Five Questions: Amy Culley on British Women’s Life Writing

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Amy Culley - British Women's Life Writing, 1760-1840

Amy Culley is a Senior Lecturer in the School of English and Journalism at the University of Lincoln.  She has particular interests in life writing, women’s writing and editorial practice, and has co-edited essay collections on all of these topics either published or forthcoming.  She has published articles and book chapters on topics including Sophia Baddeley, Elizabeth Fox, Lady Rachel Russell and court memoirs.  Her first monograph, British Women’s Life Writing, 1760-1840: Friendship, Community, and Collaboration, which we discuss below, was published in 2014 by Palgrave Macmillan.

1) How did you come to realise that you wanted to write a monograph on women’s life writing around the turn of the nineteenth century?

I became interested in Romantic autobiographies by Rousseau, Wordsworth, De Quincey and others as an undergraduate, but it wasn’t until I began thinking about possible PhD topics that I first considered working on women’s life writing.  The idea was sparked by browsing in indexes and bibliographies of women’s autobiographies during a visit to The Women’s Library.  I was struck by just how many women had written about their lives in the Romantic period and how many of these writers I had never heard of.  The book was based on the research of my PhD, during which time I discovered the pleasures of archival study, and the project expanded to include women’s lives written in manuscript as well as printed sources.  I was fortunate that after the PhD I became involved in other activities that broadened my perspective: running a conference on life writing at Lincoln in 2009 (with Rebecca Styler), editing four volumes of Women’s Court and Society Memoirs for the Chawton House Library series, and co-editing a collection of essays (with Daniel Cook) Women’s Life Writing, 1700-1850: Gender, Genre and Authorship (Palgrave, 2012).  These experiences returned me to the thesis with a greater awareness of its flaws and (more positively) with a renewed sense of enthusiasm for the book I was hoping to write.  My original aim was to write a critical history of women’s life writing focusing on the importance of personal relationships, communal affiliations, and creative collaborations in these often hybrid and indeterminate texts, and these ideas remained central to the project.  But stepping back and reading more widely in contemporary life writing theory and scholarship on female communities and family authorship in the eighteenth century and Romantic period enabled me to find new ways to approach these concerns.

2) Your book is divided into three parts, examining Methodists, courtesans and women writing during and about the French Revolution. How did the process of your research and reading lead you to choose these divisions?

This may seem an unlikely trio of ‘God, sex, and politics’, and at my viva we discussed how any one of these parts could have been the focus of a book-length study (a comment that has also been made by several of the book’s reviewers).  But addressing these diverse (net)works enabled me to challenge the association of autobiography with single authorship and personal feeling and instead establish its importance as an articulation of relationships and communal identities and as a contribution to the history of a family, community, or nation.

I began with an archive of spiritual writing by Methodist women preachers whose journals and diaries, autobiographies, transcribed oral testimonies, and letters provided rare insights into friendship and spiritual fellowship and demonstrated the importance of collaboration, in contrast to the traditional association of spiritual autobiography with individualism.  Writing about the self enabled these women to explore family relationships and spiritual belonging, as well as to challenge Methodist historiography by providing a collective history of women’s preaching for the nineteenth century.  Next I addressed the life writing of courtesans whose literary experiments moved well beyond the scandalous memoir to explore themes of friendship, rivalry, maternity, marriage, and their complex identifications with the aristocratic woman of fashion.  This section, in contrast to Part I, enabled me to discuss print culture and the influence of readers, publishers, and ghost-writers on these women’s self-representations.  In the final part of the book I wanted to show how women’s life writing contributed to political and historical debates through attention to the life writing of British women travellers during the French Revolution, addressing both the writing of radical supporters of the Girondins and counterrevolutionary texts.

To create these divisions some parts of the original thesis were removed (the Quakers sadly didn’t make the cut) and some writers were added (which resulted in a very enjoyable summer in the company of courtesan Harriette Wilson).  In grouping these authors I followed the self-identifications and priorities of their life writing, but I was also aware of the instabilities of these categories and the intriguing overlaps and potential distortions created by my approach.  For instance, the courtesan Grace Dalrymple Elliott (discussed in Part III) shared lovers and column inches with Mary Robinson and Elizabeth Fox (discussed in Part II) and exploited the self-vindicatory strategies of the scandalous memoir, but in her Journal she defines herself exclusively in relation to events in revolutionary France.  Conversely, Mary Robinson is an important respondent to the French Revolution and a member of the radical intelligentsia, but her Memoirs (discussed in Part II) provides few traces of these connections.

3) To what extent do you see the women you examine as seeking to carve out new kinds of life writing distinct from those produced by their male peers?

I focused on women writers in particular to demonstrate their rich contribution to the culture and practice of self-narration in the period and to offer new perspectives on female communities and collaborations through the lens of life writing.  Gender shapes women’s relationships to autobiographical traditions and frames the reception of their works, but I make no claims for a distinct female tradition or poetics of life writing.  The women I consider often wrote in relation to prominent male life writers, particularly John Wesley, James Boswell, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and William Godwin and reading them in dialogue with these authors creates new webs of interpretation.  For instance, the recovery of life writing by unfamiliar figures like Methodists Mary Fletcher, Sarah Ryan, and Mary Tooth places an established author like Wesley in new contexts, while Godwin’s Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman is enriched by considering it alongside the life writing of Mary Hays and Mary Robinson.  The spiritual autobiography and scandalous memoir are familiar categories of women’s life writing, but I wanted to show the diversity and hybridity of these forms and to consider auto/biographical contributions to political and historical writing as women used personal narratives to shape the collective memories of the age.  I was also interested in connections in women’s life writing across traditional literary periods; how do experiments with semi-autobiographical fiction by Romantic women relate to the playful experiments with amatory fiction, secret histories, scandalous memoirs, and the sentimental novel of an earlier era, or uses of the roman à clef in the Regency?  Many of these questions about gender and genre are in need of further investigation, particularly women writers’ contributions to biography and the place of manuscript culture and collaborative and collective authorship in histories of women’s life writing.

4) Of the writers your book examines, whose works would you particularly recommend to scholars seeking to increase their knowledge of the field, and which works do you think would provide the most opportunities for fruitful interchanges if included on undergraduate and/or postgraduate programs?

Studies of female authorship in the Romantic period are no longer dominated by the novel, poetry, and drama and, happily, women’s life writing has been receiving considerable attention of late.  Mary Robinson’s Memoirs, Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, and Helen Maria Williams’ Letters Written in France (the most well known of the works I discussed) are now firmly established on English programs and I’ve greatly enjoyed teaching them.  But access to affordable scholarly editions of life writing remains a significant challenge and quite a few of my sources were manuscript journals running to multiple volumes written over many years.  That said, if an affordable edition was available, I would love to teach The Memoirs of Mrs. Sophia Baddeley (1787), the history of a friendship between the actress and courtesan Sophia Baddeley and her companion and biographer Elizabeth Steele that is punctuated by cross-dressing, bed swapping, and duels.  It illuminates topics such as the lives of actresses, the literature of sentiment and satire, and the scandalous memoir, and it would provide an interesting counterpoint to Boswell’s Life of Johnson (published four years later) or Hester Thrale’s Anecdotes of the late Samuel Johnson (published the year before).  Grace Dalrymple Elliott’s Journal of my Life during the French Revolution is another intriguing text which deserves to be better known, particularly by readers interested in women writers and the French Revolution, aristocratic authorship, and counterrevolutionary narratives.  Elliott was courtesan to the pro-revolutionary Louis-Philippe, Duke of Orléans and sought to defend her reputation from the taint of regicide by writing a personal history of the French Revolution on her return to England around 1801.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I’m still very interested in life writing.  Thanks to a British Academy/Leverhulme Small Grant I’m in archives working on women writers who lived from the mid-eighteenth century to the early Victorian period to see how they narrate experiences of old age in their journals and letters.  I’m hoping that personal accounts of ageing and old age written by women in the early nineteenth century will be the topic of my next book.  At the moment I’m focusing on the exchanges between Mary Berry and Joanna Baillie in late life for a collection on Romantic women’s literary networks.  My earlier interests in textual editing have resulted in a co-edited volume (with Anna Fitzer) Editing Women’s Writing, 1670-1840 that will be out this year with Routledge and I’m really enjoying working collaboratively on this.  When it’s done, I’ll be researching a book chapter on women writers’ contributions to early literary biography.