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From Bibliography to Canon

Classifying Women in France, England, Germany, and Russia
from the Eighteenth Century to the Present.

Hilde Hoogenboom

This essay looks at sixty-five bio-bibliographic compilations presenting women writers, over the last three centuries in the literary histories of France, England, Germany, and Russia, who were among the largest producers of such texts and represent influential transnational cultural nodes. These compilers have fostered their own national bibliographic traditions and measure their country’s enlightenment against similar compilations in other countries. I argue that compilers demonstrated their nation’s excellence in two ways: by emphasizing either the quantity of their outstanding women, or their quality.

In the past, compilers were among the only women’s historians and thus their works not only contain historical facts, but also construct literary histories. Rather than dip in selectively, we ought to read bibliographies – especially those quantitative compilations that resist reading – from cover to cover, together with their titles, prefaces, illustrations, and other appendages, as whole texts with historical, cultural contexts that tell us more than the sum of the parts. In short, the generic conventions of paratexts are not a frame to be skipped over to get to the data, but an essential means of historicizing the data. Bibliography can thus serve as a heuristic tool when we no longer accept it as an a priori scientific object. Compilations contain the data that are the building blocks of feminist literary history; at the same time they act as primary interrogations into the nature of that history. Once we begin reading bibliographies, we see that they have long confronted some of the basic issues about the shape of women’s literary history that continue to deeply concern bibliographers today, including what we mean by the categories of author, genre, publication, literature, and more recently, nation.

This essay emphasizes the quantitative, the extensive, the diversifying aspects of bibliographic compilations. Bibliographic compilations that are extensive rather than selective present a messy rather than continuous picture of women’s literary history, and persistently challenge the narratives of literary history that exclude as they include. The great variety of materials found in bio-bibliographic compilations of women writers, together with the diverse approaches that compilers have taken, destabilize the givens of women’s literary history. How do literary histories handle women who wrote but did not publish? Whose oral performances were transcribed? Who translated? Wrote about science, religion, or politics? Wrote in several languages? In several countries? The impulse towards consolidation constantly reminds us of what is left out and thus contains the revelation of diversity, which complicates women’s literary history in surprising, and strategically useful ways.

The transnational nature of the topic makes it hard to generalize from the literary history of one nation. By – simply – refusing to generalize, a transnational perspective throws open the international literary field to many nations. The transnational impulse exists not just in the literary competitions between Italy and France, then France and England, and America and England, all producers of much literature, but especially within the nations beyond these cultural axes, where readers read mainly foreign publications. For example, from 1750 to 1850, while Britain and France imported 10% to 20% of their novels, Germany imported 40%, and Russia and Denmark imported 80%, as Franco Moretti has shown. Throughout much of Europe, writers, and especially readers, of many nations participated in transnational dialogues.

Extensive compilations raise the problematic issue for women’s literary history of what counts as literature. Women’s writing encompasses more than just novels, plays, and poetry, and includes much, perhaps even mostly, non-fiction in many fields. For obvious reasons, women’s literary history addresses women’s issues, while extensive bio-bibliographic compilations show that women have long written about all the great and small issues of the day in all genres.

Compilations of women suggest that the internationalization of feminism occurs well before the nineteenth century, and that the study of women is fundamentally transnational because it has long been understood to be transnational. The varied transnational threads of the multiple narratives of compilations significantly push back the beginnings, and geographically complicate the genesis, of the political battles that Karen Offen documents in European Feminisms 1700-1950, A Political History.

Nevertheless, despite women’s bio-bibliographic presence and their importance to nations’ images as enlightened, women remain excluded from most narrative literary histories. How is it that all of these compilations have not managed to provide the means to integrate women into literary history? As women’s literary historians again gather this information, what more needs to be done to ensure that literary history changes? I argue that most compilations historically are qualitative, and they provide selective narratives of women’s writing that in many ways reaffirm stereotypes of femininity and difference, while quantitative compilations are rarer and do not easily tell stories, but disrupt ready categories and allow for the multiple narratives that include many more different women. Quantitative compilations are born at the turn of the nineteenth century, along with narrative literary histories, and the tensions between them greatly expand the spectrum of possible narratives.

In this essay, I first [I] examine questions that feminist literary historians raise today about bibliographic compilations of women writers, which in turn expose some problems inherent in bibliography itself, especially the tension between the need to generalize and to particularize. I then [II] briefly sketch the different paths by which women were unevenly and gradually separated out from national literary histories in the nineteenth century, despite their manifest presence in bio-bibliographic compilations. Part III introduces some past principal men and women compilers along with their arguments with literary history and solutions, while Part IV looks at modern compilers building on and correcting their national traditions in dialogue with feminist literary debates. Part V concludes with some productive past and recent approaches that integrate women into literary history.


By their actual historical activity of putting diverse women in one book, eighteenth-century bibliographers of women began to give physical shape to the separate category of “women’s writing,” providing it with writers, a history, bibliographic tools, and conceptions. Nationally and internationally, bibliographies and compilations of women writers produced the effect of a critical mass. Lists created “women writers” as an identifiable critical and visible literary category, which ironically made it possible to separate women writers physically from literary history. A few works are titled “gynæceum” or in German “Frauenzimmer” – the term for a room for women and female slaves in ancient Greek houses. Libraries devoted to women writers similarly articulated their physical separation from the rest of literature. In the epigraph to this article, Russov creates a “special section” in the library of his patron, an unnamed noblewoman of high rank. Similarly, Williams names an aristocratic Italian predecessor for her idea about the retrospective publication of English women writers: “The selection need not amount to a sixty-fourth portion of the library belonging to Count Leopold Ferri, of Padua, which, consisting only of books written by women, comprised thirty-two thousand volumes” (12-13). Although Le Livre de la Cité des Dames, bibliographies of women’s works, compilations of women worthies, anthologies, bio-bibliographic collections and databases are generically different, they can function similarly to exhibit and separate women physically, by placing them in separate spaces, books, rooms, and libraries.

Even a quick look at the fate of women in literary history in England, France, Russia, and Germany indicates that the process of separating women out from literary history was not automatic or uniform, and reflects that unevenness of development that recent studies of the novel highlight (Moretti, Cohen and Dever). For example, in eighteenth-century English literary historiography, the beginning of single sex compilations of women writers at mid-century seems to correlate with the decline of literary compilations that included both women and men; by the end of the century, the women disappear from this particular niche of the literary marketplace (McDowell 223).

Interestingly, in eighteenth-century France, a completely different historical process, organized institutionally from the top down, led to the same result. Two studies historicize French literary history as the suitable product of state policies for boys’ education. Policies and literary histories established a pedagogical canon for students that incorporated contemporary French literature, but excluded most women writers, and thus slowly edged out an older worldly canon for adult readers that had presented men and women writers side by side.

In Russia, despite women’s presence everywhere in Russian literary life and a handful of bio-bibliographic compilations devoted to them, in nineteenth-century bio-bibliographic literary compilations they are almost totally absent. Ironically, the extensive compilations of women served the same function as the literary histories that promoted a Russian canon while eliminating women: to demonstrate Russia’s progress as an enlightened nation. The first such compilation by Nikolai Novikov includes nine women out of 317 entries and reflects Empress Catherine the Great’s enlightenment agenda to show that Russia was a civilized, European power. The first pedagogical Russian literary history, by Nikolai Grech in 1822, includes two female worthies and the most important living woman writer, the successful, well-published poet Anna Bunina, who was thereafter thoroughly written out of literary histories. Although Golitsyn and Ponomarev’s bibliography contained 1,705 women, to this day less than a dozen women who published before 1890 are included in any of the few general Russian literary histories.

Lastly, in Germany, we find the most extensive and therefore perhaps most varied bibliographic compilations of women writers that in equal measure separate and integrate women. Elisabeth Friedrichs lists 4,000 women writers found in 379 bio-bibliographic sources with 26 eighteenth- and nineteenth-century titles that explicitly mention women, and of those, nine (beginning in 1782) make the point that they contain both men and women writers. Six of these nine appeared after the publication of the first major bibliography of women writers by Schindel in 1823-25, which suggests that this classification was a contested area. When and how were German women written out of literary history, despite, as in Russia, a healthy, integrated presence in bibliographic work and journals? Several articles suggest that Schindel promoted gendered stereotypes of women’s modesty from women’s own writings, and these clichés were part of the arguments against women writers in literary histories, which limited women to such genres as the family novel.

Although in each case women have been written out of literary history, an uneven process in each country developed various historically specific boundaries between men and women writers. These historic differences are important because, as we shall see in the next section, like their counterparts today, bibliographers varied strategic solutions through content and structure to address the problem of women’s place in national literary histories.

The primary tension between the quality and the quantity of women writers often provides for lively arguments by individual compilers in their prefaces and in principles of selection. Quality, often expressed in moral terms, was the dominant force in compilations everywhere, especially in England (McDowell), which simply reflected the traditions of catalogs of female worthies. Yet the focus on exemplarity, which was already well in place by the eighteenth century, generated significant qualitative and quantitative reactions. Quality was initially denoted by virtue, then by knowledge, especially of languages, which was broadly termed “genius” in England, while the move toward quantity – in France by Briquet, in Germany by Schindel and later by Pataky, in Russia by Golitsyn and Ponomarev, though not in England – made women’s writing into a broad activity that covered many non-literary as well as literary genres, both published and unpublished. These bibliographers connected the ethnographic aspect of cataloging as many women writers as possible with a country’s concomitantly increased level of civilization and culture.

Like today’s bibliographers, who share an international feminist mission, their eighteenth- and nineteenth-century predecessors were also internationalists, but with a spirit of nationalistic competition. The opposition between “us” and “them” is most evident in compilers’ introductions, where it also becomes clear that principles of selection and numbers of writers are evidence for arguments of national superiority and inferiority. In 1752, Ballard begins his Memoirs of Several Ladies of Great Britain Who Have Been Celebrated for Their Writings or Skill in the Learned Languages, Arts and Sciences as follows: “When it is considered how much has been done on this subject by several learned foreigners, we may justly be surprised at this neglect among the writers of this nation, more especially as it is pretty certain that England has produced more women famous for literary accomplishments than any other nation in Europe” (53). He lists fourteen Italian, French, and German compilers. In England, that “other” nation is usually France, and in the nineteenth century, occasionally America.

However, Ballard primarily engaged in a conscious argument with what he considered a qualitative English tradition that denied women’s accomplishments. In fact, a comparison of the manuscript with the published version shows that, for publication, “he usually toned down his feminist polemic and omitted his own heartfelt editorializing” (Perry 35). In a retrospective compilation of fifteenth and sixteenth-century women that includes long letters and selections in Latin, Ballard’s emphasis on erudition was distinctive among compilers and reflected his participation in a small, dedicated group of Saxonists and antiquarians. At stake was whether Lady Pakington could have written The Whole Duty of Man (1658), a widely-used devotional manual whose author knew ancient languages and standard religious sources, and thus an example that could make the case for all women as potentially erudite (Perry 32). Erudition, also termed “genius,” was evidenced by knowing difficult languages. Ballard defended Lady Pakington’s erudition against charges that no woman could know the necessary Hebrew by noting the names of several women who did. It did not matter whether or what women wrote in these languages, but that they learned them. Ballard therefore does not include Aphra Behn, a professional dramatist, and does include Queen Elizabeth, fluent in Latin, Greek, French, Italian, and Spanish, whose recently published works inspired reviewers to grumble that perhaps she was not really a writer.

This qualitative distinction of genius and the arguments for learning in women carried over to two later compilations, Duncombe’s very popular 1754 poem, The Feminead: or, Female Genius, and a 1766 compendium, Biographium Femineum: The Female Worthies: Or, Memoirs of the Most Illustrious Ladies of all Ages and Nations, who have been Eminently distinguished for the Magnanimity, Learning, Genius, Virtue, Piety, and other Excellent Endowments, conspicuous in all the various Stations and Relations of Life, public and private. Like Ballard’s Memoirs, these works overlay womanly virtue with learning to convince readers that both are possible. The Biographium Femineum further uses Ballard’s model to distinguish between virtuous women in the past, who “found the most agreeable amusements in their closets, in the study of languages, and in scientific and philosophical enquiries” (v-vi), and immoral, frivolous women “in these modern times of luxury and dissipation” (v). Similarly, though more pleasantly, Duncombe warns men against “letter’d nymphs” where “the prudent housewife in the scholar [is] lost,” and argues for the learned woman who “with her pen that time alone employs which others waste in visits, cards and noise” (10-11). Thus unlike Ballard’s work, The Feminead and Biographium Femineum contain lists of immoral women too. Though they “serve as a foil to set off the characters of those illustrious heroines,” nevertheless, such women as Aphra Behn, a farmer’s daughter, author of many plays with bawdy characters, and mistress of a famed bi-sexual rake, and Cleopatra were undoubtedly accomplished and added to the overall total of women (Biographium Femineum, viii).

(continue reading in second part)

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