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- Author: Leonie Hannan x
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Women of Letters writes a new history of English women’s intellectual worlds using their private letters as evidence of hidden networks of creative exchange. This is the first detailed study to situate correspondence as the central social practice in the development of female intellectual thought in the period c.1650-1750. The main argument of the book is that many women of this period engaged with a life of the mind through reading and writing letters. Until now, it has been assumed that women’s intellectual opportunities were curtailed by their confinement in the home. Women of Letters illuminates the household as a vibrant site of intellectual thought and expression. By using an original definition of ‘intellectual’, the book offers a new and inclusive view of intellectual life: one that embraces a broad range of informal writing and critical discourse and abandons the elitism of traditional definitions of scholarly achievement. Amidst the catalogue of day-to-day news in women’s letters, are lines of ink dedicated to the discussion of books, plays and ideas. Through these personal epistles, Women of Letters offers a fresh interpretation of intellectual life in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, one that champions the ephemeral and the fleeting in order to rediscover women’s lives and minds.
Here the key themes of the book are introduced and the historical and historiographical context is set. The chapter discusses, women’s literacy and access to education, the social and cultural context in which intellectual women worked, correspondence culture and the sites and communities of exchange. Finally, the choice of primary sources and methodology is explained, with reference to the implications of using material, spatial and textual analyses to answer questions about women’s intellectual agency in epistolary communities.
The paths by which seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English women came to the task of intellectual thought were varied. Small details of personal histories interacted with larger dynamics of culture and society and created highly individualised contexts for intellectual work. In childhood, girls’ and boys’ educations diverged and for most young women home, rather than school, was the place of learning. Nevertheless, a domestic education was not necessarily an inadequate education and the practice of conversation and letter-writing were a mainstay of female learning. When children left home, letters of advice were sent by concerned parents, offering encouragement for continued self-development and establishing habits of familial epistolary contact. In adulthood women were unable to join an intellectual club, society or institution. Instead, the circumstances of critical importance to their personal achievement were likely to be marriage, family, friendship and geography. The routes that women took to self-education and erudition are revealing of the opportunities and obstacles at work for women of this period. This chapter explores how women got started in the pursuit of a life of the mind and considers the skills and resources they needed to participate fully in the world of ideas.
Becoming a woman intellectual in early modern England was no straightforward task. Financial dependence, lack of personal autonomy, marriage and motherhood could all bring pressures to bear on practices of self-development. However, it was from within these circumstances that women found ways to engage with the life of the mind. Moreover, the forms intellectual engagement took were informed by their domestic contexts and the patterns of exchange framed by letter-writing. This chapter explores the cultures of knowledge in which women made their mark. Female intellectual networks, opportunities for cross-gender exchange and amateur circles of scholarship all existed outside of traditional centres for intellectual production. These opportunities are considered in the context of other factors that affected female learning: the development of an intellectual identity, the changing demands of the lifecycle and the ramifications of public scrutiny of female achievement. These opportunities and obstacles for female intellectual engagement in this period will be explored through the qualitative detail offered by a series of examples of learned women.
Letter-writing was an instrument for self-education and provided the writer with the space to rehearse critical skills. Letter-writing started in childhood as a tool in parents’ strategies to educate and socialise their children. Once the childhood exercise had been converted into a lifelong epistolary habit however its scope broadened – laying open networks of acquaintance both geographically and socially distant from the correspondent. Here the letter is seen as a key mechanism in the process of intellectual engagement that both stimulated and shaped the informal scholarship of women in this period. The networks of exchange created and maintained by epistolary culture will also be examined. Female letter-writing networks created mutual reinforcement of intellectual purpose. In other cases male mentorship proved the catalyst for cross-gender academic exchange.
In a period before women had equal educational opportunities, the home was an important arena for self-education. Women worked, in the home, in ways that were not confined to the rigours of household management: they spent time reading, thinking and writing. Female letter-writers testified to the importance of their environment in shaping their mental outlook and ability to pursue contemplative activities. Moreover, domestic space was experienced through time and the way that time was allotted mediated letter-writers’ experiences of the life of the mind. In other words, a quiet closet with books was no use to a woman without the time to spend in that space. This chapter explores the early modern home as a site of female knowledge production by focusing on the way women won time for quiet study within that space. The discussion also considers the ways in which physical and mental spaces were interconnected.
Writing, like reading, was an activity that held a magnetic draw for some women of this period. Writing could be a strong impulse, a necessity that kept the mind free, the thoughts flowing and the writer psychologically stable. Eighteenth-century correspondents commonly spent many lines of ink on the very subject of how writing letters to their friends acted as an emotional salve. In letters, emotional responses to life were articulated and both the expression of those feelings and the manner in which they were expressed provide important insights into the history of emotions. Relationships were forged and fostered through letter-writing and, thus, correspondence played a critical role in the continuation of significant friendships. The reciprocal nature of letter-writing prompted some correspondents to cover pages in ink at a staggering pace and regularity, using the expanding postal network to their advantage. Some wrote to ease the pain of separation, but others used their correspondence as a means to explore new avenues of exchange alongside a friendship conducted in person. When this practice of daily writing became a task of intellectual note, in general, the intensity of the connection increased as the correspondence moved from cheerful conversation to contemplative exchange.
A short final chapter which states the case for women’s mass participation in cultures of knowledge and considers longer term change over time. Having established that many more women participated in the world of ideas, it is proposed that these women represent a seedbed of change for future generations of intellectually aspiring women.
History through material culture provides a practical introduction for researchers who wish to use objects and material culture as primary sources for the study of the past. The book focuses primarily on the period 1500 to the present day, but the principles put forward are equally applicable to studies of earlier historical eras. Histories of the last five centuries have been driven to a remarkable extent by textual records and it is with this in mind that History through material culture offers researchers a step-by-step guide to approaching the material evidence that survives from this period. Anticipating that many researchers will feel under-skilled or lacking in confidence in tackling artefacts of the past, the book traces the process of research from the framing of research questions through to the writing up of findings – giving particular attention to the ways in which objects can be located, accessed and understood. This practical guidance is augmented by the use of examples of seminal and contemporary scholarship in this interdisciplinary field, so that readers can see how particular approaches to sources have been used to develop historical narratives and arguments. It is written in accessible and jargon-free language with clear explanations of more complex discourses. In this way, the book demystifies both the process of researching objects and the way research practice relates to published scholarship.
The introduction makes the case for historians making use of material culture, not only as a primary source, but as a catalyst for developing new lines of enquiry. This chapter sets the context of the book by describing how the academic landscape in the last twenty years has drawn museums and historians ever closer. It also defines the scope of ‘material culture’ for this book and explore common definitions in the interdisciplinary field of material culture studies. Finally, the introduction provides a summary of the contents of the chapters and suggestions for how to get the best out of the research guide