Hero Chalmers. Royalist Women Writers 1650-1689. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. xii+228pp. ISBN 0 199 27327 8

Lisa Walters
University of Edinburgh

Walters, Lisa. "Review of Hero Chalmers. Royalist Women Writers 1650-1689". Early Modern Literary Studies 12.1 (May, 2006) 7.1-6 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/12-1/revchalm.htm>.

  1. Royalist Women Writers 1650-1689 contributes to the important growing critical trend that locates seventeenth-century women’s constructions of gender in the context of wider socio-political concerns. Hero Chalmers explores the dramatic changes in England’s political climate in relation to Margaret Cavendish, Katherine Philips and Aphra Behn, arguing that royalist affiliations are essential to how such authors negotiate a more assertive model of female authorship, particularly through royalist conceptions of idealized images of femininity.

  2. What is particularly significant about this study is that Chalmers challenges critical assumptions that marginalize women writers’ participation in shaping royalist literary traditions. Also, though there has been much valuable criticism discussing the influence that male authors had on female writers, Chalmers offers a fresh approach by her intriguing argument that supporting royalist authors such as Cavendish, Philips and Behn could demonstrate an act of political self-definition for male royalist contemporaries. By examining royalist literature, literary networks and commentary from their contemporaries, Chalmers further demonstrates the changing roles of women writers in political discourse.

  3. Though royalism in relation to gender is what links these authors in this study, Chalmers provides a more discerning approach since she does not assume that royalist women had a uniform political outlook and situates writers within their individual and localized, historical and political contexts, illuminating “the multi-faceted nature of pre- and post-Restoration royalist cultures”, particularly with its idealized images of femininity (7). Chalmers also discusses how shifts and transformations in the political milieu affected each individual and their writings. Consequently, the study explores the different manners in which these authors experienced and promoted royalism, paying particular attention to the interplay between representations of gender and royalist sympathies.

  4. Though Chalmers emphasizes the need to acknowledge the potential diversity and individual nuances within royalist politics of this period, she still explores shared concerns, strategies and motifs between authors. The first two chapters demonstrate that Cavendish and Philips function in very different ways as political writers, yet their representations of gender and methods of validating their authorship are both motivated by royalist exile and defeat. For example, the first chapter explores how Cavendish’s presentation of self-affirming female authorship, which draws from her experience as a petitioner for her exiled husband, contributes to aristocratic ideals of wifely obedience and public display. Cavendish uses the royalist tradition of femme forte, enlivened by perceptions of and loyalty to Queen Henrietta Maria, to espouse a rhetoric of fame through the royalist tradition of female heroism. This heroic ideal is central to not only how Cavendish frames her public image, but also how others situate and perceive her. Chapter 2 further discusses how Henry Lawes’ coterie, the manuscript circle which inspired Cavendish, also influenced Philips’ authorial self and motivated her participation in shaping royalist traditions of politicized notions of friendship. Interestingly, Chalmers discusses how mid-seventeenth royalist culture privileged female friendships as propagators of social union and harmony. Consequently, “male gestures of support for Philips and her friendships with women should be understood as analogous acts of political self-fashioning” (77, 78). Tracing the changes in understandings of friendship after the Restoration, Chalmers contends that friendship is still significant and political in Pompey and influenced perceptions of Philips as an excellent translator. 

  5. Both Philips’ and Cavendish’s texts reflect Interregnum royalist strategies that conceptualize power within spaces of retirement or inwardness and the third chapter discusses how both authors represent idealized spaces of feminine retreat that could allow royalist men to identify with the feminine. However, Philips’ ideas also simultaneously draw on Puritan ideas and attract Puritans readership. Alternatively, Cavendish, through the medium of closet drama, reinterprets Caroline plays in The Female Academy and The Convent of Pleasure to reconfigure communal female retreat as a site of collective agency. Yet, Chalmers argues that, in contrast, Blazing World portrays a solipsistic fantasy to compensate for actual female political agency, further limiting Cavendish’s influence over the material, political world. Unfortunately, Chalmers’ reading of Blazing World seems limited in light of the numerous significant studies that have recently challenged the notion that the text is a retreat from the ‘real’ world and have explored how it actively engages with contemporary political and philosophical debates, many of which intrinsically address gender politics. [1] Though this section seems problematic, the final chapter is interesting and discusses how Behn constructs an image of herself that, like Restoration female actresses, is perceived as both heroic and erotic, reflecting celebrations of a supposed morally lenient theatre culture linked to pro-Stuart loyalty. Yet, Chalmers argues that Behn questions Tory ideology by suggesting that libertine conduct does not prove equally satisfactory for women and the many injustices that occur to women in her texts indicate that Whiggish commercial greed inflects both parties. Behn later attempts to disassociate her eroticized authorial image from her political agency and indicates that such agency has the power to control representation.

  6. Though scholars may not agree with Chalmers’ contention that Behn was a far more self-conscious political writer than Cavendish or Philips, the study is important overall . Also, though Chalmers refers to the three authors discussed as case studies, the argument, in general, would have been more dynamic if more examples of women writers were addressed. Nonetheless, the study is valuable, compelling and will open up interesting new avenues for future scholarship.


[1] For example, Susan James' edition, Margaret Cavendish: Political Writings, (from the Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought) includes Blazing World. For other examples of significant studies which have addressed the political, gender and philosophical dimensions of Blazing World see Eve Keller, "Producing Petty Gods: Margaret Cavendish's Critique of Experimental Science," English Literary History 64.2 (1997): 447-471 and Stephen Clucas, ed., A Princely Brave Woman: Essays on Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (Aldershot: Ashgate Press, 2003).

Works Cited

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

© 2006-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).