Belated hearing for women wronged

Writing, Gender and State in Early Modern England
February 23, 2007

Since the early 1990s, there has been a resurgent interest in what women wrote and why we have not remembered it. Thanks to books such as Megan Matchinske's, it is no longer possible either to argue that women of past periods did not write or that what they wrote was not worth reading.

Matchinske's book, first published in 1998 and reissued now in paperback, stands as an excellent example of the progress that has been made. In the years between its first and current publication, early modern women's writing has moved from a project of discovery and retrieval to one of increasingly comprehensive analysis. For instance, a quick keyword search on "early modern women" results in more than 500 hits on the MLA Bibliography database, covering women writing in English and a variety of European languages.

Clearly, then, Matchinske's book serves to highlight the scholarly advances of the past few years: a book that, in 1998, was "one of the earlier voices" in a "dialogue that will demand multiple speakers, frames and critical perspectives" now functions as one voice among many.

Matchinkske's voice is clear and resonant, and her perspective wide; in seeking to link social constructions of gender with the development of the modern state, she sets herself a challenging task.

Early on, Matchinske characterises her book as literary criticism, but I am not sure that is really the methodology she follows. Equally early on, she declares that she will not be considering issues of genre, rather treating the very different forms of writing by the four women she considers as more or less functionally the same.

The book examines the prison writings of Anne Askew, wherein she outlines her martyrdom as a Protestant true believer; the second-hand narration of the life of Margaret Clitheroe, similarly martyred for her Catholic faith; Ester Sowernam's pamphlet appeal to the apprentices of London on the behalf of wronged women; and the apocalyptic prophecies of Lady Eleanor Davies, written in the 1640s on the eve of the Civil War. The differences inherent in these styles of writings would seem to compel analyses of their genres: the fact that Clitheroe's, as a biography, is not actually an example of a woman's writing at all, for instance, or that Sowernam's has been read as the cross-gendered output of a male writer, or that Askew's is presented as a factual rendering of her prison experiences, or that Davies's partakes of the mystical imagery essential to prophetic narratives.

Matchinske's decision to elide textual difference is one factor in the book's closing characterisation of its subjects as, for the most part, "not without some form of economic advantage". Given that only four women are discussed, and that two of them are precisely without economic advantage, problematises Matchinske's assertion that her topics and writers "are representative and unique".

I am not convinced that the book makes its case that, through the writings it describes, a new understanding of statehood can be glimpsed, but it does succeed in emphasising the variety of early modern women's writing.

Jacqueline M. Labbe is professor of English and comparative literary studies, Warwick University.

Writing, Gender and State in Early Modern England: Identity Formation and the Female Subject

Author - Megan Matchinske
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 247
Price - £55.00 and £22.99
ISBN - 0 521 62254 9 and 03521 X

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