Exploring reception history in Women Writers Online


We’re delighted to have been invited to contribute to the EMOB blog. The Brown University Women Writers Project has a strong interest in the issues raised here and we hope to learn a great deal from EMOB’s readers about how scholars work with digital collections.

In this first posting, we’d like to announce an upcoming project for which we just received funding, and solicit the attention and thoughts of this community as we start planning. Once the project gets started, we’ll have more concrete things to seek feedback on and also opportunities for contribution.

Many readers of this blog will already have seen the announcement of the WWP’s most recent NEH grant, “Cultures of Reception: Transatlantic Readership and the Construction of Women’s Literary History”. This three-year project will begin in January 2011, and its overall goal is to gather and study materials that can help us grasp the reception history for texts in the WWO collection. We’ll be focusing on published reviews from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but also including other sources such as anthologies, early literary histories, and manuscript materials like diaries, letters, and commonplace books.

Our plan is to digitize reviews and contemporary critical responses to women’s writing, in a way that enables us to mark explicitly for study a set of key points for analysis: for instance, the author of the review, the text being reviewed, the evaluative language used, any other texts with which the reviewed text is being compared, the terms of the comparison, as well as information needed to enable us to trace geographical and temporal connections. These source materials will be published through an interface that allows readers of WWO to examine the reception history of a given text (or textual exchange), and also to get a broader view of the terms in which women’s writing was being read and evaluated, both publicly and privately.

There will be opportunities for participation of various kinds, including contributions of contemporary reader responses to WWP texts, and also input on the design of the interface for working with the source materials. We will also be very glad to hear from anyone who is working directly on reception history, who might be interested in working with us more closely (for instance, using the collection to prepare an article that we might publish with WWO). At the outset, though, we also have a few issues on which we’d be very glad of people’s thoughts:

  1. What does one need to know about reading and reviewing practices in order to make a meaningful study of reception history? What are the potential blind spots in this project?
  2. What opportunities for new questions and approaches might a collection like this open up? For instance, how might geographical information affect our understanding of readership and reception? What kinds of interface tools would best facilitate working with these materials?
  3. What other kinds of research questions might arise out of these materials? Are there larger purposes we should be bearing in mind for this data that might affect how much detail we capture, etc.?

We look forward to following the discussion and learning more!

best wishes,

Julia Flanders
John Melson

Women Writers Project, Brown University Center for Digital Scholarship


15 Responses to “Exploring reception history in Women Writers Online”

  1. Anna Battigelli Says:

    What a promising and clearly conceived project! I’m particularly interested in knowing more about what is meant by “evaluative language” and how it would be marked.


    • juliaflanders Says:

      Concerning the markup of “evaluative language”: what we wanted to do was flag the specific descriptors used by reviewers and readers to describe the work or to compare it to others: phrases or sentences (or even single words) that carried the evaluative content. The goal of marking this language explicitly would be twofold: first, so that one could do some analysis on these descriptors in themselves (think of something more sophisticated than a word cloud but along the same lines), and second, so that one could do some classification that would permit analysis. For example, one could imagine a very rough classification system that would let us identify terms that are positive/neutral/negative, terms that are establish a comparison with some other work or author, terms that invoke a specific domain (domesticity, religious faith, patriotism), terms that locate a work within a certain literary tradition. With these classifications in place, we could then look in broader terms at where these categories come into play: for instance, looking at all the authors who are reviewed in terms of the religious content of their work, looking at all the negative reviews of a certain author during a certain period, looking at shifts in the language used in negative reviews of women’s poetry, etc. Our hope is that this kind of information may help reveal patterns and connections that might otherwise be difficult to see.


      • Eleanor Shevlin Says:

        These plans will certainly enhance the capabilities of this tool for analysis. And if I am understanding you correctly, I also greatly appreciate your plans not only to mark evaluative terms but also the domains involved. Are you envisioning using contemporary dictionaries and similar sources to assist in categorizing evaluative terms? Booksellers-publishers, for instance, often use while “good” is a positive term in this context, it is so within a commercial context and not an aesthetic one . And I suspect that some terms could easily fall into gray areas. It would also seem useful to have some sense of the evaluative terms used to discuss men’s writing within various genres.


      • Anna Battigelli Says:

        I’m wondering whether alongside labels such as positive/neutral/negative, there needs to be a category signaling ambivalence. To make this an index to something like the full range of responses documented, conceding ambivalence as an evaluative response might be useful.


  2. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    This is a very exciting project, Julia and John, well-deserving of a NEH grant.

    I would think that Antonia Forster’s work on eighteenth-century book reviews (Index to Book Reviews in England, 1749-1774. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University, 1990; Index to Book Reviews in England, 1775-1800. The British Library, 1997) would provide useful contextual reading.

    That your project will enable uses to study geographical and temporal connections seems especially timely, and GIS technology enables you to create interactive maps that would facilitate such studies.

    Finally, I wonder if you have had any correspondence with The Reading Experience Database (RED), 1450–1945 at the UK Open University? It would seem that aspects of your project would offer an interesting, important complement.


  3. Anna Battigelli Says:

    It will be interesting to see how this project helps us distinguish between a work’s general reception–its public buzz–and more private readings. This distinction seems particularly complex in religious texts. The project might also help us discern more clearly the difference between authorial attempts at controlling reading (Lennox’s Female Quixote and Austen’s Northanger Abbey) and actual reading practices.


    • juliaflanders Says:

      Yes, I think over time having material from a variety of sources (and having good data about the nature of those sources) will give us a really interesting view of the complexity of reception and reading. We can also imagine reader responses to reviews themselves, which will add another vector to the dialogue.
      What may be hardest (at least in the initial stages of the project) may be getting hold of the “long tail” (as it were) of responses that come well after the work’s initial publication, since these are the likeliest to be dispersed among many different kinds of sources. One of the questions we started this project with was how visible women’s writing remained after its initial publication, and what kind of visibility it retained. So ideally (eventually) we’d like to be gathering information that can help us understand that issue better.


      • Eleanor Shevlin Says:

        In terms of visibility (in a different sense than used above–that is, how long a work remained on the public radar), I wonder how the project plans to handle works published using pseudonyms. I am especially thinking of situations in which male writers adopted female pseudonyms or vice versa. Especially in cases in which the gendered pseudonym was taken at face value, this practice could shed interesting light on the ways in which gender may or may not have influenced reception.


  4. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Yes, Anna, I see very similar possibilities for this project. And it could provide the substantive data that would offer a pre-history to Gaye Tuchman’s (with Nina Fortin) Edging Women Out:Victorian novelists, publishers, and social change (Routledge, 1989). Their work is interesting in many ways despite its methodological flaws.


  5. Anna Battigelli Says:

    All of this is very interesting. I am interested in hearing more answers to your first query: what would one need to know about reviewing practices to advance this project?


  6. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Laura Runge’s “Momentary Fame: Female Novelists in Eighteenth-Century Book Reviews” offers some important aspects of shifting practices in book reviewing of novels during the latter decades of the eighteenth century. That a number of reviewers were clergymen or that reviews during the 1780s and ’90s were more apt to treat female-authored works deemed of merit more equitably are useful details. Antonia Forster’s introduction to Index to Book Reviews in England, 1749-1774 underscores the need to “establish [j]ust what [reviewers] were doing…before giving much attention to the reviews; far too often these early reviews have been judged according to standards their writers would not have recognized or valued” (5).


  7. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Thanks, Eleanor. Since authors sometimes envisioned competing reading publics, say one group that might absorb a text’s orthodox reading and another group capable of picking up on less orthodox, even subversive readings, I wonder how the project can–or if it can–pick up on these competing readings.

    It seems that the project would be even more powerful if it could alert users to multiple readings, even when no evidence exists that eighteenth-century readers picked up on such readings. Would subversive readings, for example, be less likely to be reviewed? Silence in this instance would in itself be interesting.


  8. Eleanor Shevlin Says:


    The idea of competing readings is an important issue to raise. Different journals had different ideological leanings and associations, and providing a sense of various periodicals’ orientations in the introductory/contextual sections of the project is something Julia and John may well already be planning to do. Armed with an understanding of the various reviews’ typical ideological bents, users of the database would be better equipped to assess reviews of a given work and note departures from or reinforcements of a journal title’s basic philosophy. That the project is also drawing from other sources such as letters, diaries, and the like will also provide the potential opportunity to discover any “talking back” to the reviews or broader public attitudes towards specific works or genres. Of course, “subversive” can take many forms, so that’s also something to keep in mind. My sense of this project is that it is ideally suited to enabling scholars to identify and compile multiple, competing readings of a given work–and within those results to note and analyze subversive readings.


  9. Early Modern Notes » Carnivalesque 66 Says:

    […] Early Modern Online Bibliography has a discussion of Exploring reception history in Women Writers Online […]


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