For centuries, scholars have characterized eighteenth-century literary satire as an aggressive and specifically masculine practice and genre. This perception is clearly apparent in twentieth-century literary theory, in which critical investigations of satire focused almost exclusively on a handful of male writers (Pope, Swift, Dryden, Rochester, etc.) and repeatedly affirmed that, in the words of David Worcester, “no woman has ever made a mark in satire.” [i] Even recent critical anthologies and monographs dedicated to the historic study of satire have tended to overlook, or at least downplay, women’s contributions to the genre, maintaining that relatively few women wrote satire during the long eighteenth century and offering only a chapter here or there on a handful of works by women. In essence, much recent scholarship still accepts, as Ashley Marshall notes, that “the clichés about satire being a male form are legitimate.”[ii]
British Women Writers in the Long Eighteenth Century reverses this masculinist assumption. Building on the small quantity of previous articles and chapters by experts such as Melinda Rabb, Paul Baines, Claudia Kairoff, and others, this collection offers further evidence of the abundance of satiric work by eighteenth-century women writers. Our contributors theorize and showcase women’s witty literary engagement in debates about societal inequities and social justice issues across many venues of eighteenth-century British culture. Eighteenth-century women writers intentionally and consistently incorporated satire into their poetry, fiction, and other creative genres as a means to express themselves in public cultural debates and to forward feminine critiques on the topics of the day. In doing so, they contributed to the development of satiric forms and modes, publishing innovative, diverse satires in a wide range of genres that promoted reflection in their readers and prompted imitations and satirical responses from both male and female satirists.
British Women Writers in the Long Eighteenth Century reflects the response of leading scholars in eighteenth-century literary studies to the critical omission of women from the history of satire and satire theory. Our goals are to explore the breadth and complexity of women’s satire during the long eighteenth century, to dismantle the operative assumption that women writers rarely engaged in the practice of literary satire, and to emphasize the ways in which women satirists offered important contributions to the development of the genre across the period. The thirteen essays in this collection innovatively analyze selected women as authors of satire and emphasize the creative ways in which they participate in the satiric tradition and particularly in what we have identified as three key categories of satiric practice: 1) the ventriloquizing of recognized satirists and satiric styles, 2) the reverse gendering of masculine satiric personas, metaphors, and devices, and 3) the act of feminine-centric invention, in which satire is employed to address uniquely feminine concerns. Beyond the collected essays, the collection also includes an appendix listing 58 women satirists of the period and selected titles of their work.
“Did women write satire during the long eighteenth century?” We hope this book enables scholars and readers to not only confidently answer “Yes!,” but to articulate the many ways in which women satirists developed and contributed to the genre.
[i] David Worcester, The Art of Satire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1940), 13.
[ii] Ashley Marshall, The Practice of Satire in England 1658 – 1770 (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 28.