18th-Century Women of Letters


By 1817, Jane Austen could boast that novels by women had “afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world.” A mere century and a half earlier, printed work by women was still a rarity. This course traces the emergence of professional female authorship from the end of the Renaissance to the heyday of Romanticism, along the way introducing students to the most illustrious members of Austen’s “literary corporation.” Some 18th-century women of letters remain familiar today (Aphra Behn, Mary Wollstonecraft), while many of them deserve more exposure (Eliza Haywood, Sarah Fielding, Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth). The texts we cover will be as eclectic as the authors themselves—from lyric poems to gothic novels, sex comedies to political jeremiads, fantasy literature to travel writing, autobiographies to courtship narratives—but the emphasis, especially in the spring, will be on prose fiction. Various theoretical approaches to the history of women’s writing will be considered, but we will primarily be interested in studying the individual careers, personalities, and achievements of these remarkable artists. We will also pay attention to male authors who, in response to the rise of professional women’s writing, employed complex female personae in their own work.