Marginalia as Feminist Use of the Book: Hester Piozzi’s Spectator Annotations

Kathleen Lubey, St. John’s University
Vol. 41, No. 1 (Spring 2022), 11-44

Reclaiming Hester Piozzi from mischaracterization as failed author and Johnson devotee, this essay argues that she enacted a feminist approach to history in her copious manuscript annotations to The Spectator, the popular and widely read eigh­teenth-century periodical. Inscribing her copy eight decades after the series’ initial appear­ance, Piozzi challenges its normative vision of culture by inserting thick, candid details about her experiences of courtship and marriage. She resists the essays’ sanguine accounts of heterosexuality’s coextensiveness with polite English culture, narrating reproductive domesticity as harmful to women and arguing for social and legal measures to ensure their self-determination. Unfolding piecemeal across the eight-volume set, and echoing claims made about her life in other manuscript fragments, her Spectator marginalia prove the revered printed work to be provisional, its pages and ideas susceptible to revision by an energized interlocutor prepared to change the scope of history. This essay proposes that her method of self-citation is an assemblage of what Sara Ahmed calls “feminist materials”—a body of knowledge derived from gendered experience and unapologetic about the distur­bance it causes to dominant cultural narratives.

Mary Wollstonecraft Sojourner Truth Margaret Atwood Abigail Adams Amy Tan H.D. Simone de Beauvoir Zora Neale Hurston Frances Burney Virginia Woolf

"The white saxifrage with the indented leafe is moste commended for the breakinge of the Stone."

— Turner, Herbal, III, 68 [1568]