Back in June 2016 I was lucky enough to spend a month working at Chawton House as a library intern. During the cataloguing and conservation work I saw what a fantastic collection of women’s writing is held here, and I knew that I’d definitely need to come back once I’d started my PhD research. Now, thanks to a Stephen Copley Award from the British Association of Romantic Studies, I’ve been able to return to consult the collection.

My PhD thesis seeks to reappraise the representation of female artists in women’s writing of the period 1760-1820. With a wide-ranging artistic education considered a prerequisite for being accepted as an accomplished female, novels of the period tend to be populated by women who are adept at everything from painting portraits to playing the pianoforte. However, the ideal of the accomplished female can complicate the value of artistic attainment. When the arts are cultivated for show – primarily as a means of attracting male attention – the appearance of producing art effectively becomes more important than what is actually produced. I want to look beyond the allure of accomplishment to explore how the arts can provide an avenue for independent self-expression whilst functioning within accepted boundaries of behaviour. Thus far there is a particular focus on the works of Charlotte Smith, Ann Radcliffe, and Jane Austen in my research, but my visit to Chawton House has afforded me the opportunity to consult relevant works in the collection by lesser known or anonymous writers. The inclusion of non-canonical works is vital to my thesis in order to get a more complete idea of how female artists are represented in women’s writing of the period.

I began my week at Chawton by looking into the conduct advice written for women to further my research into what is recommended when it comes to the arts, particularly in terms of drawing and painting. Whilst some works, including the ‘improved edition’ of Mrs Hemans’ Young Woman’s Companion (1840), provide practical advice on perspective, shading and the dangers of putting your paint brush in your mouth (King’s yellow is basically arsenic coloured with sulphur), other texts are more concerned with which arts constitute the proper use of a young lady’s time. There is distinct anxiety around spending too much time cultivating the arts and neglecting family or household duties and Hannah Woolley’s compendious Gentlewoman’s Companion (1673) expressly warns that the hours of recreation should be kept in moderation. However, she does recommend painting, or limning, as a suitable pastime noting: ‘Limning is an excellent qualification for a Gentlewoman to exercise and please her fancy therein.’ What’s more Woolley goes on to acknowledge that there are ‘many foreign Ladies that are excellent Artists herein; neither are there wanting Examples enough in his Majesty’s three Kingdoms of such Gentlewomen whose indefatigable industry in this laudable and ingenious Art may run parallel with such as make it their profession.’[1] So much has been written about the supposed lack of female artistic talent and the limitations imposed upon their training that this quotation is something of a shining light; Woolley recognises the skill possessed by women artists at home and abroad. However, one point to note is her use of the word ‘gentlewomen’. Status is of importance when it comes to what skills women are taught, and this message is reinforced in the collections of poems, stories and biographies delineating virtue and vice I consulted whilst at Chawton House.

In the novel The Reward of Virtue; or, the History of Miss Polly Graham (1769) Bounty Hall is a utopian vision of female education promoted by female philanthropy akin to that presented by Sarah Scott in Millenium Hall (1762). The ‘second rank education’ is designed for those of middling rank with ‘no prospect of considerable fortunes’. Therefore, the focus is on teaching useful rather than ornamental accomplishments: ‘Even drawing was not taught, except where so extraordinary a genious appeared as might give room to believe it might prove a useful and profitable art.’[2] ‘The Story of Melinda’ in the didactic collection The Portrait of Life (1770) promotes a similar message, warning of the dangers of educating a woman beyond her station in life. Melinda’s accomplishments make her a desirable companion for her rich friends even if she lacks their wealth, but she neglects her own family and is subsequently left with no money or support. Millinery is then described by her so called friends as the only option she has. Despite Woolley’s observation that many women have talent equal to that of professional artists, many novels and stories of the period illustrate how making money from the arts is actually fraught with difficulties – especially when performance and display are considered immodest.

The second thread to the research I conducted whilst at Chawton House related to the British reception of Germaine de Staël’s novel Corinne, or Italy (1807). De Staël’s famed heroine is of Anglo-Italian heritage, but her talent is stifled by English manners – it is only in Italy that her genius is celebrated. Published just two years later, The Corinna of England, and a Heroine in the Shade: a Modern Romance (1809) constitutes one of the earliest responses to de Staël’s novel and provides valuable insight into how it was received. Attributed to E.M. Foster, this parody presents its artist heroine as no more than a deluded imitator of de Staël’s woman of genius.

Clarissa Moreton is the orphaned daughter of a wealthy industrialist, whose independent fortune and equally independent manners attract a circle of sycophantic musicians and artists to her salon. Refusing to be bound by convention, Clarissa’s unorthodox conduct risks the safety and reputation of her innocent young cousin, Mary Cuthbert. Upon reading de Staël’s work, Clarissa identifies with Corinne to the extent that she calls herself Corinna and decides to go out and address the people of Coventry in the manner of Corinne at the Capitol. There is bathos in the shift from Rome to a provincial English town, and Clarissa unwittingly insights a riot rather than being heralded as a great speaker. Clarissa’s singularity does not mark her out as a woman of genius. In fact, her talents as a musician, poet and public speaker are decidedly lacking in comparison with de Staël’s heroine. Foster does not present a model for the female artist to thrive in England. Display is presented as particularly unfeminine, leading the exemplary Clara Davenport to hide her talent. Even though she was ‘always engaged in some piece of useful or entertaining work of invention or fancy’ she ‘carefully concealed that she had pursuits of a higher nature from the eye of common enquiry, lest she should be thought to have strayed from the path prescribed to her sex.’[3] The challenge to female modesty posed by the display of talent will definitely be an idea that I’ll consider as I continue to research the influence of de Staël’s Corinne on the representation of female artists in Romantic-era novel. As for The English Corinna, this novel is well worth a read, and I’m pleased that it has been republished as part of the Chawton House Library Series of women’s novels to help bring it to the attention of a wider audience.

My week back at Chawton really has been invaluable. The Reading Room is a quiet haven where you have the time and space to think through your ideas, and I’ve left feeling inspired to push on with my research project and pursue the various leads I’ve identified. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the staff for being so welcoming and helpful. I very much hope that I’ll be back again before too long – I’ll miss my afternoon tea break out in the courtyard!

[1] Hannah Woolley, Gentlewoman’s Companion, or, a Guide to the Female Sex, (London: A. Maxwell for Dorman Newman, 1673), p. 84.

[2] Anon, The Reward of Virtue; or, the History of Miss Polly Graham, (London: J. Roson and William Cooke, 1769), p.209-11.

[3] [E.M. Foster], The Corinna of England, and a Heroine in the Shade: a Modern Romance, (London: B.Crosby, 1809), p. 15.