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Reading: The performative femininity of Charlotte Smith, pre-Romantic poet and novelist

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Academic Article

The performative femininity of Charlotte Smith, pre-Romantic poet and novelist

Author:

Caterina Pan

Paris-Lodron-Universität Salzburg, AT
About Caterina
Caterina Pan has studied English and German literature and culture at the Ca' Foscari University of Venice (Italy), at the University of Sussex (UK), and at the Paris-Lodron-Universität Salzburg (Austria). She works as a German and English teacher and has held courses in Italian language and English literature at the University of Salzburg. She is a fellow of the PhD network "Cultural Production Dynamics" of the University of Salzburg and member of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für das Studium Britischer Kulturen. In 2020, her PhD thesis 'Popular Theatre in Early Modern England, Germany and Italy (1570-1640): A Study in Intercultural Theatricality with an Analysis of Engelische Comedien und Tragedien (1620)' received the Young Investigators Award of the University of Salzburg. Her research areas include Romantic literature and poetry, Renaissance and early modern literature and theatre, literary theory, literature by women, comparative studies.
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Abstract

In recent years, the pre-Romantic poet and novelist Charlotte Smith (1749-1806) has received attention of scholars for her contributions as a 'revolutionary' in genre and gender issues. Smith's case is particularly interesting as she was one of the first women writers to resort to the pen in order to sustain herself and her children after she chose to live apart from her husband. This article aims to describe the position Charlotte Smith took up both as private person and as public persona in the literary context of her time, dominated by the cult of Sensibility, and highlight her skilful attempt at sounding out the possibilities offered by this ideology. Based on her biography and the close reading of some texts from her body of works, I argue that Charlotte Smith's difficult private situation led her to become a writer and in this peculiar public function she created a recognisable persona in-between normative and transgressive femininity. Through what I call 'performative femininity', she explored a variety of roles associated with gender in genre, though still maintaining public favour thanks to the sympathy she evoked in her readers. As Kandi Tayebi suggests, Smith's melancholic persona contributed to making one's gender, life experience and social status essential to poetry and challenged cultural assumption of literature and politics as a male domain (Tayebi 435). In particular, by means of performative femininity she developed a hybrid identity of wife, mother and author in her works. Knowing that her success relied on authenticity and believability, she merged art and fiction, privacy and publicity in such a way as to justify her position and to placate the censorious readers, even when she expressed socio-political criticism, and thus revolutionised the public performance of femininity.
How to Cite: Pan, C. (2022). The performative femininity of Charlotte Smith, pre-Romantic poet and novelist. Roundtable, 4(1), None. DOI: http://doi.org/10.24877/rt.86
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Published on 15 Aug 2022.
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