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Janouk de Groot, Hilde Hoogenboom,

Caterina Nosdeo, Mojca Sauperl

Italy and France Compete for Women Writers in the Nineteenth Century:
Bio-Bibliographic Compilations, National Literary Histories, and Alternative Transnational Narratives


Compilations of biographies of women with bibliographies and selections from their writings contain rich narratives of the transnational circulation of texts by and about women, and of the textual production, reception, and classification of women. In the 1990s, databases began to expand the potential of quantitative approaches to create new connections between women, their writings, critics, readers and nations. However, most databases enhance rather than transform the nineteenth-century national literary historical narratives they have inherited, with a few important exceptions.

Those national narratives became evident in tracing the development over the past 600 years of compilations, a highly coherent, dynamic genre that began with Boccaccio’s Famous Women (1375), and gradually spread from Italy to France, England, Denmark, Germany, Spain, Russia, the United States, and many smaller nations, initially as manuscripts, later as books, in the form of anthologies, biographies, bibliographies, treatises, and literary histories, and now as databases. Compilers rely on, compete and disagree with, and often simply borrow from their predecessors’ work — all basic features that make the genre cohere over centuries across national and linguistic boundaries between large and small nations.

A comparative historical approach also reveals that most modern compilations after 1700 make selective, canonizing, national qualitative arguments about women, and that in the nineteenth century, several important diversifying quantitative compilations of women writers appear that challenge these selective compilations in the international competition over women writers. Moreover, it turns out that while the French and the English competed primarily with each other through qualitative arguments to show their national greatness, nations with more to prove, such as Germany and Russia, preferred extensive, quantitative arguments. However, a few extensive compilations, of which two are by women (in France, Briquet 1804; and in Germany, Pataky 1898), functioned as the databases of their time, and disrupted the qualitative, normative narratives of most compilations.

Similarly, today, such innovative databases as the Orlando Project and WomenWriters allow us to move beyond the traditional categories of poetry, prose fiction, and national literatures, to decanonize and historicize national literary histories, and open these narratives to other genres, writers, especially women, and nations other than the traditional cultural empires of England and France. In 1988, Nancy K. Miller bemoaned “the old Franco-American game… as though there weren’t also Italians, for instance” and longed “to see a more international geo-graphics in feminist writing” (Subject to Change, 1988, 17-18). The transnational nature of compilations suggests that women’s literary histories are relational, between nations. A historical survey of compilations suggests that indeed the Italians were the first to categorize women as writers, in the sixteenth century.

WomenWriters is unique in its capacity to map geographically and chronologically the ebb and flow of international literary reception. All compilations before 1900 are reception documents, and compilations by women are also works with authors. Our project examines how we can use the database to show that in the nineteenth-century, Italian compilers attempted to reposition Italian women writers in relation especially to French, but also English and German women writers, and recapture the significance of Italian women writers. Ironically, beginning in the sixteenth century, Italian women writers were the first significant national group to be represented in compilations (Domenichi, Rime diverse d’alcune nobilissime e virtuosissime donne, 1559), but as the French gradually borrowed the genre from the Italians, by the eighteenth century they took over the category of historically illustrious women writers, displacing the Italians.

Our presentation will begin with an introduction to compilations of women writers as they spread across Europe from Italy, and their transnational aspects, with a focus on Italy and France (Hoogenboom). Caterina Nosdeo will discuss compilations of women in Italy in the nineteenth century, especially the plans for a compilation by Luigi Stella, with Giacomo Leopardi (1829), whose correspondence lists some important women and worries about whether their prominence is sufficient to compete with French, English, and German women writers. Mojca Sauperl (in absentia) presents her dissertation research on one nineteenth-century French compilation by Fanny Mongellaz (1828), which is a 2-volume international overview of women, including women writers, throughout world history. Mongellaz and Stella/Leopardi are tied together through their references to Italy (1821) by Lady Morgan, whose denigration of Italian women Mongellaz moderates and Stella/Leopardi’s immediate predecessor, Ginevra Canonici Fachini, in Prospetto biografico delle donne italiane rinomate in letteratura dal secolo XIV fino ai giorni nostril (1824), rejects. Finally Janouk de Groot has been working as Suzan’s assistant to systematize and input data from compilations, and she will address the possibilities of how to enter the kind of transnational data we are finding in compilations in 1) their contents, 2) the sources used, and 3) the later reception by others internationally, and how to express those relationships as “results.”

SvD, 12 June 2013

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