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New Women Authors from the Dutch Past

Some years ago, the Museum of Dutch Literary History renewed itself: it gained an impressive Pantheon and a beautiful, cheerful Gallery of Authors. However beautiful it was, the participants in the European COST Action IS0901 “Women Writers In History” might have voiced one complaint about the Gallery of Authors: the number of portraits of women was rather small.

Of the 400 authors depicted, only 82 were female. Since our count, women (and also men…) may have been added. In November 2011, for example, the Belle de Zuylen Association presented a portrait of Belle de Zuylen to the Museum. It was given to the Association by descendants of the creator, sculptress Ton Sondaar.

If we differentiate between authors (roughly) before and after 1900, it is obvious that in the earlier periods the discrepancy is even larger: while there are 65 female portraits to 219 male portraits of authors from the 20th and 21st centuries, earlier centuries yield only 17 female portraits (including the Belle de Zuylen portrait) to 98 male portraits.

One of the most obvious results of the “Women Writers in History” COST Action is our awareness of the sheer presence of women in the historical literary field. When they are considered from our wider transnational perspective, women authors’ contribution can be illustrated much more easily. Women have indeed been active internationally, especially in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, more than was previously known or presumed. Many of these women authors are not very well-known with the “larger audience” of our age. Apart from Betje Wolff, Aagje Deken and Mrs. Bosboom-Toussaint, barely any women have entered the literary canon. Taking this into account, the presence in the Gallery of portraits such as those of Petronella Moens, Elise van Calcar, Nellie van Kol and over a dozen others (all born after 1865 and mostly active during the 20th century) can be called miraculous.

Their presence can be ascribed probably to the emergence of new research about female authorship in the Netherlands, and especially to the publication of the anthology Met en zonder lauwerkrans (With and without laurels) in 1997. The 150 women authors writing in Dutch (125 from the Netherlands and 50 from Belgium, dating from 1550-1850), and the study of their work and reception, have been placed in an international context in 1998 during a KNAW-colloquium entitled Met of zonder lauwerkrans? (With or without laurels?), the result of which has appeared in Writing the History of Women’s Writing. Toward an International Approach (2001).

This international approach has since been adopted more and more; for example, a more elaborate English edition of Met en zonder lauwerkrans, entitled Women’s Writing from the Low Countries 1200-1875, appeared recently. As a direct succession to Writing the History of Women’s Writing, an international collaboration has been set in motion: a series of projects that were initially financed by NWO (2004-2010), but have received funds from the European Commission through the COST programme over the last four years. From this year, further research is financed by CLARIN and HERA, and possibly by other international institutions in the nearby future.

The importance of this international approach, supported by digital tools developed by Huygens ING, is illustrated in the final conference of the “Women Writers in History” Action. However, in several of the 25 countries involved, the international approach has also led to the “retrieval” of large numbers of native women authors – either because they were involved in the translation or distribution of the work of foreign colleagues, or because they were explicitly interested in foreign women authors and stated so in their correspondence.

As a result of this COST Action, for instance, Serbian researchers have initiated the ?njiženstvo project, which studies the role of Serbian women writers and presents them to a larger (Serbian) audience. Similar projects have been started in Portugal and Turkey. Many of these “retrieved” authors are part of transnational “networks”, in that these European women writers knew, read and “distributed” each other’s work. These networks often faced “obstacles”: for instance, Dutch 19th-century critics ordered their readership to keep their wives far from the work of French women writers, especially that of George Sand.

As far as the Netherlands are concerned, the inventory of the reception of women writers (both native and foreign) has led to the retrieval of information on over 800 authors (active until the early 20th century). The information often is still limited: in this COST Action it was not possible to keep exploring archives in order to expand the documentation. However, in the past few years we were increasingly able to consult other digital projects. In the Netherlands, the most important of these are the DBNL (Digital Library for Dutch Literature), the Royal Library’s Historical Papers project and the Digitaal Vrouwenlexicon Nederland (The Dutch Digital Lexicon of Women), which also originated in the Huygens ING.

Due to the efforts of these projects, it was relatively “easy” to find portraits of “our” women writers: we can “offer” portraits for about 90 Dutch authors, although obviously not all of them could be put up in the Gallery of Authors (there is no space left on the walls...).

The twelve women writers represented in the Museum’s showcases have been chosen rather arbitrarily, mostly for the quality of the original photos and the possibility of enlarging them. Next to them, we aim to offer a (fairly limited) impression of what these women wrote and published, and how this was received by their contemporaries.

The present “catalogue” is meant to provide some context to the selected women: about their work and their possible impact research will be continued over the next years. Should all these women be included at some moment in the Dutch or even the international canon? The question could be asked as well for male authors such as Jan de Gruyter, Ernst Groenevelt, Hein de Bruin, Martien Beversluis and August Heyting, whose portraits are on the Museum walls – in spite of their not really belonging to the Dutch canon. Visibly the Museum was not focusing on canonized authors. In the same way our aim is not to argue that “our” 800 women belong to any canon. Yet they were clearly part of what we call the “literary field” – and played their part in it. This is what our research is about.

Alberdingk Thijm, Catharina

Beets, Dorothea Petronella

Boer, Francijntje de

Burkhardt-Bilderdijk, Louisa Sibylla

Heijse, Johanna Jacoba

Huygens, Cornélie Lydie

Lannoy, Juliana Cornelia de

Leeuw, Amy Geertruida de

Mastenbroek, Fenna

Naber, Johanna W.A.

Post, Elisabeth Maria

Rees, Catharina Felicia van

Some more here....

SvD, 30 June 2013

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