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Anne Mellor, Mothers of the Nation: Women's Political Writing in England, 1780-1830. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000. ISBN: 0253337135. Price: US$39.95.[Record]

  • Diane Long Hoeveler

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  • Diane Long Hoeveler
    Marquette University

One of the central tenets in contemporary feminist criticism has been the doctrine of the separate spheres. In order to understand the literature, history, sociology, and economics of the past two hundred years, feminist critics have invoked as an explanatory paradigm the existence of rigidly demarcated "public" versus "private" spheres. Brought into being through the realities of the capitalistic work and marketplace, the public sphere was understood as the domain of the male; it was concerned with the business of politics, the workplace, and social and economic institutions. The private sphere, in contrast, was the domain where women held sway. Within the home and hearth, and perhaps most broadly the church, women could hold power only within the narrow confines of their own homes, or perhaps their widowed father's or unmarried brother's. This explanatory paradigm has been dominant in the writings of historians and literary critics of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for the past forty years, while a few scholars (Amanda Vickery, Paula Backscheider, Timothy Dykstal, and Linda Colley among others) have attempted to challenge its hegemony as a social and historical construct that explains the way gender was bifurcated in Britain during the eighteenth century and later in America. Anne Mellor's new book, Mothers of the Nation, seeks precisely to challenge this construct and refute the dominance that the public/private sphere theory has had on understanding the literature of the British romantic era. Mellor's argument takes as its central thesis the claim that "women writers had an enormous—and hitherto largely uncredited—impact on the formation of public opinion in England between 1780 and 1830" (p.11). Mellor disputes the position of John Brewer, for instance, who sees the public sphere "invading" and "colonizing" the private sphere, and instead argues the reverse: "the values of the private sphere associated primarily with women—moral virtue and an ethic of care—infiltrated and finally dominated the discursive public sphere" (p. 11). Her evidence rests largely on the career and writings of Hannah More, but the book also includes discussions of Joanna Baillie's "Count Basil," the numerous plays by Hannah Cowley and Elizabeth Inchbald, the political poetry of Helen Maria Williams, Anna Letitia Barbauld, Lucy Aikin, the literary criticism of many of these same writers, and finally the novels of Charlotte Smith (Desmond) and Jane Austen (Persuasion). The book obviously covers a lot of ground, and some of these works are dealt with in more detail than others. If I had any initial criticism of the book, it was that I would have liked to have read in more detail about the plays of Cowley and Inchbald, more about Hannah More's works, more extended discussions, in short, of material that Mellor has very usefully unearthed for us. But Mellor is one of the premier feminist literary critics in the tradition of the rediscovery or recovery of lost women writers and works, and she has performed that service again to an admirable extent. Like her earlier Romanticism and Gender (1993), she has opened up new vistas for other critics working in the field to explore, and certainly her recovery of More will do much for the neglected reputation and understanding of More as an important romantic writer of the period. The sections on Hannah More, as I said, carry the bulk of the argument for the misunderstood status of women as writers of public influence during this period. Mellor's task is perhaps daunting, for she wants to depict these women writers as not simply in service of a pronounced and important public role, but a liberal one at that. At face value, More …