Jessica Lexie Hollis
Geographies of Women examines some of the spatial origins and consequences of Britain’s eighteenth-century commercial culture. I argue that literature of this period is driven, in part, by a search for spaces that would accommodate new selves, selves reconstituted by Britain’s changing economy and social structure. Faced with the volatile social mobility that the marketplace engendered, writers sought out spatial arrangements that could institute class boundaries, on one hand, and facilitate class volition, on the other. Structuring this search, I show, is a preoccupation with the geographical movement and location of women in spaces increasingly understood strictly as sites of commercial exchange: London’s Royal Exchange, transatlantic passages, philanthropic charities, and rural-urban immigration. Women’s geographies are, on one hand, a source of anxiety about the effects of the marketplace on Britain’s existing social structure. On the other hand, they are also both a means of managing those anxieties and effects and illustrating the opportunities for social volition and self definition offered by marketplace culture. This intersection of women and spaces of commerce is often eclipsed by scholarship focused on eighteenth-century literature’s contribution to the formation of the idea of the domestic woman and how her separation from the marketplace facilitated class distinction and ideology. I argue, however, that representations of women in extradomestic spaces were a central component of Britain’s commercial culture and its perception of changing social structures.
My argument proceeds along interdisciplinary lines, moving between literary works and artifacts of eighteenth-century spatial culture (architectural plans, geographical treatises, design proposals for charitable institutions, and tracts devoted to urban ‘problems’) to illuminate literature’s investment in imagining spaces that resonated with new experiences of the individual and social self. Struggles to envision new spatial arrangements are played out in the poetry of the 1666 London fire, a range of prostitution narratives, and the fiction of writers such as Eliza Haywood, Daniel Defoe, John Cleland, and Sarah Scott.