Five Questions: Richard De Ritter on Imagining Women Readers

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Richard de Ritter - Imagining Women Readers

Richard De Ritter is a Lecturer in the Long Eighteenth Century at the University of Leeds.  He has a particular interest in women’s writing, having published articles on Maria Edgeworth and domesticity; Elizabeth Hamilton and education; and Jane West, patriotism and sensibility.  He has also written on James Boswell and William Hazlitt and worked extensively on the writings of Priscilla Wakefield.  He co-ordinates (with Jeremy Davies) the Leeds Eighteenth-Century and Romantic Literature research seminar and last year organised a two-day conference on ‘Home and Nation: Reimagining the Domestic, 1750-1850’.  His first monograph, Imagining Women Readers, 1789-1820: Well-Regulated Minds, which we discuss below, was published earlier this year by Manchester University Press.

1) How did you first become interested in the ways that female readers were imagined in the Romantic period?

Initially I was curious about the way that Romantic authors like Keats, Clare and Hazlitt seemed so dismissive – even fearful – of the prospect of women reading their work.  In that respect, the project was more focused on the anxieties of male authorial identity.  These writers were drawing upon stereotypes familiar from the period’s anti-novel discourse, which depicted women readers as superficial, leisured and unproductive.  But when I turned to the way women readers were addressed and instructed in conduct and educational literature, a powerful counter-narrative became apparent.  The key moment was reading Hannah More’s Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education, in which some forms of reading are described as an ‘invigorating’ form of ‘wholesome labour’.  Here was a way of imagining women readers as active, self-regulating individuals, whose practices were informed by an ethic of exertion rather than leisured indolence.  Suddenly, the stereotypical fears evoked by women readers became a secondary interest.

2) How did Imagining Women Readers develop and change as you transformed it from your PhD thesis into a monograph?

The biggest challenges went hand in hand: I needed to cut down the amount of material I had and to identify a clearer narrative.  In the thesis, I had allowed myself to explore some interesting but perhaps unnecessary tangents.  As a result, the argument was sometimes in danger of becoming obscured.  The book is more streamlined.  I also had to think more clearly about the date range I was working with.  The book stops at the end of the 1810s – a decade which is book-ended by the publication of the first and second editions of Anna Letitia Barbauld’s The British Novelists (in 1810 and 1820, respectively).  The intervening years also saw the publication of Jane Austen’s major novels.  For the book, I needed to think more clearly about how these works brought increasing respectability not only to novels, but to the women who enjoyed reading them.  I also wanted to demonstrate how this change in status was made possible by the earlier work of writers such as Hannah More, Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Hays.  It lent the book a coherence that the thesis was perhaps lacking.

3) The book focuses principally on three types of works: ‘conduct books, educational treatises and novels’. Did these different genres of literary work construct women readers in drastically different ways, or were there considerable crossovers between the three?

A lot of the writers I’m interested in worked across these different genres; Maria Edgeworth, May Hays, Hannah More, Elizabeth Hamilton, Jane West, and Mary Wollstonecraft all published novels alongside their non-fictional work.  Often, the novels seem to enact the content of the more obviously didactic works, giving writers the chance to show theory operating in practice.  Nevertheless, fiction frequently offers a testing ground for exploring ideas about reading. Mary Hays’s Memoirs of Emma Courtney, for instance, is informed by the proto-feminist conviction that reading helps to cultivate one’s reason – but this is tempered by the lingering presence of older, regressive stereotypes about the pernicious effects of fiction.  Hays’s novel seeks to navigate a path between these extremes.  As this suggests, novels can offer a more expansive setting for negotiating debates about women’s reading; but at the same time, I didn’t want to lose sight of the richness of ‘non-literary’ texts.  I ended up spending a lot of time thinking about the rhetorical strategies they employ when discussing the virtues of reading.  In conduct books, for instance, reading is frequently depicted as an act of work, or an investment, or as involving a form of economic management.  In that respect, it contributes to the construction of a more complex and outward-looking model of domestic femininity than we might expect from putatively ‘didactic’ writing.

4) What do you think were the main social and cultural issues at stake when authors sought to imagine and define the ways in which women read?

As critics like Jacqueline Pearson and Kate Flint have shown, the figure of the woman reader is often a conduit for expressing a range of social and cultural anxieties.  This is aided by those negative stereotypes of women as flawed, impressionable readers.  Consequently, discussions of women’s reading are often situated in relation to a range of other contexts: the fear of Revolutionary France; the debilitating effects of commerce and luxury; excessive sensibility; and the regulation of female sexuality, to name just a few.  But rather than focusing on how reading exacerbated these anxieties, I wanted to explore how it offered the means of combatting them.  I focused on how a variety of writers urged women to become discriminating – even resistant – readers, who cultivated their independent judgement and reason.  From this perspective, what’s really at stake is the way in which leisure, domesticity and work are defined in relation to reading.  As I mentioned above, reading becomes a form of virtuous, domestic labour that enables women to improve themselves and, by extension, the nation.  Similarly, in the book I write about how the concept of female leisure is redefined: rather than an unproductive state of indolence, it accommodates acts of reading that confer disinterested moral authority upon women.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I am working on a book about eighteenth- and nineteenth-century children’s literature, provisionally entitled Domesticating Wonder: Women Writing for Children, 1750-1830.  There are two key strands that I’m exploring.  The first is the evolving status of ‘wonder’ in writing for children.  I’m interested in how it is reconfigured from denoting that which is marvellous and fantastical to that which is produced by children’s informed, rational observation of the world in which they live.  Isolating this shift complicates the idea that ‘rationalist’ modes of education of the late eighteenth century expelled wonder from children’s literature.  It also leads to the second strand of the project, which re-evaluates the nature of domesticity in writing for children.  I’m interested in how rationalised, domesticated forms of wonder allow children to perceive the ways in which their daily lives are implicated within a range of economic, environmental, and ethical networks.  I want to suggest that this produces a kind of cosmopolitan global consciousness that originates in the home.  Pursuing this argument has led me to critical approaches that I’ve not really used before: I’ve found it helpful to draw upon theories of globalisation and eco-critical approaches to literature.  The latter has also led me to develop an increasing interest in animal studies.  I’m enjoying broadening my horizons and have managed to incorporate elements of this project into my teaching, in the form of a module on animals in children’s literature from the eighteenth century to the present.