The Great Forgetting remembered

January 12, 2006, vol. 35, no. 1
By Howard Fluxgold



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A generation ago it was commonly accepted that there were no professional women writers, or any women writers, in the 18th century.

Betty Schellenberg, paraphrasing a literary critic, calls it the Great Forgetting. But Schellenberg, who recently published The Professionalization of Women Writers in Eighteenth-Century Britain, maintains that women writers were actively pursuing their profession in the 18th century.

“Some of the first feminist researchers used a model of saying these women were the victims of a patriarchal system and therefore were not allowed to write and express their voices publicly,” explainsSchellenberg, an associate professor of English. “They had to publish anonymously or hide what they were doing behind a veil of modesty.”

Schellenberg, however, believes 18th century women writers were “very open about what they were doing and, in fact, were accepted in their own time.”

Part of the recognition problem, she believes, is that most authors published anonymously in that era. But because the London publishing world was so small, the author's name was not a secret in the literary world of the day.

“The generalisation has been that women wrote anonymously because they were afraid to have their name in public and they were afraid of being attacked for being improper or sexually loose. There is probably some grain of truth there, but the fact is that virtually 80 per cent of all work until 1780 was published anonymously,” Schellenberg notes. “Social commentators of the time would say, ‘look at what our women are accomplishing.' There was a cultural pride. At the same time there was some woman bashing too.”

Schellenberg points to two authors, Frances Brooke and Sarah Fielding, as examples of women with successful writing careers. Brooke is often referred to as Canada's first novelist. Her husband was the chaplain to the British garrison in Quebec after the 1759 conquest and she wrote a novel set in Quebec, The History of Emily Montague.

“She gets a lot of attention from Canadianists for that one novel,” Schellenberg explains. “She was actually a very active journalist and writer in England.”

Sarah Fielding, perhaps better known as the sister of Henry, is another successful 18th century woman author. Her Xenophon's Memoirs of Socrates, a translation from the Greek, was the Everyman's Library version up until the last century. Her first novel, published in 1744, The Adventures of David Simple, was a great success at the time.

While Schellenberg says that “authorship was quite free and accessible to women,” the publishing business was in its infancy and quite precarious. Still, women were professional writers in the sense that they could and did make money from their work. They could also have a career as writers “producing a range of works each a little more challenging, and were recognized for their writing expertise.”

Why were 18th century women writers forgotten?

Schellenberg believes prejudice may have been a reason, but also cites a whole range of factors that conspired against them.

While they published anonymously, they most often acknowledged male influences in the prefaces to their books.

“These are the days before databases and good archival collections and people just forget. Once you've acknowledged the same names over and over again for long enough, you can start making the assertion that there were no women writers. A lot of male writers disappeared as well. Nineteenth century beliefs that women belonged in the domestic sphere may also have led to the obscuring of women writers.”

Schellenberg concludes that there is no pat answer for the Great Forgetting. “It's a very complicated thing, but I think that some of it was just an accident of history.”

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