Registration Now Open!!

Difficult Women in the Long Eighteenth Century: 1680-1830

1.00pm Friday, 27 November 2015 to 6.30 pm Saturday 28 November 2015

Location: University of York, Berrick Saul Building.

Just to let you know that registration  for this conference is now open. It is free to attend but you do need to register on Eventbrite:

Please note that registration covers both days, but please do not worry if you can only attend on one day.

If you are a speaker, please do NOT register through this link, as you already have a speaker form. 

Looking forward to seeing you all there!


Exciting Announcement

There have been some really exciting developments over the past few weeks with the organising of Difficult Women.
First of all, we just want to say THANK YOU for all of our amazing abstracts.
We received over 46 (!!!) in total and are still in the process of going through them and attempting to organise panels.
We had more than expected, so we’re hoping to get back to the delegates at the end of August.

That being said, we’ve been so chuffed with how things have progressed that we’re adding a SECOND day!
That’s right – Difficult Women will not only be held on Saturday, November 28th, but also Friday, November 27th.
The location hasn’t changed, so still mark your calendars!

We’d love to see you all there for both days!
– The Difficult Women Team

Bursaries, Prizes, and Postgraduates!

Are you a postgraduate that wants to attend the conference from outside of York? Thinking about submitting an abstract and the possibility of winning a prize?

Travel Bursaries
Due to generous funding from BSECS and the RHS, we are pleased to be able to offer seven travel bursaries to postgraduates attending the conference from outside of York. Bursaries are of the value of £25 each, and can be applied for during conference registration.

Postgraduate and ECR ‘Best Paper Prize’
On top of bursaries, a ‘Best Paper Prize’, sponsored by BSECS, is available to postgraduates and early career researchers presenting at the conference. The prize, of £50, will be awarded to one PG or ECR speaker whose paper demonstrates originality, depth of research, and strong presentational skills. All PG and ECR speakers are eligible for this prize. The winner will be decided by the conference organisers and the keynote speakers.


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Don’t forget! Our CFP Closes on July 1, 2015! Get your abstracts in soon!
Difficult Women – CFP.

Abstract Deadline – July 1, 2015

Hello all,

Just a friendly reminder that we’re coming up very quickly to our deadline for abstracts and panel applications.
Please don’t forget to submit and get your paper in!

Please email all abstracts and panel submissions to

Final Deadline – July 1, 2015

PDF for download:
Difficult Women – CFP

Thanks and we can’t wait to see you all in November!
– The Difficult Women Team

“The Female Phaeton”: Catherine Douglas, the Duchess who ‘set the World on Fire’

Today’s post is brought to us by fellow organiser Elizabeth Spencer

In his 1762 biography of ‘King’ Beau Nash – the Master of Ceremonies at Bath between 1705 and 1761 – Oliver Goldsmith recounts a now infamous incident involving Catherine Douglas, the Duchess of Queensberry. Nash, he wrote, ‘had the strongest aversion to a white apron…[and] I have known him on a ball to strip even the duchess of Q——–, and throw her apron at one of the hinder benches among the ladies women; observing, that none but Abigails appeared in white aprons.’ His actions may have given good cause for offence, as an ‘Abigail’ was a lady’s maid, but Goldsmith assures us that ‘the good natured duchess acquiesced in his censure, and with great good sense, and good humour, begged his Majesty’s pardon.’ Over the course of her lifetime the Duchess of Queensberry would break the rules many more times, and not just through her choice of dress; lauded as a great beauty, banished from court by the King, and famous for indulging in eccentric behaviour in her later years, she continued to challenge contemporary expectation until her death in 1777.

NPG 238; Catherine Douglas (nÈe Hyde), Duchess of Queensberry attributed to Charles Jervas

Born in 1701 Catherine – or ‘Kitty’ – Hyde married her second cousin Charles Douglas, third Duke of Queensberry and second Duke of Dover, in 1720. She became known for her fondness for aprons, and a portrait of her painted by Charles Jervas in the 1720s even shows her wearing one. Dressed as a milkmaid and posing in front of a rural idyll, the Duchess rests her hands on a milk pail. Pastoral portraits like this were popular amongst the elite in this period; however, while the Duchess’s status remains clear – she poses rather than works – the plainness of her dress is unusual. Indeed, her lack of artifice was often commented on by contemporaries. Mary Delany, for example, wrote in 1727 that Catherine ‘depended so much upon her native beauty that she despised all adornment.’ Delany was again startled in 1742 when the Duchess arrived for a visit wearing ‘no ruffles…no hoop, a tumbled apron, and her capuchin dangling round her arm’, but thought that ‘there was a grace in her altogether than shone out in spite of her dress.’ Author, politician and patron of the arts Horace Walpole was less complimentary in 1749, when he wrote that she had appeared in ‘her old forlorn trim, a white apron and white hood.’

The Duchess’s predilection for plain, ‘tumbled’ clothing may have stemmed from a belief that real beauty needed little adornment; country girls and milkmaids, for instance, were praised in contemporary representation for their natural beauty and simple, homespun clothing. Catherine’s beauty had indeed been lauded from an early age, and in 1722 Matthew Prior published ‘The Female Phaeton’, dedicated to the young Duchess’s first appearance in public:

‘THUS Kitty, Beautiful and Young,
And wild as Colt untam’d;
Bespoke the Fair from whom she sprung,
With little Rage inflam’d.’

Prior’s Kitty reportedly held on to this beauty later in life, and in 1740 Elizabeth Robinson Montagu wrote that the Duchess ‘was so far beyond the master-piece of art that one could hardly look at her clothes – allowing for her age I never saw so beautiful a creature.’ Even Horace Walpole – who once exclaimed ‘thank God! the Thames is between me and the Duchess of Queensbury’ – grudgingly admitted in 1771 that she was ‘still figuring in the world, not only by giving frequent balls, but really by her beauty.’

Though he sometimes praised the Duchess’s aging beauty, Walpole also often viciously mocked her and it is in his letters that we find anecdotes about the Duchess’s old-fashioned dress and eccentric behaviour. In 1773, for example, he wrote that she had appeared in ‘a new pink lutestring’, but ‘One should sooner take her for a young beauty of an old-fashioned century than for an antiquated goddess of this age – I mean by twilight.’ Mocking her eccentric behaviour in a letter written in 1749, he described how she had made an urgent visit to Lady Sophia Thomas in order to tell her ‘something of importance’; this ‘something of importance’ transpired to be a suggestion that a ‘couple of beef-steaks’, clapped together ‘as if they were a dumpling’, and eaten with pepper and salt ‘is the best thing you ever tasted.’ ‘Don’t a course of folly for forty years make one very sick?’ remarked Walpole, after recounting the tale.

The Duchess did not just court controversy in her later years, and in February 1728 had caused a scandal when she was banished from court. A great supporter and friend of John Gay, she had personally petitioned the King and Queen on his behalf when his play Polly, a sequel to The Beggar’s Opera, was refused a licence. In the words of Mary Delany, ‘She indiscreetly urged the King and Queen…upon which she is forbid the Court – a thing never heard of before to one of her rank.’ Delany added that ‘one might have imagined her beauty would have secured her from such treatment!’ The Duchess’s defiant statement in reply to the King’s instructions claimed that she was ‘surpriz’d and well pleas’d that the King hath given her so agreeable command as to stay away from Court.’ Catherine continued in her friendship with Gay until his death in 1732, and the pair even wrote letters together. Polly was not performed until 1777, when Catherine reportedly sang along from the audience.

In her sixties and seventies Catherine again attracted attention over her relationship with her servant Julius Soubise; born enslaved on the island of St. Kitts, Soubise was brought to England aboard a naval vessel and was given to her as a gift. In 1767, Lady Mary Coke wrote in her diary that when she had visited the Duchess she had found her ‘talking to her Black Boy, who indeed seems to have a very extraordinary capacity.’ The Duchess, she continued, had ‘taught him everything he had a mind to learn’ including riding and fencing, but Coke ‘cou’d not help thinking those exercises too much above his condition to be useful, & wou’d only serve to give him expectations.’ Despite a considerable difference in age – Soubise was born c.1754 – he and the Duchess were also rumoured to be lovers. Soubise was later accused of raping one of the Duchess’s servants, and fled to Calcutta shortly after his mistress’s death.

Over her lifetime the Duchess of Queensberry challenged contemporary expectation over how she should dress, as well as how she should behave; she defied royalty through her fierce patronage of Gay, and unsettled elite values by educating her servant in gentlemanly pursuits. Though she challenged these expectations, however, she is largely remembered for her transgressions against them, rather than for overcoming them. The comments we are left with often simply reduce her to, on the one hand, a famous beauty and, on the other, an elderly eccentric; although she apparently never lost her looks, she remained defined by her reputation for beauty until her death. Walpole – who veered between downright mockery and grudging admiration of the Duchess – was guiltier of this than most, and it is often his most ridiculous anecdotes that are remembered. Even her death in 1777, caused, according to Walpole, ‘from a surfeit of cherries’ appears out of the ordinary. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the Duchess was a ‘difficult’ woman who knew her own mind. Prior perhaps could not have known how right he would be when he wrote in 1722:

‘Fondess prevail’d, Mamma gave way;
Kitty at Heart’s Desire,
Obtain’d the Chariot for a Day,
And set the World on Fire.’

(Image credit: National Portrait Gallery, London.)

Sterne’s Eliza in Whom Genius and Benevolence Were United

Today, we welcome a post from contributor and friend, Alexander Hardie-Forsyth!

Alex pic

The title of Arnold Wright and William Lutley Sclater’s 1922 miscellany Sterne’s Eliza cannot but raise an eyebrow ninety odd years down the line, but we can read an unintended irony in its bold assertion of the possessive. Born on the south Malabar Coast in 1744, married to Daniel Draper at the age of fourteen, and the centre of an elopement controversy in 1773, Eliza was anything but Sterne’s. The ailing vicar instead forged his own spectral double of her at Shandy Hall, where a room she never visited acted as both shrine and metonym for a quasi-mythological Belle-Indian Bramine figured through memories of chance encounters in London, fevered dreams and erotic epistles. Here, her absent presence held the power to rupture bursting blood vessels, the consumptive’s life being one racked by uncontrollable bodily fluids that fuel a desire for the absent Other felt with tenfold intensity.

Twelve ‘handsome brass screws’ were Sterne’s parting gift to Eliza, of which he takes two as a token sacrifice with which to furnish her second cabin. As a figurative expression of incompleteness, it is neatly apt: what Sterne can claim of Eliza is only a minimal portion of her extraordinary life as an Anglo-Indian transnational. Her presence in the Howardian Hills would never be more substantial than the ghost of Cordelia Sterne sought to converse with in nearby Byland Abbey. The absence of any second voice in the Letters from Yorick to Eliza hollows the pronominal I-you relationship that characterises the letter as a ‘mediator of desire’ in Janet Altman’s terms.

For Royal Society philosophe Abbé Raynal, the savage man is distinguished from the cultured in that he has no need for pleasures that ‘are a relief to appetites which are not excited in his sensations’. When a change encounter with Eliza inspires within him a ‘sensation [previously] unknown to me’, she thereby serves to heighten both his status and his requirements as a civilised creature of the world. Letters from Yorick to Eliza had been published and Eliza’s reputation well established by the time Raynal encountered her. He would remain acutely aware that in the public’s eye he had simply inherited her from Sterne.

Genius and benevolence were ‘united’ in Eliza according to the lavish tomb Raynal financed to honour her memory at Bristol Cathedral. Correspondingly, he laments her demise in classical terms as a division or reconstitution of qualities and experiences that had been arranged together in one figure but for a fleeting moment. Death in stoic discourse is of course that which either annihilates us or strips us to our essence:

‘I search for Eliza every where: I discover, I discern some of her features, some of her charms, scattered […] But what is become of her who united them all? Nature, who hast exhausted thy gifts to form an Eliza, didst thou create her only for one moment?

Eliza Draper is only difficult in the sense that she provides no answer or response; she remains the absent interlocutor in the works of two of the century’s foremost men of letters. Transpacific travel and an untimely death would spread the Belle-Indian’s fame and qualities far and wide, yet they also expunge her voice, scatter her features, and leave little trace more tangible than the apocryphal tales of scandal many know her best for. Raynal and Sterne both yearned to co-opt Eliza into their visions of progress, whether toward an ecstatic death or toward new ambitions for a burgeoning colonial mission. Her legacy is as a woman who continues to resist fitting into any totalising narrative; her gaze in Cosway’s portrait remains satisfyingly inscrutable.

Image Credit: The Laurence Sterne Trust

“I would be given up, both soul and body: Mary Bosanquet Fletcher and her call to Public Ministry”

Here, we have a post from organiser, Jessica Clement

Mary Bosanquet Fletcher was a woman that few would describe as “difficult” in the conventional sense of the term. But what set Fletcher apart was her independent spirit and agency to not only get an orphanage up and running, but to transform her ministry into a major hub for Methodist worship and social activism. Born in 1739, Fletcher would go on to become one of the first deaconesses of the Methodist Movement and build a thriving ministry for orphans and less fortunate. Taking her own finances and time to help people in need, Fletcher had a large part to play in the success and proliferation of the Methodist movement during the Eighteenth century, making waves by establishing and expanding an orphanage into a successful centre for Methodist worship and even preaching regularly to enthusiastic crowds.


Fletcher’s legacy began with Leytonstone House, a house that had been owned by Fletcher’s family, located in Essex. From 1763 to 1768, the Leytonstone house thrived as a place for Christian community. Serving as a meeting place for prayer and Bible study, as well as a preaching house, orphanage, and school, the property even functioned as a social service centre for the poor and needy of the neighbourhood. Visited by John Wesley in 1767, he noted in his journal, “O what a house of God is here! Not only for decency and order, but for the life and power of religion!”[1]

However in 1768, Fletcher came to the conclusion that the house in Leytonstone required more income and was too small to sustain its inhabitants. Some of her friends recommended selling the property and buying a farm in Yorkshire. Fletcher eventually felt drawn to relocate her ministry in the north, selling the house at Leytonstone after five years of ministry. On June 7, 1768, Fletcher moved to a farm in Cross-Hall, located outside Leeds. Fletcher’s life at Cross-Hall was quite different from her ministry at Leytonstone. Now the owner of a large farm with no business training, little capital, and no farming experience, Fletcher had to sustain her ministry and provide for the orphans in her care. Fortunately, Fletcher landed on her feet and transformed the farm at Cross-Hall into a thriving centre for Methodist worship, attracting people from miles around with the meetings growingly rapidly in numbers until a point where she had to suggest that they begin to break off into smaller groups to facilitate all of the followers.

Referring to these meetings, Fletcher writes,“Those meetings were to me a singular blessing. They cost me many a wrestling prayer, and when the nights approached, when we were to meet… Frequently I had many beds to make up, and many friends and their horses to entertain. But I saw it such an honour to be (as I sometimes expressed it) the Lord’s Inn-keeper, that I could feel nothing but satisfaction therein.”[2] Citing the “many beds” and “horses” of the individuals who would travel to hear her speak, we can see that Fletcher feels a sense of divine blessing in her post at Cross-Hall. For Fletcher, this blessing rests not only on herself, but is also being sublimated to members of the larger community. So not only was her ministry at Cross-Hall flourishing, Fletcher felt that the Lord was working through her and using her as some sort of “divine extension” of his will.

[1] Thomas M. Morrow, Early Methodist Women, (London: Epworth Press, 1967), 75.

[2] Mary Fletcher, The Life of Mrs. Mary Fletcher. Ed. Henry Moore. (New York: Abraham Paul, 1818), 93.

(Image Credit: Lawson Ceramics Collection)