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Elizabeth Craven: Writer, Feminist and European

Julia Gasper
An interview by Jolanta Ryba

This Question and Answer interview with the rising star of biography writing, by the well-known Oxford historian  Julia Gasper, about her latest book, a biography of Elizabeth Craven.

  1. How different was this book about Elizabeth Craven from your previous books?

Actually, it was very different, because this is the first time I have written about an English person, and the first time I have written about a man. Both my previous biographies were of men, and foreign subjects – King Theodore of Corsica, and the Marquis d’Argens. Having said that, Elizabeth Craven is still a very Continental Englishwoman, and I still had to use sources in French and write about places in Germany or further afield.

  1. What encouraged you to write about her?

Well, I came across her when I was doing the research for my last book about the Marquis d’Argens. He was very involved in theatre (he married an actress, in fact, two) so I was reading a book about theatrical companies in German courts in the 18th century. There I came across an account of Elizabeth Craven, and how she had taken over the theatricals at the court of the Margrave of Ansbach (in what is now Bavaria) and was putting on many plays, by herself and other people. That sounded remarkable, so when I had finished the d’Argens book, I went and read Elizabeth Craven’s book of travels. From that time, I was hooked. I felt sure she deserved a biography. She is so fascinating.

  1. What lessons has Elizabeth Craven got for the modern woman?

Never give up. Aim to fulfill your goals and ignore what people say about you. She did have her setbacks. Although she came from an upper-class background, she did go through a bumpy time when her first husband divorced her and she had to face social disapproval and ostracism. She behaved with the strength of mind, and when you look at the full list of things she wrote  – a longer list than most critics realize because there are things that have been overlooked – it’s quite a major achievement, particularly for a woman who had seven children.

  1. What lessons does Elizabeth Craven have for today’s sense and sensibilities (or society)?

Well, she was a very positive person who lived life to the full. She loved to travel and was very adventurous, going to far-flung places where almost no English traveller, let alone a woman, had been before She rode with Cossacks in the Crimea and went down dangerous underground grottos. She often fell in love, and this passionate nature got her into trouble all her life – time and again. She also treated her female friends as very important, and they appreciated that.

Like for instance, the friendship she developed with the Polish Princess Izabela Dorota Czartoryska (née Fleming; 3 March 1746 – 15 July 1835), who brought her into contact with the then active Polish independence movement of the time. Poland at this time was occupied by Prussia, Russia, and Austro-Hungarian Empire. Isabel was a leading Polish political and cultural thinker at the time and was like a mentor for Elizabeth Craven in how to be a strong, educated, modern European woman. In many ways, Elizabeth Cravens’ life was similar to that of the heroine Anna Karenina in the novel by the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy’s novel demonstrated the unjust nature of society against separated women without access to her children, which was exactly Elizabeth Craven’s situation.

  1. What did you find the most interesting aspect about Elizabeth Craven?

Well although she was a very passionate person, I think her best writing is characterized by intelligence and a satirical sense of humour. She was one of the first writers to challenge the laws on marriage that gave husbands total legal control over their wives. She argued that if the husband and wife were equal companions, both would be much happier, and marriage would then be a far better institution, not just the cage it had been for her when she was a young wife.

  1. What have been the main challenges you have faced in writing or completing this book?

Well, I do not have unlimited means or and research funding. There are archive sources that I would have liked to consult, but I could not really justify the time or cost. It would have been nice to get a research grant, as I did for my first biography. However, I do live within reach of the Bodleian and the British Library, both of which I have used. In addition, it is quite amazing actually, how many texts and resources there are available on the internet. Research as a whole has been transformed by the internet, which is a great help.

  1. Would you say she was a pioneer of travel writing?

Well yes, because although there had been travel writers before, she went to places that had only just opened to the Western traveller. The Crimea, for instance, had been under Ottoman rule until about 1780 and had only just been conquered by Russia. So Craven was able to go there after she had visited St Petersburg and Moscow. She was really prepared to rough it in order to see distant places, camping, and sleeping on floors, or traveling by sleigh across vast snowy plains. At the end of her exciting life, she settled down in Naples and built the Villa Craven, now Villa Gallotti, with its extensive gardens and amphitheater.

  1. Why have you chosen biography as a literary genre?

This is the way into history, biography is a thread you can follow the person’s life and experiences. You can gain interesting insights about their psychological motivations and ambitions.

    9. What will your next book be about?

Well, I have some ideas. I may do another biography, I may do a book that collects some shorter biographies, or I may try to write a novel, based on an interesting historical account I came across.

Julia Gaspers’ latest book about Elizabeth Craven is available on Amazon together with other books by the author.

Author biography

Julia Gasper got her doctorate in English Literature at Somerville College, Oxford.

Her first book, The Dragon and the Dove: The Plays of Thomas Dekker, was published by Oxford University Press in the Oxford English Monographs series (1990).

She is the translator and editor of the Modern Philosopher and Other Works by Elizabeth Craven (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2017), a collection of three texts including Letters to Her Son.

Her other recent books include Theodore von Neuhoff, King of CorsicaThe Man Behind the Legend (University of Delaware Press USA, 2012) and The Marquis d’Argens: A Philosophical Life (Lexington Books USA, 2014), a critical biography of the French Enlightenment author and philosopher.

She has taught for Stanford University in Oxford, the Open University, and the University of Surrey at Roehampton.

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