- the diversity of women's writing in this period
- the ways in which such writings draw on or re-formulate existing models
- the ways in which they engage with contemporary intellectual and cultural debates
- the changing ideologies of femininity as realised by women's writing of the period.
- to produce an annotated catalogue of works by women writers in the collection, which will provide descriptive, analytic, biographical and bibliographical information
- to expand the catalogue using hypermedia, offering map women's writing of the Romantic period.
Beginning Stage Two...
The defining aim of the Corvey Project, at the outset, was to 'map women's writing' in the period 1780-1840 using the unique resource of the CME (Corvey Microfiche Edition), and to disseminate the findings by means of digital technology. Given the extraordinary quantity of female-authored works in the collection, and the number of authors represented there, the question of how to coordinate such a study within the limited duration of the British Academy-funded Project - four years - was not going to be a simple matter.
The first two years have now passed. During this phase, a standard catalogue of women's belles-lettres writing in the CME has been established, with the invaluable assistance of Projekt Corvey at the University of Paderborn, and Cardiff Corvey. A Corvey Project website has been set up, and has this year been comprehensively revised and improved. In addition to information about the progress of the Project, it offers several catalogues associated with the Corvey Library, an important site devoted to the poet Letitia Elizabeth Landon, and numerous links to related sites elsewhere. A number of events, conferences and symposia, have helped to raise awareness of the Project, and provided opportunities to develop cooperative ties with other projects and individual scholars in the field. An 'Adopt an Author' scheme has been started to involve undergraduates in research, and three doctoral students within the department are exploring different aspects of the collection.
From the beginning, the plan has been to use the catalogue of women's writing in the belles-lettres CME as the foundation of a database, which would include various factual and critical elements integrated by hyperlinks: facsimile title pages, biographies, bibliographies, contemporary reviews, short contextual and interpretative essays, synopses and keyword descriptions of texts. It was always clear that it would not be possible within the bounds of the four-year Project to cover every author and every text, but the intention was to cover as much ground as possible, with the help of contributions from outside scholars and from students at SHU working on the collection. This intention remains. One dimension of the Project is to maximise the available information on women writers of this period, in line with the greatly increased awareness of women's literary production enabled by the Corvey Library.
We invite scholars and graduate students to contact us, if they would like to work with us to set up and maintain a homepage on any woman author, or female-authored text in the collection, or to make any other contribution. All contributions will be subject to peer review and credited.
However, this type of adventitious expansion, while valuable in itself, has two main shortcomings with regard to the rubric and the circumscribed nature of the core Project. First, it will not necessarily facilitate a survey of women's writing, or forward the aim of providing an analytical 'map' which will guide us through the wondrous terra nova revealed by the collection. Second, the vision of a final totality which lies beyond the patchwork approach, and motivates it, does not acknowledge the concrete specificity of the collection on which the Project is founded; indeed, such an approach tends to erase that specificity.
The Corvey Library, in spite of its magnitude, has some surprising gaps. It does not correlate in every respect with the established or emerging canon of Romantic-era women's writing. Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Hays are missing, and there are only three of Austen's novels. Poetry is under-represented; there is no Barbauld, no Seward, no Tighe. We do not want to gloss over these absences. Similarly, the decades covered by the Project are not uniformly represented by the collection. The longitude and latitude of the holdings are determined for the most part by the life histories and lifespans of the collectors. The book-buying begins sporadically in the 1790s with the second marriage of the Landgrave of Hesse-Rotenberg, reaches its height in the 1820s, and tails off in the mid-1830s with the deaths, in quick succession, of wife and husband.
The question, then, is how to find a way of fulfilling the need for a general map, one which makes a significant contribution to the development of women's literary history, at the same time as we respect the quiddity, the uniqueness, of the collection. The second phase of the Corvey Project will, I hope, do both. We are proposing an intensive study of the careers and publications of the 20 most prolific female authors represented in Corvey; that is to say, those who have ten or more publications held in the belles-lettres collection.
It should be admitted straight away that this plan will involve exclusions. These authors are not representative of the generality of female writers at the time. They are remarkable authors: remarkably independent; remarkably productive; remarkably successful commercially and sometimes critically; and in most cases, remarkably long-lived. They can not tell us about the whole spectrum of female experience within print culture; they will be relatively silent on the score of vanity publishing, isolated gestures of desperation or eccentricity, and on failure. At the same time, their work is not necessarily the best, the most interesting or the most innovative that can be found in the Library (though the sample does in fact include some celebrated writers and texts).
To offset these drawbacks, there are a number of advantages to this method of selection, which I'll mention in a moment. But first it's worth noting the surprising amount of diversity there is within this arbitrary grouping of the prolific and the successful. There are some writers whose lives have been well documented, such as Maria Edgeworth and Lady Morgan, and others of whom no facts are known apart from the dates of their publications, including the pseudonymous 'Rosalia St. Clair'. A few are edging towards canonical status, with works gradually becoming available again in modern editions and beginning to generate critical activity. Most still linger in complete obscurity. Collectively their publications include writing of various kinds: novels, novellas and short stories, poetry, drama, translations, and also a number of memoirs and biographies, although strictly speaking the latter should belong to another section of the CME which has yet to be made available. They span the period from the early 1790s to the mid-1830s. The writings exhibit many shades of aesthetic ambition, commercial acumen, moral purpose and political and social opinion. A handful of texts were accorded respectful reviews in the major periodicals, others were briefly and dismissively noticed as examples of low-grade female scribbling, and yet more were only publicly announced in the advertisements of the Minerva Press and similar circulating library publishers.
The diversity of the sample is one contingent advantage of this method of research. Another benefit is its organic relation to the collection itself. The selection of authors purely on the basis of the number of their works found in the Library, highlights the particular stength of the collection. The collection is strong in exactly those areas which have been neglected by the great public and private libraries. Where else would it be possible to examine together the complete works of Mary Meeke? At the same time as the selection makes apparent the special depth of the holdings, it also gives an accurate sense of its chronological shape. The diachronic distribution of works by the twenty authors is a true index of the whole, with its greatest density in the late 1810s and 1820s.
Finally, the technical nature of the selection, its determined arbitrariness, is a recommendation. It will free us from the limits imposed by pre-judged aesthetic or biographical criteria, and forward the type of sociological enquiry which we intend. I will describe this plan in more detail, but not before listing the authors and texts involved.
The authors included in the study are the following; the number of their publications in the belles-lettres CME is given in brackets:
Selina Davenport (11)
Henrietta Mosse (10)
Maria Edgeworth (12)
Amelia Opie (10)
Catherine Gore (15)
Eliza Parsons (11)
Sarah Green (10)
Anna Maria Porter (15)
Elizabeth Gunning (10)
Mary Robinson (10)
Jane Harvey (11)
Regina Maria Roche (16)
Anne Hatton (14)
'Rosalia St. Clair' (12)
Barbara Hofland (19)
Louisa Stanhope (15)
Mary Meeke (26)
Elizabeth Thomas (10)
Lady Sydney Morgan (11)
Jane West (11)
The aim of the second phase of the Corvey Project is in the first instance to create an information site for each of these authors, with the elements already mentioned above. The existing site devoted to Landon gives an idea of the potential. Sites for Selina Davenport, Catherine Gore and Eliza Parsons, all authors included in this focal study, have been established with material researched and compiled by SHU students, and will be further developed.
But work on individual authors is only a facet of the research envisaged, albeit an important one. These biographical trajectories will be used to create a bigger picture. They are contributions towards a sociology of the professional woman writer in the era of Romanticism. The overall design is to begin to register and analyse the historical development of women's writing and publication. The aim is to chart the ebb and flow of literary currents and fashions in relation to the professional female author, as a distinct category. We will also investigate the structural elements of their world: systems of contract and copyright, the hierarchy of publishers and booksellers, methods of publishing and marketing, the impact of circulating libraries, periodical reviews, and distinct forms of readership.
This is a submerged history, one that has not begun to be written, because of the critical prejudices which held sway until very recently, and because of the continuing inaccessibility of texts. The data and hence the conclusions the Corvey Project can contribute to this excavatory labour is partial and limited, the sample of texts small when compared to the total. Yet potentially, this initiative is a great step forward, given the little that has so far been read, documented and recovered.
The pioneering scholarship and campaigning efforts of feminist critics and literary historians have, in the course of the past two decades, brought back into circulation a number of important women writers from the period, aided and abetted by publishers like the Virago and Pandora Presses: the list includes Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, Elizabeth Inchbald, Lady Morgan, Mary Shelley, Charlotte Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft. What the results of the Corvey Project will show is that these writers, though exceptional in many ways, wrote and published in an environment in which female voices, far from being exceptional, were often predominant.
We seek to reconstruct the climate of professional women's writing, in a manner in part comparable to that of Cheryl Turner in her book Living By the Pen: Women Writers in the Eighteenth Century (Routledge, 1992). Turner's statistical tables based on the annual total of women's novels and the annual number of active women novelists over the century represent an exciting challenge to the Romantic-era scholar. They show an almost vertical rise in female authorship and productivity in the second half of the 1790s, exactly concurrent with the start of the Corvey holdings. The meaning of the remarkable upswing, and what happens to it after the turn of the century, lies beyond the remit of Turner's study. It is this phenomenon we will be addressing in our research, as we move through the sample of 259 texts, decade by decade, from the 1790s to the 1830s.
The progress of research and the resulting data and analysis will be regularly communicated via the Corvey Project website. We want to make this process open, accessible, and cooperative, and in particular would like to invite any scholars or students working on the selected authors to get in touch with us if they'd be interested in exploring the possibility of a joint venture. We will ourselves attempt to contact critics who have published recently on some of the less well known authors. The intention is not to monopolise the authors, but to pool information for reciprocal benefit, and broadcast to the academic community at large news of scholarly study taking place elsewhere, as well as within the Project. As mentioned already, there would also be an option of setting up independent but related websites on specific authors.
E.J. Clery 15/7/98