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Women, Empiricism and Epistolarity, 1740-1810

Schurch, Madelaine (2019) Women, Empiricism and Epistolarity, 1740-1810. PhD thesis, University of York.

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This thesis examines the surprising and striking relationship between the empirical way of knowing that dominated British epistemology and culture in the mid-to-late eighteenth century, and an epistolary form of writing. Natural philosophers employed the practices of observation, description and communication to garner authority in the knowledge they produced. I show how the rhetorical devices they used employed characteristics of the letter form. I trace this relationship in women’s writing, proffering a new understanding of how eighteenth-century women writers conceived of, and contributed to, the production of knowledge. My methodology offers a new model for analysing epistolary writing. I examine how writers use ‘epistolarity’ – the formal characteristics of the letter such as direct address, paper exchange, and the text as a site of experiential expression – across poetry, prose, and visual and material media. The detachment of epistolary qualities from the letter itself opens critical avenues. It exposes how writers used epistolary qualities as a creative and deliberate choice across a range of genres, and shows the influence of letters – an extraordinarily ubiquitous form in the eighteenth century – on non-epistolary writing. I focus on moments in which female writers use epistolary characteristics in empirical observations and descriptions of artefacts, natural objects and people. I concentrate on the work of Elizabeth Montagu, Sarah Scott, Anna Letitia Barbauld, Joanna Baillie and the network surrounding Margaret Bentinck, the duchess of Portland at the Bulstrode estate. Each of these figures utilised the relationship between empiricism and epistolarity to produce knowledge and debate the methods of knowledge production. Although the nature of the knowledge that each writer was interested in varied according to her social, religious and creative context, the relationship between empiricism and epistolarity that they each pursue invites us to reconceptualise women’s involvement in knowledge production in the mid-to-late eighteenth century.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Related URLs:
Keywords: Letters, eighteenth century, women's writing, literature and science
Academic Units: The University of York > English and Related Literature (York)
Depositing User: Miss Madelaine Schurch
Date Deposited: 26 Jun 2020 23:41
Last Modified: 26 Jun 2020 23:41
URI: http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/id/eprint/27165

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