On the vexing history of assessing women’s literary achievements.
How do we measure women’s literary achievements? Today, the question is an uncomfortable one, carrying as it does the suggestion that critical assessments of poetry and fiction work on the model of a yardstick. But as Katherine Angel reveals in a recent LARB essay, some of our most well respected literary institutions do, in fact, operate by taking the measure of women writers, through sometimes oblique editorial practices that tend to shore up existing gender disparities. As she puts it, “one need only look at the pages of our literary magazines to see that women’s writing has a wholly different status culturally—Alice Munro, Hilary Mantel, Eleanor Catton notwithstanding. Our idea of serious, intellectual writing appears to be overwhelmingly male.”
The question of how to assess women’s literary abilities was a vexed one in the eighteenth century as well. In the 1790s in particular, as British women writers were publishing in greater numbers than ever before but struggling to establish lasting literary reputations, two periodicals offered up their own idiosyncratic methods of assessing women’s literary abilities. On April 2, 1792, slotted between a theatrical review and a note about some particularly luscious hothouse peas served at a royal dinner, a newspaper called the Star printed the "Scale of the Female Genius of this Country in the Year MDCCXCII”: