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Sneak Peek of ENG 134A: Going Public: Women Authors Before Austen

By Polina Potochevska

Section: Features

November 3, 2017

Professor Jennifer Reed (ENG) is a Florence Levy Kay Fellow in Eighteenth Century Studies at Brandeis University. She has taught at Brandeis since Fall 2016, and is excited to teach a special one-time offering of “Going Public: Women Authors Before Austen” in Spring 2017.

The ENG 134A class will be held Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3:30 to 4:50 p.m. and also counts as a pre-1800 course for the English major.

Reed’s inspiration for creating this class was to discover “what’s at stake for women in the eighteenth century to publish, and more broadly, to enter the public sphere.” The 2016 election made her wonder about women who enter the public sphere, the “kinds of criticism that are lobbied at them,” and also how their personal lives are often “subject to scrutiny” by the public.

As Reed said, some might be wondering how that connects to the eighteenth century, but explained that was when we first saw a “published body of imaginative writing by women.” Women purposefully put their work in the public sphere, whereas in the past women would publish under pseudonyms or have a male family member publish the work. In the 18th century, women started to publish work in large numbers and were then subjected to intense public scrutiny.

Women who intentionally published in that time period were often criticized for not being “modest.” In the eighteenth century, women were supposed to be modest by not purposefully entering the public sphere, said Reed. “You’re not supposed to be looked at, you’re certainly not supposed to write anything that might subject your personal life to any kind of scrutiny,” she said.

The class will examine women who place themselves in these positions of societal pressure and how they manage entering the literary market. Some of the works will include apologetic prefaces, while others have their brothers or other male relations write prefaces to their work to try and protect themselves from harsh judgement. In one play’s prologue, a character asks the audience to “give it fair due,” even though the piece was written by a woman.

“I was very fascinated by the kinds of very straight lines you can draw between then and now, and how we can think about these issues through eighteenth century texts.”

Reed said that she wanted to include as much diversity of women’s experiences in the syllabus as possible when it came to the required readings. She chose works that would “encompass different voices of many women.” Students will read works including Mary Prince’s “History of Mary Prince,” which is the “first published account of slavery by a woman of color” and recounts Prince’s life as an enslaved woman and as a free woman. Students will also investigate the way the text was criticized. Another work is the “Diaries of Anne Lister,” consisting of her personal journals. Lister was a lesbian woman who wrote about her life in coded language. The diaries were later found, decoded and published. “I think it’s a really interesting example of the ways in which there might be a concern about getting [personal works] into the public sphere,” noted Reed.

One of Reed’s favorite texts that will be read in the class is Aphra Behn’s “The Rover.” The play includes “a lot of cavaliers, women dressed up as nuns, and as men, and wit… it’s very fun, and a great way to start.”

Students will read a variety of genres in the class, including poetry, plays, novels, autobiographies, letters and diaries. “I think it’s good to have a breadth of genre,” Reed said, explaining she wanted to choose texts that would be engaging and raise issues and questions that are still relevant today.

Reed’s goals for the class are to “have students engage with literature that I think they might otherwise have trouble finding, or is less likely to be presented to them.” She mentioned that while many women authors of the 18th century are underrepresented on syllabi, but the works are not only “really fabulous and really funny,” but also raise questions about rights and what it means to be a woman.

“I want students to think carefully about how to produce analyses of literary works, what it means to give close attention to a text, and also what does it mean to engage with something that is really unfamiliar to you.” Reed said that many, if not all of the writers and works on the syllabus may be unfamiliar to students, but the themes and ideas will still be accessible, thus giving students the confidence of knowing how to analyze the unfamiliar.

One of Reed’s favorite things about teaching is when a student shares a new, innovative idea. “I feel like I never go to a class and come away without someone having said something that makes me think, I’ve never thought about [the topic] like that before.” She said the students she has taught at Brandeis have a way of making courses feel “co-creative” because of the energy and thoughtful connections they bring to the classroom from other classes and their personal lives. “Works come alive in the classroom.”

Reed hopes students will be interested in taking her course as she believes it will not only be a fascinating and engaging course but a politically relevant one as well. She looks forward to teaching it next semester.

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