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Suzan van Dijk

From Milestone 1 to Milestone 2: quantitative research as basis.


The WomenWriters database is, in my view, an instrument preparing sensible comparative analysis between texts. As all databases, it produces lists (names of authors, titles of works) and inventories (of evidence concerning the works being read). These inventories can be used, very roughly, in two ways:

  • as a bulk of information about the reception of women’s writings, in order to be counted and quantified, and
  • as a series of individual texts (primary and secondary) to be compared on a certain number of relevant points.

This comparison, between original women’s texts and comments and rewritings of them by contemporaries, is supposed to help us understand women’s position in the historical literary field, and the place they should occupy (in the future) in literary history.

I will, briefly, give two examples chosen in my current research:

The first concerns the question one might ask if 18th-century critics (most of them male) did always understand women’s texts exactly as they were meant by the author? Isabelle de Charrière stated that this was not the case. In a private letter she regrets that critics did not recognize, for her novel Sainte Anne, who was actually the principal female character, and that they showed a complete misunderstanding of the work.
This induces several questions:

  • Does this concern only Isabelle de Charrière?
  • Which are the consequences of critics giving “wrong” interpretations of novels?
  • How can we understand this misunderstanding?

For answering this last question, we go into the “dialogue” between novelists and critics, and note that there are possibilities of misunderstanding on a certain number of “gender sensitive” points, such as situations where women are reluctant to accept male behaviour, refuse marriage proposals, or in a general sense are not behaving in a “feminine” way. These kind of scenes, or “topoi”, which (some) men may have denounced in rewritings or comments, are compared to the original texts and to other, more positive, comments or translations. [This research is part of the SATOR-NEWW subproject.]

The second example concerns the 19th-century reception of women’s writing in the Netherlands, and the role played by the women’s press. For two “key years” (1857 and 1874) a certain number of comments on Dutch and foreign women authors have been selected (criterion: those authors who were most often commented upon in the “general” review journals used as sources for the database, and were discussed in the women’s journal published in that year). For these “male” and “female” articles the different discourses are analysed, by comparing them not to the original texts, but to each other. Here also points of comparison are to be found, which would have to be applied also to other years than just key years, and to other reception than just Dutch. [This research is part of the "Dutch Women Writers" collaboration.]

Apart from the outcome of the research, both examples illustrate the way in which the WomenWriters database helps creating a well-delimitated corpus, while avoiding arbitrariness in the selection. This allows asking more relevant questions which concern the qualitative analysis of these texts in relationship with their authors, readers, reviewers, and its particular historical locus.

SvD, April 2011

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