Megan Matchinske. Writing, Gender and State in Early Modern England: Identity Formation and the Female Subject. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. 260pp. ISBN 0-521-62254-9.


Bernadette Andrea
University of Texas at San Antonio

Andrea, Bernadette.  "Review of Writing, Gender and State in Early Modern England." Early Modern Literary Studies 5.1 (May, 1999): 5.1-5 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/05-1/andrev.html>.

  1. Matchinske begins her study with an anecdote from the Life of Margaret Cavendish that highlights the possibilities and pitfalls for a theoretically attentive analysis of "gender," the "state," and the "subject" in early modern England. Cavendish is exemplary for her ability "to play the fool," thus conforming to the stereotype that women are inadequate social subjects, even as she "chooses this tactic," thus demonstrating her agency in undermining the stereotype (1). This mode of cultural negotiation is reminiscent of Luce Irigaray's feminine mimicry, though Matchinske does not evoke this theorist. Rather, she relies (albeit implicitly for the most part) on the theoretical model elaborated by Michel Foucault in his writings on the subject and power. She is explicitly indebted to Paul Smith's materialist critique of the poststructuralist effacement of agency in its deconstruction of the subject. Nonetheless, she confuses the precision of Smith's critique with her ambiguous emphasis on "choice" rather than "agency"; her oscillation between the terms "navigate" and "negotiate" similarly suggests a slippage between liberalist and materialist models. Most significant for the strictly theoretical model she attempts to elaborate in her Introduction, however, is her loose usage of the terms "subject," "individual," "self," and "identity," so that she can confusingly refer to the "subject/individual" (13) or the "subject/self" (14). I stress such obfuscation in Matchinske's Introduction, not to mark the failure of her project, but to suggest that her "theorizing" is far more successful in the subsequent case studies she considers. In the balance of this review I accordingly highlight Matchinske's productive elaboration of a theory of gender, state, and subject formation through her application of historically-situated methods for reading early modern women's cultural agency, whether those women's "writings" come to us through texts signed by men or women, pseudonymously or anonymously.

  2. In Chapter One, which focuses on the highly contested case of Anne Askew and her mid sixteenth-century Examinations, Matchinske proposes two related theses: first, "Askew's martyr-status underscores the layer upon layer of historical forgetting that makes up the English Reformation" (24), a proposition significant enough for Matchinske to repeat verbatim in her Introduction (19); and, secondly, "it camouflages the impious and secularly motivated aspects of Askew's initial participation in that dialogue; it masks the potentially transformative circumstances of her encounter outside reformist polemic and the narratives that remain" (24). The methodological trope, "the remaining narratives," Matchinske foregrounds in this chapter enables us to conceptualize the multiple resistances encoded in the Examinations that get written out of accounts of the Reformation as a linear, teleological history. Askew must be seen less as a figurehead, or even a "spokeswoman," for the English Reformation, and more complexly as a figure whom the Reformers used to negotiate their own social and subject positions even as she herself negotiated agendas that ran counter to Reformation doctrine. Her narrative consequently must be situated as part of the complex negotiations between its promoters--primarily John Fox and John Bale--and its subject--ostensibly Askew. In particular, Bale's construction of Askew as a figurehead and martyr for the Reformation functions as a medium for his own positioning of himself as a reformer, exile, and author addressing other men. Matchinske's analysis of Bale as "author" of Askew's text problematizes any easy celebration of women's writing as resistance in a patriarchal culture. Yet, Matchinske also points towards the residue of resistance in Askew's writings that potentially escapes patriarchal control and for this reason does not get included in patriarchal histories. What a reading of "the narratives that remain" reveals is that Askew's resistance elaborates not orthodox Reformation doctrine but a radically singular, and specifically gendered, self. The case study Matchinske considers in her second chapter shifts from the mid to the late sixteenth century, the Henrician to the Elizabethan court, the gentry to the middling rank, and state-sanctioned Protestantism to recusant Catholicism. Its subject Margaret Clitherow, "an 'ideal Elizabethan wife' and an exemplary Catholic" (53), nonetheless shares with her counterpoint Anne Askew a simultaneously compromised and subversive position within early modern women’s literary history. Clitherow, whom we know only from her confessor John Mush's "The Life of Margaret Clitherow," remains on the margins of a history of early modern women’s writing that focuses on female authorship and authenticity. Matchinske counters this exclusion of Clitherow's cultural agency by proposing a twofold method that moves beyond reductively positivistic models of literary recovery: "One strategy is to consider comparatively, to juxtapose Clitherow's missing voice with available, albeit historically discrete, counterparts. . . . A second and perhaps equally compelling alternative is to write Clitherow's voice into being--to create it anew" (54). Matchinske's comparative approach involves cross-gender discourses, as she analyzes Mush’s relationship to Clitherow's "Life," and cross-generational discourses, as she examines Clitherow's life and writings alongside Askew’s. Nonetheless, unlike Askew, Clitherow did not record her interrogation and trial, and thus left no written text that may be traced to her. She did leave traces of her cultural agency in the gaps and contradictions in Mush’s account, however, and it is from these that Matchinske imaginatively reconstructs Clitherow’s voice. This strategy, as Matchinske acknowledges, carries the significant risk of reading our own desire for early modern women's agency back into their histories. Yet. the more significant risk is that the initial erasure of these women’s "voices" will be perpetuated by our own methodologies. Matchinske's judicious approach to historically informed imaginative reconstructions demonstrates the indispensability of this technique for future studies of early modern women's writing.

  3. Her third chapter similarly addresses issues of middling rank women's "authorship," though with a shift to the secular writings of the Jacobean querelle des femmes and the Shakespearean stage. The primary subject of this chapter, a respondent to the misogynistic tract by Joseph Swetnam who signs herself "Ester Sowernam" and defines herself as "neither Maide, Wife nor Widdowe, yet really all, and therefore experienced to defend all" (86), remains problematic for a history of early modern women's writing because of "her" pseudonymous status. Matchinske productively treats Sowernam's tract in terms of a textually announced gendering; we therefore may view it as a significant instance of "women's writing" that simultaneously constructs and challenges an emerging model of middling rank femininity dependent on the marriage market. Matchinske aligns Sowernam's emphasis on exchange, chastity, and conscience with similar emphases in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, staged thirteen years before the publication of Sowernam's tract, and the anonymous play Swetnam the Woman Hater, published three years after. This cross-gender, cross-generation, and cross-genre approach reveals that each author deploys "his" or "her" shared concern with female chastity to very different ends, with Sowernam promoting chastity as an asset to be "held out" by women in a precarious marriage market and the two stage plays situating female chastity as a state problem to be handled by powerful men. Matchinske's cultural studies approach in this chapter blends historicist and formalist criticism in a predictable way, though one which yields the measured conclusion that the cultural agency Sowernam constructs results in multiple layers of complicity for the middling rank women she addresses, who ultimately uphold a sharply defined domestic sphere in the service of an increasingly vigilant state.

  4. Matchinske continues in a cultural studies vein with her analysis of Davies (who also signed herself Eleanor Audeley, Touchet, and Douglas), indisputably an "author" with over fifty tracts to her name by the middle of the seventeenth century, yet one who remains a vexing figure for a history of early modern women’s writing. Matchinske reconceptualizes Davies's seeming "mad" style as part of a religi-political discourse of "[h]oly hatred" also characteristic of male apocalyptic writers (127). In its conventional form during the years leading up to the English Civil War, "holy hatred" coupled the increasingly intense inward focus on the individual believer’s conscience that radical Protestantism promoted with an explosively outward focus on a potentially republican state. This apocalyptic discourse, to cite a catchphrase from the second-wave Anglo-American feminist movement, turned the personal into the political. Davies nevertheless reverses this formula by collapsing the political into the solipsistically personal, in contrast to the mid seventeenth-century husbands, ecclesiastics, and courtiers who suppressed her writings and the mid twentieth-century Anglo-American feminists who would initiate the recovery of early modern Englishwomen's writing. In addition, Davies, who fiercely asserts her aristocratic privilege as part of her resistance to patriarchal authority, has remained an uncomfortable figure for a feminism that requires strictly oppositional voices. By situating Davies within the broader discourse of "holy hatred," Matchinske renders her integral to the specifically Protestant English "[d]ividing practices" (132) regulating state and subject formation in the years leading up to the Civil War. Yet, by emphasizing "[t]hat Davies can depend on no single status to authorize her writings or define her identity" (141), she also stresses her constitutive eccentricity as a gendered subject within this largely masculinist tradition. Matchinske's carefully modulated analysis enables us to reconsider Davies as a writer lucidly aware of her elliptical negotiations of gender, class, religion, and politics, and thus one fundamental for a consideration of early modern women's literary history.

  5. In sum, Matchinske moves away from simply recovering early modern women's writing to rethinking the imbricated categories of writing, women, and the early modern. Her materially situated close readings of related clusters of author figures enables us to reconfigure issues of gender ambiguity and cultural agency precisely during those moments when distinctions among gender, the subject, and the state are becoming more discrete. Her attention to the proliferation of social control that characterized the movement from the English Reformation to the English Civil War further reveals that women were complicit with these regulatory practices, even as the structural gaps and contradictions that simultaneously emerged in the state and the subject enabled women's various forms of resistance. Matchinske acknowledges that her analysis has its limits: its emphasis on textual evidence privileges an elite mode of cultural agency in an era when most women were illiterate, while its emphasis on cultural issues elides the formal concerns of genre in favor of a broad model of discourse. Despite these limits, however, Matchinske has presented a repertoire of techniques for evaluating early modern women's cultural agency that should prove highly productive for future studies of early modern women's writing.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

© 1998-, Lisa Hopkins(Editor, EMLS).