Jonathan Wordsworth's volume of scholarly essays, The Bright Work Grows: Women Writers of the Romantic Age, encompasses an impressive range of literature by women of the period and includes the work of female pamphleteers, essayists, novelists, and poets. Wordsworth's eloquent and learned style will be familiar to those already acquainted with his previous two volumes in the Revolution and Romanticism Woodstock Facsimile Series: Ancestral Voices and Visionary Gleam. On the whole, these earlier volumes sought to chart the contours of the Romantic era through lesser-known works written by major literary figures of the time. In The Bright Work Grows, Wordsworth focuses on how both literary works by Romantic women writers attested to a revolution in attitudes towards women and how women's literary works were instrumental in defining the changes that took place in conventional political and social views.
Wordsworth's lucid introduction outlines the political, social, commercial, and personal circumstances affecting female literary production in the Romantic Period. He observes that 'unquestionably…women had a tougher time' than their male contemporaries, but notes that 'being female' was not a draw back 'in terms of publication' as 'throughout the period, publishers were happy to print work by women.' What made the lives of women writers more difficult were the domestic trials of 'pregnancy, children, [and] looking after houses and husbands' and their precarious legal position, which required a married woman to surrender 'her property, and legal identity, to her husband' until The Married Women's Property Act 1870.
These personal and public difficulties did not become, according to Wordsworth, the explicit preoccupation of female literature in the 1780's and 1790's. Even before the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), other women writers recognised education as an important topic, asserting that '[h]umanity as a whole can make progress only if women, as the natural educators of future generations, receive an appropriate education themselves.' Wordsworth understands Wollstonecraft's Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787), written in 'the form of a manual', as endeavouring to address the issue of education on a practical level. The title of her reflections on the necessity of female education, Wordsworth reminds us, echoes John Locke's Some Thoughts concerning Education (1693), which had 'ignored the existence of girls'—an oversight that Wollstonecraft desired to redress. Wordsworth's intelligent account of Wollstonecraft locates her in both the literary tradition of her own day and the intellectual context of John Locke and Edmund Burke.
Wordsworth deals sensitively with the double bind in which Wollstonecraft found herself as an educated female and as an impoverished writer, whose upbringing had reinforced her own expectations of marriage. Unsurprisingly, her Thoughts on the Education of Daughters construed of 'education in terms of marriage' and had not yet developed 'the more cutting tones of the second Vindication'. Elsewhere in this illuminating volume, Wordsworth is eager to emphasise that it was Wollstonecraft's first Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), rather the Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), 'that made her reputation.' Wordsworth considers 'The Rights of Men [as] a polemic, and not a political blueprint', comparing her tone to William Goldsmith or the 'young Wordsworth of Descriptive Sketches (1793), when she envisions a smiling landscape of the future'. Wollstonecraft's 'sense of the disastrous current situation' made it 'impossible for [her] to stay on the level of practical suggestion' in Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, which became a polemic 'against contemporary society.'
Such debates about the education of an individual are inextricable, in Wordsworth's view, from 'the larger political concerns of improving society' and so education becomes 'the focus of much of the period's intrepid thinking, in fiction as well as in essays and polemics.' This is evidenced in other works by women of the time, including Catherine Macaulay's Letters on Education (1790), Mary Hays's Emma Courtney (1796) and Appeal to the Men of Great Britain on behalf of Women (1798), and Elizabeth Inchbald's Nature and Art (1796) and A Simple Story (1791). For instance, Macaulay's prescient Letters on Education diagnosed education as the root-cause of the present female predicament, arguing that '[c]reated with equal rights, and equal potential, women have been formed by social pressures to a stereotype convenient to the male.' In Macaulay's writing, Wordsworth finds a precursor of Wollstonecraft's more 'modest' The Wrongs of Woman (1792) and a firmness of tone comparable to Simone de Beauvoir.
In his discussion of poetry by Charlotte Smith, Helen Maria Williams, Ann Yearsley, Mary Robinson, Joanna Baillie, and Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Wordsworth notes that '[t]hose who expect domesticity from women poets of this period will be disappointed'. He writes '[t]heir themes are those of their male contemporaries —love, war, politics, the riddle of the universe, the relation of man and nature.' Wordsworth, for instance, highlights the fact that Barbauld had been writing 'Unitarian poetry twenty-five years before Frost at Midnight and Tintern Abbey.' Writing on Barbauld's Poems 1792, Wordsworth draws parallels and contrasts between her Unitarianism, as expressed in Address to the Deity and 'A Summer Evening's Meditation', and 'the great pantheistic affirmations' of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. Barbauld is understood as 'asking herself the question that will be Coleridge's central preoccupation in the 1790's' concerning the nature, form, and omnipresence of God in a physical universe given his spiritual essence.
When writing about Joanna Baillie's Poems 1790, Wordsworth is equally adept at demonstrating how the voice of her poetry pre-empts 'the vocabulary and associative thinking of Wordsworth's "spots of time"' in The Prelude or the poetic imagery that characterises Margaret in The Ruined Cottage. In spite of these literary connections, Wordsworth admonishes that Baillie 'should be valued in her own right, not for what may seem anticipations of later, greater verse' as 'she has a voice of her own, and it is genuinely new.' Baillie, Wordsworth observes, 'had a long and seemingly untroubled life' and the only 'reason why [she] did not become the poet she could have been was that she decided to be a playwright instead.'
He also laments other women poets 'who did not fulfil [their] potential', in particular Charlotte Smith and Helen Maria Williams. Smith after enjoying enormous success with her Elegiac Sonnets (1784) re-invented herself as a 'novelist to support her family' and only returned to composing 'a potentially…great Romantic blank verse poem [Beachy Head]' in 'the last two years of her life'. Williams, Wordsworth suggests, never achieved her true literary 'calling' as a poet, electing instead to adopt 'the role of the prose reporter' and publishing a novel, Julia (1790), and her Letters from France (1790-5).
Concluding his section on William's Poems 1786, Wordsworth regards the volume, which included Ode on the Peace, Peru, and Monody on the unfortunate Major André, as marking 'the height of her fame' and 'achievement as a poet.' He considers Williams an 'excellent writer' of both prose and poetry, but regrets that the defining event of the French Revolution out of which 'Romantic poetry emerged…betrayed her into being a prose reporter' and left her exiled in France. There, Wordsworth argues, she had the misfortune to write 'from outside the tradition to which [she] belonged' and was never able to realise the potential of her unique poetic powers.
Wordsworth's essay on Ann Yearsley contrasts the pantheistic tendencies found in Barbauld's work with the notion of deity expressed in Yearsley's Poems on various subjects (1787), in particular her address to nature from To her Grace, the Duchess Dowager of Portland. Her poetry exhibits '[u]p-to-the moment distinctions between God and Nature' and is careful to avoid 'the pantheistic implication accepted by Barbauld (whom she could have read), Coleridge, and Wordsworth.' Wordsworth regrets that, owing to her dispute with her patron, Hannah More, she will be consigned to the 'history-books' as 'the Bristol Milk-woman…remembered chiefly for ingratitude' and not as a 'steadily improving poet, who overcame obstacles of all kinds to achieve a substantial body of interesting work.' Yearsley's continued improvement as a poet is testified to by her 'impressive final collection, The Rural Lyre' (1796), which contains a poem composed for 'twenty Bristol citizens killed by soldiers in a toll-dispute'. Her poetry does not champion political causes, but exhibits a concern and empathy for individuals.
Other essays in Wordsworth's volume on Romantic women writers afford insights into canonical works by long-established female authors of the period. Wordsworth employs his usual deft eloquence and intelligence to produce succinctly informed pieces on Ann Radcliffe's A Sicilian Romance (1792), Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (1818), and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Valperga (1823). Wordsworth views Radcliffe's writing as 'a reaction against the original trend of gothic, instituted by Horace Walpole in The Castle of Otranto (1765)' and fully invested in 'the Burkean sublime of terror' posited in An Enquiry into the Origins of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757). Wordsworth pronounces Radcliffe's 'version of the gothic [as] a mildly spooky reinstating of romance' which at its best 'achieves one of the great portraits of the Burkean sublime' in the figure of Schedoni, a 'Byronic romance-hero'.
In Austen's posthumously published Northanger Abbey, Wordsworth recognises an 'early charm' in contrast to 'the emotional depth of Persuasion' which also appeared in 1818. If, Wordsworth reminds us, Northanger Abbey had appeared in 'the year of its completion' it would have been published 'alongside that other great Romantic abbey, Wordsworth's Tintern (1798).' At this time William Gilpin's 'picturesque (from which both Austen and Wordsworth derive) would still have been in vogue' and 'Radcliffe's Udolpho (1794), parodied so wittily in Northanger, would scarcely have passed the height of its fame'.
Wordsworth's account of the publication history of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, through the anonymous 'three-volume first edition 1818' to 'the two-volume reprint of 1823' and the reprint of 1831, seeks to demythologise her 'German gothic tale.' He emphasises that 'the ghost-story competition with Shelley, Byron and Polidori' and the image of Mary intently listening to her husband's conversations 'about galvanism and the experiments of Erasmus Darwin' at Villa Diodati would have been unknown to the readers of the 1818 edition. Wordsworth astutely prefers 'the unelaborated 1818-23 text', on the grounds that it at least has 'the advantage of being what [Mary Shelley's] contemporaries originally read, before Frankenstein, and its creation, began to take on the status of myth.' Wordsworth does not find the same 'mythic dimension' in Valperga (1823) which, he believes, is not 'rediscovered' by Mary Shelley until her composition of The Last Man. Nonetheless, he finds in Valperga 'a power and intensity about the writing that we do not find elsewhere in Mary Shelley's work.'
The Bright Work Grows is a remarkable collection of essays, containing a lifetime of learning and scholarly research distilled into crystalline, informative, and accessible prose. Wordsworth writes with a genuine depth and breadth of knowledge in these essays on women writers of the Romantic Period, which makes them an invaluable and essential read for anyone seriously interested in the history, politics, society, and literature of the period now known as the Romantic Age.