Traces of a Lost Woman - Susan Staves

Elizabeth Griffith was the author of six plays, three novels, and a variety of other works published between 1757 and 1782. With her husband, Richard Griffith, she also published six volumes of A Series of Genuine Letters between Henry and Frances. Although we do not know to what extent the letters have been edited since the manuscript letters have not survived, these nevertheless do seem to be genuine letters between Richard, writing as Henry, and Elizabeth, writing as Frances. The letters chronicle first a seduction attempt resisted, then a marriage, and finally many happy years in which the two share love and common literary interests (see Tompkins 1–40).

Until recently, scholars were inclined to dismiss Griffith as unworthy of serious inquiry. They contented themselves with fleeting mention of her works in comprehensive literary histories of the drama or the novel or produced perfunctory notes explaining who she was in cases where she or her works were mentioned in the texts of canonical writers. Not surprisingly, the low level of scrutiny she was thought to deserve accounts for a significant amount of disinformation in reference works. For instance, in Bibliotheca Britannica the title of Griffith's play A Wife in the Right is transformed—whether through the accident of a printing error or by a Freudian slip on the part of the nonfeminist compiler—into A Wife in the Night.1

Now, of course, critics and scholars are very interested in refinding, researching, and reevaluating the works of women writers of many historical periods and many countries. Some early women writers have been profoundly lost, with no trace of their works apparently remaining; others only relatively lost, as in the case where we have copies of at least some works and reason to suspect the existence of more.2 Three facts pose particular difficulties for those compiling lists of the works of early women writers we are now trying to rediscover. First, many women circulated their works in the form of unsigned manuscripts or published them anonymously or with formulas like "By a Lady" instead of the author's name. Second, some women wrote kinds of texts scorned by collectors and libraries, like children's books. And, third, most women changed their names on marriage, and some women were married more than once.

The truism we do not know what we do not know is especially relevant to the study of neglected women writers. Let us suppose that we replace the surviving printed copies of Griffith's works with reformatted versions, anything from microfilm to electronic text. What sorts of information present in the existing paper documents might disappear in the reformattings?

Much, of course, depends upon the principles of selection used. Suppose that our reformatting program decides to select "good copies" of first editions of original works—a frequent and unsurprising choice. We then lose evidence of subsequent authorial revision, and, in Griffith's case, sometimes more important, the evidence contained in preliminary matter to later editions. For instance, in the second edition of volume 1 of Genuine Letters Griffith added a new dedication, "To my Sex." (For comments on the significance of this and other variations between different editions, see Bernstein.)

No one, after all, can really tell what a good copy is without collating it with others. The value of the textual critic's maxim that every copy is unique until proven otherwise is amply demonstrated by the work on Griffith that Brandeis graduate students and I have done (see Staves, "Revising the Pedagogy"). Horace Walpole's copy of her first performed play, The Platonic Wife, has pasted into it a printed announcement with the heading "To the PUBLIC from the Author of the PLATONIC WIFE," an attempted defense of herself against charges of "Indelicacy" in the play. This looks like it was clipped from a contemporary newspaper, but we have not been able to find this text in any surviving newspaper.

One copy of the Dublin second edition of volumes 1 and 2 of Genuine Letters (currently at the Beinecke Library of Yale University) is quite imperfect, missing many pages, and, as the librarians say, "mutilated" in various ways by marginalia and crossings out of words and passages. The mutilation, however, seems to have been done by Griffith herself, who used this particular printed copy as a base text for making revisions intended for a future edition (although these revisions were not incorporated in later editions). Many of the deletions are of low phrases, descriptions of Elizabeth's poor health, references to money, or references to Richard's passions—all revisions designed to make the text more genteel and more belletristic. Griffith also decides to excise a playful early threat that she will publish Richard's letters, presumably because it makes her appear too aggressive, too poor, and too mercenary: "If I am reduced, I vow, I will print your Letters—I think they will keep me in Tea, clean Linen, and Plays . . . ." The printed letter is signed "Your affectionate Pauper," but "Pauper" is crossed out and replaced with the more decorous "Frances" (55). Richard's wish for the "Enjoyment" of her "Person" is transmuted into a chaster hope for the "certainty" of her "Love" (122). His willingness to marry her is made less casual and more eager. Instead of forming "a Sort of vague Determination in his Mind, to marry her," he forms "a Determination" and the caveat that "he had not resolved with himself on the Time" is stricken (163). When she writes with the direct question of whether he intends ever to make her his wife, a deleted passage unromantically explains that he deferred a reply until he saw her, "for he did not chuse to give any thing under his Hand, which might be construed into a Contract" (268).

Among versions of texts "of no authority" likely to be ignored in reproduction programs designed to preserve "intellectual content" are translations.3 Translations are also likely to get short shrift in reproduction programs supported by government funds and designed to preserve particular national heritages. Yet translation has long been an important literary medium for women writers, and earlier norms of translation practice often made less of a distinction between translation and adaptation than we do now. Griffith did a number of book-length translations from the French, which on inspection add considerably to our knowledge of her ideas. She believed that translators had a right to comment on the texts they translated, so her translations characteristically contain interpolated, even on occasion feminist, commentary. Despite her English literary persona as a champion of sentimental virtue, she translated some French libertine texts, notably The Memoirs of Ninon de L'Enclos and Claude Joseph Dorat's The Fatal Effects of Inconstancy.4 When one of Dorat's libertine protagonists discusses women's incapacity for disinterested resistance to seducers, Griffith retorts in a note:

Such is the artful and insidious manner of arguing, with all libertine wits; but 'tis certainly most unphilosophic. They seem to speak of Women, not only as of a different gender, but of a different species, too, from Men. There is no distinction of Sexes in virtue or vice; and whatever has been once determined to be the point of honour, in man or woman, will be equally defended, by each. (9–10)

Who would have guessed a hundred years ago that in 1995 roughly half the new professors of literature would be women or that so many of them would want to study women's writing? Not only do we now not know what we do not know, we cannot predict what scholars or what society will want to know a hundred years from now. But we certainly can proceed to let decay or to destroy the printed texts that could support the inquiries of 2095.

Brandeis University


1. A less amusing example in a more recent work attributes the novel The Gordian Knot to Elizabeth Griffith, though it was in fact written by her husband Richard (Martin, Mylne, and Frautschi). That this error should arise is not startling, since Elizabeth and Richard together published Two Novels: In Letters. By the Authors of Henry and Frances, the set containing one novel by her, The Delicate Distress, and another by him, The Gordian Knot.

2. For example, we know that Ann Masterman, Griffith's contemporary, was the author of one novel that survives, The Old Maid, but contemporary sources say she wrote more than this. We have not yet found another title that can be attributed to her. See Staves, "Matrimonial Discord."

3. For the phrase "intellectual content," see United States 6.

4. For a discussion of the significance of Griffith's involvement with libertine texts and details about her interventions in Memoirs of Ninon, see Staves, "French Fire."

Works Cited

Bernstein, Susan David. "Ambivalence and Writing: Elizabeth and Richard Griffith's A Series of Genuine Letters between Henry and Frances." Eighteenth-Century Women and the Arts. Ed. Frederick M. Keener and Susan E. Lorsch. New York: Greenwood, 1988. 269–76.

Bibliotheca Britannica; or, A General Index to British and Foreign Literature. 4 vols. 1824. New York: Franklin, n.d. S.v. "Griffith, Elizabeth" and "wife."

Griffith, Elizabeth, trans. The Fatal Effects of Inconstancy; or, Letters of the Marchioness de Syrcé, the Count de Mirbelle, and Others. By Claude Joseph Dorat. Vol. 1. London, 1774.

Griffith, Elizabeth, and Richard Griffith. A Series of Genuine Letters between Henry and Frances. The Second Edition, Revised, Corrected, Enlarged, and Improved. By the Authors. Vol. 1. Dublin, 1760.

Martin, Angus, Vivienne G. Mylne, and Richard Frautschi. Bibliographie du genre romanesque français, 1751–1800. London and Paris: Mansell and France Expansion, 1977.

Staves, Susan. "French Fire, English Asbestos: Ninon de Lenclos and Elizabeth Griffith." Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 314 (1993): 193–205.

———. "Matrimonial Discord in Fiction and in Court: The Case of Ann Masterman." Fettered or Free? Collected Essays on Eighteenth-Century Women Novelists in England, 1670–1815. Ed. Cecilia Macheski and Mary Anne Schofield. Athens: Ohio UP, 1986. 169–87.

———. "Revising the Pedagogy of the Traditional Scholarly Methods Course: The Brandeis Elizabeth Griffith Collective." Eighteenth-Century Women and the Arts. Ed. Frederick M. Keener and Susan E. Lorsch. New York: Greenwood, 1988. 255–62.

Tompkins, J. M. S. The Polite Marriage. Cambridge: UP, 1938.

United States. Commission on Preservation and Access. Preserving the Intellectual Heritage: A Report on the Bellagio Conference, June 7–10, 1993. Washington: Comm. on Preservation and Access, 1993.

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