SARAH WESLEY: A NEW VOICE FROM THE ARCHIVE
In 2010, I recovered unpublished, and previously unknown, poetry by Sarah Wesley (1759-1828). Prior to this discovery, Sarah Wesley was known only as the daughter of Charles Wesley, brother of John Wesley, Methodism’s official founder. My work on Sarah Wesley argues that hers is a unique voice within the context of eighteenth-century women’s writing and feminist theory as it emerged from post-Enlightenment women’s rights discourses.
Sarah Wesley’s manuscripts are nothing like the theologically interested pages of most Methodist women’s writing. Wesley’s works read more like those of Hannah More, Charlotte Smith, or Felicia Hemans – socially conscious, politically engaged, and agenda-driven. Indeed, though she was a devout Methodist, Wesley spent her life among such prominent literary figures as Samuel Johnson, Hannah More, Robert Southey, and Elizabeth Benger. And thus, her poetry speaks to the “revolution in female manners” that Mary Wollstonecraft advocated in her 1792 Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
My 2013 article on Sarah Wesley in Eighteenth-Century Studies introduces her poetry to literary scholars and contextualizes her poetics within the milieu of late eighteenth-century women’s writing. But even as I situate Wesley within the Enlightenment discourse of liberalism, my work considers the relationship between such early liberal political formations and their place within contemporary theoretical and scholarly practices. That is, inasmuch as it remains important to “recover” early women’s writing, if we are to maintain a feminism that is nuanced and intersectional, it is important, now more than ever, to critique the relationship of liberalism not only to feminism but to all emancipatory social movements historically bound up with the national and imperial projects of the Enlightenment. My intervention, in my 2013 article, is to begin to tease out the complex relationship between Methodism’s self-assessed progressivism regarding the position of women and the birth of what we would now call liberal feminism. This is a relationship that enables us to trace the feminist left through its eighteenth-century past, even as it complicates the existing scholarly narratives of that past.
For more on the content of the manuscripts, please see my post on the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library's blog, or pay a visit to the Frank Baker Collection at Duke University. The Baker Collection is most frequently accessed by scholars of religion and history, but it is equally a treasure trove of materials for enhancing our understanding of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literary history. The collection contains unpublished letters, poems and notes by or about a number of figures important to the study of eighteenth and nineteenth century literature and culture, including Thomas Chatterton, Alexander Graham Bell, John Locke, Hannah More, Mary Robinson and William Wilberforce. The finding aid for the Baker collection is available here.
My published work based on this research was reviewed in The Year's Work in English Studies 93.1 (2014), vol. XI: The Eighteenth Century.