Horacio Sierra, Sanctified Subversives: Nuns in Early Modern English and Spanish Literature (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016).

Horacio Sierra, Sanctified Subversives: Nuns in Early Modern English and Spanish Literature (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016).  HB £47.99; ISBN-13: 978-1-4438-9112-7; ISBN-10: 1-4438-9112-6; pp. vii + 234


Reviewed by: Nicky Hallett

In one way, I might like to write two reviews of this book: one for historians of women religious, another for a literary bulletin. I hasten to add that of course these are not mutually exclusive audiences, and that in any case my reviews might actually end up being much the same; rather I make a sort of distinction at this point to signal reservations about what might be two rather different kinds of study – a distinction that to some extent the author himself acknowledges. His is an analysis of the nun in early modern ‘popular’ imagination rather than in ‘real’ life. But it is difficult to imagine understanding the former without acknowledging the latter, especially now that so many studies of early modern nuns are readily available. At first sight, the book appears to address this potential issue head on. It opens with the question: ‘Why are nuns so fascinating?’ It goes on to consider nuns as figures who people look at: ‘We take a second look when we see them on the streets … as females who reject courtship, sex, marriage, child bearing, and materialism, they are anathema to how society has proscribed roles for women: sex object, wife, mother, and capitalist consumer’ (p. 1). So much is true enough, though it normalizes around the ‘we’ of one particular gaze and around assumptions that research about ‘actual’ nuns (the author’s word) has done so much to disband – work done by historians of women religious: hence my opening remark.

In this book, Sierra addresses ‘how authors perceive convents and the profession of nuns as either expanding and/or hindering the opportunities of early modern women within English and Spanish cultures’ (p. 1). He posits a dichotomy that is also implied in the title, ‘Sanctified Subversives’, and ‘illustrates how both English and Spanish authors of the early modern period latched onto the figure of the nun as a way to evaluate feminine identities’ (p. 4). Although we might ask, ‘why only English and Spanish’ (given the cross-national connections of Catholic cultures), and ‘which authors’ (given the available range of writing) – nonetheless the words ‘latched onto’ are useful. It is indeed helpful to think about how a female figure can become a canvas for certain kinds of cultural projection about women; how obsessive misogynies of several kinds can be exposed by identifying stereotypes. So much is terribly topical in a climate in which the veil is currently the focus for all sorts of prejudices.

Frances Dolan asked a similar question in 2007: ‘Why are nuns funny?’ She went on to identify the subtle ideologies of would-be dominant discourses that shaped representation, to expose ‘how the nun was a stock figure in a surprisingly wide range of representations’, making the distinction between comedic nuns, those in ‘earnest exposés of Catholic corruption’, biographies, treatises and other genres – for generic as well as social expectations shape cultural construction and reflect writers’ reasons, ‘to secure the alienated position from which one observes and ridicules her’. ‘Representations of nuns always cut two ways – they are always about Catholics and about women’:[1] : ‘women’ indeed are usually hyphenated, and in some ways need to be so if we are to understand the complex histories of oppression of which representation is one part.

We need therefore to know who is ‘latching on’ to the figure of the nun in order to answer why she comes out as she does. Hence, Sierra’s claims that nuns are ‘women set apart from the lay female population’ (p. 3) needs to be more finely tuned, and ‘the paradox inherent in a nun’s public persona’ is only a paradox from certain points of view. Dualities are sometimes in the eye of the beholder.

Chapter 1 provides some early modern context. It considers what made nuns appear anomalous, focusing on ‘their refusal to engage in sex and procreate’ (p. 7). It sketches a broad history of women religious, and of Tridentine changes to claustration with their attendant dangers of allowing women ‘quasi-autonomous’ positions inside the cloister (p. 11). It also describes the dissolution of religious houses in England, and outlines the ‘rejection of the female body’s agency’ in Jesuit ‘guidebooks’ for nuns.

Chapter 2 reclaims Shakespeare’s Isabella, the novice nun in Measure for Measure in light of her vocational opportunity and the challenge she posed to Protestant Jacobean anxiety about women’s roles: ‘nuns help elucidate how secular characters, as well as the drama’s audience, can respond to opposing religious discourse’ (p. 31). The book analyzes the play’s plot to expose its challenge to an ‘heteronormative economy of sexuality [which] marks [Isabella] as a rebellious queer virgin’ (p. 67), yet it does not consistently unravel other normativities or compare them to Shakespeare’s various treatments of nuns (those elsewhere ‘perchance entering into some monastery’ or ‘shady cloister’, or figures like the abbess who ‘shuts the gates’ and who feature in several forms in several plays, to different effects). So although Sierra makes good use of Theodora Jankowski’s Queer Virginity in Early Modern Drama, other kinds of challenges might be addressed to explore how Shakespeare troubles around a range of pious positions. Gillian Woods’ Shakespeare’s Unreformed Fiction (2013) might really help here, with its nuanced analysis of the imaginative hold of Catholicism in the theatre, and its chapter on ‘seeming difference’ in the same play: the ‘anti-fraternal associations’ of the friar’s cloak, Isabella’s self-will, and conflicting connotations of religious habits.

Sierra’s next chapter, on The Convent of Pleasure shows how Margaret Cavendish approaches the cloister as ‘ideological refuge’ and ‘nostalgic device’. Other studies of the ‘symbolic potential’ of utopianism might have supported the case since Cavendish is ‘startlingly bold’ in more than her approach to gender and same-sex desire (p. 108). It is here that literature and life might be convincingly connected, to consider the two-way flow of influence and Cavendish’s wider literary positions: to ask why she herself was represented as ‘maddeningly eccentric’ by some of her contemporaries (69). When Cavendish visited the Royal Society in 1667, the first woman to do so, John Evelyn said she was a ‘mighty pretender to learning’, and Samuel Pepys considered her ‘deportment so unordinary’, her ‘dress so antic’ that he tried to render ridiculous her status as female philosopher. Neither Evelyn nor Pepys is quoted by Sierra, though their views and strategies expose much about attitudes towards women and towards Cavendish, and these in turn partially explain how she positions herself and her female characters. Cavendish’s personal knowledge of religious communities is also important; in exile in Antwerp she led the Carmelite Mary Cotton, Mary of the Blessed Trinity (1629-94), to her clothing ceremony, details of which challenge some of the alleged dichotomies between Protestant wife and Catholic virgin, and between secular and devotional spheres.

One appealing aspect of the book is its inclusion of material originally written in both English and Spanish. It adds to overviews like that of Manuela Mourao whose Altered Habits: Reconsidering the Nun in Fiction (2002) (mentioned in this study) looked across the centuries at French, Italian and Portuguese as well as English texts. And it is sufficiently different in its approach to Barbara Woshinsky’s exploration of cloisters in cultural and literary imagination (Imagining Women’s Conventual Spaces in France, 1600-1800; not mentioned here, though its ideas of ‘corporality’ might have appealed to Sierra’s thesis).

Chapter 4 looks at María de Zayas y Sotomayor’s Desengaños Amorosos with its ‘Baroque grotesquerie, ingenious plot twists, and feminist themes’ (p. 109), Chapter 5 at Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz in life and literature, and Chapter 6 at Catalina de Erauso’s ‘queer coming of age novel’ (p. 190) and Aphra Behn’s History of the Nun. Ideas of ‘translation’ are interesting and could be further pursued: of texts and of attitudes (between Spain and Mexico, for instance, or in terms of exiled communities, or European reception of Sor Juana’s work). Key studies might have featured, especially those highlighting the politics of Spanish-speaking Europe and the Americas (for example, Jodi Bilinkoff’s Colonial Saints: Discovering the Holy in the Americas, 1500-1800 and Spanish Women in the Golden Age).  Alison Weber’s work on Spanish convents is important too, and her illuminating phrase ‘rhetoric of femininity’ might be applied to the self-positioning of literary nuns, as well as to Teresa of Ávila and others.

As this might suggest, there are gaps in the book’s bibliography, and the index is scanty. Publishers do few favours to their authors by simply listing page numbers without giving further details (for example, ‘Spain’ has over thirty entries, ‘Shakespeare’ twenty-eight, with no breakdown of references so the reader must do all the work).

The book’s approach to literary history is illuminating, and its focus on the figure of the nun is helpful in examining the ways that texts as well as cloisters maintain, in Shakespeare’s Isabella’s words, ‘a more strict restraint/ Upon the sisterhood’. Whilst it rather over-plays the notion of duality, and is restricted by the confines its own title suggests, the book’s comparative approach opens up the complexity of Spanish and English writers’ attitudes to nuns as bellwether figures of early modern attitudes more widely.

[1] Frances E Dolan, ‘Why Are Nuns Funny?’, Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 70, No. 4, 509-35.