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Unsex'd Women: The Politics of Transgression in the Poetry of Anna Laeticia Barbauld and Charlotte Smith.

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

  • Penelope Joyce Elizabeth Bradshaw
Publication date1998
Number of pages331
Awarding Institution
Place of PublicationLancaster
  • Lancaster University
Electronic ISBNs9780438572096
<mark>Original language</mark>English


Despite recent revisions of Romanticism which seek to include women writers in that movement, the women poets writing at the end of the eighteenth century remain marginalised, both in our understanding of Romanticism and as literary figures in their own right. This is partly due to the problems which arise when seeking to fit a new group of writers into a previously constructed literary movement. Readings of women's poetry in relation to this movement have led to the construction of their work in terms of the defining 'Other' to male Romanticism, and as a consequence their poetry has been defined as primarily concerned with the domestic and the quotidian. My thesis rejects the category of Romanticism as a means by which we can understand late eighteenth century women poets and situates their work in a much more complex network of cultural, social, philosophical and political discourses. It takes two women poets of the period, Anna Barbauld and Charlotte Smith and focuses on their much neglected political poetry, in order to demonstrate the ways in which these women writers themselves challenged the expectations about the poetry women should write and transgressed into the public sphere. It takes as its starting point the contemporary criticism levelled at these women, that they had 'unsex'd' themselves by their repeated transgressions into the political. In rejecting essentialist constructions of late eighteenth century women's poetry and focusing on Barbauld and Smith's transgressive interventions in politics, this thesis argues that the poems respond to the debates on women's rights which mark the period, and which led to the production of the seminal feminist polemic, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, by Mary Wollstonecraft. In placing Barbauld and Smith's poetry in the context of this turbulent and exciting moment of gendered political awareness, I offer a revisionist reading of their poetry, as not only highly politicised, but invested with an early feminist agenda. An introductory chapter sets up the critical tools which the readings of individual poems use: a rigorous historical contextualisation combined with attention to textual nuance and meaning in the poems at the level of language and imagery. This is followed by a biographical/introductory chapter on Barbauld (Chapter One) and three subsequent chapters which offer readings of individual poems by Barbauld (Chapters Two to Four). Chapter Five is a biographical/introductory chapter on Smith, and again this is followed by three chapters which offer readings of individual poems by Smith (Chapters Six to Eight). In both cases the three chapters which offer readings of the poetry follow a historical trajectory, looking at early poems, then poems produced in the radical years of the 1790s and finally at the poems written in the early years of the nineteenth century. In following this shared trajectory the thesis raises questions of both difference and shared agenda between Barbauld and Smith, and the conclusion offers a comparative assessment of their poetry in terms of radicalism and feminism.