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Eighth Time The Charm For Carlile

Published: May 16, 2011

Persistence paid off for English’s Susan Carlile in December when she was awarded a one-year National Endowment for the Humanities research fellowship to work on a critical biography titled Charlotte Lennox: A Powerful Mind.

“I applied eight times for this project and not just to the NEH,” said Carlile, who joined the university in 2001. “I applied, and I was rejected and rejected and rejected. The moral of the story is to keep trying — and with the same project.” The fellowship begins in August.

Charlotte Lennox (1729-1804) was an English novelist, poet, essayist, literary critic and playwright and the subject of years of study by Carlile. In scholarly circles, Lennox is often thought of simply as a novelist, primarily because of her well-known novel The Female Quixote, which centers on a feisty young woman who challenges mid-18th century aristocratic society. In fact, Lennox produced 18 works: six novels, three plays, a book of poetry, a critical work on Shakespeare, a woman’s periodical and six translations from French. “My hope is that this critical biography will show Lennox’s powerful mind in all of these genres,” Carlile said.

Susan Carlile
Susan Carlile

One reason for her selection, Carlile believes, is a growing recognition by the NEH of the changing face of American universities and of those campuses that serve minority populations. CSULB’s recent qualification as a Hispanic-Serving Institution by the U.S. Department of Education is part of the same development. “This was the first year the NEH put faculty who teach in institutions like ours in a special category,” she said. “Things like this help.”

Stamina was also essential. “I significantly rewrote this proposal eight times, once for each application,” she explained. “But this time, there was a difference. I was invited to a USC-sponsored NEH workshop to learn how to pitch a proposal. I saw it as a unique opportunity and it made a difference.”

Lennox’s Shakespeare Illustrated (1753-44) is the first study of Shakespeare’s source material and reveals her knowledge of Italian, French and Latin all of which she learned on her own despite living in a time when women were rarely given any type of formal education. “Shakespeare Illustrated was groundbreaking and was a standard study of Shakespeare’s source material into the 19th century,” she said. “Some of her French translations were very highly regarded in their time, and one, The Memoirs of the Duke of Sully, was still the standard translation in the 20th century. And the periodical she edited, The Lady’s Museum, was one of the first directed at a female audience, with articles on history, philosophy, female education and biology. My critical biography will highlight not just her academic and literary intellect but also Lennox’s street smarts. She was usually running from creditors, yet she was still savvy at managing her literary career and at maintaining her reputation, which was essential for women writers in the mid to late 18th century.”

Charlotte Lennox
Charlotte Lennox

Carlile thanked the English Department for its support. “I recognize that it is really hard on the department when a faculty member is not there for a year. That will be a struggle,” she said. “But they’ve been really great about the need to finish this work. Anybody who writes knows it takes a lot of time and doesn’t come out fully formed. It is a process of a 1,000 revisions. That is why writing is exhausting. Anybody who writes knows you need that much time.”

Carlile’s most recent book, Masters of the Marketplace: British Women Novelists of the 1750s appeared in January from Lehigh University Press. She also published a modern edition of Lennox’s novel Henrietta from the University Press of Kentucky. She received her B.A. from Taylor University and both her M.A. and Ph.D. from Arizona State University.

Carlile is pleased she made the commitment to study Lennox, beginning with her master’s thesis in 1995. “In fact, Lennox is a literary innovator — not just an innovator of women’s writing, nor an innovator of just the genre of the novel — in a wide variety of ways,” she said. “She was a writer of many firsts: the first to reverse the gender structure in Cervantes’ Don Quixote; the first to critique Shakespeare for his lack of originality; the first to adapt her own novel, Henrietta, into a play, ‘The Sister,’ and the first to write a novel, Sophia, for serial publication. She was also among the first group of women who were able to earn their living by their pen and still maintain their reputation.”

Lennox and her heroines have a great deal of self-sufficiency and self-respect. Regardless of difficulties, they manage themselves with dignity. “Lennox figured out how to avoid being a victim of her circumstances,” Carlile said. “Orphaned, poor, from a less advantaged class, and a woman, she could have easily given up and resorted to more tedious or less savory forms of employment. Instead, she pursued a meaningful and remunerative occupation. She used her mind and put her attention toward something less practical, but far more satisfying. Lennox’s writing reminds readers of all generations that human vanity and hypocrisy are far more transparent than the offender may realize. She also inspires readers to think carefully, to question societal expectations, and to appreciate the tremendous power of the mind.”

This grant is a first for Carlile. “I am paralyzed by the knowledge that there is still a lot of work to be done,” she laughed. “I know on a certain level that one year will not be enough time. I will have to set goals for each week and each month. Up to now, I’ve worked 10-hour days when teaching and administrative responsibilities didn’t take up my time. The only way to complete this kind of work is to have the sustained time to do it. One year may not seem to be enough, but it will have to do.”