Women’s literary history has been growing steadily since the first ground-breaking works of the mid 1980s and early 1990s which sought to recover and evaluate a body of women’s texts previously neglected or undiscovered by literary scholarship (Spencer (1986); Beilin (1997); Todd (1989); Grundy and Wiseman (1992); Ezell (1993);Watt (1997); the Cambridge University Press series from the mid-1990s ‘Women and Literature in Britain’).
In the past ten years the discipline has matured to be one of the most significant areas in literary scholarship. This maturity is shown by the wealth of studies which have moved on from the pioneering ‘recovery’ work of the previous decades towards more in-depth and specialised studies of particular writers or genre. The recent and ongoing publication of the ten-volume Palgrave series, The History of British Women’s Writing, is testament to the enduring significance of this field of study from 700 to the present day. In tandem with the critical interest in women’s writing the last decades have also seen the publication of numerous anthologies of women’s writing which have adumbrated a putative canon of women’s literary texts, most recently Paula R. Backscheider and Catherine E. Ingrassia’s 900+ page anthology British Women Poets of the Long Eighteenth Century (2009).
Despite this range and depth of scholarship, there is currently no comprehensive and comparative study of women’s writing which discusses women’s poetic production outside a primarily ‘Anglophone’ context. Therefore, although many recent studies claim to be exploring ‘British’ women writers the full linguistic and geographical scope of women’s texts and experience of literary production is not considered and thus the literary history being presented can only be partial.
Recent critical and editorial work has begun to address this omission. Kate Chedgzoy’s important study Women’s Writing in the British Atlantic World (2007) has begun the process of comparative analysis of women’s writing in an archipelagic frame. While not primarily focused on women writers, John Kerrigan’s 2008 book on Archipelagic English has been instrumental in developing new research models for thinking about how Anglophone writers spanned the entire range of the British-Irish archipelago and for evaluating the effect of non-English contexts on the work of these writers. Anthologies are crucialfor the purpose of canon formation by making available the texts which then shape the narratives of literary history. Tellingly, the only relevant anthology of women’s poetry to include the full geographical and linguistic range of British-Irish women’s poetry is Jane Stevenson and Peter Davidson’s groundbreaking Early Modern Women Poets (1520-1700). However, despite its linguistic range and innovative agenda, this anthology does not reflect the full range of themes and genre found in women’s vernacular poetry up to 1800.