Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Life Forms: Women Authors, Knowledge Practices, and the Genres of Life Writing, 1650–1810
by Devereaux, Johanna, Ph.D., New York University, 2013, 336; 3591195
Abstract (Summary)

My thesis explores a range of biographical and autobiographical texts by women authors in the period 1650-1810. For these authors, I argue, life writing was more than a representation or reflection of life, character, and experience: it was a literary method of enacting specific Enlightenment knowledge practices. In the same ways that empirical scientific experimentation or antiquarian study enabled scientists and historians to produce knowledge about the world, these female life writers engaged in generic and formal experiments from which they extrapolate information about character and life.

My project focuses on four authors - Margaret Cavendish, Sarah Churchill, Hester Lynch Piozzi, and Mary Hays - and situates their writing against four contemporary epistemological "problems" in order to demonstrate the parallels between their generic choices and the enactment of those problems amongst certain groups of intellectuals. Cavendish, writing during the 1650s and 1660s when debates persisted about the relative merits of scholastic and inductive scientific methodologies, shaped her own and her husband's life experiences into texts which enacted the methods and practices of Aristotelian scholasticism. Churchill's self-vindication was published in 1742, after the debate had been settled on the side of the new science; her autobiography borrows its reliance on multiple forms of evidence from the Royal Society's published inductive experimental accounts. Piozzi's private journal and published biography of Samuel Johnson (1786) are grounded in the principles of the collection, organisation and display of evidentiary objects - the same practice that underpins the epistemological methods of the Royal Society of Antiquaries. Piozzi gathers fragments of evidentiary and oral experience into her textual repositories in order to present an incomplete and idiosyncratic understanding of her own and others' lives. In the last decade of the century, Hays engaged with the rational dissenting community in order to investigate the new psychological "science of the mind." Her realisation that women were absent from prevalent dissenting discourses of psychology and history led to her intense scrutiny of her own life and mind in order to insist in her autobiographical and biographical writing on women's right to be considered heroines of their own life stories.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: McDowell, Paula
Commitee: Ballaster, Ros, Poovey, Mary
School: New York University
Department: English
School Location: United States -- New York
Source: DAI-A 74/12(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Source Type: DISSERTATION
Subjects: British and Irish literature
Keywords: Autobiography, Biography, Britain, Cavendish, Margaret, Churchill, Sarah, Enlightenment, Hays, Mary, Knowledge practices, Piozzi, Hester Lynch, Women writers
Publication Number: 3591195
ISBN: 9781303317439
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