David Wallace, Strong Women: Life, Text, and Territory, 1347-1645, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2011.

David Wallace, Strong Women: Life, Text, and Territory, 1347-1645, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2011. £18, ISBN 978-0-19-966134-3 (paperback), pp. xxxi + 288.


Reviewed by: Jenna Lay, Lehigh University, April 2013


David Wallace’s Strong Women was adapted from a series of Clarendon lectures delivered in 2007 at Oxford University, and the spirit of a lecture series—intertwining, allusive, digressive, and playful—remains alive in the four essays included in this book. Yet Wallace’s project is equally impressive for its erudition and range: as his four female subjects travel throughout Europe, so too does Wallace, leading his readers on an historical tour of holy sites and borderlands visited by one mulier fortis or another across the centuries. In many ways, the dates listed in his title actually do Wallace a disservice: while they reveal his willingness to trespass across traditional periodizing markers, they obscure the extent to which this project is also very much concerned with how textual traces of female lives matter up to the present day. Why, Wallace asks, was the rediscovery of Margery Kempe’s Book so significant to England in the 1930s? And what might modern papal recognition of Mary Ward tell us about our own historical moment?

The theoretical through-line of Wallace’s study is the relationship between a life as it is lived and a life as it is written, but he acknowledges the complications of any easy division between historical fact—most frequently accessible in its textual traces and even then only partial and evasive—and written accounts, especially since “the handy life/life binome, marking a difference between biological being and textual accounting, is itself unreliable: for as Mary Carruthers suggests, much living (especially by religious women) is devoted to imitating exemplary lives” (xxvii). And so Wallace devotes himself to an exploration of the opening line of his introduction, demonstrating through his supple readings of Dorothea of Montau (1347-1394), Margery Kempe (c.1373-c.1440), Mary Ward (1585-1645), and Elizabeth Cary (c.1585-1639) why we might claim that “literature is the truest history” (xv).

In tracing both the movements of bodies and the development of texts, Wallace draws together literature, history, geography, and—perhaps most strikingly—religious and political critique. His chapter on Dorothea of Montau, for example, culminates in a remarkable exploration of her textual afterlives, both explicitly acknowledged and provocatively elusive. Wallace traces the nineteenth-century English fascination with Germany through George Eliot’s Dorothea of Middlemarch and the twentieth-century German recuperation of Dorothea of Montau that elides “local place into national territory” in order to create a “nebulous homeland” (47). Wallace offers an imaginative reading of Dorothea in relationship to a broader history of conquest and European identity in order to “counter Josef Ratzinger’s notion of an authentically European inside and outside” (59). This is the most fundamentally territorial chapter, and Wallace—like many feminist scholars before him—draws attention to the relationship between not only bodies and texts but also bodies and territories: “anxieties over land use, natural limits, economic viability, spiritual fidelity, and geographic borders play out through artwork and psychosomatic practices” (30). For Dorothea, “the conquered territory (localized with great exactitude) is her own body” (9), and yet this is not a story of martyrdom. Like her rough contemporary Margery Kempe, Dorothea is not celebrated for her blood but for her tears, which are “intensively discussed as the most efficacious means of spiritual redemption” (27). Indeed, Wallace is careful to emphasize that all four of the women featured in his book “end their lives, non-violently, as Roman Catholics” (xxii), and it is worth considering how this book might have read differently had he focused on Elizabeth Barton, the Holy Maid of Kent (whom he mentions because she was unable to control the text of her life), or Margaret Clitherow (mentioned briefly in relation to an image of martyrdom from Ward’s Painted Life), post-Reformation martyr and subject of a life by her priest, John Mush.

These and other alternative subjects are especially haunting in the chapters on Margery Kempe and Mary Ward. Following his reconstruction of the nationalist reception of Dorothea of Montau, Wallace traces the reception of Kempe in the 1930s and 1940s as “an English Joan of Arc” (73)—a recovery effort that emphasizes Kempe’s Englishness (and specifically her status as a “self-made native of Norfolk”) at the expense of recognizing her foreign influences, peregrinations, and intertexts and her American-born editor, Hope Emily Allen (77). Allen is arguably the strong woman underlying all four of Wallace’s chapters—a ghostly mulier fortis for feminist literary critics, whose remarkable accomplishments were famously erased from literary history: “a senior female scholar, Hope Emily Allen, gradually loses top billing to a twenty-something dictionary assistant consistently referred to as ‘Professor’ Meech: a man who cosies up to Butler-Bowdon [owner of the manuscript] and wins support of the EETS board as editor. This is a painful and by now pretty familiar story, and there is no happy ending” (66). Wallace’s indignation at this particular example of textual erasure leaps off the page, and he does admirable work in restoring Allen to her rightful place in Margery Kempe’s afterlife and editorial history. Is it too much to hope that Wallace might eventually write Allen’s life?

In his chapters on both Kempe and Ward, Wallace explores how his subjects trouble the category of religious lives. For Kempe, Wallace argues that “it is the right confidently assumed by London skinners and aldermen to tell their story—in a form previously reserved for monks and knights—that grounds the extraordinary, indeed utterly unprecedented, confidence of The Book of Margery Kempe” (128). The relationship between romance and hagiography is a recurring theme in these textual explorations, and geography—both international and local—again proves crucial in understanding both Kempe and Ward’s interventions: “as with Margery Kempe, there is also something romance-like in these travels: the English Life [of Ward] becomes a strange romance, with God (again) as enigmatic author” (187). Historians and literary critics, including members of this list, have done much to bring Ward to prominence over the last two decades, and Wallace builds upon these earlier studies while also taking advantage of the recent publication of a four-volume collection of Ward’s lives, autobiographical fragments, and letters. Wallace’s reading of Ward’s class crossing—her mission to “reach people in England, particularly poor people, with whom the Jesuits dared not dwell”—is especially welcome (165), as is his exploration of the particular complexities of English Catholicism and its internecine struggles in the post-Reformation period.

Wallace concludes with a chapter on Elizabeth Cary, one of the earliest additions to a premodern canon of women’s writing who has only more recently been read in the context of the remarkable Life written by her monastic daughters at the Benedictine convents of Cambrai and Paris. The relationship between Cary and her daughters, who chose lives of enclosure that differed markedly from their mother’s life on Drury Lane, forms the culmination of what Wallace identifies as “the single most powerful question for women in this book” (249). Wallace claims that enclosure, despite “guarantee[ing] elite spiritual standing. . . . “diminished the chances of women’s lives being written”—a claim that scholars currently working on convent chronicles and obituary notices might like to trouble (249). But this is a minor critique of Wallace’s engaging and convention-defying engagement with women’s lives and lives across boundaries of period, of nation, and of discipline. He offers much to consider for both historians and literary critics working on women religious—perhaps most especially in his call for a reassessment of how we define a religious woman and assess her life.