An 18th-century British periodical that disguised political commentary through an innocuous narrator — a bird — inspired a paper by Ithaca College junior Eliana Berger that illustrated how oppressed voices of the time spoke out.
On Jan. 5, Berger presented her paper “Parroting, Androgyny, and Hyper-Femininity: Eliza Haywood’s Gendered Manipulation of the Periodical in ‘The Parrot’” at the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies at St. Hugh’s College in Oxford, England. The annual conference deals with all aspects of the culture, history and literature of the 18th century.
Berger’s paper centers on English writer Eliza Haywood’s periodical “The Parrot, with a Compendium of the times,” which discussed contemporary events in Europe through the account of a personified parrot.
More specifically, Berger’s paper analyzes how the perspective of a parrot allowed Haywood to comment on politics and escape the limitations of the feminine domestic sphere.
“My argument, essentially, is that the 18th-century periodical provided a space for voices that were often excluded from mainstream political discourse through how it straddled the boundaries between political reality and narrative fiction,” Berger said.
Berger said her paper grew out of her studies as a part of the 2018 School of Humanities and Sciences’ Summer Scholars Program at the college. Berger said she was initially interested in the reinterpretation of old texts and feminist adaptations of 18th-century works, so she decided to research the transgression of the 18th-century woman’s voice.
“There’s been plenty of scholarship around Haywood’s writing for its break with traditional femininity, but not much on ‘The Parrot,’” Berger said. “After looking further into the periodical, my topic was born.”
Berger continued her research while studying abroad at the Ithaca College London Center in the fall 2018 semester. While abroad, Berger did a long-distance independent study with Katharine Kittredge, professor in the Department of English, who also teaches Women’s and Gender Studies courses.
“This is a case where she’s really breaking new ground and probably knows more about this topic than maybe a handful of people in the world,” Kittredge said.
Berger said she loved that the research process gave her experience with diverse research methods, but that the hardest roadblock was finding one narrative to follow due to the wealth of material.
“Now that there’s so many internet sources, we’ve suddenly got the ability to look not just at the top books that are deemed important enough to be reproduced but the materials that real-life people were handling on a daily basis,” Kittredge said.
Berger said she hopes her paper illustrated that spaces like periodicals, which allowed for free speech within a limiting society, were necessary. Berger said scholars cannot read white men’s writing as if it represents the whole of society.
“Single-narrative representation is destructive and reductive,” Berger said.
Kittredge said Berger’s research is expanding readers’ views to works that haven’t been traditionally considered literature but were essential in providing a platform for expression, especially for those who were not part of elite, highly-educated classes,” Kittredge said.
While studying abroad at the London Center, Berger was also mentored on-site by Chris Mounsey, professor in the Department of English, Creative Writing and American Studies at the University of Winchester who specializes in 18th-century literature. Mounsey said what interested him about Berger’s paper was that she was contextualizing Haywood within a group of writers who disguised political messages.
“There were more women writing in the 18th century than there were men. Eliana’s paper contributed to our growing understanding of how important women writers were,” Mounsey said.
Berger submitted the abstract through the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies annual conference blind submission process and presented her paper as a part of a panel titled Readership, Allusion, Agency: The Periodical and the Novel.
Kittredge said it’s important to highlight how rare it was for an undergraduate to present at the conference.
“Usually there are primarily British and European professors, some American professors and then a smattering of graduate students; to have an undergraduate working at that level is really extraordinary,” Kittredge said.
In the future, Berger said she’d like to continue research in a similar vein; if not with “The Parrot”, then she’d like to look at other ways marginalized 18th-century voices spoke out.
“Looking at old literature is important for the same reason that learning about history is important,” Berger said. “Understanding the past is necessary for creating a better future.”