Geographies of the book (shop): Reading women’s geographies in Enlightenment Edinburgh

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Abstract

This paper examines the place of women’s geographical reading in a centre of Enlightenment: Edinburgh, 1770–1810. It analyses two sets of booksellers’ records to identify key sites – women’s private libraries, Georgian domestic spaces, and women’s schools and boarding houses – in which women engaged with the geographical materials sold in the city’s bookshops: maps, globes, travel accounts, gazetteers, guidebooks, books of roads, geographical dictionaries and grammars. Women used these diverse materials to transform spaces into sites of geographical education and discussion. Crucially, this paper makes the case for understanding these spaces as key sites in Edinburgh’s Enlightenment topography. These were spaces where women oversaw the circulation and appraisal of geographical information: women, in the absence of men, interrogated geographical publications and promoted particular methods of reading and ways of understanding the world. Indeed, this paper goes beyond the familiar argument that women’s reading enabled their participation in the male‐dominated debates of the Scottish Enlightenment. Of course it did this, by ensuring they could invoke geographical examples and comparisons. (Women were, the evidence suggests, comparatively better acquainted than many men were with geography, which was the crucial basis of Enlightenment reasoning.) But their reading represented not a means to an Enlightenment end but an Enlightenment process in itself. In contradistinction to Scottish Enlightenment histories and historiography that have interpreted women’s role relative to men – as constrained from accessing male‐dominated Scottish Enlightenment culture – the analysis here emphasises women’s spaces and the practices of geographical reading that took place within them as key sites and processes of Enlightenment. In so doing, the paper deepens our understanding of Enlightenment and contributes to a feminist historiography of geography.

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Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Cultural Studies

Keywords

  • Booksellers, Edinburgh, Enlightenment, Geography, Reading, Women
Original languageEnglish
JournalTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 2019 Nov
Publication categoryResearch
Peer-reviewedYes