International Women’s Day: ten books by eighteenth-century women you may not have read

Through no fault of their own, many brilliant eighteenth-century women have fallen into obscurity, either because their work was little-valued in their own time or because, although they were popular among their contemporaries, subsequent scholarship has done little to shine a light on their œuvre. It is therefore sometimes a little difficult to know where to start when seeking to diversify our reading habits, and we risk missing out on some brilliant and crucial works. In celebration of International Women’s Day, here are ten books by women you may not have read.

Isabelle de Charrière

Isabelle Agneta van Tuyll van Serooskerken (Belle de Zuylen), the future Madame de Charrière, by Maurice Quentin La Tour (1766).

Lettres de Mistriss Henley publiées par son amie, Isabelle de Charrière (1784)
This epistolary, written by Dutch/Swiss Enlightenment writer Isabelle de Charrière, explores the tensions between reason and sensibility. This series of poignant letters tell the story of a young woman struggling with a cold, stern husband and the seeming impossibility of happiness within a marriage.

An Essay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting, Jane Collier (1753)
The first work of English novelist Jane Collier, An Essay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting is a satirical conduct book, and includes advice for ‘teasing and mortifying’ a wide range of society, including lovers, parents, servants, and spouses. Other works of Collier’s include The Cry, written with Sarah Fielding, and a recently discovered commonplace-book.

Les Conversations d’Emilie, Louise d’Epinay (1774)
A response to Rousseauian ideas on education, this text represents a key moment in the development of 18th-century pedagogical thought. It takes the form of a conversation between a mother and her daughter, and emphasises the importance of not only the moral formation of girls, but also a well-rounded scientific and classical education.
For a critical edition of Les Conversations d’Emilie, edited by Rosena Davison, see here.

Die Honigmonathe, Caroline Auguste Fischer (1802)
This epistolary, written by German novelist Caroline Auguste Fischer, was published anonymously in response to Wilhelmine Karoline von Wobeser’s 1795 bestseller Elisa, oder das Weib wie es seyn sollte, which glorified the ideal of a selfless, obedient wife, and was much-praised by Fischer’s ex-husband. It tells the story of two close friends: Julie, who is trapped in a marriage of convenience with an increasingly selfish and unstable husband, and Wilhelmine, an ‘Amazon’ who frequently condemns the institution of marriage and seeks to rescue her friend from this unfortunate fate.

Madame de Graffigny

Presumed portrait of Madame de Graffigny, by Louis Toqué.

Lettres d’une Péruvienne, Françoise de Graffigny (1747)
One of Graffigny’s most successful works, Lettres d’une Péruvienne is told from the perspective of Zilia, a young Incan princess who is taken from her home by Spanish conquistadors and eventually finds herself living in France. Zilia is an engaging narrator, and her outsider insight into and critique of eighteenth-century Paris, as well as her suspenseful life of displacement, love, and independence, make for a highly engaging read.
For a critical edition of the Lettres d’une Péruvienne, edited by Jonathan Mallinson, see here. Graffigny’s fascinating correspondence is also well worth a read!

The Female Quixote; or, The Adventures of Arabella, Charlotte Lennox (1752)
This satirical novel tells the story of the life and loves of Arabella, an English noblewoman with a lively imagination, strong sensibility, and a love of French romance novels. After the death of her father, her expectation that life will imitate literature gets her into no end of trouble, and her adventures are at points laugh-out-loud funny, even for a twenty-first-century reader.

Histoire du Marquis de Cressy, Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni (1758)
Although less well-known now, the work of French actress and novelist Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni reached a wide audience in her own time; she is even mentioned in the correspondence of Goethe. L’Histoire du Marquis de Cressy is not, as the title suggests, focussed on the life of the rakish Marquis, but instead on the tragic consequences that his deceptive and libertine behaviour has on the women in his life.

Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim, Sophie von La Roche (1771)
The first known German-language novel to be written by a woman, this epistolary tells the story of the virtuous Sophie von Sternheim, daughter of a colonel and an English aristocrat, and her experiences in the English court. After the death of her parents she faces interfering relatives, unwelcome suitors, and royal scandals, but she stays true to her values and in the end gets the happy ending she always wished for.

Florentin, Dorothea von Schlegel (1801)
Dorothea von Schlegel, daughter of Moses Mendelssohn, wife of Friedrich von Schlegel, and aunt to Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, published Florentin in 1801. The novel follows the travels of Florentin, an Italian aristocrat, and through his relationships and the relationships of those around him explores issues of desire, gender, and marriage.

Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley, frontispiece to Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (London, 1773).

Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, Phillis Wheatley (1773)
Phillis Wheatley was kidnapped from West Africa and sold into slavery at a young age. She was subsequently bought by the Wheatley family, a merchant family from Boston, who named her after the ship on which she was forcibly brought to America, The Phillis. This collection of thirty-nine poems is rich and varied, as well as being a deeply important part of American history; it was the first ever work to be published by an African-American.

Of course, this is a very limited (and subjective!) list of suggestions. If you’d like to expand on any of the works listed here, or have other works you’d like to suggest, please comment below or contact us about writing a blog post – we’re always looking for more contributors!

– Josie Dyster, Research Assistant, Voltaire Foundation, Oxford

Surviving and thriving, cheerful and imperturbable

The OUP bookshop on Oxford’s High Street marks International Women’s Day 2019.

While in the UK the eighth of March often passes unnoticed, International Women’s Day is a national holiday in Russia, on which women regularly expect flowers and other gifts from the men in their lives. This saccharine twenty-first-century custom is a far cry from the holiday’s revolutionary origins in Russia. Invented in the US in 1909 and established as an annual holiday by the Second International Conference of Women the following year, International Women’s Day was first marked in Russia in 1914. Only three years later, in 1917, women’s protests against food shortages on 8 March (23 February according to the Julian calendar then used in Russia) marked the start of the February Revolution, which brought down the Romanov dynasty and opened the door for the Bolshevik revolution later the same year.

One of the many outstanding women in Russian history and perhaps the most powerful woman anywhere in the world in the eighteenth century, Catherine the Great would undoubtedly have been horrified by the Russian Revolution. But she might have had a bit more sympathy for the theme of this year’s Oxford International Women’s Festival (28 February-16 March 2019): ‘We Will Survive and Thrive’.

Women demanding an increase in rations for soldiers’ families in Russia, February/March 1917.

Catherine’s Selected Letters, translated and edited by Andrew Kahn (Oxford) and myself, recently appeared in the Oxford World’s Classics series, and tells in Catherine’s own words the story of how she learned to ‘survive and thrive’ in the perilous worlds of the Russian court and international politics in the eighteenth century.

Catherine the Great’s Selected Letters in the OUP bookshop window, Oxford.

Catherine was in many ways a self-made woman. Born to a German princely family in what is today Poland, she was brought to Russia at the age of 14 to be married off to her first cousin and the heir to the Russian imperial throne, the future emperor Peter III. As she recounts in her marvellous memoirs, when she first arrived in Russia she was forbidden even from having pen and paper, for fear that she would meddle in politics. Her marriage was very unhappy, and Catherine found herself extremely isolated. As she put it in an epitaph she later imagined for herself, ‘Eighteen years of boredom and solitude made her read many books.’ But she also began to dream big and to see herself as a future stateswoman who could make a difference in Russian history. She told the English ambassador (writing in the third person so that, if enemies at court intercepted the letter, they would not immediately recognise its author): ‘she will never advise anything except what she believes to be for the glory and in the interest of Russia […]. But she also knows how very much the nation needs to be well managed internally.’

Catherine the Great’s coronation, by Vigilius Eriksen.

And then, in 1762, Catherine brought about her own revolution: a coup d’état overthrowing her husband, the recently acceded emperor (in the eighteenth century, any major political change was called a ‘revolution’). She still had an uphill battle to fight: not only was she unrelated by blood to the Romanov family, she had not been designated by the previous empress, Elizabeth, as the legitimate heir in accordance with Russian law. Many people expected Catherine to rule as regent for her young son, Paul, or to be overthrown too in short order. Instead she ruled for thirty-four years, acquiring unprecedented political and cultural clout for Russia and the epithet of ‘the Great’ for herself. If asked the secret to her survival and success she would point to her resilient and positive personality, dubbing herself the ‘Imperturbable One’, and telling an old family friend, ‘one must be cheerful. Only with that can one overcome and endure anything.’ Reading Catherine’s letters one can watch that personality in action, as she handled everything from diplomatic tangles to the challenges of grandmotherhood with pragmatism, good humour, and the will to survive and thrive.

– Kelsey Rubin-Detlev (University of Southern California)

Kelsey Rubin-Detlev is assistant professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Southern California. She is the author of ‘The Epistolary Art of Catherine the Great’.