heart_in_the_margins: (Hardworking)
[personal profile] heart_in_the_margins
For one of my classes this semester, I get to write two short (10-page) papers instead of one long paper, and I'm taking this option even though it means that I have houseguests in the week leading up to the paper deadline and really need to write it over spring break.

The first paper I plan to write started out as something of an inquiry. There's a lot of research on the emergence of public social spaces in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in Great Britain (and to a lesser extent on the Continent), specifically places like the coffee house, which was essentially (if research and contemporary reporters are to be believed) a space where intelligent men would go to partake in civil debates over the major issues of the day. Most coffee houses subscribed to periodicals, and some even had small lending libraries. Reports suggest that the coffee house leveled the playing field between members of different ranks; though most of the people who frequented them were at least in what we might now think of as the upper middle class, petty bourgeois could effectively argue with minor nobility and if the nobility complained or tried to pull rank, they were teased for not following the unspoken rules of the coffee house, where the man with the best argument won.

The thing is, these spaces -- along with the emerging periodical culture that both described them and gave them material for their debates -- were intensely male homosocial spaces. The papers like the Tatler and the Spectator that often set their proceedings in coffee houses were obviously not restricted to a male readership, but they address their audience through a form that ties them very closely to this masculine space that no respectable women would dare to enter. (The only women allowed were the ones who sold the coffee.) The emerging public sphere and the critical debate that it fosters leaves women out.

This on itself isn't surprising -- hello, patriarchy! -- but in conjunction with some of the readings I've been doing for this class, it got me thinking about the ways in which women writers in this period (1690-1720ish?) see it as a problem that they have no access to a comparable female homosocial space. The rooms of their houses won't do, since those are rooms that on other days at other times might have male occupants, might bear the lingering traces of heterosociality like the coffee house (or like men's clubs) never would. Right now, I'm planning to write about the way in which women writers figure imagined or virtual spheres of female-only sociability, and consider in particular one writer who argues for the need to make these safe spaces a literal reality.

Overview of texts I want to cover:

--Mary Astell, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest (1696): Astell proposes creating a "female monastery" where women would be secluded from the world in a pastoral retreat where they would gain religious and intellectual instruction from other women. Perhaps most interesting to me is her insistence on the need for a physical retreat from the world. Though she gives many reasons for it, the one that strikes me most forcefully is essentially an argument that it will preserve women from sexual assault: "here Heiresses and Persons of Fortune may be kept secure from the rude attempts of designing Men; And she who has more Money than Discretion, need not curse her stars for being expos'd a prey to bold importunate and rapacious Vultures" (Astell 165). I imagine that in many ways this text will be at the center of the argument I begin to build, though it will likely be the last text I cover in my paper, because it's the one that suggests why a virtual or imagined space of sociability isn't enough; women need the physical protection offered by real-world female homosociality.

--Female-directed periodicals: I haven't read any of these yet, but I suspect I should. The ones I've been able to find so far include Delariviere Manley's The Female Tatler (1709-10), useful for its contemporaneity with the periodicals that were really shaping and defining the male social sphere, and Eliza Haywood's The Female Spectator (1744-6), which is published much later than its namesake but might be interesting as an endpoint of this paper. 

--Margaret Cavendish, Sociable Letters (1664): I've only read one of these letters so far, but it's a fascinating one. I think Cavendish will end up fitting into my paper as a representative of the argument that letter-writing (which if I'm not mistaken does have a specifically feminine valence at this point) presents a virtual community of women, which is not only sufficient to the needs of women but perhaps even superior to men's gatherings in the public sphere. This is a hypothesis that will need to be tested, but the one letter I have read suggests that the Civil War is entirely the cause and concern of men, whereas women are somehow safely removed from it: "though there hath been a Civil War in the Kingdom, and a general War amongst the Men, yet there hath been none amongst the Women, they have not fought pitch'd battels" (Cavendish 61). This suggests to me the possibility that it is the very virtuality of the female social sphere that makes it a valuable place, and specifically a place where friendship can be maintained despite differences (in contrast to the male social sphere, which emphasizes debate and disagreement). 

--Anne Finch, "The Petition for an Absolute Retreat" (1713): This pastoral poem is written to one of the poet's female friends, and celebrates a pastoral retreat as the space that makes female friendship possible. Definitely something to read in conjunction with the Astell, with which it has a lot in common. Interesting to me because it does mention Finch's husband and invites him to be present in the pastoral retreat space, but spends much more time talking about her friend, addressed in the poem as Arminda. **Also look into the other poems published in the same volume as this one?

--Mary Leapor, "Complaining Daphne. A Pastoral." (1751): Not actually sure if I would use this, since it might be smarter to stick to a tighter time period and I might want it to be an earlier one -- but it's interesting in that it ends with Daphne's call to her "Sylvan Sisters" and a promise to "bid the lordly Race Adieu" (ll. 108, 111) for their sake. Also interesting in that it's a self-consciously pastoral poem, which would help connect with Astell's pastoral retreat. (I also think it could be argued that Leapor chooses to name this nymph "Daphne" as a reference to the myth of Daphne and Apollo -- but here the girl is the pursuer, not the pursued, and when her love leaves, she decides to retreat to a society of women, and the poem supports her choice. Unlike the mythological Daphne, she is free from sexual violence.)
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June 2017


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