Hilary Hinds. God's Englishwomen: Seventeenth-Century Radical Sectarian Writing and Feminist Criticism. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1996. 264pp. ISBN 0-7190-4886-9 Cloth; ISBN 0-7190-4887-7 Paper
Mark Houlahan
University of Waikato

Houlahan, Mark. "Review of God's Englishwomen: Seventeenth-Century Radical Sectarian Writing and Feminist Criticism. " Early Modern Literary Studies 3.1 (May, 1997): 9.1-7 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/03-1/rev_hou1.html>.

  1. God's Englishwomen is a welcome addition to the growing number of literary studies texts from the English Civil War period. Hinds focuses on women's "religious" writing during this period, in particular the Fifth Monarchist and Quaker prophecies and autobiographies of the 1650s. Hinds' introduction outlines reasons for the neglect of these authors: the fact that they worked in non-modern genres and are scantily represented (if at all) in teaching anthologies, and thus in Renaissance curricula. Four appendices attempt to rectify this under-representation by presenting lightly edited excerpts that teachers can readily use for their class anthologies. In so far as these are extraordinary texts produced by early modern women writers, they are of great interest to the current generation of feminist critics. However, as Christocentric and Bible-soaked tracts (like so many seventeenth-century texts) they would seem to be at odds with current feminist projects. As well as mapping a terrain of unfamiliar texts, then, Hinds attempts to discover ways in which contemporary feminist thought might usefully interact with Quaker and Fifth Monarchy discourses. Her welcome mapping of this new terrain of texts works better, I think, than the overlapping of those texts with feminist criticism.

  2. Hinds' title acknowledges a crucial debt "to the extensive scholarship of Christopher Hill . . . particularly . . . his God's Englishman . . . to which the title of this study refers "(vi). Though Hinds shifts Hill's focus from one singular Civil War figure (Cromwell) to a group of prophets, she rightly acknowledges that her study, like so many others, takes place in the cultural space of "history from below" opened up by both Hill and E.P. Thompson. Her reworking of Hill suggests his continuing influence and importance for early modern scholars, despite the melodramatic attacks on his work recently launched by Mark Kishlansky and Alastair Maclachlan.

  3. In her chapter "Language, Writing and Gender," however, Hinds misconstrues Hill's legacy when she mistakenly attributes a Hill sentence to Bunyan: "'We are redeemed by right of purchase," wrote Bunyan; 'Christ paid for everything in advance'" (133). Here Hinds cites Hill citing Bunyan, but Bunyan wrote nothing of the kind. Rather, this very contemporary metaphor is Hill's -- it resonates with his characteristically blunt pithiness. This is a small quibble, but in a chapter devoted to language, not to hear the difference between Hill and Bunyan is unfortunate. Hinds remarks in her introduction that Bunyan has been canonical where the equally religious writers on which she focuses have been neglected; and the force of canon-formation and misogyny have something to do with this. Yet one of the reasons for Bunyan's claim on us is surely Bunyan's command over the homely majesty of rhetoric he inherited (as did Hinds' heroines, Anna Trapnel and Mary Cary) from the cadences of the English Bible. Mishearing "Bunyan" suggests that, despite Hinds' awareness of the bibliocentrism of seventeenth-century English culture, she rather wishes her writers were not quite so obsessed with resolving the consequences of biblical proclamation in their own lives. Perforce she cites frequently her writers' uses of the Bible, but is really more concerned with the theoretical underpinnings of her project.

  4. Her theory makes use of post-Foucauldian readings of early modern culture. Here Hinds makes the strategically sensible decision not to banish the author as a construct altogether, since this would hardly enable the attention to the under-read writers she envisages. Instead she opts for a modified retention of the author-figure within literary studies, not as the all-controlling and authoritative genius, but as a historically specific and therefore changing construct that effects the production and reception of texts differently in different times. (190)

  5. However tentatively, this allows Hinds to make some claims for her specific author figures. She tries to read them against feminist literary theory, especially theory concerned with the impact of silence (and silencing) on women's writing, and she considers the possibility of her sectarians belonging to a transhistorical culture of écriture feminine. Her analysis of the language of her writers places them also within seventeenth-century debates over the aptness of various styles. Thus Anna Trapnel eschews a "puritan" plain style in favour of a "reflexive, self-conscious and elliptical" style "investigating itself and its status as authoritative and truthful" (135). It is clear that Hinds prizes such moments of passionate scepticism. The most valuable sections of the book seem to me those where she turns precisely such attention on to her writers.

  6. Hinds' broader invocations of theoretical paradigms are less helpful, however. They are too cluttered and too pedestrian to be useful; there is too much anxious acknowledging of authority, too much careful description of frequently traversed theoretical ground. The real shame is that pages are wasted on summarizing Foucault that might have been better spent investigating the complexity of the writers surveyed here. Natalie Davis' recent pellucid triptych of seventeenth-century women, for example, shows something of the richness of both the material and textual lives of such subjects as Hinds covers. Davis is as sensitized as Hinds to the "fictionality" of her archives, yet signals that awareness with much greater economy and grace.

  7. Flaws notwithstanding, we need more studies like this. Investigation of female prophets as writers is a recent critical practice, and one we seem likely to hear more of. Those concerned either with English print culture from 1640-1660, or, more specifically, female texts from the period will want to read Hinds and they will learn much from what she has to say.

Works Cited

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)