“The notion that women were uniquely fashioned for the private realm is at least as old as Aristotle,” claimed Anne Vickory in her seminal article on the chronology of English women’s history. Hidden Histories delves into how women in the ‘long eighteenth century’ managed to subvert this notion through their literary lives, a realisation that has been championed from the 1970s feminist movement onwards.
Even the podcast’s premise is perspective-changing. In the standard, small-group-of-academics-have-a-friendly-chat format, it aims to retell the history of the novel. Women’s contribution to literature has long been neglected, despite the fact that the majority of 18th century novels were actually written by the, ahem, fairer sex. For example, it was only recently revealed that the most prolific writer of the period, Elizabeth Meek, is cousin to fellow writer Frances Burney. This podcast brings such scholarship to the ears of its literature-loving listeners.
Among the many view-inverting particulars is that Alexander Pope was of the popular opinion that poetry is the manliest genre. Novels are for the ‘emotional’ feminine sex. The podcast spans the rise of the novel and the extensive works of Aphra Behn to female war poets and commentators on the French revolution. It discusses the Blue Stockings Society, as well the practice of holding female-only public debates on remarkable motions such as: “Is capital punishment inflicted too frequently in this country?” and “Should men have the right to take part in traditionally female trades?” These debates, it is class-consciously explained, also involved lower- and middle-class women, who were often illiterate.
One irony of feminist scholarship is also touched on. Up to this day, women are too often quoted talking about womanhood but rarely about areas of their actual expertise. The podcast confesses to falling into this trap as it extensively delves into female exploration of womanhood at the expense of deeper dives into, say, their political thoughts.
If one thing could be improved?
The podcast falls into a second, even more ironic trap; its material often remains hidden from the pedestrian listener. It drops names as frequently as it drips tantalising facts. Charlotte Smith, Anna-Laetitia Barbauld, Mary Wollstonecraft, Aphra Behn, Lady Wortley Montagu, Hester Thrale Piozzi, Frances Burney and so many more names get dropped on the floor en masse before being selectively picked up and introduced. It is not clear to the listener who to pay attention to in order to be able to follow the narrative flow of the episodes. Similarly, host Helen Lewis interjects with “during my English degree” so many times it feels like one really ought to have an English degree to be among the intended audience.
This flaw is pretty fatal on a show that is self-consciously exploring a theme that is little-understood outside of university seminars. Nonetheless, listening along with Wikipedia is well worth the effort. A bit of pre-reading and tuning into In Our Time on the bluestockings for a bit more context makes the experience much easier, however. Four stars.
N.B. For those who want a quick peek of literature from the period, read this short poem from Lady Wortley Montagu.