Jenna Lay, Beyond the Cloister: Catholic Englishwomen and Early Modern Literary Culture, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2016.

Jenna Lay, Beyond the Cloister: Catholic Englishwomen and Early Modern Literary Culture, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2016. $65.00/£42.50, ISBN 9780812248388 (hardback), pp. x + 243.

Reviewed by: Helen Hackett, University College London, January 2017.


Jenna Lay’s book invites the reader in with a beautiful cover illustration, an early seventeenth-century depiction of the nuns of Syon Abbey ‘Expelled from London’. Four nuns in poses of mingled consternation and resolution occupy the foreground, with expanses of ocean to their left and right. It’s not immediately clear to the onlooker whether London is the city to the far left, from which water separates them, or the distant city behind them, to which a spur of land connects them. It’s a fitting image for Lay’s book, which argues that Catholic Englishwomen, despite forms of cultural and physical separation, were nevertheless connected to, and participants in, the early modern English literary scene. Lay finds representations of various aspects of Catholic femininity in the works of canonical male Protestant authors, and places these alongside the writings of Catholic Englishwomen themselves to create new perspectives on the literary culture of the period.

The book opens with a startling narrative of sexual violence perpetrated by George Puttenham, author of The Art of English Poesy, against Mary Champneys, his wife’s young servant. Lay acknowledges a lack of proof that this unfortunate young woman, impregnated and abandoned in Antwerp, was also the Mary Champney who in 1569 professed with the English Bridgettine nuns of Syon, but there is much supportive evidence. Champney was the subject of an anonymous manuscript biography, The Life and Good End of Sister Marie, which Lay uses to show how the literary culture constructed by Puttenham in The Art—with its focus on the Queen and court and assertions of ‘literary forms and figures […] as signs of royal or patriarchal authority’—was contested by early modern nuns for whom literary tropes ‘instead structured modes of political resistance and patterns of devotion’ (p. 11).

Chapter 1 then reads several literary images against one another: the endless deferral of the marriages of virgins in The Faerie Queene; the ambiguous chastity of Marlowe’s Hero as a nun of Venus; the complex status of recusant women like Margaret Clitherow as subject to, yet independent of their husbands; and Isabella’s conventual aspirations and imposed marriage inMeasure for Measure. It’s hard to disagree that in these works ‘virginity functions as both a social position and a discursive concept under near constant attack’ (p. 25). Further evidence could be found in Theseus’s judicial threat to Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, equating conventual life with death: ‘For aye to be in shady cloister mew’d, / To live a barren sister all your life, / Chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon’ (1.1.71–3). However Lay’s effort to extend the discussion to all Catholic women sometimes feels less persuasive. The argument which seeks to bind together the disparate materials in the chapter is that ‘literary representations of women situated at the margins of society—whether through devotional vows that suggested Catholic monasticism, sexual choices that undermined marital chastity, or, in Hero’s case, both—can offer indirect reflections on female recusancy’ (p. 41), but this perhaps links together a few too many things a little too loosely.

The following chapter offers a more convincing reading of female enclosure and male Catholic tyranny in The Duchess of Malfi as ‘in part, Webster’s reflection on the tragedy of female monasticism’ (p. 70). Lay argues that both Webster and Thomas Robinson in his scandalous Anatomy of the English Nunnery at Lisbon(1622) presented Catholic women as passive victims of the deployment of books to oppress and poison them (literally and figuratively). However the manuscript rebuttal of Robinson by the Syon nuns themselves demonstrates that on the contrary they were skilled literary authors, ‘participants in and shapers of early modern book culture’ (p. 88). This emphasis on Catholic women as authors continues into Chapter 3, where meditations on obedience—to religious superiors versus personal conscience – in Gertrude More’s Spiritual Exercises(1658) are compared with the treatment of similar issues in Middleton’s A Game at Chess(1624). Lay does not claim any direct relation between the two texts, but rather that traditional literary history has overlooked how far ‘debates over the place of obedience in English political and religious life, which would culminate in the Civil War, developed in tandem with—rather than in opposition to—a concurrent debate in the Catholic Church regarding the place and authority of female monastics’ (p. 92).

Chapter 4, on female literary communities, begins with the Aston-Thimelby circle. Lay finds that in Constance Aston Fowler’s letters Southwell’s appropriation of Petrarchan aesthetics for devotional verse is re-appropriated to articulate the flow of intense affections between Fowler herself, her brother Herbert Aston, and Herbert’s future bride, Katherine Thimelby. A further dimension might be added to this discussion by the discovery by myself and Cedric Brown that the second scribe in Fowler’s verse miscellany, responsible for the insertion of Southwell poems, was Father William Smith vereSouthern, a Jesuit missioner from Fowler’s native Staffordshire who trained at St Omer and Valladolid, and appears to have collaborated with Fowler on repurposing her miscellany to more devotional use (see Chapters 5 and 6 of Joshua Eckhardt and Daniel Starza-Smith, eds, Manuscript Miscellanies in Early Modern England, Farnham: Ashgate, 2014). Lay goes on to investigate the uses of Donne quotations, allusions, and adaptations in Aston-Thimelby writings, and completes the chapter with analyses of Marvell’s ‘Upon Appleton House’ and Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure. Aphra Behn’s The History of the Nun(1689) falls too late for this volume, but it would be fascinating to know how Lay would compare its treatment of both hetero- and homosexual passions within convent walls with Marvell’s in ‘Appleton House’.

The Epilogue is particularly successful, reading Milton’s unfinished poem on the Passion of Christ against Donne’s ‘Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward’, Herbert’s ‘The Sacrifice’, and an anonymous female-voiced poem in Fowler’s miscellany, a vivid and engaging meditation ‘On the Passion of our Lord and saviour Jesus’. Lay’s discussion of the latter poem differs from the excellent analysis by Femke Molekamp in Women and the Bible in Early Modern England: Religious Reading and Writing(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, Chapter 6), which compares the Fowler poem with Passion poems by other women, Aemilia Lanier and Elizabeth Delaval, to highlight the aesthetic consequences of confessional differences. Lay, by contrast, focuses on how the traditional male (and Protestant) canon looks different when viewed through the lens of contemporary writings by Catholic women, finding that established literary history has followed Milton ‘in valuing the singular, the central, and the coherent above the multiple, the marginal, and the divergent’ (p. 163).

This book will probably most interest specialists, but should inform undergraduate teaching. Lay makes a compelling case for the generic range of writings by early modern Catholic Englishwomen, including ‘life writing, polemic, lyric poetry, spiritual devotions and prayers’, and more (p. 157). She also contributes to the burgeoning case for their literary interest, and indeed her main concern is less to consider the materialities of book and manuscript culture (though these are highlighted in the blurb for the book), than to assert that ‘we must read monastic texts not only with an eye for historical fact and material witnesses but also with an ear for literary tropes and techniques’ (p. 88).

This predominantly literary interest extends to Lay’s re-readings of well-known works by Protestant male authors, where she seeks to reveal Catholic women—or at least issues pertaining to them—hidden in plain sight. The Duchess of Malfi, for instance, is shown to be ‘Webster’s reflection on the tragedy of female monasticism’, as noted above, ‘though it includes no nuns’ (p. 70). Catholic Englishwomen function here almost as the unconscious of canonical Protestant literature, detectable in buried traces or refracted images. Lay’s method is more like Alison Shell’s in Catholicism, Controversy and the English Literary Imagination, 1558–1660(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) than that of recent studies of convent writing as a discrete body of texts, or as part of a category of women’s writing. Each of these approaches is valuable and yields insights, but Lay could sometimes reflect a little more on her methodology. In a few places she arguably overstates her case, for example claiming that ‘in attending to poetry and prose, to print culture and manuscript archive, to country house and cloister, the boundaries between center and margin in English literary history no longer obtain’ (p. 161). Yet many of the works by women that she covers, whether produced in a convent or in a circle of family and friends, were unknown beyond their immediate community. Discussion generally proceeds either by tracing women’s responses to works by men—as when the Syon nuns respond to Robinson, or Fowler adapts Southwellian aesthetics—or by juxtaposing unconnected works by canonical men and Catholic Englishwomen for comparison, to see how they talk to each other. This practice somewhat resembles that of new historicist essays of the 1980s and ’90s; here as there it is often illuminating and productive, but a little more self-consciousness about methodology would have been welcome.

In terms of literary influence many works by Catholic Englishwomen were, unfortunately and inevitably, dead ends, because of their material and cultural circumstances. But influence is by no means the only measure of literary value: Lay succeeds admirably in presenting such works as skilful aesthetic constructions, as disruptions to conventional models of authorship, and as alternative vantage points from which the traditional canon does, indeed, look different.