A New ‘Form’ of Feminism seminar, Weds 13 November 2019

Wednesday 13th November, 5.00-7.00 pm
Room 152-153 (Cayley Room), University of Westminster, 309 Regent Street, London W1B 2HW

A New ‘Form’ of Feminism: Mary Hays’ Female Biography (1803)
Susan Civale (Canterbury)

The Dissenter and feminist writer, Mary Hays, who is most famous for her scandalous autobiographical fiction The Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796), has received comparatively less attention for her Female Biography, an epic biographical dictionary that she published in 1803. In her preface to Female Biography, Hays states her aims: ‘My pen has been taken up in the cause, and for the benefit of my own sex. For their improvement, and to their entertainment, my labours have been devoted’. In the six volumes that follow, Hays details the lives of over 300 women from various countries, periods and social backgrounds. She champions women’s achievements and holds up her subjects as complex, flawed women. Recently, critics like Gina Luria Walker, Mary Spongberg and Miriam Wallace have argued for the importance of this text as a contribution to Romantic life writing, historiography and/or feminism. However, one aspect of Female Biography has still received little attention: its form. Though organised alphabetically, the entries seem chaotic, repetitive and uneven. This paper will explore how the encylopaedic form of the book produces several important effects, including alphabetical juxtapositions that reveal previously, intersecting cross-references that ask readers to make connections between entries, and recurring themes that render female experience as circular rather than linear. It will also examine how Hays uses certain entries to speak by proxy. By demonstrating how these formal features operate, the paper will argue that the form of Female Biography links directly to Hays’ feminist project, by cultivating a reinterpretation of women’s roles and representations in history, encouraging active reading practices for her female audience.

Susan Civale is Senior Lecturer at Canterbury Christchurch University. She recently published a monograph titled Romantic Women’s Life Writing: Reputation and Afterlife (Manchester University Press, 2019). This book considers how the publication of women’s ‘private’ lives, through diaries, auto/biographies, letters, and memoirs, influenced their literary afterlives.

All welcome, but guests from outside Westminster should RSVP Frankie Hines: frankie.hines@my.westminster.ac.uk OR Baptiste Danel: baptiste.danel@my.westminster.ac.uk

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