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British Women in Pursuit of Enlightenment and Adventure in Eighteenth-Century Europe


Pub Date: Nov. 16th, 2001
ISBN: 0-06-018543-0
Publisher: HarperCollins

A study of British women travelers in the 18th century that began as a research file for Exploring European Frontiers (not reviewed). The result retains the feel of a file: some interesting clips, some pictures, and lots of padding.

In Enlightenment England, men traveled, but women generally stayed home. While a little touring and education abroad might make young ladies more marriageable, too much was both anti-British and unfeminine. Nonetheless, a few women managed to confound the era’s constricting mores. Dolan’s early chapters are divided into discussions of travel for the purposes of education, for independence from constraining families and husbands, for health, and for fashion. Many of his subjects were ladies of the court whose duties to the queen had become onerous. Some of them were the famed “bluestockings” who longed to take the same advantage of the continent as their male peers. Letters home, detailing who and what the travelers have seen (and what to pack; Mariana Starke recommends a rhubarb-grater), are the most interesting element here, along with sections relating gossip about who had affairs with whom and whose illicit pregnancies required lengthy stays abroad. The same women appear in nearly every chapter; Dolan (History/Univ. of East Anglia, UK) rearranges their stories to fit his structure rather than organizing his narrative to present them as individuals. This approach makes for a great deal of flipping back and forth in order to keep straight the various Ladies Elizabeth and Mary. Later chapters are notable for pregnant Mary Wollstonecraft’s perceptive and dramatic observations of the French Revolution; she contemplates life and death as well as the politics of revolution.

Much less engaging than one would expect, given the potentially compelling subject matter. (16 pages color photos, not seen)