The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 26.458 Friday, 9 October 2015
Date: Friday, October 9, 2015
Subject: SBReview_19: Women Writers of the Early Modern Period
Bicks, Caroline and Jennifer Summit, eds. The History of British Women’s Writing 1500-1610. The History of British Women’s Writing, Volume 2. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010. ISBN-13: 978-0-230-21834-5; xxx + 346. US$30
Dowd, Michelle M. and Thomas Festa, eds. Early Modern Women on the Fall: An Anthology. Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2012. ISBN-13 978-0-86698-458-4; 386. US$60
Frye, Susan. Pens and Needles: Women’s Textualities in Early Modern England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010. ISBN-13: 978-0-812-4238-6/ 978-0-8122-2252-4; xx + 302. US$65/27.50
Hodgson, Elizabeth. Grief and Women Writers in the English Renaissance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. ISBN-13: 978-1-107-07998-4. 196. US$90
Knopopers, Laura Lunger, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Early Modern Women’s Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. ISBN-13: 978-0-521-88527-0; xxvii + 306. US$344.99
Reviewed by Annalisa Castaldo, Widener University
Scholarship on women writers of the early modern period continues to be a thriving and growing field. From collections of early modern texts to monographs on specific topics, new work is being published all the time. This review highlights the range of that scholarship over the last ten years. It does not aim for coverage; there have far too much published for that, but instead it aims to give a taste of the different ways scholars engage with women writers from the 16th and 17th centuries.
One major publishing trend has been collections about women writers designed to introduce teachers and students alike to the writers of the period. In the 1980s and 90s, these works tended to be straightforward collections of excerpts with brief headnotes about each writer: collections such as Moira Ferguson’s First Feminists: British Women Writers 1578-1799 (1985), Katharina Wilson’s Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation (1987) and James Fiztmaurice’s Major Women Writers of Seventeenth Century England (1997) fall into this category. A more recent example of this type of collection would be the 2004 Reading Early Modern Women, edited by Helen Ostovich and Elizabeth Sauer, which includes not only poetry and plays, but letters, legal documents, and medical manuals. Now, with the majority of these texts widely available in print and on line, publishers have shifted from simply providing editions of works by early modern women writers to collections that offer much needed context and background of these writers.
Cambridge and Palgrave have both come out with collections of essays about early modern women writing, and the differences are instructive. The Cambridge Companion to Early Modern Women’s Writing (2006) is specifically positioned as a teaching text, claiming to feature “the most frequently taught female writers and texts of the early modern period” (back cover). It does not focus on individual women but instead delivers a rich background on an array of genres as well on sites of productions, in six essays which discuss how women functioned as writers in a variety of spaces from the feminine (the household) to the masculine (the courts). Four other essays provide important information on reading, writing, manuscripts, and publishing. The editors, in taking this approach, join scholars who have “challenged or refined the essentialist assumptions . . . that took a largely biographical approach to women’s writing” (6). They seek to provide context for the women writers that students will read and scholars will study, and they even call into question the very idea that early modern women writers viewed themselves as women first: “Is the category of women’s writing a historical one?” (8)
Published just four years but a sea change later, The History of Women’s Writing 1500-1610 (2010) does not bother with the hand wringing evident in the Cambridge companion. Rather than consider whether or not “woman writer” is even a valid category, the series preface (of which 1500-1610 is volume 2) states, “As the research on women’s writing has moved from the margins to the confident centre of literary studies . . . no published series has taken on the mapping of the field.” This collection offers to do just that: “its ambition is to provide . . . a clear and integrated picture of women’s contribution to the world of letters within Great Britain from medieval times to the present” (viii-ix). The introduction to volume two picks up this claim “we propose a new approach to women’s literary history” (1).
For all of the boldness of this claim, the two volumes are actually rather similar. Both contain a chronology that lists major historical events matched with works by major women writers. Both have essays on reading and print culture; both recognize the value of looking at spaces. The difference lies in the way the editors of Plagrave’s The History of Women’s Writing confidently assume that women writers will be a central focus of study; none of the essays even considers that special pleading or arguments about relevance are even necessary.
One aspect of this explosion of research into women writers is works devoted not to an overview but to a specific topic-based slice. It is wonderful to see scholars engaging with women writers in a specific ways instead of lumping, together all women who put pen to paper in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. One of the most interesting of these collections is Early Modern Women on the Fall (2012), edited by Michelle M. Dowd and Thomas Festa. Dowd and Festa have collected a wide range of female voices, from Aemilia Lanyer in 1611 to Mary Chudleigh in 1701, all engaging with the religious question of what the Fall, and Eve’s part in it, means for women. The book has informative footnotes and a valuable introduction, but considering it is positioned as a teaching text, the lack of headnotes situating each author historically and culturally is baffling. A less successful work is Elizabeth Hodgson’s Grief and Women Writers in the English Renaissance (2015). The problem is not with the research or the individual readings—Hodgson offers nuanced and interesting readings of works by Mary Sidney Herbert, Mary Wroth, Aemilia Lanyer, and Katherine Philips. But it is not until the postlude that Hodgson makes any specific argument for focusing on women writers. In the introduction, she states she will “examine four particular sites of this complex connection between the dead and the living who mourn them” (2). A fascinating idea, but a book titled Grief and Women Writers by its very nature suggests that there is something about the way women mourn that is different and worth paying attention to, a claim that is not convincingly explored.
In addition to collections of early modern writers, of course, scholars have continued to investigate the work from a variety of angles, analyzing rather than just presenting the primary materials. There are many more works than this review can hope to cover, so I will mention two that I feel deserve special attention. The first is Susan Frye’s Pens and Needles (2010). In this truly original piece of scholarship, Frye redefines what it means to be an author by considering the needlework women produced in this period as text and by demonstrating intertextual connections between written works and needlework creations such as samplers.
Finally, a work that will appeal especially to those of us who are interested in early modern drama is Alison Findlay’s Playing Spaces in Early Women’s Drama (2006). The first task Findlay must undertake is demonstrating that women did create drama in any sustained way before the 17th century, which in itself might require a book length study. Even early modern scholars might not be faulted for thinking that very few women wrote and no women performed in plays before the Restoration. Findlay presents credible and engaging evidence that this is not true if we take as playing spaces the courts, gardens, and homes as well as the actual theaters. She then argues that fully understanding the importance of place allows us to understand how women participated much more fully in the dramatic tradition than has been understood.
These are only a few of the works published in the last ten years which tackle the topic of women writers in the early modern period. There are sure to be many more to come, with both pedagogical and theoretical approaches. The work of these and other scholars makes it possible for those who do not specialize in women’s writing to bring women into their work and their classrooms and for that we should all be grateful.