“Their Voice is Music to my Ear”: The Role of Women in the Work of John Thelwall
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“‘Their Voice is Music to my Ear’: The Role of Women in the Work of John Thelwall” contributes to the rapidly growing field of Thelwall studies by examining the mutual influence and representation of women throughout his career. While recent criticism has broadened our understanding of Thelwall beyond his political radicalism in the 1790s, and begun to compare him with a range of male contemporaries, little attention has been devoted to Thelwall’s engagement with women writers, artists, thinkers and audiences. This dissertation traces animated exchanges from Thelwall’s perspective and, when possible, outlines the reactions of his female interlocutors. Its six chapters cover a variety of women and a wide range of Thelwall’s work, from his apprenticeship in debating societies in the 1780s, his mid-career responses to Wollstonecraftian feminism and his participation in networks of sociability and sympathy, to his role as mentor and critic of actresses and women writers in the eighteen-teens and -twenties. This dissertation demonstrates that women – wives and daughters, writers and speakers, lovers and creators, established and obscure – were fundamental to Thelwall’s polymathic projects. Using primarily an archival and historical approach, and making extensive use of newly discovered texts, it emphasizes the importance of Thelwall’s political, elocutionary and literary theory in its intent to encourage the agency of women. It also addresses and assesses the media (debating societies, the Jacobin novel, elocutionary lecturing, theatre reviews and print culture) with which Thelwall was involved, within their social and cultural contexts. In so doing, it draws on and contributes to recent critical fields of Romantic voice and performance (Esterhammer), sociability (Russell and Tuite), conversability (Mee) and interaction (Wolfson). While Thelwall largely maneuvers within established frameworks of gender, he sometimes steps outside boundaries and challenges his audience through inquiry and subversion. Thus, while he often appropriates the voice of women, his political, literary and elocutionary endeavours avoid misogynistic usurpation in favour of empathetic ventriloquism, whereby the liberated individual is ultimately empowered to speak effectively for herself.