Laura Lunger Knoppers, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Early Modern Women’s Writing, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2009. £ 21.99, ISBN 978-0-521-71242-2 (paperback), pp. xxvii + 306
Reviewed by: Michelle Meza, California State University, Fullerton, January 2015
Laura Lunger Knoppers’ edited volume of nineteen essays is a valuable addition to the study of early modern English women’s writing. The Cambridge Companion to Early Modern Women’s Writingis divided into three sections: ‘Material Matters’, ‘Sites of Production’ and ‘Genres and Modes’. With contributions written by an impressive array of international scholars, each chapter focuses on a relatively underdeveloped area of early modern women’s writing. Written for undergraduate and graduate students, each chapter contains in-depth arguments, fascinating stories and suggestions for further reading to facilitate new research.
Part One, ‘Material Matters’, is concerned with the materials women used to write. Heather Wolfe elucidates in her chapter ‘Women’s Handwriting’ how and where women learned to write, including in convents, at free elementary schools and by private tutors. Wolfe considers the various scripts women were taught to use and argues that they also deployed ‘an array of unique styles’ (p. 31). Edith Snook’s chapter ‘Reading Women’ addresses women’s reading habits and literacy. She attends to the evidence of women’s reading which can sometimes be found within the margins of books and which, she argues, often indicates ‘how women thought about the materials, methods and reasons for reading’ (p. 41). Victoria Burke argues that manuscript miscellanies are an important resource for understanding women’s reading and writing processes in this period when the idea of the ‘author’ was not yet firmly established. For the reader who is not familiar with the term ‘miscellanies,’ a brief explanation would have been helpful. The final chapter of Part One highlights the relationship between women writers and the commercial print market. Marcy L. North demonstrates in ‘Women, the Material Book and Early Printing’ that women could fit within the normative conventions of the print industry by composing works not only considered suitable for other women, but works for a wider intended audience, which, in some instances, earned them commercial success.
Part Two, entitled ‘Sites of Production’, considers the places and spaces in which women wrote, and divides these into two categories: public and private. Caroline Bowden’s essay, ‘Women in Educational Spaces’, opens the section. She asks the central question how did women learn to write with ‘so little formal schooling?’ (p. 86). Essentially she provides two elements to the explanation: first, after a modicum of training, they found motivation to learn through their children, their faith, and in their household duties. Second, to maintain their skill set, they continued to practice. This provided the basis for their literacy. The royal court was another important forum in which early modern women’s writing flourished. Karen Britland highlights three English queens: Elizabeth I, Anne of Denmark, queen consort to James I, and Henrietta Maria, consort to Charles I. Each queen’s writings and literary circles became ‘a significant locus of power-broking, as well as literary patronage and literary production’ (p. 124). Women also wrote about their experiences within the very public spaces of the law courts. As Frances E. Dolan demonstrates, women’s ability to write about matters of the law assured them ‘control over their own affairs and self-representation’ (p. 148).
Much early modern English women’s writing was produced within the home. In her chapter, ‘Women in the Household,’ Wendy Wall addresses the intersection of literacy and housewifery and the many opportunities for writing within the so-called ‘private’ sphere. Women’s use of devotional genres is a central theme permeating many chapters within this Cambridge Companion, but a chapter specifically devoted to ‘Women in Church and Devotional Spaces’ is appropriate and useful. Elizabeth Clarke maintains that not only did women write prayers and devotional volumes, but that the creation of ‘mental devotional spaces’ offered a vital refuge for women who were excluded from or chose not to attend Anglican services. Women also wrote extensively about women’s health, which centered on the still room (storage room for medicine), the sick room and the birthing room. Mary E. Fissell contributes to the knowledge of how each room served its purpose in a woman’s world, and focuses on the ways in which this knowledge was passed down through women’s writing. Part 2 brings to vivid life the spaces within which women wrote.
Part Three ‘Genres and Modes’ offers intriguing insights into the various types of women’s writing from the period. In her chapter titled ‘Translation’ Danielle Clarke shows that women translated texts as a means of contributing to and expanding English culture. James Daybell’s chapter, ‘Letters’, sets out to shed ‘important new light on female education and literacy and on the nature of early modern women’s letter writing’. He argues that letters ‘reflect family, gender and other social relations; map the social and political activities of networks of female letter writers; and permit the reconstruction of sixteenth and seventeenth century mentalités’ (p. 181). Ramona Wray’s chapter on ‘Autobiography’ explores how women’s life-writing in the form of memoirs, diaries and histories enabled them to construct identities while exploring and exploiting the meanings of gender and genre. Both chapters on poetry, lyric (Helen Wilcox) and narrative (Susanne Woods), examine women’s contributions to self-writing traditions and the various modes of poetry harnessed for auto/biographical purposes. Both chapters successfully interpret the uses of poetry as a “battleground for identity and ideas” (p. 217) and explore its ability “to represent and teach the values of a culture” (p. 223). Hilary Hinds’ chapter on ‘Prophecy and Religious Polemic’ explains how seventeenth-century women situated themselves within the ‘eruption’ of prophetic discourse. Hinds helpfully unpacks women’s public speaking in the context of prevailing notions of femininity and women’s roles. Public and private drama genres are examined by Derek Hughes and Marta Straznicky, respectively. Each chapter further expands our knowledge of women’s involvement in theatrical culture, both on and off the stage. Finally, a collection devoted to early modern women’s writing would not be complete without a chapter on ‘Prose Fiction’. Here Lori Humphrey Newcomb addresses the artistic, ethical and political justifications women used for writing fiction and ‘the inventive uses they made of this emerging drama’ (p. 272). Humphrey Newcomb explores identity formation in the texts of Margaret Tyler, Lady Mary Wroth, Anne Weamys and others.
Overall, four main themes emerge from The Cambridge Companion to Early Modern Women’s Writing: women’s agency, identity formation, the diversity of genres used by women writers to explore public and private spaces, and the significance of religious convictions. The very fact that so many examples of women’s writing have survived proves that many women were able to act independently as authors and learned enough to record their innermost thoughts on paper. The sheer variety of writings reflects the range of anticipated audiences: women wrote for themselves, for public and commercial audiences, and for the next generation—their daughters, pupils and those who would take on their roles in the future. They wrote in order to memorialize, educate, to entertain and in order to participate in contemporary theological, political and moral debates. Women’s writing enabled them to construct a wide range of individual identities, for example, as mothers, daughters, wives, Catholics, Anglicans or Dissenters, as queens or as litigants in a court of law. Early modern women found ways of being heard within a patriarchal society and carved out spaces for themselves in which to assert their identities both as individuals and as members of particular groups. This volume offers an impressive array of religious writing from varying traditions, from Catholic to Anglican to Non-Conformist. Each woman had her individual relationship with God and expressed it in various genres including autobiographical conversion narratives, prayers, translations of religious texts, narrative and lyric poetry, and a diversity of prose genres.
This volume serves as an excellent introduction to early modern English women’s writing. The collection will be of use to anyone trying to get to grips with the breadth and variety of early modern women’s writing. While more explicit reference could have been made to the growing field of convent literature it is a mark of how far convent studies has come in the last few decades that a chapter devoted to nuns’ writing is included.