Before Victoria

Before Victoria: Extraordinary Women of the British Romantic Era

Elizabeth Campbell Denlinger
Foreword by Lyndall Gordon
Copyright Date: 2005
DOI: 10.7312/denl13630
Pages: 192
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/denl13630
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  • Book Info
    Before Victoria
    Book Description:

    It might not have the been the revolution that Mary Wollstonecraft called for in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), but the Romantic era did witness a dramatic change in women's lives. Combining literary and cultural history, this richly illustrated volume brings back to life a remarkable, though frequently overlooked, group of women who transformed British culture and inspired new ways of understanding feminine roles and female sexuality.

    What was this revolution like? Women were expected to be more moral, more constrained, and more private than in the eighteenth century, when women such as Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire crafted bold public personas. Genteel women no longer laughed aloud at bawdy jokes and noblewomen ran charity bazaars instead of private casinos. By 1800, motherhood had become a sacred calling and women who could afford to do so devoted themselves to the home. While this idealization of domesticity kept some women off the streets, it afforded others new opportunities. Often working from home, women wrote novels and poetry, sculpted busts, painted portraits, and conducted scientific research. They also seized the chance to do good, and crafted new public roles for themselves as philanthropists and reformers.

    Now-obscure female astronomers, photographers, sculptors, and mathematicians share these pages with celebrated writers such as Mary Shelley, her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, and Mary Robinson, who in addition to being a novelist and actress was also the mistress of the Prince of Wales. This book also makes full use of The New York Public Library's extensive collections, including graphic works and caricatures from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, manuscripts, hand-colored illustrations, broadsides, drawings, oil paintings, notebooks, albums and early photographs. These vivid, beautiful, and often humorous images depict these women, their works, and their social and domestic worlds.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50993-0
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. FOREWORD
    (pp. vii-x)
    Lyndall Gordon

    Who were the women in the late eighteen hundreds and early nineteen hundreds who set themselves apart from social expectations? Before Victoria, drawing primarily on The New York Public Library’s great Pforzheimer Collection,¹ opens up the lives of an array of women who turned away from the beaten track during the fifty years before the rise of “the Woman Question,” the more familiar movement that took off during Victoria’s reign.

    In 1787, two years before the French Revolution, Mary Wollstonecraft was a restless governess, reading Rousseau in an Irish castle and collecting matter for her first novel, Mary (1788). “The...

  4. PREFACE
    (pp. xi-1)
  5. Chapter One MARY ROBINSON, EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY ROMANTIC
    (pp. 2-21)

    The life of Mary Darby Robinson, actress, mistress, poet, mother, and novelist, illustrates the state of England and of Englishwomen during the shift from the eighteenth century to the Romantic era. Born in 1757 and dying, aged only forty-three, as the eighteenth century ended and the nineteenth began, Robinson is at once exemplary and extraordinary: exemplary because she embodied so many of the possibilities open to women, and extraordinary because she lived out these possibilities for her own reasons and by her own lights.¹ Her early life was conducted according to eighteenth-century possibilities and expectations: beginning as a virtuous wife,...

  6. Chapter Two EXEMPLARY WOMEN: MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT, HANNAH MORE, AND THEIR WORLDS
    (pp. 22-37)

    Although they might easily be called the most important women of their age, neither Hannah More (1745–1833) nor Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) is “Romantic” in the literary sense. In the historical sense of the term, however, these women embody two political and social extremes. More has been called “the first Victorian” because of her enthusiastically religious, steadfastly conservative life.¹ She established schools for the poor, helped to launch the British campaign against slavery, and promoted evangelical Christianity. She was famous during her lifetime and into the mid-nineteenth century, but her reputation then went into eclipse; only during the last...

  7. Chapter Three NOT QUITE GOOD ENOUGH: THREE IMPERFECT LIVES
    (pp. 38-55)

    The last chapter looked at how Mary Wollstonecraft and Hannah More answered for themselves the question of how to live one’s life. This one looks at the general answer given to girls and women: Be good! Middle-class girls of this period were raised to see motherhood as heroic, and wifehood as a profession. The gain was that they and their educations had begun to be taken seriously, although real reform in girls’ education did not come until the 1870s. The cost was that education was seen as worth seeking for only two primary purposes: the pursuit of a husband and...

  8. Chapter Four THE MODERN VENUS, OR, IMPROPER LADIES AND OTHERS
    (pp. 56-89)

    The previous chapter looked at women who tried, with varying degrees of success, to live according to the conventions of their time and to be what the Victorians would come to speak of as “proper ladies.” This chapter will look at a group of women who were, in the public view, decidedly improper.

    The prominence of gambling in British life during the Romantic era is often forgotten, and it was by no means limited to the rich. But it was seen as a particular vice of the wealthy, who had money to throw away. Hannah More and Mary Wollstonecraft both...

  9. Chapter Five STRONGER PASSIONS OF THE MIND: WOMEN IN LITERATURE AND THE VISUAL ARTS
    (pp. 90-123)

    Opportunities for enjoying sin may have grown scarcer over the Romantic period, but it was an enormously fruitful time for female readers and writers. Without pretending to be a history of women writers of the time, this chapter will present some of its most prominent figures. Their legacy is mixed in quality: while some novels of the period are classics, and many are still read for pleasure, the enormous quantity of poetry that women published, much of it written in heroic haste to support families, is now largely forgotten. The chapter ends with a complement of visual artists, fewer in...

  10. Chapter Six RATIONAL DAMES AND LADIES ON HORSEBACK: SCIENTISTS AND TRAVELERS
    (pp. 124-149)

    The Romantic era afforded rich opportunities to young women with a passion for science or mathematics. The years between 1789 and 1837 were crucial in the history of science and technology, and both men and women, girls and boys, studied these fields with great interest (in the same way that computers have been a matter of interest to more or less everyone since, say, 1975: people in the midst of a revolution are well aware that it is taking place). The novelist Maria Edgeworth, writing in 1795, observed: “Instead of being ashamed that so little has been hitherto done by...

  11. Chapter Seven THE YOUNGEST ROMANTICS
    (pp. 150-166)

    It was customary in English departments of the mid- and late twentieth centuries to speak of the “older Romantics” – Wordsworth, Coleridge, and sometimes William Blake – and the “younger Romantics” – Shelley (Percy Bysshe, not Mary), Keats, and Byron. This chapter overturns this notion: the four women introduced here – one of them not a writer at all – are younger than the “younger Romantics.” Coming of age in the later part of the Romantic era, they were formed by it, but like all the women in this book they stand out among that long-skirted, wide-hatted crowd, their peers,...

  12. THE PFORZHEIMER COLLECTION AND ITS FEMALE INHABITANTS: AN AFTERWORD
    (pp. 167-170)
    Stephen Wagner

    Dating back to the years after World War I – a time when many large private libraries were being dispersed – the Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle at The New York Public Library is one of the world’s leading repositories for the study of English Romanticism. The creation of Carl H. Pforzheimer (1879–1957), who brought to the world of books and manuscripts the same shrewdness and determination that had already made him the country’s most prominent dealer in oil securities, the collection now comprises some 25,000 items, including books, manuscripts, letters, and other objects, chiefly...

  13. NOTES
    (pp. 171-178)
  14. SUGGESTED READING
    (pp. 179-180)
  15. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. 181-182)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 183-189)