heart_in_the_margins: (Walking reader)
I think my paper is going to end by looking at a pair of poems by Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, in order to suggest the ways in which the gendering of (royalist) women's representations of retreat shifts towards the end of the eighteenth century.

"The Petition for an Absolute Retreat"

This poem is particularly interesting because its female speaker -- addressed in the poem as Ardelia, a pastoral renaming of Anne Finch herself -- constructs a vision of paradisal retreat in some ways much like Astell's (a place of women's community and friendship, contemplation, lack of adornment in dress, knowledge production; a "petition" in the public sphere) but in other ways related to Cavendish's (centered around a pair of female friends, rejecting the intrusions of those "Who visit, but to be from home" (l. 9), addressed from one woman to another). I plan to use it as a text that will both make the distinction between Cavendish and Astell clear, and suggest that their interests perhaps represent different ends of the same spectrum, on which Finch falls more firmly in the middle. [I, uh, may have been distracted from this post for a bit while I tried to draw a Venn diagram of these three women's interrelated interests...it's currently a work in progress.]

Even the title of this poem is of interest: first, it's framed as a "petition," which suggests that it's a document that circulates in something like a public sphere and represents the requests/demands of someone without authority to someone with greater authority. The petitioned figure in the poem is possibly "Fate," personified throughout, but also possibly Arminda, Finch's pastoral renaming of her friend Catharine Countess of Thanet. I'm interested in what it might mean that this poem moves the genre of "petition" away from the public interaction between, say, subject and sovereign, and into the realm of interaction between two female friends. Second, "absolute" seems to be functioning in a way that separates this poem's interest from the typical representation of the retreat. This is not a retreat from which its inhabitants are interested in returning. Unlike the seasonal movement to and from the countryside, this is a request for a retreat that would not end, that would not have to be balanced by a return to the city and a return to work, so to speak.

The most fascinating thing about this poem is that it continually references Eden, and the happy pair of Adam and Eve, as support for its vision of a pair of female friends cohabiting in paradise. The stanza that does the most talking about these tropes (ll. 104-25) does refer implicitly to Adam and Eve, but neither names nor genders them -- nor does it name or gender the poem's addressee. As a result, it's possible to read Finch's desire for "A Partner suited to my Mind" (l. 106) as a reference to her husband (more on him in a minute). But the following stanza makes it pretty clear that the partner discussed in these terms is in fact Arminda. The poem ultimately stresses female friendship:
Friendship still has been design'd
The Support of Human-kind;
The safe Delight, the useful Bliss,
The next World's Happiness, and this. (ll. 192-5)
What does it mean that Finch can evoke God's reason for creating Eve, and a common justification for marriage -- "Heaven has shown / It was not Good to be alone" (l. 104) -- to discuss the love she feels for a female friend? I do think this poem is about homosociality rather than homosexuality, but it's a female homosocial sphere that is deliberately separate from the influence of men.

"To Mr. F[inch] Now Earl of W[inchilsea]"

Simply put, this is a poem written to her husband about how infrequently poems about happiness and married love are actually written -- and about how hard, therefore, it is to be asked to write one. Finch actually describes her relationship to her husband in terms similar to those in which she describes her relationship to her female friend in the previous poem, and their marriage is transformed into something like the shared retreat of "Petition": a "stolen secrecy" (l. 96), located spatially "in some neighboring grove, / (Where vice nor vanity appear)" (ll. 88-9) and thus evoking the space of the pastoral retreat.

The majority of the poem consists in Finch, aka Ardelia, arguing with the muses for inspiration to write a poem in praise of her husband. The muses give some interesting reasons why it can't be done, and those are the focus of my interest:
And 'twas their business to take care,
It reached not to the public ear,
Or got about the Town:

Nor came where evening beaux were met
O'er billet-doux and chocolate,
Lest it destroyed the house;
For in that place, who could dispense
(That wore his clothes with common sense)
With mention of a spouse? (ll. 46-54)
So we get a series of interesting associations here: "public," "the Town," "beaux," "billet-doux," and the space of the coffeehouse are all at odds with "mention of a spouse." Here, the things that are public include not just men's conversation (the coffeehouse was a male homosocial sphere) but also courtship (billet-doux = "sweet letters," aka love letters), the process of pressing one's suit prior to (or outside of) the commitment of marriage. So the public/private, or public/secret divide (to use the terms of the poem) is not between private homes and public spaces, domestic women and worldly men -- it's between what can be known to all and what must be known only to a select audience. And that select audience in this poem -- the husband and wife -- are engaged in the same kind of pastoral retreat from society in which Ardelia petitions Arminda to join her. [I also suspect "petition" is a word that at this time would possess overtones of courtship...need to OED that.]

Some concluding thoughts

"To Mr. F" feels very early for the kind of companionate marriage it's describing, but this is less important to me than the way in which the companionate marriage of "To Mr. F" occurs in a very similar space to the friendship of "Petition." We haven't yet made it to anything like a gendered separation of spheres: the domestic space and the space of retreat are spaces of intimate relationship, but that relationship could perhaps be either heterosexual OR homosocial. For Finch, these still seem somewhat interchangeable -- this is why she can use references to Eden, and to Adam and Eve, to code her relationship to her friend in "Petition," but still write a poem about her incredibly loving relationship with her husband that is also couched in pastoral terms.
heart_in_the_margins: (Hardworking)
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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