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Women’s Scientific Tools: Scientific Material Practices in the Works of Margaret Cavendish, Jane Barker, and Charlotte Smith

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While the influence of language on the literariness of scientific writing during the British Enlightenment has been established in recent scholarship, this dissertation focuses on the opposite direction of this relationship in the ways the material engagements of scientific tools and instruments has influenced and is reflected in women’s writing both at the beginning of the eighteenth century and at the end of it. The materiality of the tools themselves plays into both the content and form of Margaret Cavendish’s The Description of a New World, Called The BlazingWorld, Jane Barker’s A Patch-Work Screen for the Ladies, and Charlotte Smith’s botanical poetry. At the heart of the argument are the ways in which women writers engage with the material-discursive practices of the microscope, the recipe, and the herbarium in their own production, mediation, and storage of knowledge and weave these practices into their writings and narratives. Cavendish, Barker, and Smith repurpose and reuse the materiality of these tools in their works, structuring form and content around them. Doing so also meant reinterpreting the information and knowledge generated through the tools. Seeing the connections between the materiality of the tools and instruments and the various modes of knowledge production and aesthetics that might seem to be completely disparate at first glance—the aesthetics and structural integrity of the recipe in the textile fiction of A Patch-Work Screen for the Ladies are one example—can actually produce completely new kinds of knowledge. Women, often taking on the role of managers of the household in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, had to find creative ways to store and explore their knowledge due to a lack of formal, institutional support. The material processes of mediating and storing knowledge through these tools play significant roles in these female-authored texts, being either the direct sources of criticism as in The Blazing World or influencing the form of the literary text as in A Patch-Work Screen for the Ladies and Beachy Head.

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This item is under embargo until December 22, 2024.