British Women’s Life Writing, 1760-1840, by Amy Culley

Clare Brant on a form of writing that offers a unique insight into the private lives of women

November 27, 2014

In an etching of 1784, two young women sit on an uncomfortable and indeterminate piece of furniture. As one writes something in a lined notebook, the other looks hazily into the middle distance. Above them an enormous curtain rises – one hopes. The cover of Amy Culley’s book about women’s life writing makes a tad light of the writing – these sisters might be composing a shopping list, especially since the original drawing was done by their mother – but it expresses artistically the author’s interest in making autobiography not just a singular venture.

Readers new to the term life writing may wonder what it is. Once upon a time there were books about Romantic autobiography, in which the diaries or memoirs of men described as literary geniuses were taken to reveal their inner creativity. How times change. Now we have life writing, a capacious term that takes in autobiography, biography, memoirs, diaries and many other genres. In Culley’s book we also have a generous time span, mercifully without the word Romantic, and an interesting cast of female writers divided into three groups: Methodists, courtesans and travellers writing about the French Revolution. The mix draws on a wide range of manuscript and print sources, introducing new voices especially in the first and last sections. I was excited to see discussion of the journals of Elizabeth Fox and Grace Dalrymple Elliott, women known hitherto as mistresses rather than writers.

Culley proposes that women’s life writing is best understood in terms of relational selfhood, which each section positions differently: in spiritual families, in female friendships and literary family, and in social community. Methodist women, for instance, chose mothers and daughters in their own creations of pious kinship, especially useful when male leaders began to restrict women’s connections to communities through preaching. Biological motherhood infuses the literary sensibility of Mary Robinson and brings Mary Wollstonecraft’s solitary wanderer persona back to sociability. Life writing has fresh theory, which Culley uses thoughtfully and imaginatively in tandem with scholarship on 18th-century lives, letters, journals and travel writing.

In following this double level of debate, it helps to have read the texts she discusses. I churlishly wished for more from the writers. Elliott, for instance, was a friend of the Ancien Régime: she bravely hid the governor of the Tuileries between her mattresses when guards came to search her room; she was in the bed when they stabbed it with their bayonets. In a prison cell that she defiantly represented as an aristocratic salon, she swapped royalist anecdotes with the soon-to-be-executed king’s mistress. With all its case studies, the book makes a convincing case for seeing women’s life writing as outward-looking, even if its insistence on relationality raises an unfashionable question: did none of these women ever shut the door and breathe a sigh of relief that on paper they could be or invent themselves? The egalitarianism of life writing has been very beneficial to literary studies, and Culley’s sympathetic readings show how. I wonder, though, whether the updating of models of relationships from circles to social networks projects our own remodelling of relationships in social media: this is the LinkedIn version of self. No wonder it’s persuasive.

British Women’s Life Writing, 1760-1840

By Amy Culley
Palgrave Macmillan, 280pp, £55.00
ISBN 97811374212 and 4229 (e-book)
Published 18 July 2014

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