PUBLIC TALK: ‘Hardly any women at all’? Literary landscapes at the time of Jane Austen
|‘Hardly any women at all’? Literary landscapes at the time of Jane Austen : A Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies/Institute of Advanced Studies Public Lecture
In a famous scene in Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland confesses to Henry Tilney that she rarely reads history, finding it ‘tiresome’. ‘I read it a little as a duty’, she admits, ‘but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all’.
Catherine’s frustration evokes a literary-historical landscape from which women are missing, and this ‘absent woman’ of course becomes the centre of the comic gothic plot of the novel. But while Catherine laments this absence, her conversation with Eleanor and Henry shows us something rather different. Catherine seems part of a lively culture of literary conversation in the last decades of the eighteenth century: she discusses her reading preferences; debates the value and gendered readership of novels (mentioning the very popular novelist Ann Radcliffe by name); and is even able to tantalize the more sophisticated Tilneys with a piece of literary gossip out of London.
This talk explores literary landscapes for women in Britain in the late eighteenth century. Were they absent or present? How did they participate? Were they predominantly readers (like Catherine) and rarely writers (like Radcliffe or Austen herself), or more closely involved? And how might this milieu have influenced Austen’s own trajectory as a writer in provincial England?
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