scene of the eighteenth century.

Charlotte Ramsay Lennox must, by now, be recognized as one of the most versatile writers of her generation: she wrote poetry, fiction, criticism – she was the first woman to write on Shakespeare and his sources in the eighteenth century, with her Shakespeare Illustrated (1753), and was the editor of one of the first magazines which serialised novels.

Keywords: gender; feminist; women; English literature; canon.

Résumé Gender Member – Gender Mender: Charlotte Ramsay Lennox et ses Fictions Charlotte Ramsay Lennox est l’une des nombreuses femmes romanciers oublié depuis longtemps par les chercheurs qui a très récemment reçu l’attention critique qu’elle mérite.

Cet article vise à reconsidérer, et l’inclusion dans la tradition, de l’un des plus grands talents de la scène littéraire britannique du XVIIIe siècle.

Charlotte Lennox Ramsay doit, maintenant, être reconnu comme l’un des écrivains les plus polyvalents de sa génération: elle écrit de la poésie, fiction, critique – elle était la première femme à écrire sur Shakespeare et ses sources dans le dix-huitième siècle, avec son Shakespeare Illustrated (1753), et a été le rédacteur en chef de l’un des premiers magazines qui sérialisés romans.

Mots-clés: sexe; féministe; les femmes; la littérature anglaise; canon.

Resumo Gender Member – Gender Mender: Charlotte Ramsay Lennox e suas Ficções Charlotte Ramsay Lennox é uma das muitas mulheres romancistas esquecidas por estudiosos e estudiosas, que só muito recentemente tem recebido a atenção merecida por parte da crítica.

Este trabalho tem por objetivo a reconsideração e a inclusão na tradição de um dos maiores talentos da cena literária britânica do século XVIII.

Charlotte Ramsay Lennox deve, agora, ser reconhecida como uma das escritoras mais versáteis da sua geração: escreveu poesia, ficção, crítica – foi a primeira mulher a escrever sobre Shakespeare e suas fontes no século XVIII, com o seu Shakespeare Illustrated (1753), e foi a editora de uma das primeiras revistas de romances serializados.

Palavras-chave: género; feminismo; mulheres; literatura inglesa; cânone.

1 Dept. DISUCOM – University of Tuscia, Italy. soniamelchiorre@libero.it

–  –  –

Of the approximately two thousand novels that were written during the eighteenth century, only a very few have been preserved and passed on in the literary canon.

[…] [W]hen to this is added the information that about half these novels were written by women and all of them have since failed the test of greatness, then explanations are required. Either the laws of probability are in need of revision or there are good grounds for hypothesising that some other law is operating in the selection process.

(Dale Spender, Mothers of the Novel, 1986)

1. Anthologies and the Canon According to many feminist scholars, anthologies, etymologically «a flower gathering», constitute a major culprit in the cultural forgetting of women’s writing» (Eger, 1999: 204).

Anthologies defined, in turn, both as «a substantial agent of cultural definition» and «an educational tool», have been identified as a popular literature form that «flourished during the eighteenth century, both fostering and responding to a growing sense of national literary heritage» and have been used as «creators and barometers of public reading taste (Eger, 1999: 202).

Feminist critics have demonstrated how anthologies and histories of literature have largely contributed to the «erasure» of women writers from the canon and have proposed, accordingly, a reassessment and redefinition of it that would reconsider the relevant position of such texts as «channels of tradition»2.

Ian Watt, one of the most influential scholars of the eighteenth-century literature in Britain, maintained in his The Rise of the Novel (1957) that the new literary genre originated with Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding.

He, accordingly, devoted his whole book to male novelists and only referred to female authors with a single, though very significant, statement: «The majority of eighteenth century novels were actually written by women»3. It took forty years 2 Some ground-breaking studies were produced in the 1960s and 1970s by scholars who protested against the systematic neglect of women’s writing: Mary Ellmann’s Thinking About Women (1968), Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1969), Ellen Moers’s Literary Women (1976), Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own (1977), Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic (1979). A new approach was then possible in the 1980s, in works such as Toril Moi’s Sexual/Textual Politics (1985), Dale Spender’s Mothers of the Novel (1986) and Janet Todd’s The Sign of Angellica (1989), to mention just a few. This «formal» protest ended up, for example, in the inclusion of more than thirty women writers in the 1990s’ editions of the Norton Anthology of English literature.

3 See also John J. Richetti (1992). No women writers were included in the «great tradition» of the genre and only recently a critical approach from a feminist perspective has been produced. See Jane Spenser, The Rise of the Woman Novelist (1986); Harrison R. Steeves, Before Jane Austen: The Shaping of the Novel in the Eighteenth Century, (1966); Lennard J., Davis, Resisting Novels: Ideology and Fiction (1987); Dale Spender, Mothers of the Novel: One Hundred Good Women Writers Before

ex æquo, n.º 31, 2015, pp. 125-142 GENDER MEMBER-GENDER MENDER

before a feminist scholar, Susan Fendler, could observe that the very literary canon considered in Watt’s book «was formed by excluding women although they contributed to literary techniques or realization of topics. The reasons are that, intentionally or unintentionally, the respective innovation was attributed to the first man following in the wake of each respective woman» (Fendler, 1997a: 1).

When Dale Spender started her research on women’s writing in the late 1970s, an effort that would have led to the production of one of the most influential and groundbreaking works on women’s literature ever published, she assumed that almost nothing had happened until Jane Austen appeared on the literary scene. She confessed, in fact, that she simply «had no idea» that for more than a century and a half before the «great» writer so many women writers had been writing novels (Spender, 1986: xi). By consequence, when she realized that Jane Austen had to be seen not as the originator, but as an inheritor of a long tradition of female writers, Spender observed: «this has ramifications not just for the history of women novelists but for the history of novelists in general»4 (Spender, 1986: 116). It was only in the 1990s, though, that feminist criticism started pushing back the limits of that tradition, taking into consideration other forms and styles, religious writings and vindications for the rights of women, for instance, works published anonymously by those women who, in their own time, didn’t even perceive themselves as writers5 (Robinson, 1991: 222).

2. A woman of mystery: the case of Charlotte Lennox

One of the many women novelists long forgotten by scholars, both male and female, and who only very recently has received the critical attention she deserves, is Charlotte Ramsay Lennox6. She herself, and her life, have long been object of investigation on the part of academics and critics.

In 1967 Philippe Séjourné maintained that Lennox was responsible for creating a legend around her own name (Séjourné, 1967: 11). Dale Spender, some twenty years later, replied to this statement observing that Lennox was just Jane Austen (1986), Janet Todd, Feminist Literary History: A Defence, (1988), and The Sign of Angellica: Women, Writing, and Fiction, 1660-1800 (1989); D. Spender and J. Todd, (eds.), British Women Writers: An Anthology from the Fourteenth Century to the Present (1989); Nancy. Armstrong, «The

Rise of the Feminine Authority in the Novel», (1990); Cheryl Turner, (ed.), Living by the Pen:

Women Writers in the Eighteenth Century (1992), just to mention some titles.

4 Janet Todd’s Dictionary offered the chance of retracing the «disappeared» women writers (Todd, 1985). See also Aspects Generaux du Roman Féminin en Angleterre de 1740 à 1800 (Séjourné, 1966); «Early Eighteenth-Century English Women Writers» (Sedgwick Larson, 1981); Mothers of the Novel (Spender, 1986); A Dictionary (Todd, 1987); The Feminist Companion to Literature in English: Women Writers from the Middle Ages to the Present (Blain, Clements and Grundy, 1990).

5 See also R.D. Mayo (1962); and R.A. Barney (1999).

6 See for example, Eve Tavor Bannet (1999), Ruth Mack (2005) and Patricia Hamilton (2012).

ex æquo, n.º 31, 2015, pp. 125-142 128 Sonia Maria Melchiorre another woman writer, like her predecessors Aphra Behn and Delarivière Manley, blamed for the absence of definitive detail and accused of deliberate deception (Spender, 1986: 194). Spender judged Séjourné’s statement «she [Lennox] was disliked by her own sex» as double-standard criticism applied to women writers, a gratuitous and irrelevant insult which all too frequently substitutes for criticism of the woman writer. «I do not know if it is true», she added. «I do wonder if it is relevant. And I do ask myself why this ‘issue’ for a woman writer would go unnoted with a man» (Spender, 1986: 204-5).

Charlotte Lennox’s biography was published for the first time in 1935 and reissued some forty years later after the discovery of the so called «Lennox Collection»7. «The most unusual aspect of these letters», Duncan Isles has pointed out, is that «we see so eminent men of letters all writing to, and being engaged in the problems of one person – and a relatively obscure person as that»8 (Isles, 1970: 323). Lennox was probably introduced to Johnson by Samuel Paterson, the publisher of her first book of poems (Lennox, 1747). Johnson, in turn, introduced her to Richardson and by November 1751 the two of them were helping Lennox to have The Female Quixote published, and this latter gave some criticism and persuaded Millar to have it published (Isles, 1965: 685). Another female critic, Susan Kubica Howard, observed in 1995 that «those middle-class women writers who wrote to make a living and whose domestic pressures often denied them the leisure of discipleship to a great literary figure or entrance into the circle of the Blues occupied a marginal position in the contemporary literary scene» (Kubika Howard, 1995: 23).

But Lennox was neither a middle-class woman, nor a woman who occupied a marginal position in the literary establishment of her own day. Quite the contrary was true, in fact. Norma Clarke has recently demonstrated that Lennox had become one of the most influential writers of her time. (Clarke, 2000: 18).

She was not official member of any particular literary group but she collaborated with many of her contemporaries, both male and female Furthermore, in 1996 Dustin Griffin numbered Lennox among the well-established authors of her time pointing out that it is not even clear why Lennox needed Johnson’s help.

(Griffin, 1996: 208). Griffin, though, seems not to consider the fact that Lennox 7 This body of forty-six letters probably represents the greatest discovery about Charlotte Lennox’s life and works. Twelve of these letters are from Dr. Johnson to Charlotte Lennox and one to Alexander Lennox, her husband. Until 1964, when they were found in Scotland, no letter from Johnson to Lennox had been known to exist. They were kept in an album deposited with the British Linen Bank in Dunfermline in the name of Alexander Sutherland and some efforts were made in that year to trace his heir. The album was then sent to the National Library of Scotland where Duncan Isles, then a graduate student, was allowed to transcribe them (Isles, 1970).

8 See also D. Isles (1965), and M. Hyde (1965). For the relationship with Richardson and Johnson see J. Carroll (1964: 223) and D. Isles (1989).

ex æquo, n.º 31, 2015, pp. 125-142


was a woman author and that, as such, she needed to draw on a superior literary authority, in the case of Johnson the highest literary authority of her time.

3. The sentimental scandal of The Life of Harriot Stuart Charlotte Ramsay Lennox’s novel, The Life of Harriot Stuart, Written by Herself (1751), is a first-person narrative, whose protagonist is a rebellious young girl running away from her mother who wants to marry her to a man she doesn’t love. Eventually she meets again with her previous lover and marries him9. The relevance of the book resides in the fact that Harriot Stuart has often been considered the author’s autobiography.

It is possible that Lennox, in her first novel, followed the example of her predecessor Delarivier Manley, in particular, who had used this reading public’s habit, of viewing texts as autobiographical statements, to her own advantage.

When Charlotte Lennox was writing Harriot Stuart, the romans scandaleux, also called romans a clef, written by Délarivière Manley, Jane Barker and Eliza Haywood (De Michelis, 1983), and published in England in the first half of the eighteenth century, were being gradually replaced by narratives without keys, probably because of a «new authorial will to property» (Gallagher, 1994: 160).

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