heart_in_the_margins: (Beaton Reader)
(I'd like to begin with the complaint that it is weirdly easier for me to focus on writing things when I'm not writing in Word? This may be a problem. This is in fact not my first post-Word option; Scrivener is; but as I sketched out what I wanted to accomplish, page-by-page, in the ten pages of paper I have to write tomorrow and Saturday, I realized that there are exactly three pages whose content remains somewhat mysterious to me, and those are the pages discussing Mary Astell, and Scrivener wasn't helping me figure them out. So here I am.)

Mary Astell's A Serious Proposal to the Ladies is actually the text that got me started thinking about this paper. I found it a fascinating read -- about halfway through my notes, somewhere, there is the scrawled phrase "heavenly feminist university scheme!" probably surrounded with hearts or something, because basically Astell's proposal is that women should come together into a communal retreat that would do everything from providing a space for religious devotion to educating women in useful knowledge to supporting real friendship instead of backbiting and gossip to (ultimately) preventing rich single women from being sexually assaulted by men with designs on their fortunes.

Custom, Fashion, and the World

For Astell, though, the worldly reasons for this retreat have less to do directly with the potential of sexual assault and more to do with the ways in which the world of society trains women up from a young age to possess unbalanced perceptions of their physical vs. spiritual beauty and worth. Simply put, she's convinced that "custom" has both created and indulged women's fascination with fashion and beauty while encouraging them to neglect their educations. She introduces the argument of her pamphlet by stating, “This is a Matter infinitely more worthy your Debates, than what Colours are most agreeable, or what’s the Dress becomes you best. Your Glass will not do you half so much service as a serious reflection on your own Minds” (140). Astell slowly works in this sentence to restore seriousness of thought to words like "Debates" and "reflection" which have been debased by a slavish adherence to custom. This attempt to take the terms of fashion and of petty female conversation and elevate them or swap them out for those terms that Astell wants women to emphasize reoccurs throughout the pamphlet -- at one point, she laments that women are so quick to follow French fashions, when what they should really find fashionable and worthy of imitation is an education in French philosophy [cite]!
“Thus Ignorance and a narrow Education lay the Foundation of Vice, and Imitation and Custom rear it up. Custom, that merciless torrent that carries all before it, and which indeed can be stem’d by none but such as have a great deal of Prudence and a rooted Vertue” (147)

“ ‘Tis Custom therefore, that Tyrant Custom, which is the grand motive to all those irrational choices which we daily see made in the World, so very contrary to our present interest and pleasure, as well as to our Future. We think it an unpardonable mistake not to do as our neighbours do, and part with our Peace and Pleasure as well as our Innocence and Vertue, merely in complyance with an unreasonable Fashion” (147)
“Therefore, one great end of this Institution shall be, to expel that cloud of Ignorance which Custom has involv’d us in, to furnish our minds with a stock of solid and useful Knowledge, that the Souls of Women may no longer be the only unadorn’d and neglected things.” (152)
A Happier Eden: Undoing the First Fall, Creating Female Friendship and Conversation

While Astell doesn't precisely gender "custom," I do think that there is a sense that her use of "custom" and my use of "patriarchy." Early on, she writes,
“Let us learn to pride ourselves in something more excellent than the invention of a Fashion; And not entertain such a degrading thought of our own worth, as to imagine that our Souls were given us only for the service of our Bodies, and that the best improvement we can make of these, is to attract the Eyes of Men. We value them too much, and our selves too little, if we place any part of our desert in their Opinion; and don’t think our selves capable of Nobler Things than the pitiful Conquest of some worthless heart.” (141)
Rejecting the male gaze as the impetus for female "improvement" [a charged word in the context of pastoral at this point!] opens up a space in which women can encourage and help improve each other -- a space of female friendship that the pressures of the outside world seem to render impossible. When Astell describes her proposed retirement as a “Happy Retreat! which will be the introducing you into such a Paradise as your Mother Eve forfeited” and where “there are no Serpents to deceive you,” the invocation of women's lineage from Eve serves both as a reminder of the biblical justification for some of women's weaknesses and as a promise that that perceived weakness is just another form of "custom" that rears its serpent head and prevents women from achieving their fullest potential as rational creatures (151).

And it is as rational creatures, not just spiritual or emotional ones, that the women of Astell's proposal are called to form a community. Writing against the imagined complaints of men who would reject her proposal as hurtful, Astell counters, “I cannot imagine wherein the hurt lies, if instead of doing mischief to one another, by an uncharitable and vain Conversation, Women be enabled to inform and instruct those of their own Sex at least” (155). Wouldn't it be nice, Astell says, if “In stead of that Froth and Impertinence, that Censure and Pragmaticalness, with which Feminine Conversations so much abound. we should hear their tongues employ’d in making Proselytes to heaven” (164)? What actual conditions would be possible to make this the case?

After seclusion, the first real answer is education:
“What is it but the want of an ingenious Education, that renders the generality of Feminine Conversations so insipid and foolish and their solitude so insupportable? Learning is therefore necessary to render them more agreeable and useful in company, and to furnish them with becoming entertainments when alone” (154)
The "company" imagined here is a specifically feminine company that has little in common with the company of the world. Instead, “this happy Society will be but one Body, whose Soul is love, animating and informing it, and perpetually breathing forth it self in flames of holy desires after GOD and acts of Benevolence to each other” (157). While Astell does emphasize the spiritual nature of her proposed venture, she isn't shy about the educational value she wants women to derive from it: in a sequel pamphlet, responding to critiques, she describes the venture as “rather Academical than Monastic” (179), suggesting that this imagined retreat might serve not only as a place of spiritual but also intellectual growth and power. In the end, the retreat from heterosexual society into a homosocial one is empowering for Astell: “you may more peaceably enjoy your selves, and all the innocent Pleasures it is able to afford you, and particularly that which is worth all the rest, a Noble Vertuous and Disinteress’d Friendship” (151).

Make Way for Eden: Actual vs. Virtual Space

While Astell's Proposal is often classed as something of a utopian scheme, certain sections of the text suggest that she has every intention of making this institution a reality. Her proposal, she suggests, needs to be enacted in the real world because it would serve to alleviate the real-world concerns of a particular set of women:
And if after so many Spiritual Advantages, it be convenient to mention Temporals, 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. She will not here be inveigled and impos’d on, will neither be bought nor sold, nor be forc’d to marry for her own quiet, when she has no inclination to it, but what the being tir’d out with a restless importunity occasions. (165)
The "rude attempts of desigining Men" are real, the inveigling and imposing and forcing is real, and that's why women need a real space to allow for their retreat from it. Astell's argument in this passage is similar to the arguments of many English men and women around this period who began to lament the lack of alternative options for women who would not -- or could not -- be married. Astell's labeling of her retreat as a "female monastery" [cite] may have upset some of her readers, but in many ways the institution she seeks to establish would perform the functions ascribed to Catholic nunneries in earlier ages, giving women a respectable (and typically inexpensive) alternative to marriage, and thus an alternative to being pursued by men whose desires might find violent expression.

The one thing to note is that Astell isn't being terribly egalitarian about all of this. She cares mostly about "Heiresses and Persons of Fortune"; later, she states that her plan might be most useful to “Persons of Quality who are over-stock’d with Children, for thus they may honourable dispose of them without impairing their Estates. Five or six hundred pounds may be easily spar’d with a Daughter, when so many thousands would go deep” (168). Not many families would have had five or six hundred pounds just lying around -- and while Astell is surprised that no one answers her proposal with ready money, I'm not, because by this time, the kinds of women who might have seriously benefited from an institution like this didn't necessarily have the financial support to make it a possibility.

And yet, for all of Astell's disappointment at the failure of this community to come together as a reality, there's something to be said for the idea that a woman can use the space of print publication to summon (and perhaps in so doing create) a public of specifically female readers, who are initially encouraged to improve their genius in order not to let down former examples of female literary talent: “Remember, I pray you, the famous Women of former Ages, the Orinda’s of late, and the more Modern Heroins, and blush to think how much is now, and will hereafter be said of them, when you your selves (as great a Figure as you make) must be buried in silence and forgetfulness!” (141) [something about the literary community of women around Katharine Phillips?] Astell, through print publication, ensures that she will never be "buried in silence and forgetfulness."
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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