Out of the Closet: Richardson and the Cult of Literary Women

  • E. J. Clery
Part of the Palgrave Studies in the Enlightenment, Romanticism and Cultures of Print book series (PERCP)


When Anna Howe describes the daily routine of Clarissa before her abduction, she notes that the three extra hours gained in the morning by early rising were devoted, not to household duties, but to ‘closet-work … epistolary amusements’ (1470). In explanation, Anna records Clarissa’s views on women’s natural affinity for writing: ‘it was always a matter of surprise to her, that the sex are generally so averse as they are to writing; since the pen, next to the needle, of all employments is the most proper and best adapted to their geniuses; and this as well for improvement as amusement’ (1467). ‘Who sees not,’ she quotes Clarissa as saying, ‘that those women who take delight in writing excel the men in all the graces of the familiar style?’


Young Lady Woman Writer Athenian Letter Female Author Reading Public 
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  1. 1.
    Critics who have explored the relevance of Habermas’s definitions to the work of Richardson include Elizabeth Heckendorn Cook, Epistolary Bodies: Gender and Genre in the Eighteenth-Century Republic of Letters (Stanford, 1996);Google Scholar
  2. Rachel K. Carnell, ‘Clarissa’s treasonable correspondence: gender, epistolary politics, and the public sphere’, Eighteenth-Century Fiction 10: 3 (April 1998) 269–86;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. and Miranda Burgess, British Fiction and the Production of Social Order 1740–1830 (Cambridge, 2000). Habermas himself refers to Richardson and the epistolary form in discussing ‘the bourgeois family and the institutionalization of a privateness oriented to an audience’, Structural Transformation, 43, 48–51. Since, unlike Habermas, I am not describing the bourgeois public sphere as a ‘normative ideal’ I do not distinguish the work of the closet from the ideological legitimation of commercial expansion.Google Scholar
  4. For the description ‘normative ideal’ and a review of eighteenth-century notions of the ‘public’, see Keith Michael Baker, ‘Defining the public sphere in eighteenth-century France: variations on a theme by Habermas’, in Craig Calhoun, ed., Habermas and the Public Sphere (Cambridge, Mass, 1992) 181–211.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    See William B. Warner, Licensing Entertainment: The Elevation of Novel Reading in Britain, 1684–1750 (Berkeley, 1998) especially 193–95, on the elevation of the mid-century novels of Richardson and Fielding through their ‘overwriting’ (‘writing above and beyond … toward higher cultural purposes’) of amatory fiction. My argument endorses his view, though with more emphasis on the transformation of values forwarded by the strategy, rather than jockeying for position in the market for print.Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    Henry Fielding, The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews, ed. Judith Hawley (Harmondsworth, 1999) 87.Google Scholar
  7. 9.
    Henry Fielding, The History of Tom ¡ones, ed. R.P.C. Mutter (Harmondsworth, 1966) 265.Google Scholar
  8. 10.
    See Kathryn M. Rogers, ‘Sensitive feminism vs. conventional sympathy: Richardson and Fielding on women’, Novel 9 (1975) 256–70, for a persuasive but rather partisan argument in favour of the former’s ‘sensitive feminism’; his punitive representation of prostitutes is not addressed.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. For defences of Fielding, see Angela Smallwood, Fielding and the Woman Question: The Novels of Henry Fielding and Feminist Debate 1700–1750 (Brighton, 1989);Google Scholar
  10. and Avril London, ‘Controlling the text: women in Tom Jones’, Studies in the Novel 19 (1987) 323–33, who argue respectively for his engagement with the ‘Woman Question’ or the ‘feminization of discourse’, but without addressing the question of form.Google Scholar
  11. 36.
    See Isobel Grundy, ‘Samuel Johnson as patron of women’, Age of Johnson, 1 (1987) 59–77;Google Scholar
  12. James Basker, ‘Johnson, gender, and the misogyny question’, Age of Johnson 8 (1997) 175–87;Google Scholar
  13. and Norma Clarke, Dr Johnson’s Women (London and New York, 2000). But Johnson remained an ambivalent member of the feminizing camp, as a remark resurrecting the Augustan bogey of the literary Amazon indicates: ‘a generation of Amazons of the pen, who with the spirit of their predecessors have set masculine tyranny at defiance, asserted their claim to the regions of science, and seem resolved to contest the usurpations of virility’, Adventurer, No. 115, Tuesday 11 December 1753, The Adventurer, ed., W.J. Bate, John M. Bullitt and L.F. Powell, The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, II (New Haven, 1963) 458.Google Scholar
  14. 67.
    Horace Walpole: ‘Her adventures are worthy to be bound up with those of my good sister-in-law, the German princess [Mary Moders], and Moll Flanders’, The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole’s Correspdence, ed. W.S. Lewis, 48 vols. (New Haven, 1937–83) 17: 459. Montagu had remarked at the time of Vane’s liaison with Lord Berkeley ‘I am told that though she does not pique herself upon fidelity to any one man (which is but a narrow way of thinking), she boasts that she has always been true to her nation, and, notwithstanding foreign attacks, has always reserved her charms for the use of her own countrymen’, The Complete Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, ed. Robert Halsband, 3 vols. (Oxford, 1965) II, 133–4.Google Scholar
  15. 78.
    See BF, III, 203–47; E&K, 345; BC, 141–6. Myers interprets the exchange as a serious disagreement and evidence of Richardson’s conservatism, a view largely shared by Caroline Gonda, Reading Daughter’s Fictions 1709–1834 (Cambridge, 1996) 82–93.Google Scholar
  16. 81.
    See Shirley Van Marter, ‘Richardson’s debt to Hester Mulso concerning the curse in Clarissa’, Papers in Language and Literature 14 (1978) 22–31.Google Scholar
  17. 88.
    Several recent critics have attended to the creation of the character of Grandison as an object of female desire, notably John Mullan, Sentiment and Sociability: The Language of Feeling in the Eighteenth Century (Oxford, 1988) 83;Google Scholar
  18. and Betty A. Schellenberg, ‘Using “femalities” to “make fine men”: Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison and the feminization of narrative’, Studies in English Literature 34 (1994) 599–616. None, I think, have ventured as far as I do in this brief discussion to suggest that the novel is the culmination of Richardson’s feminizing agenda, rather than a patriarchal recuperation of it (as Eagleton describes it in Rape of Clarissa, 94).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 126.
    Critical Review 13 (1762) 180-[5]. Vivien Jones, ed., Women in the Eighteenth Century: Construction of Femininity (London and New York, 1990) includes extracts of the review of Epictetus from MR and of Poems from CR. Google Scholar
  20. 128.
    The ambivalence of her position was increased by the fact that the family fortune was established by her grandfather Jacob Sawbridge, who had been one of the directors of the South Sea Company, but had managed to emerge from the crash with most of his assets intact, confirming public suspicions of official corruption. See Bridget Hill, The Republican Virago: The Life and Times of Catharine Macaulay, Historian (Oxford, 1992) 4–5.Google Scholar

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© E. J. Clery 2004

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