Kate Chedgzoy, Melanie Hansen and Suzanne Trill, eds. Voicing Women: Gender and Sexuality in Early Modern Writing. Renaissance Texts and Studies, Keele, Staffordshire: Keele UP, 1996. viii+200pp. ISBN 1-85331-108-1 Cloth.
Elizabeth Hodgson
University of British Columbia

Hodgson, Elizabeth. "Review of Voicing Women: Gender and Sexuality in Early Modern Writing. " Early Modern Literary Studies 3.1 (May, 1997): 10.1-5 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/03-1/rev_hod2.html>.

  1. As the literary canon(s) of early modern English literature shift to accommodate new texts and authors, the field of critical inquiry likewise expands to encompass the issues raised by such re-discovered writing. Voicing Women: Gender and Sexuality in Early Modern Writing is a collection of essays gathered from the "Voicing Women" conference at the University of Liverpool in 1992, an assembly which its editors point out was "the first major conference [in England] to focus on women and writing and early modern Britain" (vi). In its varied explorations of canon reformation, though, this work shows that the scholarship on early modern women writers is far more sophisticated and varied than the newness of the field might suggest.

  2. Voicing Women includes three (sometimes overlapping) types of essays. The first and largest group studies the work of early modern women writers, incl uding now-familiar authors like Aemilia Lanier, Elizabeth Cary and Aphra Behn as well as more obscure figures such as Dionys Fitzherbert, Katherine Evans and Sarah Cheevers. The second group of essays examines less canonical male writers, including John Bunyan, John Knox, and Nicholas Breton, and studies the relationships between their writings and feminine figures. The third group of essays focuses on larger socio-historical issues, including the role of women publishers in opposition politics, Henrietta Maria and Marian literature of the 1630s, and the theoretical problems raised by the discovery and editing of women writers' works. As Kate Chedgzoy explains in the introduction, Voicing Women's editors have chosen to exclude studies focusing on major male authors, arguing that minor male writers and early modern women both have "somewhat uneasy relations to the canon" (7) and thus negotiate with their cultures in interestingly similar ways.

  3. This editorial argument is perhaps the weakest point in Chedgzoy's otherwise admirable introduction, for it remains unclear whether the editors are evaluating the contemporary positions of these writers in their own culture or their places in the twentieth-century literary canon. Surely John Knox and John Bunyan were no more "outsiders" in their own day than someone like John Milton, and the ways in which twentieth-century marginality of these writers is made manifest posthumously seems a problematic question. Certainly, in some cases--Melanie Hansen's essay on John Knox and Tamsin Spargo's study of John Bunyan--this attempt to show correspondences between such male writers and the female authors of the period shows signs of strain. On the other hand, Suzanne Trill's brilliant analysis of Nicholas Breton's dedications to Mary Sidney, with her rich and nuanced argument about the theological significance of a feminine speaker, shows that this pairing of genders can be a powerful strategy.

  4. Chedgzoy's introduction is more satisfying, and more representative of the central strengths of the collection, when it analyzes the complex issues of identity politics, biographical criticism, aesthetics and politics facing the critics (and in many cases, editors) of early modern women's writing. Several essays continue the nuanced and sophisticated analysis of Chedgzoy's introduction: Jacqueline Pearson studies Aemelia Lanier's appeals to women readers, Katharine Hodgkin analyzes Dionys Fitzherbert's autobiographical accounts of insanity, Helen Hackett examines sex and violence in Wroth's Urania, and Bronwen Price situates male and female speakers in Behn's poetry, all with admirable subtlety and acumen. Stephanie Wright's and Katharine Hodgkin's essays also provide especially helpful critiques of the tendencies toward idealization and biographical essentialism in much feminist work on women writers.

  5. The collection is particularly praiseworthy for all the authors' willingness to examine the complex relationships between spiritual ideologies and the gendered cultures of this period. Chedgzoy raises these issues in her opening analysis of Anna Trapnel's poetry; Melanie Hansen, Susan Wiseman, Danielle Clarke, Katharine Hodgkin, and especially Suzanne Trill also explore these questions with admirable historical precision and scholarly thoroughness. These riches, among others, make Voicing Women an impressive contribution to the growing discourse on early modern English women writers.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the editor at emls@arts.ubc.ca.

© 1997, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(RGS, June 16, 1997)