Review Analysis Assignment

The Review as a Medium for Progressive Ideas

Developed by Paschalina Minou

Description: This assignment encourages students to explore the review as a genre of writing and its impact on examining questions of gender, working in the Women Writers in Review collection. This is a research intensive task and because of this it is not recommended as an in-class exercise. It would be most suitable for individual study and as a potential essay question with some in-class guidance.

Pedagogical goals:

  • Explore a research question with broad implications
  • Perform relevant primary and secondary material searches on a certain topic
  • Become familiar with the broader culture of women’s writing in the period defined by the texts presented in Women Writers in Review
  • Explore the review as a genre of writing
  • Understand the practice of writing reviews within the specific historical, cultural, and writing context in which they appear
  • Use research methods, analytical ability, and critical skill in order to formulate an argument in response to a certain question

Preparation/guidance: Explain the research question the students are asked to explore: they will study reviews in which conspicuously progressive ideas about gender are expressed. They will then consider whether the genre in which these ideas are expressed, the review, is likely to have any impact on the reception of these ideas.

Here is one possible version of the essay question you might ask students to answer:

To what extent do you consider the review an effective medium for the expression of progressive ideas about gender? When formulating your answer consider the nature and purpose of the review as a genre and the following points:

  • Reviews, by definition, imply a sort of critical appraisal. Do you think that this element of the nature of the review can lend validity or acceptability to the ideas expressed in the text about gender?
  • Reviews not only criticise but they also summarize and explain the works they discuss. Do you think that this aspect can offer a way of articulating and emphasizing a progressive message, thus amplifying its impact?
  • Conversely, can the review work to undermine the progressive message expressed in the reviewed text, for instance by emphasizing the most radical or enlightened parts of a work and subsequently rebutting them?

After presenting them with the question, ask students to consider how they are going to collect the textual evidence required to answer it. This part can offer a short exercise in scoping a research question and forming strategies to arrive at a conclusion/answer. Explain that they need to identify suitable texts and mine them for the necessary information. You can guide them through these steps:

First: Identify suitable texts in the WWiR database. This can be done by title search or tags search. A good strategy would be to begin by selecting the receptive tags for positive reviews and then filter them through the ‘gender identities’ tag or the ‘women as writers and readers’ tag. In this way students can be sure that they will find texts that contain at least one clear statement on gender that is likely to be not conventional. Additionally, you can expand on search strategies by asking students to: browse for reviews that contain the word ‘women’ or ‘female’ in their title; search for reviews of works by authors with an established and recognized stance on gender issues, or search for reviews of works that are focused on gender. In essence, your students are looking for texts that unequivocally contain either a statement or a thesis of gender that directly opposes the established narrative/ views on gender identity.

Some examples of reviews that may result from such a search include the various responses to Lucy Aikin’s Epistles on Women, such as those by the Belfast Monthy Magazine, the Eclectic Review, the European Magazine, and the Critical Review, all of which offer a good selection for the question at hand.

Second: Ask students to read through the reviews and isolate the most relevant passages. Provide an example of what would be a relevant passage from a selected text. You may use one of the following quotes, or parts of them as an example:

“Let the impartial voice of history testify for us, that, when permitted, we have been the worthy associates of the best efforts of the best of men; let the daily observation of mankind bear witness, that no talent, no virtue is masculine alone; no fault or folly exclusively feminine: that there is no endowment, no propensity, or mental quality of any kind, which may not be derived from her father to the daughter, to the son from his mother. These positions once established, and carried into their consequences, will do every thing for woman.” —The Belfast Monthly on Aikin’s Epistles on Women, 1810

“We have two reasons for noticing this book, independent of its merits, viz. that the author is a lady, and that the subject relates to her own sex. It is not from a feeling of gallantry, a motive which can scarcely be supposed to influence a spectacled reviewer, that we are induced to pay our compliments to the literary fair, but because we are happy to see a woman asserting the proper dignity of her sex, and evincing by her own example that female pretentions are well founded. It is quite time that the doctrine of the inequality of the sexes should be exploded.” —The Critical Review on Aikin’s Epistles on Women, 1811-08

Note to the instructor: With regard to this component of the assignment, it would be advisable for students to try to ascertain, or establish to the extent they are able to, the gender of the person writing the review. However, alert them also to the fact that this is not always possible. Hence, they must refrain from making assumptions about the identity of the reviewer and they must base their answers on textual and contextual evidence.

Third: Help students develop the contextual knowledge required to address this question. Explain that they need to read more about women’s writing in the period, its culture and practicalities, and also to understand the review as a genre of writing. Provide some indicative sources, but also leave room for individual research on bibliography.

Advise students to search also on the particular publications where the reviews feature—for example the Monthly Review, the Critical Review—and to acquire a sense of their circulation and general public reception and use. Some of the sources listed below contain such information.

Finally, ask students to formulate an answer to the assignment, making use of contextual knowledge and their own critical strengths.

Important note: In order to form a well-founded opinion—and also to appreciate and develop thoroughness in their research approach—advise students to become familiar with the primary works reviewed in their selected texts by using WWO and other online databases or print editions where available. In this way they will be able to judge more adequately the impact of the commentary offered in the reviews.

Suggested Resources

British Women’s Writing in the Long Eighteenth Century: Authorship, Politics and History, ed. Jennie Batchelor and Cora Kaplan, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

The Cambridge Companion to Women’s Writing in Britain, 1660-1789, ed. Catherine Ingrassia, Cambridge, 2015.

Staves, Susan, A Literary History of Women’s Writing in Britain, 1660-1789, Cambridge, 2006.

Turner, Cheryl, Living by the Pen: Women Writers in the Eighteenth Century, Routledge, 1992.

Waters, Mary, British Women Writers and the Profession of Literary Criticism, 1789-1832, Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

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