Alison Twells, ed. British Women's History: A Documentary History from the Enlightenment to World War I (International Library of Historical Studies). London: I. B. Tauris, 2007. xiv + 281 pp. $74.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-86064-161-9; $27.50 (paper), ISBN 978-1-86064-162-6.
Reviewed by Susie L. Steinbach
Published on H-Albion (September, 2008)
Commissioned by Mark Hampton (Lingnan University)
Women in the Long Nineteenth Century
Scholar of nineteenth-century British missionaries Alison Twells has produced an exceptionally fine collection of primary documents--which she styles a "documentary history"--on British women from the Enlightenment to World War I. The collection is very well fitted to the needs of the undergraduate classroom (and could even be used by postgraduate or by advanced secondary school students). It seems intended for courses that focus on women and/or gender, but would work well in more general courses as well. The single volume is convenient and affordable. Its time span--from the Enlightenment until World War I--ensures that it will be of use in a variety of courses. And in an age in which many publishers, fearing the Web and its free texts, have shied away from document collections, I. B. Taurus is to be commended for publishing this one; many if not most of the works collected here are not accessible online (or in any other form) to most instructors.
Twells has organized the texts with attention to current historiographical concerns as well as to history. As part of this strategy, she begins the collection with a ten-page introduction that, rather than attempting a summary of the history of women in Britain during the long nineteenth century, instead offers a précis of the historiographical tradition of women’s history and its institutionalization in the United Kingdom since its inception in about 1970. The texts are organized into nine sections: “Women: Enlightenment, Evangelical and Medical Perspectives”; “Middle-Class and Elite Women: Domesticity and 'Separate Spheres’”; “Philanthropy and Politics to 1860"; “Working Women and the Family Wage”; “Working-Class Domestic Life”; “Community, Politics and Religion, 1780-1850”; “Women in Diaspora: Irish, Jewish, Black and Indian women in Britain”; “British Women and the Empire”; and “Victorian Feminisms.” This organization has many strengths: two full sections on aspects of working-class women’s lives form a direct commentary on the fact that these women were well over half the female population, yet remain underrepresented in many histories of women and gender. The attention to identities that are often overlooked or underemphasized, especially those of Welsh and Jewish women, is also very welcome. Other aspects of the organization of texts are on occasion puzzling. It is not clear why the section on philanthropy and politics ends at 1860; women’s engagement in both changed in character, but certainly did not stop, at that date. Community, politics, and religion would seem to deserve more than a single shared section, and sexuality warrants its own section (Twells notes that it does not get one only because of the pressures of space). Education and physical and mental health deserve more attention. Consumption would have made an excellent section, especially given Twells’ commitment to reflecting recent historiographical concerns.
Each section begins with a brief introduction, which is followed by short glosses of each text. The texts themselves then follow. That text glosses are separate from their individual texts is counterintuitive and at times cumbersome. The system works, however, because the glosses are not only concise and helpful on their own, but function well together, forming sustained interpretations of each section’s topic. The text excerpts themselves are well chosen and substantive. Twells states her decision to provide fewer longer excerpts (p. 10), and the choice is a good one. In contrast to many collections that provide excerpts so short and so full of ellipses that students are, in effect, being herded towards a predetermined interpretation, the excerpts here are each about two pages long, which means that students have the opportunity to locate meaning(s) and perform interpretive work themselves.
There is an admirably wide variety of types of sources here, including autobiographies and prescriptive literature, both mainstays of women’s history, but also philosophical texts, hymns, and poems and novels that should stimulate discussion, especially in conversation with one another. There is only one visual source; a few more would have been nice--perhaps Regency era political cartoons of the Duchess of Devonshire or Queen Caroline, or Victorian photographs of impoverished urban children. Also nice is the mix of familiar and relatively obscure texts. On middle-class and elite domesticity, Twells includes the introduction to Beeton’s Book of Household Management (2.4), of course, but precedes it with the less well-known Practical Hints to Young Females, on the Duties of a Wife, a Mother and a Mistress of a Family, by Mrs. Ann Taylor (2.3). Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman is here (1.3), as is testimony from several early Victorian commissions, but so is a poem in praise of Scottish domesticity, "Aul Scotlan" (5.2) and an 1830 sermon chastising Chartist women (6.9). Some prolific writers, like Elizabeth Gaskell and Anne Lister, are featured in more than one section. Cross-referencing between sections (as, for example, on pp. 15-16) helps students to make connections between apparently disparate topics. Each section has excellent suggestions for further reading, some divided into helpful subsections.
All in all, this is an excellent collection that can shape or enrich a variety of courses, and should be of use to many instructors.
. Twells’s publications include The Civilising Mission and the English Middle Class, 1792-1850: The ‘Heathen’ at Home and Overseas (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008), “Missionary Domesticity, Global Reform and ‘Women’s Sphere’ in early Nineteenth-Century England,” Gender and History 18, no. 2 (2006): 266-284, and “Missionary ‘Fathers’ and Wayward ‘Sons’ in the South Pacific,” in Gender and Fatherhood in the Nineteenth Century, ed. T. L. Broughton and H. Rogers (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-albion.
Susie L. Steinbach. Review of Twells, Alison, ed., British Women's History: A Documentary History from the Enlightenment to World War I (International Library of Historical Studies).
H-Albion, H-Net Reviews.
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