Bucknell University Press congratulates Deborah Kennedy on her book Poetic Sisters: Early Eighteenth-Century Women Poets being selected as one of Choice’s “Outstanding Academic Titles of 2013.” Choice describes Professor’s Kennedy’s book as “engagingly written” and “beautifully illustrated (visually and poetically)” and recommends the title for both students and scholars. The book’s “Outstanding Academic Title” distinction was given in consideration of criteria that included “overall excellence in presentation and scholarship” and “importance relative to other literature in the field.” We had the pleasure of conducting an interview with Professor Kennedy via e-mail, in which she explained why the early eighteenth century was an important period for women poets and touched upon how the book might resonate with readers today.
BUP: What gave you the inspiration to write Poetic Sisters?
DK: I developed the idea for the book while teaching my courses on eighteenth-century literature and on British women writers. The Meridian Anthology of Early Women Writers, edited by William McCarthy and Katharine Rogers, was a fantastic early resource, just brimming over with great poems by Anne Finch. I don’t think one can overstate the value of textbooks and anthologies and the relationship between research and pedagogy. Where would one be without, for instance, the pioneering Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, edited by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar; and Roger Lonsdale’s Eighteenth-Century Women Poets (with its unsurpassed biographical and bibliographical material). I remember being struck by the Countess of Hertford’s enchanting country-house poem in Lonsdale’s anthology, and that poem with its light-hearted opening line—“We sometimes ride, and sometimes walk”—made me want to learn more about her. Hertford eventually became the subject of chapter four in my book. So for me it was about celebrating these fascinating voices from the early eighteenth century. Of course, of the five poets, Anne Finch is the best known. Her work provides the cornerstone for my study, but she is read in conjunction with other women who were writing around the same time and into the early Georgian period.
BUP: You write that “in the early eighteenth century, an unprecedented number of women began to write and publish poetry.” What was it about this period that enabled their artistry?
DK: Many examples in the book show how much women enjoyed writing poetry. Poetry was not only high art; it was playful, and for the ladies in this book it was also a vocation. By the early eighteenth century, there was more acceptance of women writers. Literacy increased, publishing increased, theater and music were popular pastimes, and women sometimes had their portraits done holding a book or seated at a table with books. In the Restoration period Katherine Philips (whose pen name was Orinda) was greatly respected, and Elizabeth Rowe gained a similar respect. Rowe (whose maiden name was appropriately enough “Singer”) was a real literary star, and the story of her life would make a great movie. Rowe had a huge readership not only in England but through Europe and especially in North America. As I explain in my book, one can trace the development of the reception and reputation of women poets over time. In 1686, the Poet Laureate John Dryden showed his support for women poets in his celebrated “Ode” to Anne Killigrew. Later, Jane Brereton wrote of Anne Finch, “at Finch’s tomb be honours paid.” So, even though jokes were still made about mad poetesses and about whether women were better off making puddings and pies, the woman writer was not always a caricature; she could also be an ennobling figure.
BUP: In the book’s introduction you mention that you chose these particular female poets from among dozens of others who wrote during the early eighteenth century. How did you choose these particular female poets?
DK: I chose these five poets because their poems were so appealing and full of life and depth, and also because of the interesting connections among these particular women. They are not literally “sisters,” but I refer to them as “poetic sisters” because of their shared vocation as poets. The Countess of Hertford, who was raised at Longleat, was the great-niece of Anne and Heneage Finch; and she was a dear friend of Elizabeth Rowe. Mary Jones, who lived in Oxford, knew Hertford, and there were several connections between Sarah Dixon and Finch in their neighboring villages and towns in Kent. Along with these links between them, there is a moral core that underlies all their work. Most of all, I found these writers interesting: their walks in the woods, their religious faith, their frank acknowledgement of life’s difficulties, and their humorous comments on everything from card games to hoop skirts.
BUP: In what ways do you think the lives and works of the poets in your book might resonate with contemporary readers?
DK: These poets wrote about very human matters that can touch us and entertain us today. Wit and wisdom travel easily across the centuries. On the serious side, one finds oneself transported by the calm of the night sky in Finch’s “Nocturnal Reverie” or by Rowe’s wistful thoughts about angels. Sarah Dixon, who shows so much insight into matters of the heart, embodies the merits of family loyalty and patriotism. On the lighter side, many students can relate to Jones’s “Soliloquy upon an Empty Purse,” a poem about not having any money. In the book, I make a parallel between Sophie Kinsella’s novel Shopaholic and Sister and Finch’s amusing poem “Ardelia’s Answer to Ephelia,” about a fashionista friend. Finally, the Countess of Hertford fits right in to today’s eco-friendly world with her advice that walking was better for one’s health “than any medicine in the dispensary.” There is a good chance that readers will find a kindred spirit in at least one of these poets.
BUP: What were some of the challenges of writing this book?
DK: The main challenges involved seeking out biographical information to provide an accurate outline of the lives of each author. This required a great deal of scholarly detective work, such as reading wills, looking at baptismal records, deciphering old hand-writing, and tracking down obscure books, documents, and illustrations far and wide. But that research also gave flesh and blood to each of the five poets and made them more real. As a result, for example, one can now picture Elizabeth Rowe, walking outside, wearing her long red cloak—a poet in the English landscape.
BUP: Are there any words you would like to leave us with?
DK: It is an honour to be one of the recipients of the award for the Choice Outstanding Academic Title, and I am delighted that more people will get to know Anne Finch, Elizabeth Rowe, the Countess of Hertford, Sarah Dixon, and Mary Jones, the five poetic sisters.
By Christopher Bradt
Bucknell University Press congratulates Allison Stedman on her book Rococo Fiction in France, 1600-1715: Seditious Frivolity being selected as one of Choice’s “Outstanding Academic Titles of 2013.” Choice describes Professor’s Stedman’s book as a “compelling, well-documented study of experimental texts written from the beginning of the 17th century to the end of the reign of Louis XIV.” The book’s “Outstanding Academic Title” distinction was given in consideration of criteria that included “overall excellence in presentation and scholarship” and “importance relative to other literature in the field.” We had the pleasure of conducting an interview with Professor Stedman via e-mail, where she shared with us her book’s origins and touched on the so-called “crisis” in the humanities.
Professor Stedman, who teaches French and Italian literature and culture at University of North Carolina-Charlotte, explains that her book’s origins date back to 1997, when she wrote an MA thesis at Dartmouth College on 17th-century French fairy tales. For a number of years she wondered why French authors included fairy tales in hybrids works that encompassed “novels, letters, portraits, treatises, dialogues, proverb plays, ghost stories, histories, autobiographies, confessions, psalm paraphrases, gossip, meditations, aphorisms, allegories and poetry.” Such works were “utterly rampant,” Professor Stedman tells us, “yet no one seemed to know what this literature was, why it existed, or what purpose it served.” A trip to the French National Library in Paris in 2008, where she discovered multitudes of these disparate hybrids, led her to the revelation that these texts “existed to celebrate individual creativity, originality and innovation. As such, their purpose was to bring pleasure and create communities among likeminded readers and authors.” Professor Stedman’s research has been met with critical acclaim, and she recently gave a campus and community-wide talk at UNC Charlotte, discussing the link between 17th-century literature and social media, as part of their “Personally Speaking” series.
When asked about the so-called “crisis” in the humanities, Professor Stedman had the following to say: “Part of the crisis is due to the fact that the kind of thinking done in the humanities is perceived as a kind of luxury. The greater public cannot easily see why studying the past is relevant to the concerns of today, so scholars need to articulate these connections more clearly. To use the example of my own work: I think that people are less likely to question the relevance of studying 17th-century French experimental fiction if someone articulates for them that these texts had a role in transforming the way that early modern people met, socialized and communicated, similar to the role of the internet today.”
Indeed, Professor Stedman’s book finds a perfect home in Bucknell University Press’s Transits series, which “seeks to provide transformative readings of the literary, cultural, and historical interconnections between Britain, Europe, the Far East, Oceania, and the Americas in the long eighteenth century, and as they extend down to the present time.”
For more information on Professor Stedman and her book, see the following interview conducted by Christopher Bradt:
BUP: Please tell us about your professional background: what do you teach and what are your research interests? What gave you the inspiration to write Rococo Fiction in France, 1600-1715?
AS: I teach French and Italian literature and culture at UNC-Charlotte. My research area is seventeenth-century French literature and I am particularly interested in how narratives during this period destabilize the absolutist political system. The project began as an MA thesis at Dartmouth College in 1997 on late seventeenth-century French literary fairy tales. Unlike in other literary traditions, where fairy tales generally appear as independent stories complied into collections with other fairy tales, French authors by and large published fairy tales in conjunction with other literary genres. The first fairy tale of the French tradition, for example, was published as an interpolated story in the second volume of a romance novel that also contained letters, autobiographical interludes and poetry. For about 15 years, I puzzled over why French authors would choose to publish fairy tales as components of generic hybrids, interpolating them, framing them, layering them and juxtaposing them not only with novels but also with letters, portraits, treatises, dialogues, proverb plays, ghost stories, fairy tales, histories, autobiographies, confessions, psalm paraphrases, gossip, meditations, aphorisms, allegories and poetry. Eventually it hit me that perhaps I should take the one thing that these texts seemingly had in common out of the equation. What if the purpose of these works was not to publish fairy tales, but rather what if the fairy tale was simply being integrated into a publication strategy that had existed prior. In 2008, I returned to the French National Library and discovered more examples of this hybrid trend in publishing literary fiction than I knew what to do with. These kinds of works were utterly rampant, yet no one seemed to know what this literature was, why it existed, or what purpose it served. Apart from mixing a variety of genres in a single work, no two texts followed exactly the same publication strategy, nor did they address exactly the same social concerns. To top it off, the majority of the authors seemed to have no traditional social connections to one another. After puzzling over the trend for another year, I began to realize that this radical individuality was exactly the point. The texts existed to celebrate individual creativity, originality and innovation. As such, their purpose was to bring pleasure and create communities among likeminded readers and authors who delighted in the limitless expression of individual creative potential and who were always looking to get their hands on something new and different.
BUP: Please tell us a little bit about the term “rococo” and how you conceptualize it in your book.
AS: The rococo is an international period style that flourished during the first half of the eighteenth century in France, England, Germany and Italy. The style is present in many varieties of aesthetic production, including painting, sculpture, architecture, ceramics, furniture, fashion, music, theatre, and literature. In France, the rococo emerged as a strategy of resistance to the classical-baroque aesthetic and to the absolutist political system, a resistance manifested by the rococo’s rejection of the organizing principles common to both. In contrast to the diagonals of the baroque and the fixed proportions of classicism, the rococo privileges serpentine lines of beauty and constructs stories by means of scenes and pictures. While the classical-baroque is preoccupied with projecting an aura of order and stability in keeping with the goals of the emerging absolute monarchy, the rococo seeks to represent the opposite of stability, taking pleasure in plurality, hybridity, variety, vivacity, worldliness, and wit. While the classical-baroque uses strong diagonals to create centralized compositions stabilized by strong triangular structures, the rococo features swirling, sensual, atectonic compositions characterized by the absence of center and a disorientation as to where the center actually occurs. While the classical-baroque privileges such grandiose subject matter as battles, religious themes, and heroic actions, the rococo seeks instead to memorialize the unique yet ordinary moments of the human experience. As I looked at this trend in publishing hybrid fiction it occurred to me that these works shared both the methods and goals of the rococo, even though, chronologically speaking, they were appearing about 100 years earlier than the rococo is typically believed to have emerged. The presence of seventeenth-century hybrid fiction thus supported a new chronology of the rise of the rococo, one that placed it in synchrony with the rise of political absolutism and the classical-baroque, rather in succession of it. Ideological centralization in seventeenth century France was thus accompanied by ideological resistance and rococo fiction is an important expression of this resistance.
BUP: The book begins with a description of very colorful story by Jean Donneau de Visé about a Parisian nobleman who successfully woos his love interest via a “properly administered enema.” How does this story and its publication history tie into your book’s argument?
AS: In many cases, the unconventionality of rococo fiction on the level of form is also reflected in these works on the level of content. I chose to begin the book with this story because I wanted people to realize how radically different this type of fiction is from the pastoral, heroic and historical novels that people generally associate with salon literary production. Works that came out of salons were subversive to political absolutism because they resisted the generic mandates of the French Academy, but these works were still bound to uphold standards of propriety and verisimilitude so as not to offend the “honest” people of polite society. Rococo authors by and large ignored external standards of every sort and Donneau de Visé’s story presents a good example of how they did this.
BUP: What do you hope that readers, either scholarly or general, take away from your book?
AS: That the kind of resistance to political absolutism normally associated with the French Enlightenment evolved in tandem with the rise of absolutism, not just after Louis XIV’s death; and that the aesthetic expression associated with this resistance, the rococo, is thus in many respects a seventeenth as well as an eighteenth-century phenomenon. There is more to seventeenth-century France than just the court and the salon. The culture of the period is much more complicated than we had originally thought and the preponderance of rococo fiction attests to this complexity.
BUP: What were some of the challenges of writing this book?
AS: My literary historian colleagues would ask me questions like: What genre of literature is it? What literary circle is it associated with? What social concerns did it engage with? Rococo fiction incorporates almost every known literary genre of the time period. The works were written by men, women, aristocrats, commoners, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, court favorites, salon animators, pre-teens, septuagenarians, Parisians, provincials, French and foreigners. As such, the works engaged a variety of social concerns not specific to any one group or traditional social category. One author might use a rococo text to articulate the social concerns of the salon, while another would use the same literary strategy to mock the same institution. Before I realized that diversity, novelty, originality and innovation were the point of this type of literature, I wasted a lot of energy trying to make these texts fit together into categories that are just not applicable.
BUP: We’re intrigued by a headline we saw for a talk you’ll be giving on the seventeenth century and social media. Could you tell us a little bit about the talk?
AS: The talk is part of a faculty-author series sponsored by the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at UNC-Charlotte aimed at giving faculty-authors an opportunity to present and discuss their work with the greater Charlotte community. Faculty members are supposed to introduce themselves, describe their research area and then focus on an aspect of their work that has the most potential to resonate with the general public. One of the interesting things about rococo fiction is that the authors who adopted this literary strategy did not share traditional social connections. They came from different social backgrounds, inhabited different geographic locations, and had different education levels, but they united with one another because they shared a common desire to resist ideological hegemony and to celebrate individual creative potential through the production, consumption and circulation of rococo literary fiction. As such, these texts created a community of likeminded individuals that was mediated completely by texts. At the time that these experimental texts were written, social interaction in France was dependent upon one’s ability to be physically present in a particular space. Exile from court was not surprisingly tantamount to social annihilation for members of the upper nobility. But even in the more inclusive salon network, one still had to be physically present at a particular time and in a particular space in order for social interaction and participation to occur. And the invitation to participate in any social setting had to take into consideration a variety of external social signifiers so as not to circumvent the rules of decorum. The idea that people who shared no traditional social connections, and who as a result had never met and would never meet one another, would suddenly have a way to address one another, to pay one another respect and even to etch out the rudimentary basics of an intertextual conversation was previously unheard of. While letters had always provided a way for individuals to communicate with one another during moments when one or both people were unavailable to meet in person, these epistolary connections only served to reinforce traditional social ties, continuing relationships that had begun within the bounds of traditional social interaction. With rococo fiction, you have a body of texts that was actually creating, sustaining and recruiting a completely new kind of social interaction. For the first time, social connections were not being merely supplanted by the circulation of texts; the texts actually were the sole social common denominator. This was radical for the seventeenth-century and served a function similar to that of blogging today where people meet, converse and create communities that have no tangible referent in the material world. The connection is based on the discovery of a common interest and as such can include participants from all walks of life.
BUP: What, if anything, can eighteenth-century studies contribute to ameliorating the current “crisis” in the humanities?
AS: Part of the crisis is due to the fact that the kind of thinking done in the humanities is perceived as a kind of luxury. The greater public cannot easily see why studying the past is relevant to the concerns of today, so scholars need to articulate these connections more clearly. To use the example of my own work: I think that people are less likely to question the relevance of studying seventeenth-century French experimental fiction if someone articulates for them that these texts had a role in transforming the way that early modern people met, socialized and communicated, similar to the role of the internet today. Suddenly people are intrigued to see what this previous shift can teach us about the direction in which we are currently moving, and thus are more likely to see the relevance of the project.
BUP: Are there any words you’d like to leave us with?
AS: Thank you for featuring my book!
In September of 2013, French poet and Bucknell University Press author (b. 1923) was awarded the 23rd FIL Literary Award in Romance Languages. The jury, which consisted of seven prominent writers and literary critics, stated that Bonnefoy “integrates vanguard to the pillars of modern poetry, like Baudelarie, Celan or Rimbaud.” Bonnefoy is the first prize winner to have been recognized for writing in French. The prize, which Bonnefoy adds to an impressive list of awards that includes the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca (1995) and the Frank Kafka Prize (2007), will be presented on November 30th at the Guadalajara International Book Fair in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Emily Grosholz’s English-translation of Bonnefoy’s Début et Fin de la Neige (Beginning and End of the Snow) was published with Bucknell University Press in 2012 and has been called an “exquisite English translation” by Richard Wilbur. The edition features an introduction written by Bonnefoy previously unpublished in French or English, as well as illustrations by Iranian artist Farhad Ostovani. Read more about Bonnefoy’s award here.