Women's Literature in the 16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries: Introduction
WOMEN'S LITERATURE IN THE 16TH, 17TH, AND 18TH CENTURIES: INTRODUCTION
With the advent of print in Europe in the mid 1400s, literature began to garner a much larger audience. The most famous early book was the Gutenberg Bible of 1456, and twenty years later, William Caxton effectively originated print in England when he set up his press at Westminster. The trend toward literacy and the wider distribution of texts throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries significantly altered not only the intellectual landscape of Europe, but the role of women writers—as print made literature more widely available to the middle class and to middle-class women, the focus of literature changed significantly. Despite often being denied the educational opportunities afforded to men, far more women were able to express themselves in writing than before this period.
Much early writing, including that of female authors, was devotional in nature. Many women wrote prayers, translations of religious works originally in Latin, and other texts primarily centered on spirituality. Notable, and often autobiographical, religious works by authors such as Margery Kempe, were especially popular. The increasing availability of print gradually allowed literature to focus on more secular themes, and many women contributed to the body of literature by writing journals, essays, and letters. Initially a private genre, letters evolved from a basic form of communication into a significant public literary style. Epistolary writing by such authors as Margaret Cavendish and Mary Wortley Montagu elevated the style, contributing to the creation of the epistolary novel genre and to the development of fiction itself. These and other letters by women are currently studied not only for their social and historical commentary, but for their literary merits as well.
Nancy Cotton has traced the contributions of women playwrights to the fourteenth century, noting that the first known woman playwright in England, Katherine of Sutton, rewrote traditional liturgical plays between 1363 and 1376. Cotton credits the Countess of Pembroke, with her Antonie printed in 1592, as the first woman in England to publish a play. Angela J. Smallwood examines eighteenth-century British theater, and notes that the second half of the century was a "heyday of genteel comedy for female as well as male writers." A playwright as well as a novelist, Aphra Behn is known as the first woman to earn her living entirely from writing. Her novels, especially Oroonoko (1688) are widely studied to this day, as are the romantic works of Madeleine de Scudéry, and both authors were highly influential in the further development of literature. Women also participated heavily in the poetry of the era. As poetry writing changed from an act practiced by the aristocracy to one available to women of all classes, working-class women such as Ann Yearsley and Hannah More joined noble-women such as Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, as published poets. Women made significant contributions to a wide variety of literature and literary periods, from the rise of the periodical in the sixteenth century to the rise of literary criticism.
Modern analyses of women's literature from 1500 to 1800 investigate the effects of social, economic, and political conditions under which women lived, in addition to studying the literary merits of their works. For instance, Marion Wynne-Davies demonstrates how women's very lack of status and financial independence served as an important impetus to publish, since they recognized their literary skills as a means to earn money. Elaine Hobby contends that women were more suited than men to write religious meditations, due to the "specifically female advantages of abandoning the world," and its "concerns of state." Margaret J. M. Ezell explains that women's literature was historically neglected by scholars, except in the area of nineteenth-century novels, but that literary historians, particularly since the 1970s, have recovered many previously unknown texts and manuscripts. Isobel Grundy analyzes the many elements involved in recovering a particular text and explores why a text might have been suppressed in the past. The recovery of such texts enables the study of early female writers, and the critical study and popular appeal of these authors continues to grow.