Over the course of the long eighteenth century, a network of some fifty women writers, working in French, English, Dutch, and German, staked out a lasting position in the European literary field. These writers were multilingual and lived for many years outside of their countries of origin, translated and borrowed from each others' works, attended literary circles and salons, and fashioned a transnational women's literature characterized by highly recognizable codes. Drawing on a literary geography of national types, women writers across Western Europe read, translated, wrote, and rewrote stories about exceptional young women, literary heroines who transcend the gendered destiny of their distinctive cultural and national contexts. These transcultural heroines struggle against the cultural constraints determining the sexualized fates of local girls.
In Heroines and Local Girls, Pamela L. Cheek explores the rise of women's writing as a distinct, transnational category in Britain and Europe between 1650 and 1810. Starting with an account of a remarkable tea party that brought together Frances Burney, Sophie von La Roche, and Marie Elisabeth de La Fite in conversation about Stéphanie de Genlis, she excavates a complex community of European and British women authors. In chapters that incorporate history, network theory, and feminist literary history, she examines the century-and-a-half literary lineage connecting Madame de Maintenon to Mary Wollstonecraft, including Charlotte Lennox and Françoise de Graffigny and their radical responses to sexual violence. Neither simply a reaction to, nor collusion with, patriarchal and national literary forms but, rather, both, women's writing offered an invitation to group membership through a literary project of self-transformation. In so doing, argues Cheek, women's writing was the first modern literary category to capitalize transnationally on the virtue of identity, anticipating the global literary marketplace's segmentation of affinity-based reading publics, and continuing to define women's writing to this day.
Chapter 1. Networks of Women Writers Circa 1785-87
Chapter 2. Two Quarrels
Chapter 3. Ravishing and Romance Language
Chapter 4. The Repertoire of the School for Girls
Chapter 5. Heroines and Local Girls
Chapter 6. Heroines in the World
Heroines and Local Girls asks a technical question, an affective question, and a historical question. Where does something that many readers identify as "women's writing" fit within world literature? What procedures do texts that count as women's writing follow to procure a sense of attachment among readers? And how did the placement of women's writing in the world literary field build on these procedures to produce a transnational concept of women's identity? The textual devices invented by women writers in the long eighteenth century fostered group affinity across borders of social rank and nation in ways that proved to be enduring and adaptive. Perhaps the most influential of these devices was the focus on the differences in perception between the powerless and the powerful and, commensurately, on the stakes of resisting a hegemonic forcing or overwriting of perception. The transnational category now known as women's writing arose from the possibility of capitalizing on a new supranational market sector targeting women readers. It solidified with the invention of narrative means for affirming women's versions of women's stories, particularly in the depiction of differential perceptions of sexual violence and of the gender roles associated with European cultures.
Multiple waves of feminism have rightly pointed to the problems with thinking about women as a transnational and unified cadre. Such critiques identify how women's writing may obscure specific intersectional experiences connected to race, class, sexuality, culture, geography, and gender. Yet less investigation has been devoted to how and why the category of women's writing came to be so adept at surviving and multiplying. Why, despite its significant political limitations, has it been able to grow and to absorb different interests as well as to serve as an incubator for new sectors of writing that provide a space of attachment for new identities, including intersectional ones? What might be called an emergent phenomenon of European women writing in the long eighteenth century provides some answers to this question.
"Pamela L. Cheek makes an extraordinarily important contribution not just to our understanding of women's writing but also to our thinking about the international circulation and reception of literary texts. Few scholars have anything like Cheek's range, and her ability to speak of the importance of translation without converting it into an easy alignment of one national dictionary with another marks her book with a combination of availability and precision. Heroines and Local Girls is indispensable reading for anyone interested in women's writing and how literature crosses national boundaries."—Frances Ferguson, University of Chicago