Helen Hackett. Women and Romance Fiction in the English Renaissance. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. 235pp. ISBN 0 521 64145 4.
Carrie Hintz
Queens College / CUNY

Hintz, Carrie. "Review of Helen Hackett, Women and Romance Fiction in the English Renaissance." Early Modern Literary Studies 8.1 (May, 2002): 9.1-3 <URL:

  1. Helen Hackett's Women and Romance Fiction in the English Renaissance investigates the long-held critical commonplace that in England romances in the early modern period were primarily associated with women readers; her work adds a great deal to our understanding of both female and male readers of the romance. Hackett considers the representation of women in male-authored romance, considers women writers of romance such as Mary Wroth, and addresses the continuation of the romance tradition in the British seventeenth century. Few studies of early modern romance in England compare male and female-authored texts as Hackett has done, and she helpfully shows how male authors inspired female writers like Anne Weamys and Mary Wroth. Hackett also conclusively demonstrates that romance reading underwent a transition when women writers came into their own within the genre.

  2. The book begins with speculation about levels of female literacy, concluding with records of reading by women such as Margaret Tyler, Grace Mildmay, Anne Clifford, Mary Sidney, Brilliana Harley and Dorothy Osborne. Cultural anxieties about women readers of romance are well-explored. The motivations of male writers and readers of romance are equally well-covered, including homosocial desire and the wish to "assess male writing apparently addressed to women" (12). Often, the apparent feminization of male characters only reinforces their heterosexual desire for the "seductive penetration of private female spaces" (114) which Hackett deals with most convincingly by invoking the moment in Sidney's Arcadia where the supposed Amazon Zelmane lovingly prolongs his/her viewing of Philoclea. In taking on representations of women, Hackett refreshingly remarks that she sees women in Renaissance texts less as "mirror images of women in real life than as figures who stand for something metaphorically" (18).

  3. Hackett offers some fascinating and historically sensitive readings of suffering and erotic martyrdom in the romances. Some of her best and least elaborated work is her comparison of the eighteenth-century novelist Samuel Richardson to Sidney, who shared a concern with the plight and psychology of women in distress, as well as the heroine's name "Pamela." The seventeenth-century section could also have used some elaboration. Given the labyrinthine nature of early modern romance texts, Hackett's readings are clear and might motivate some readers to re-read British early modern romances, or engage with them for the first time. Hackett has added a fresh and useful perspective to the study of early modern romance.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2002-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).