Stephen Copley Research Report: Hannah Moss
Chawton House in Hampshire hardly needs an introduction as it is so frequently spoken of with such great fondness by everyone who has been lucky enough to spend some time working in the Library Reading Room. Just a few minutes’ walk down the leafy lane from the cottage where Jane Austen lived and worked between 1809-17 stands the ‘Great House’ inherited by her brother Edward after being adopted by the Knight family. Chawton House Library now makes an idyllic and inspiring setting for a collection of early women’s writing, and thanks to a Stephen Copley Award, I have been able to spend a productive week conducting research towards my thesis here.
My PhD thesis seeks to reappraise the representation of female artists in women’s writing of the period 1760-1820. With a wide-ranging artistic education considered a prerequisite for being accepted as an accomplished female, novels of the period tend to be populated by women who are adept at everything from painting portraits to playing the pianoforte. However, the ideal of the accomplished female can complicate the value of artistic attainment by eliding the aesthetic appeal of the artist with that of her art. When the arts are cultivated for show – primarily as a means of attracting male attention – the appearance of producing art becomes more important than what is actually produced. My aim is to look beyond the allure of accomplishment to explore how the arts can provide an avenue for independent self-expression whilst functioning within accepted boundaries of behaviour.
I began my week at Chawton House Library extending my research into what art forms are encouraged as a mark of virtue by looking into the conduct advice written for women. The collection held at Chawton House Library includes numerous conduct manuals, from Hannah Woolley’s compendious Gentlewoman’s Companion (1673), through to an ‘improved edition’ of Mrs Hemans’ Young Woman’s Companion (1840). Whilst some works, including Mrs Hemans’ Young Woman’s Companion, provide practical advice on perspective, shading, and the dangers of putting your paint brush in your mouth (‘King’s yellow’ is basically arsenic coloured with sulphur), other texts are more concerned with which arts constitute the proper use of a young lady’s time. There is distinct anxiety around spending too much time cultivating the arts and neglecting family or household duties, and Hannah Woolley warns that the hours of recreation should be kept in moderation. However, she does recommend painting, or limning, as a suitable pastime, noting: ‘Limning is an excellent qualification for a Gentlewoman to exercise and please her fancy therein’. Woolley then goes on to acknowledge that ‘There are many foreign Ladies that are excellent Artists herein; neither are there wanting Examples enough in his Majesty’s three Kingdoms of such Gentlewomen whose indefatigable industry in this laudable and ingenious Art may run parallel with such as make it their profession’. So much has been written about the supposed lack of female artistic talent and the limitations imposed upon women artists in terms of training – therefore this quotation is significant as it recognises the skill possessed by women artists at home and abroad. However, one point to note is her use of the word ‘gentlewomen’. Status is of importance when it comes to what skills women are taught, and this message is reinforced in the novels and short tales delineating virtue and vice that I consulted whilst visiting the library.
In the novel The Reward of Virtue; or, the History of Miss Polly Graham (1769), Bounty Hall is a utopian vision of female education promoted by female philanthropy akin to that presented by Sarah Scott in Millenium Hall (1762). The ‘second rank education’ is designed for those in the middling rank with ‘no prospect of considerable fortunes’. Therefore, the focus is on teaching useful rather than ornamental accomplishments: ‘Even drawing was not taught, except where so extraordinary a genius appeared as might give room to believe it might prove a useful and profitable art’. ‘The Story of Melinda’ in the didactic collection The Portrait of Life (1770) promotes a similar message, warning of the dangers of educating a woman beyond her station in life. Melinda’s accomplishments make the heroine a desirable companion for her rich friends even if she lacks their wealth, but she neglects her own family and is subsequently left with no money to her name. Her so-called friends then describe millinery as the only option she has left to support herself.
The second thread to the research I conducted whilst at Chawton House Library related to the British reception of Germaine de Staël’s Corinne, or Italy (1807). The talent of de Staël’s famed improvisatrice is stifled by English manners, but in Italy her genius is celebrated. Published just two years later, The Corinna of England, and a Heroine in the Shade: a Modern Romance (1809) constitutes one of the earliest responses to de Staël’s novel and provides valuable insight into how it was received. Attributed to E.M. Foster, this parody presents its artist heroine as no more than a deluded imitator of de Staël’s woman of genius.
Clarissa Moreton is the orphaned daughter of a wealthy industrialist, whose independent fortune and equally independent manners attract a circle of sycophantic musicians and artists to her salon. Refusing to be bound by convention, Clarissa’s unorthodox conduct risks the safety and reputation of her innocent young cousin, Mary Cuthbert. Upon reading de Staël’s work, Clarissa identifies with Corinne to the extent that she calls herself Corinna and decides to go out and address the people of Coventry in the manner of Corinne at the Capitol. There is bathos in the shift from Rome to a provincial English town, and rather than being heralded as a great speaker, Clarissa unwittingly incites a riot. Clarissa’s singularity does not mark her out as a woman of genius. In fact, her talents as a musician, poet and public speaker are decidedly lacking in comparison with de Staël’s heroine.
Foster does not present a model for the female artist to thrive in England. Display is presented as particularly unfeminine, leading the exemplary Clara Davenport to hide her talent. Even though she was ‘always engaged in some piece of useful or entertaining work of invention or fancy’ she ‘carefully concealed that she had pursuits of a higher nature from the eye of common enquiry, lest she should be thought to have strayed from the path prescribed to her sex’. The challenge to female modesty posed by the display of talent will definitely be an idea that I will consider further as I continue to research the influence of de Staël’s Corinne on the representation of female artists in Romantic-era novels.
I would like to thank BARS for the generous bursary which enabled me to undertake research which is invaluable to the progress of my PhD. The staff at Chawton House are so helpful and supportive, and I would highly recommend a research visit here to anyone with an interest in early women’s writing. The Library Reading Room is a quiet haven where you have the time, space and materials at your disposal to make research breakthroughs, and I have left feeling inspired to push on with my project and pursue the various leads that I have identified.
 Hannah Woolley, Gentlewoman’s Companion, or, a Guide to the Female Sex, (London: A. Maxwell for Dorman Newman, 1673), p. 84.
 Anon, The Reward of Virtue; or, the History of Miss Polly Graham, (London: J. Roson and William Cooke, 1769), p.209-11.
 [E.M. Foster], The Corinna of England, and a Heroine in the Shade: a Modern Romance, (London: B.Crosby, 1809), p. 15.