New Acquisitions: Early Books by British Women Writers

February 1st, 2008 by Gabe Harrell


If you had to choose an image for the first page of a book called An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex, what would it be? A picture of a woman might seem like the obvious choice, but when this book was first published in 1696, somebody wasn’t just trying to be funny when they chose a picture of a man and his barber. Wearing a long curly wig, frilly cuffs, high-heeled shoes and even a beauty spot, the “Compleat Beau” admires himself in a mirror while his barber stands at attention, powder puff in hand.

The point the anonymous author (identified only as “a lady”) was trying to make was that men could be just as silly as women; furthermore, if women were silly it was only because they had been “industriously kept in ignorance”—i.e., denied an education—for so long. Mary Astell, an early feminist whose A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest LSU’s Special Collections division has also recently acquired, made a similar argument in 1694. In order to shield women from “the follies of the town” as well as the tyranny of men, Astell called for the establishment of a “religious retirement” or secular convent where “those who are convinced of the emptiness of earthly enjoyments… may find more substantial and satisfying entertainments.”

Some women, however, such as Jane Barker, tried to compete with men on their own turf. In 1688, Barker co-authored Poetical Recreations, a volume of poetry, with “several gentlemen of the universities.” In addition to being just as capable as men as far as book learning was concerned, women, Barker believed, had more common sense, too. Without women:

Houses, alas, there no such thing wou’d be,
[Men would] live beneath the umbrage of a Tree:
Or else usurp some free-born Native’s Cave;
And so inhabit, whilst alive, a Grave.

Another recent addition to LSU’s rare book collection is Miscellany Poems, on Several Occasions, by Ann Finch, the Countess of Winchilsea. Published in 1713, it is, along with Barker’s Poetical Recreations, one of the earliest volumes of English poetry to have been published by a woman.

Last but not least among this month’s featured acquisitions is Eliza Haywood’s Memoirs of a Certain Island Adjacent to the Kingdom of Utopia (1725), a strange tale of lust, greed, scandal and corruption that offers a thinly-veiled commentary on the period in which it was written. Along with Daniel Defoe, Haywood was one of the most prolific authors of her time, publishing everything from plays and novels to poetry and translations, one of which—La Belle Assemblée, or, The Adventures of Six Days, by Madame de Gomez (1725)—is also now available to readers in Special Collections.

– Michael Taylor

One Response to “New Acquisitions: Early Books by British Women Writers”

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