Betty Schellenberg, professor in the Department of English at SFU, has been elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in the U.K. for her research on women writers in the 18th century.

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Betty Schellenberg elected Fellow of the Royal Historical Society for work on women writers in 18th century

April 30, 2019

A dedication to researching the literary history of women writers in the 18th century has earned Simon Fraser University professor Betty Schellenberg fellowship in the Royal Historical Society (RHS) in the United Kingdom. The award, which honours scholars who have made “an original contribution to historical scholarship,” recognises Schellenberg’s literary historical and archival research.

Schellenberg, a specialist in 18th century studies, has taught with the Department of English at SFU since 1991. She considers her original contribution to be her focus on the mid-18th century print trade, its interaction with scribal culture, and more specifically on the role of professional and amateur women writers within it.

Through examining letters and other handwritten materials in collections held around the world, Schellenberg studies the history of 18th century women writers in the context of their day. Their letters to each other and other members of the print trade showed that they were taken seriously as authors at the time. In shedding new light on their role, Schellenberg’s research reveals that these women were not “mere” authors of domestic novels, but highly professionalized writers contributing to the period’s redefinition of authorship.

Quite appropriately, the news of her award came by letter. With a smile, Schellenberg reveals that due to the vagaries of snail mail, the award notification arrived after the letter requesting annual dues.

Election to the RHS is by peer review, with nomination supported by an existing Fellow. Schellenberg’s nomination was prompted and supported by fellow academic, Thomas Keymer, a professor in English at the University of Toronto. They collaborated on the Cambridge edition of author Samuel Richardson’s correspondence, with Keymer’s role as one of the general editors and Schellenberg editing volume ten, Correspondence Primarily on Sir Charles Grandison 1750-1754 .

Schellenberg’s research focuses more on literary history than text analysis. This means hours spent searching through manuscripts and other handwritten materials in various archives. Although it may seem very old school in these highly digital times, Schellenberg highly recommends poring over dusty ledgers of correspondence in the archives; it’s a great way to discover historical fact, and handwritten letters often convey a great deal of detail. 

Schellenberg considers archival research highly valuable, as it helps  to build a more nuanced picture of how literary life functioned in the 18th century and illustrates a new perspective on the time. “Curating materials that have never been available is the most important form of scholarship,” says Schellenberg. “It makes the works more accessible, especially to other scholars.”

It also forges a closer connection with the subject of research by coming into contact with the exact physical rendering of an author’s work in the form of notes, letters, or a manuscript. Schellenberg describes how she felt reading letters for the first time between author Sarah Scott and her sister Elizabeth Montagu, a leading Bluestocking, while preparing for her second book. The correspondence between the two women continued for around 65 years and ended only with Scott’s death.

“When you read their letters, you feel involved. At the end, you feel like you’ve lost a friend.”

Receiving this honour impacts more than just Schellenberg’s recognition by her peers.

“I would hope that the award brings recognition not only to the researcher but to the value of the research topic they study,” says Schellenberg.

The topic she researches—women writers in the 18th century—although ongoing for the last 30 to 40 years is still surprisingly hidden in terms of its value, and difficult to popularise in the curriculum.  Bringing women authors into the centre of literary history is still a challenge.

Being elected a Fellow of the RHS, Schellenberg feels that the research has been validated. “Any time an award recognises research that reconfigures the literary landscape, it brings attention to the research. The value of an award is bringing recognition to the subject area as much as to the researcher.”