Conference Report: ‘Difficult Women 1680-1830’

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Thank you to Lucy Hodgetts and Marissa Bolin for the following reports from the interdisciplinary conference ‘Difficult Women 1680-1830’ held at the University of York on the 27th-28th November 2015.

To see the tweets from this conference please have a look at the Storify (day 1 and day 2). More information can also be found on the conference website.


Conference title


Report by Lucy Hodgetts (PhD candidate, University of York)

‘Difficult Women’ was a two-day conference put together with the aim of uniting scholars working on representations and conceptions of women in literature, theatre, art, and science of the long eighteenth century. The term ‘difficult women’ encapsulates a plethora of figures that resisted accepted norms of femininity, and who challenged the expectations of their gender by innovative means. This interdisciplinary conference was a vibrant reflection of current research into the numerous ways in which women were considered to be ‘difficult’.

Shearer West’s keynote lecture, ‘What Do Difficult Women Look Like?’ set the tone for a truly interdisciplinary conference by exploring a range of artistic interpretations of femininity. West argued that over the long eighteenth century women became more ‘difficult’ as they became more visible, and thus more visualised. The central tension in these stylisations was between the interplay of particularity and generality. West used portraits of the Duchess of Devonshire to highlight the differences in individualisation in earlier and later representations, and claimed that in attempting to capture something singular in celebrity portraits, artists were actually producing innovative work.


Prof. Shearer West

Prof. Shearer West. Plenary, day 1.


On the second morning of the conference I was lucky enough to chair a panel of three rich and diverse papers, ‘Public, Private, and Class’. The first paper was delivered by Dr Victoria Owens and explored the relationship between the domestic and industrial spheres in the life, career, and marriages of Ann Henshall, a Staffordshire businesswoman. A recent MA graduate from the University of York, Laura Griffin, gave the second paper. Exploring a wealth of graphic caricatures of Princess Charlotte, Griffin’s talk was a fascinating examination of the misguided public-moralizing on female royalty and Britishness. The third paper was delivered by Cecilia Yu-Ting Yen on the relationship between propriety, property and the measuring of individual worth in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, and prompted a lively discussion on Austen’s heroines.

The panel ‘Modern and Contemporary Voices’ treated delegates to innovative re-readings of female writers. York PhD student Elizabeth Bobbitt gave a fascinating paper on the role of female antiquaries in Ann Radcliffe’s posthumous historical novels, and offered a refreshing perspective on the gendered role of the antiquary. Emilee Morrall’s paper on hunter/prey relationships in the fiction of Charlotte Smith utilized novel theoretical approaches to explore the role of female agency in Smith’s works. Finally, Professor Ros Ballaster’s paper, ‘Are we difficult enough yet? Feminist literary history and its futures’, argued for a qualitative rather than quantitative grounds for engaging with recovered women writers.

Perhaps my favourite paper of the conference was Kathleen Keown on ‘Difficulties of Influence in Martha Fouke’s amatory verse’. In an infectiously enthusiastic talk, Keown introduced us to the passionate verse of Martha Fouke, known affectionately as ‘Clio’ to her admirers. Keown discussed Fouke’s unique stylistic choices and why they were worth recovering, despite Eliza Haywood’s best efforts to brand Fouke as a libidinous amateur poet. It was a rare achievement to introduce such a historically obscured figure so comprehensively in a fifteen-minute paper, and I left the auditorium with a renewed interest in amatory writing, and a brand new interest in Fouke.

The conference concluded with Professor Harriet Guest’s lecture, ‘The Celebrated Mrs. Robinson’, which explored Mary Robinson’s complex self-representations in portraiture. The stark nature of George Dance’s profile portraits of Mary Robinson and Elizabeth Inchbald were possibly considered by contemporary critics to be unflattering in their attempt to reject popular celebrity and depict more ‘serious’ women of letters. Yet to the modern eye they seemed arresting and stunning in their crisp execution. Like most actresses depicted in character, Robinson’s portraits were considered as continuations of her dramatic performances. Although actresses used such depictions of their roles to mask their personal lives, Robinson’s celebrity resisted this identity switch in innovative ways. Circulated and proliferated strategically to shape her public identity, Robinson’s Warhol-esque image suggested not only a blurring of character and actress, but of public and private lives too.


The contemporary art exhibit '(Difficult) Women' curated by Arlene Leis at the Norman Rea Gallery. The venue for the wine receptions of the conference.

Images from the contemporary art exhibit ‘(Difficult) Women’ curated by Arlene Leis at the Norman Rea Gallery (the venue for the conference wine receptions).


The breadth of papers read at ‘Difficult Women’ was testament to the richness and diversity of current research into women’s roles in eighteenth-century culture. This was a truly inclusive event in which professors, students, and professionals all rubbed shoulders in their discussions of women’s contributions to history, literature, politics, science, art, and material culture. The organisers should be congratulated and thanked for such a triumphant celebration of ‘difficult women’.


Report by Marissa Bolin (PhD candidate, University of York)

Originally intended as a one-day conference focused on the representations of independent and revolutionary women in the eighteenth century, the volume and quality of papers submitted to the University of York’s Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies (CECS) became the basis for a two-day event. The conference was supported through funding from CECS, the Royal Historical Society, the British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies, and the Humanities Research Centre.

Beginning with Professor Shearer West’s paper entitled “What Did Difficult Women Look Like?” we considered how the eighteenth century became an important period regarding the perception of “difficult women.” West argued that late eighteenth-century portraiture saw a change in the way in which women were presented. Progressing from flattened images of generic female figures, women began to be individualised in art and their images developed specialised identities.


The costume exhibition

The costume exhibition by Lindsey Holmes


The remainder of the first day’s panels focused on eighteenth-century material culture, women’s relationship with men, artistic representations of women, and female identities to explore the importance of the period in the development of “difficult” women. Alison Duncan’s analysis of Jane Innes, an influential aristocrat whose relationship with her brother forced her to become self sufficient, examined the ways in which unmarried women struggled to conform to social expectations. Dr. Rachel Turner and Heather Carroll, in contrast, investigated how women such as Kitty Fischer, Frances Abington, and Queen Charlotte fought purposefully against social norms, and the ways in which independent identity became visible through artistic representations of these important women.

The second day addressed the concept of extraordinary women and their embodiment of what it truly meant to be “difficult.” The day began with panels on the public and private spheres of women, women on stage, and the mental health of eighteenth century women. Lesley Thulin reflected on the presence of romantic melancholy in the lives of Dorothy Wordsworth and Maria von Herbert; Jack Orchard presented the juxtaposing identities of Catherine Talbot. In addition Eleanor Fitzsimmons’ analysis of Percy Shelley’s first wife Harriet, and Morag Allan Campbell’s look at the development of puerperal insanity, created intriguing perspectives of women of the period. The day also involved a very popular panel on the portrayals of prostitutes, criminals, and female sexuality with presentations by Dr. Drew Gray on the Kotzwarra v. Hill murder trial and by Dr. Ruth Scobie on the Henry Sullivan v. Cowden, Cutler, and Storer trial. Dr. Janice Turner examined the high percentage of women making a living by stealing, while Lizee Oliver analyzed the shocking presentation of women’s sexuality.


Prof. Harriet Guest

Prof. Harriet Guest. Plenary, day 2.


The conference concluded with a thought-provoking and in-depth analysis of the image of Mary Robinson by Prof. Harriet Guest, founder of CECS at York. Guest used the ways in which Robinson was presented in letters and in portraiture to argue that unlike the women that West discussed in her opening address, Robinson remained unique in her artistic portrayals. Unlike Siddons, Abington, and Inchbald, Robinson distanced herself from her theatrical roles in order to enhance her private identity.

The two-day conference was well attended and offered a wide range of interesting papers which stimulated  discussion. Delegates contributed a fascinating range of perspectives to a deepening understanding of the ways in which “difficult women” shaped the eighteenth century.