Alexander Pope and His Eighteenth-century Women Readers
Southern Illinois University Press, 1994 - 309 pages
Throughout the 1980s, scholars debated Alexander Pope’s attitude toward women by applying such critical methods as Marxist or deconstructionist theories to his texts. In this book, Claudia N. Thomas instead adopts reader-response theory in order to present what she regards as a more accurate analysis, mindful of the historical reception of Pope’s various works.
Thomas specifically responds to modern allegations that Pope was a misogynist and a literary victimizer of women. If Pope thought women inconsequential, she argues, why did he bother to cultivate a female audience? Furthermore, how did eighteenth-century women readers receive his writings?
Thomas answers these questions by examining the literary responses to Pope of his eighteenth-century women readers: their prose responses to Pope, their poems addressed to him or replying to his poems, and their poems strongly influenced by him. These responses not only clarify Pope’s works and their relation to cultural history; they also advance women’s literary history by reconstructing the female experience of eighteenth-century culture.
A surprising amount of testimony survives to illuminate the ways eighteenth-century women read Pope. Women referred to, quoted, and commented on his poems and letters in a variety of writings: diaries, letters, travel books, translations, essays, poems, and novels. They wrote poems of praise and criticism and designed companion pieces to his poems. A number of women poets learned their craft by studying his work; their poems frequently appropriate and recontextualize his themes, language, and imagery.
For many women, a response to Pope was a reaction to cultural issues ranging from women’s emotional and intellectual qualities to their creative capacity. Women’s responses to Pope demonstrate that they were often shrewdly critical of his gendered rhetoric, yet in contrast, women often claimed him as a sympathetic ally in their quests for education and for a more dignified role in their culture.
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