Collective Biographies of WomenAn Annotated Bibliography
Adams, William Henry Davenport. Women of Fashion and Representative Women in Letters and Society: A Series of Biographical and Critical Studies. 2 vols., London: Tinsley, 1878.
TOC: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu; The Duchess of Marlborough; Lady Morgan; Madame d'Arblay [Fanny Burney]; Mrs. Elizabeth Inchbald; The Countess of Blessington; Charlotte Brontë; Miss Berry.
Cambridge University Library stamp 23 Aug 78; labels of spines XXVIII 66 22 and 23. Blue cloth 8o; black scrollwork stamps on covers, gilt lettering on spine, black lettering on cover; brown floral endpapers. Davenport is identified as Author of "The Artic World, the Mediterranean Illustrated, the Bird-World, etc." Dedicated "The the Right Hon. the Countess of Glasgow these volumes are by permission respectfully and gratefully dedicated by the author."
Adams's Preface submits to “'general reader’” reading that should be “pleasant and not unprofitable” for “leisure hour,” concerning “the character of Woman as she appears in the world of Literature and Society” (capitalized in original). The subjects were “chosen because they are representative." It is "needless to dwell on the strong moral and intellectual distinctions which separate a Harriet Martineau from a Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, or a Charlotte Brontë from a Countess of Blessington.” umlaut The “present volumes are confined to English Representative Women; but should they meet with a favourable reception from the reading public, the writer on another occasion may venture further afield.” "January 1878" (vii-viii)
Throughout biographies, a horizontal line sets off the header of each page, Representative Women (verso), subject's name (recto). First page of each gives subject's name in large caps followed by a period and "A.D. 1753-1821" (Inchbald) or the appropriate birth and death dates. The narratives are divided into chapters.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's biography consumes 149 pages, followed by a summary page in smaller type giving her name, dates of birth (1690) and death (1762), quoting at length from “Dallaway,” who favorably compares Montagu's learning with other women's. She “applied her learning to improve her knowledge of the world…" She showed best in her "purity of style, rather than in the ambition of displaying her acquirements…" She gave "grace of expression and novelty to maxims…” (150). Other subjects do not receive such a concluding page "blurb." For comparison, Burney or “Frances D’Arblay” [sic] receives five chapters (124 pp.).
The biography of Elizabeth Inchbald begins, “We have now to tell the story of a Woman who in some respects may fairly be considered Representative, though she made no very conspicuous figure in what is known as Society, and does not occupy a very high position in the republic of Letters. Her life was more remarkable than her works, and her character is a more interesting study than her life. Yet had she possessed less of marked individuality, and had her career permitted fewer noticeable incidents, she must still have been remembered as a dramatist of some ability, and a novelist of no mean order” (125)
“Marguerite, Countess of Blessington, once so famous in London Society, though now little more than the shadow of a name, was the third child…" begins Blessington's biography (176). Chapter iv:“Lady Blessington’s literary career was not, as we have seen, a successful one” (253). After a slash on p. 263, “A few words may be added respecting Count D’Orsay" (263-4), a unique supplement comparable to Dallaway's words on Montagu.
As to Adams's authority and objectivity, he gets some facts wrong and judges by strict gender and religious standards. Charlotte Brontë's dates are given 1817-1855 instead of 1816-1855. The biography begins: "The Rev. Patrick Blundell, who afterwards assumed the name of Brontë, was a native of the county of Down in Ireland” (265). The three sisters become subjects: Charlotte's "life was so mixed up with the lives of her sisters, that the threads cannot be wholly disentangled…." Perhaps with Gaskell in mind, Adams opines, "We are great believers in the power of circumstances to shape and modify character; and we believe that the sights and sounds…in our childhood produce each a strong impression” (266-7). “We feel the breath of the strong Yorkshire breezes in her style….Haworth was hardly the place in which a lyrist of the Thomas Moore stamp could have grown up and sung; hardly the place to have nourished a ‘Wild Irish Girl’ or an ‘Evelina.’ But it was no unfitting home for a ‘Jane Eyre’” (267). The biography concludes with Harriet Martineau’s famous obituary assessment of Charlotte as having the “conscientiousness of a saint” (342).
In her own biography, Adams grants: “Harriet Martineau, as all will admit, was a remarkable woman; remarkble by virtue of her mental endowments; remarkable for force of character; remarkable in her long and active career; and remarkable in her ready acceptance of the crude speculations of an inferior mind; but remarkable, beyond everything, for her egotism” of "sublime proportions" (343). Adams quotes W. R. Greg, “Qu’elle avait le défauts de ses qualités” (344), dwelling further on Martineau's denial of merit in other people and her conviction that "the world...floated round her own individuality” (348). “As a novelist she cannot be ranked with George Eliot, Charlotte Brontë, or even Mrs. Gaskell. Her strength lay in logical force of statement and appositeness of illustration” (348). After this extensive assessment of Martineau's standing, Adams states that his sketch of her life is based on the Autobiography , which he faults: it is “amusing to perceive the evident belief that the reader will dwell as eagerly as she herself dwelt upon even the minutest particulars of her childhood” (349). “It would be uncharitable to criticize too severely the moribund utterances of a woman in Harriet Martineau’s physical condition” (393). Agnoticism is a “miserable creed” (393).
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