Women's Literature in the 16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries: Overviews

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SOURCE: Cotton, Nancy. "Women Playwrights in England: Renaissance Noblewomen." In Readings in Renaissance Women's Drama: Criticism, History, and Performance 1594-1998, edited by S. P. Cerasano and Marion Wynne-Davies, pp. 32-46. London: Routledge, 1998.

In the following essay, Cotton provides a history of England's early women playwrights.

The first recorded woman playwright in England was Katherine of Sutton, abbess of Barking nunnery in the fourteenth century. Between 1363 and 1376 the abbess rewrote the Easter dramatic offices because the people attending the paschal services were becoming increasingly cool in their devotions (' deuocione frigessere '). Wishing to excite devotion at such a crowded, important festival (' desiderans … fidelium deuocionem ad tam celebrem celebracionem magis excitare '), Lady Katherine produced unusually lively adaptations of the traditional liturgical plays.1 Particularly interesting is her elevatio crucis, one of the few surviving liturgical plays that contains a representation of the harrowing of hell. In the visitatio sepulchri that follows, the three Marys are acted not by male clerics, which was customary, but by nuns.2 The Barking plays are not unique, however, in showing the participation of nuns. In religious houses on the continent women sometimes acted in church dramas, and Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim and Hildegard of Bingen wrote Latin religious plays. Although the destruction of liturgical texts in England at the Reformation makes certainty impossible, it is likely, in view of the uniformity of medieval European culture and the considerable authority of women who headed the medieval nunneries, that other English abbesses contributed to the slow, anonymous, communal growth of the medieval religious drama.

Katherine of Sutton was a baroness in her own right by virtue of her position as abbess of Barking.3 Only women of similar rank wrote drama in England until the Restoration. Virginia Woolf in her fable of Shakespeare's sister in A Room of One's Own (New York, 1929) was of course right in her statement that no middle-class woman, however talented, could have written for the Elizabethan public theaters. But Renaissance noblewomen, although they shared some of the disabilities of middle-class women, nonetheless wrote closet dramas, masques, and pastoral entertainments.

The English Renaissance fostered rigorous classical training for ladies, who, like male humanists, translated the ancients. The earliest extant English translation of a Greek play was the work of Lady Jane Fitzalan Lumley (c. 1537-77), who made a free and abridged prose version of Euripides' Iphigeneia in Aulis.4 Lady Lumley probably translated Euripides shortly after her marriage at the age of 12. This precocious marvel worked directly from the Greek at a time when secondhand translation from Latin was much more usual. The Latin tragedies of Seneca of course found many translators. Even Queen Elizabeth, during the early years of her reign, sometime around 1561, translated the chorus of Act II of Hercules Oetaeus.5

Imitations of Senecan tragedy were popular in aristocratic and academic circles. An influential figure in this tradition was Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke (1561-1621).6 Mary Sidney studied at home with private tutors and attained proficiency in French, Italian, probably Latin, and perhaps Hebrew. At the queen's request, she lived for a time at court, which served her as a finishing school. When she was 16, her parents married her to Henry Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, a match economically and politically advantageous, even though the earl was nearly thirty years older than Mary. After her marriage Mary Herbert lived at Wilton House, the earl's home in Wiltshire, where she had four children, collected a notable library, and became famous as a translator, patron of literature, and editor of the Arcadia. The countess's dramatic activity grew out of her close relationship with her brother, Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86). In his Defence of Poesie Philip attacked English romantic drama, advocating instead the classical drama of Seneca. He admired a play 'full of stately speeches, and wel sounding phrases, clyming to the height of Seneca his style, and as full of notable morallitie, which it dooth most delightfully teach'.7

After Philip's death Mary translated the Marc-Antoine of Robert Garnier (1534-90), the most assured French Senecan dramatist, whose eight tragedies were notable for their vigorous but polished style. Written in 1590, the countess's Antonie transforms rhymed French alexandrines into pedestrian blank verse. Rather better are the choral lyrics, written in a variety of meters and rhymes. Here, for example, is the opening of the chorus to Act III:

Alas, with what tormenting fire
Us martireth this blinde desire
  To staie our life from flieng!
How ceasleslie our minds doth rack,
How heavie lies upon our back
  This dastard feare of dieng!
Death rather healthfull succor gives,
Death rather all mishapps relieves
  That life upon us throweth:
And ever to us doth unclose
The doore, wherby from curelesse woes
  Our wearie soule out goeth.

The Countess of Pembroke had Antonie printed in 1592 and thus became the first woman in England to publish a play. Antonie was reprinted in 1595, 1600, 1606, and 1607;9 although unacted, it was widely influential. Swayed by example, or coerced by friendship or patronage, members of the countess's circle turned out numerous Senecan imitations. Among the earliest, oddly enough, was a translation of Garnier's Cornelie made in 1594 by Thomas Kyd, who, as author of The Spanish Tragedy (1587), was the chief exponent at the time of the blood-and-thunder action drama. Presumably hoping for patronage, Kyd promised a translation of Porcie, but this never appeared. Samuel Daniel, long a protégé of the countess, wrote Cleopatra (1593) and Philotas (1604), the best of the plays on the Pembroke model. Samuel Brandon in 1598 published The Virtuous Octavia. Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke, Philip Sidney's friend and later biographer, wrote Mustapha and Alaham in the late 1590s, and in the next decade William Alexander, Earl of Stirling, published Darius, Croesus, and The Alexandraean Tragedy.

The countess also published a dramatic dialogue, which she wrote for the royal entertainment about 1592, when she was expecting a visit from the queen. A pastoral containing ten six-line stanzas, Thenot and Piers in Praise of Astraea was published in 1602 in the anthology A Poetical Rhapsody, which went through four editions by 1621. In each of the ten stanzas, Thenot's praise of Astraea (goddess of justice, a poetical name for Queen Elizabeth) is criticized by his fellow shepherd Piers. The last stanza, in a graceful turn of compliment, discloses why Piers is dissatisfied at praise of the queen:

Then Piers, of friendship tell me why,
My meaning true, my words should ly,
    And strive in vaine to raise her.
   Words from conceit do only rise,
Above conceit her honour flies;
     But silence, nought can praise her.

This is the first original dramatic verse written by a woman to appear in print.

Before the Countess of Pembroke died, and probably because of her example, an English-woman for the first time wrote and published a full-length original play. This was Elizabeth Tanfield Cary, later Viscountess Falkland (1586-1639). More is known about Elizabeth Cary than about most figures of the period because one of her daughters wrote a detailed biography of her mother.11 Lady Falkland was the only child and heiress of a wealthy Oxford lawyer, Lawrence Tanfield, later Sir Lawrence and Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer. She was startlingly precocious, teaching herself French, Spanish, Italian, Latin, Hebrew, and 'Transylvanian' (Life, p. 5). She loved to read so much that she sat up all night. When her parents refused her candles, she bribed the maids to smuggle them in; by the age of 12 she had run up a debt to them of a hundred pounds 'with two hundred more for the like bargains and promises' (Life, p. 7), a considerable sum in those days even for an heiress. As a child she made translations from Latin and French and at 12 found internal contradictions in Calvin's Institutes of Religion—upsetting behavior for a child of good Protestants.

About the age of 15 or 16 Elizabeth Tanfield was married to a knight's son named Henry Cary. After the marriage had secured the Tanfield fortune, Henry followed the custom of the times and left his bride with her parents while he finished his military service abroad. During this period, sometime between 1602 and 1605, Elizabeth Cary, who, according to her daughter, loved plays 'extremely' (Life, p. 54), wrote two closet dramas. Cary's first play was set in Sicily and dedicated to her husband; the title is unknown and the play is lost. Her second play, dedicated to her sister-in-law, was Mariam, the Fair Queen of Jewry.

A Senecan tragedy based on Josephus's Antiquities, Mariam is carefully researched and constructed. The play is attentive to historical details but also is sensitive to dramatic effectiveness. As the play opens, rumor has just reached Jerusalem that Caesar has executed Herod at Rome. The first half of the play shows the effects of this news. Queen Mariam is torn between grief for her husband and joy. She rejoices at Herod's death because he had killed her brother and grandfather and because he had left orders for her own death in case he did not return. Pheroras, now happily freed from his brother's authority, immediately makes a love marriage with his maid Graphina. Herod's cast-off first wife Doris now hopes to unseat Mariam's children as heirs and install her own son Antipater on the throne. Only Salome regrets the loss of Herod, but her sorrow is self-interested. She wishes to marry her Arabian lover Silleus. If Herod were alive, she could accuse her husband Constabarus of treason for protecting the two sons of Baba. Salome also hates Mariam, but sees no way to remove her haughty sister-in-law. While these events are underway, constant pointers remind us that the characters believe the rumor of Herod's death because they wish to.

The reversal comes in 3.2 with the news that Herod is alive and will arrive immediately. Herod's delight as he returns in Act 4 is short-lived. Salome now has the upper hand and her machinations lead to the catastrophe. She offers to protect Pheroras and his bride if he will accuse Constabarus of treason. She tricks Herod into believing that Mariam has been unfaithful in his absence. Herod, a man of impulse, orders the executions of Constabarus, Baba's sons, and his own beloved queen. In Act 5 a nuntius recounts to Herod the noble death of Mariam. He also reports that Salome's agent in the plot against Mariam has confessed and committed suicide. Herod now realizes the magnitude of his loss and becomes frantic with grief.

The play is a sophisticated performance for a largely self-educated person of 17. Cary is careful with details, and the absence of anachronisms is unusual in the period. Stylistically and dramaturgically, the play is competently though conventionally Senecan. Action is discussed rather than dramatized, and the gory details of the execution are properly left to a nuntius. Cary uses literarily varied prosody instead of the dramatically supple blank verse of her theatrical contemporaries. Mariam is written in rhymed quatrains, with occasional couplets and sonnets inserted. Cary has, however, infused this dramatically awkward mixture of verse forms with emotional intensity at key points.

Salome, for example, is most convincing when she meditates an unorthodox method of removing Constabarus so that she can marry Silleus:

He loves, I love; what then can be the cause,
Keepes me f[rom] being the Arabians wife?
It is the principles of Moses lawes,
For Con[s]tabarus still remaines in life,
If he to me did beare as Earnest hate,
As I to him, for him there were an ease,
A separating bill might free his fate:
From such a yoke that did so much displease.
Why should such priviledge to man be given?
Or given to them, why bard from women then?
Are men then we in greater grace with Heaven?
Or cannot women hate as well as men?
Ile be the custome-breaker: an beginne
To shew my Sexe the way to freedomes doore. (sig. B3r)

In the Renaissance this was of course villainess talk, but villainess or not, Salome was ahead of her time in her attitude toward equitable divorce laws.

The active and lustful Salome makes a provocative contrast with the passive and chaste Mariam, who initiates no action whatever, not even to save her own life. As she is facing death, she decides that her fault was a sullenness of temper that prevented her from defending herself. She feels guilty because she had placed her full reliance on her chastity of body without giving her husband her chastity of spirit; she had, then, been guilty of a certain infidelity of mind. This seems a harsh self-accusation for a woman whose husband had murdered two of her close relatives, but her conclusion is nonetheless reinforced by the chorus's strong statement of the duties of wives:

When to their Husbands they themselves doe bind,
Doe they not wholy give themselves away?
Or give they but their body not their mind,
Reserving that though best, for others pray?
   No sure, their thoughts no more can be their owne,
   And therefore should to none but one be knowne.
Then she usurpes upon anothers right,
That seekes to be by publike language grac't:
And though her thoughts reflect with purest light,
Her mind if not peculiar is not chast.
   For in a wife it is no worse to finde,
   A common body, then a common minde. (sig. E4r)

These are hard beliefs for a woman who wished to be a writer.

The vividness of Cary's treatment of Mariam and Salome suggests that she had the range of emotional experience and the imaginative power to appreciate both attitudes toward experience. Cary apparently entered marriage with an impossible idealization of wifely behavior, which she expresses through Mariam, and with an even more impossible ideal of an independent, even rebellious, intellectual life, embodied in Salome. These deeply ambivalent attitudes shaped the remainder of her life. An intellectual heiress of Catholic leanings joined with a careerist courtier in a Protestant court, Cary lived with her husband twenty years, during which she bore eleven children and was nearly always either pregnant or nursing. Her intellectual and artistic talents found their only outlet in religion. During her marriage she continued to read theology and discussed religious doctrines with distinguished prelates. At the same time, she acted out her ideals of wifely behavior. She taught her children to love their father better than their mother. She acceded to her husband's wishes that she become a fashionable dresser and an accomplished horsewoman, despite her indifference to clothes and terror of horses. She mortgaged her jointure to advance her husband's career, whereupon her father disinherited her in favor of her oldest son, Lucius Cary, who also inherited his mother's literary talent. It is not surprising that she had periods of depression severe to the point of mental illness. Meanwhile, Henry Cary achieved a seat on the Privy Council, the rank of viscount, and the Lord Chief Deputyship of Ireland.

In 1626 Lady Falkland rebelled. She converted to Catholicism, nearly ruining her husband's career. He repaid her by abandoning her, taking custody of her children, and stripping her house of the bare necessities of life. Lady Falkland's poverty and suffering were severe; for long periods she lived in semistarvation. She appealed to the court for help (Queen Henrietta Maria was a French Catholic) and finally in 1627 the Privy Council ordered Lord Falkland to support his wife, although seven months later he still had not complied with the order. Lady Falkland turned again to writing, producing a life of Edward II, poems to the Virgin, and lives of saints. She translated Catholic polemics; her translation of Cardinal Perron's reply to King James was publicly burned. Lady Falkland kept her rebellious spirit to the end. In her last years she kidnapped two of her sons and, defying the Star Chamber, smuggled them to the continent to become Catholics.

Given the outward docility of Elizabeth Cary's married life until 1626, it is strange that Mariam was ever published. None of her other creative works were printed, and Mariam was not entered for publication until 1612, ten years after it was written, and did not actually appear until 1613. Her daughter claims, 'She writ many things for her private recreation … one of them was after stolen out of that sister-in-law's (her friend's) chamber, and printed, but by her own procurement was called in' (Life, p. 9). This explanation is suspect for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the Stationers' Register shows that there was nothing surreptitious about the publication of the play.12 Moreover, Lady Falkland's daughter makes the standard excuse of the period for an aristocrat who stoops to publication. Cary herself scorns such excuses in the introduction to her translation of Cardinal Perron: 'I will not make use of that worn form of saying I printed it against my will, moved by the importunity of friends.'13

A more likely explanation is that the publication of Mariam was inspired by the Countess of Pembroke. Both Mary Herbert and Elizabeth Cary were well acquainted with John Davies of Hereford, the famous master of calligraphy. Davies was a protégé and intimate of the Pembroke circle; he made a beautiful manuscript of Philip Sidney and Mary Herbert's translation of the psalms. He was also Elizabeth Cary's writing master. Davies must have spoken to his brilliant young pupil about his distinguished patroness and her activities. Indeed, the immediate cause that prompted Cary to publish her play may have been a poem by Davies. In 1612 he prefaced his 'Muse's Sacrifice, or Divine Meditations' with a poetical dedicatory letter to the Countess of Pembroke, the Countess of Bedford, and Elizabeth Cary. Davies compliments the Countess of Pembroke for her psalms and then praises 'Cary, of whom Minerva stands in feare':

Thou mak'st Melpomen proud, and my Heart great
  of such a Pupill, who, in Buskin fine,
With Feete of State, dost make thy Muse to mete
  the scenes of Syracuse and Palestine.
Such nervy Limbes of Art, and Straines of Wit
  Times past ne'er knew the weaker Sexe to have;
And Times to come, will hardly credit it,
  if thus thou give thy Workes both Birth and Grave.

Davies then chides all three ladies because they 'presse the Presse with little' they have written. Could the woman who wrote Salome's speech resist the appeal for publication on behalf of her sex's honor? Mariam was entered for publication in December of the same year as the appearance of Davies's poem. However Mariam came to be printed, and so preserved, it was never intended for acting. Neither the Countess of Pembroke nor Viscountess Falkland wrote their plays for the stage; Antonie and Mariam were written as closet drama. To write for the public stage was déclassé. It was a queen who broke down this barrier of caste and helped break down also the barriers against actresses.

Queen Henrietta Maria (1609-69) arrived in England at the age of 16 as the bride of Charles I.15 In 1626, during her first year in her new country, the young queen acted at court in a pastoral play and masque that she herself wrote and directed. The play, which has been lost, was written in French and performed by the French ladies who attended the queen. Letters of Englishmen commenting on the occasion show the dismay produced even in an audience carefully handpicked:

On Shrovetuisday the Quene and her women had a maske or pastorall play at Somerset House, wherin herself acted a part, and some of the rest were disguised like men with beards. I have knowne the time when this wold have seemed a straunge sight, to see a Quene act in a play but tempora mutantur et nos.

'I heare not much honor of the Quene's maske, for, if they were not all, soome were in men's apparell.' Ambassadors from continental courts were more sophisticated. The Venetian ambassador admired the 'rich scenery and dresses' and the 'remarkable acting' of the queen. 'The king and court enjoyed it, those present being picked and selected, but it did not give complete satisfaction, because the English objected to the first part being declaimed by the queen.' The ambassador from Florence was equally complimentary:

She acted in a beautiful pastoral of her own composition, assisted by twelve of her ladies whom she had trained since Christmas. The pastoral succeeded admirably; not only in the decorations and changes of scenery, but also in the acting and recitation of the ladies—Her Majesty surpassing all the others. The performance was conducted as privately as possible, inasmuch as it is an unusual thing in this country to see the Queen upon a stage; the audience consequently was limited to a few of the nobility, expressly invited, no others being admitted.16

The English disapproval of the queen's performing a role on stage must have come as a surprise to Henrietta Maria. She had been reared in a court where nobility and even royalty acted in masques and plays. Her brother Louis XIII as a child led his brothers and sisters in amateur theatricals.

Although she has been suggested as the author of the anonymous lost pastoral Florimene, presented by the queen's ladies at court in December 1635, Henrietta Maria apparently wrote no more plays, but her incorrigible love of acting liberalized aristocratic attitudes towards actresses. After the disapproval of her 1626 court performance, she continued to have amateur theatricals in her private apartments and to dance in court masques. In 1633 she took the chief part in another play, The Shepherd's Paradise, written by the courtier Walter Montague for her and her ladies. Again there was a furor. Puritan William Prynne had the bad luck to publish Histriomastix, his attack on the stage, within a few days of the queen's performance. Prynne inopportunely denounced 'Women-Actors, notorious whores': 'And dare then any Christian woman be so more then whorishly impudent, as to act, to speak publicly on a Stage (perchance in man's apparel, and cut hair, here proved sinful and abominable) in the presence of sundry men and women?'17 Prynne was condemned to have his ears cut off, the queen continued to act, amateur theatricals became common in polite circles, and by 1660 the profession of acting on the public stage was open to women. The admission of actresses to the stage was important for women playwrights because as actresses women for the first time obtained practical theatrical apprenticeship. By the eighteenth century there would be a number of actress-playwrights.

Henrietta Maria helped transform aristocratic attitudes not only toward actresses but also toward the commercial stage. She was the first English queen to attend plays at public theaters. Her considerable power over her husband caused Charles I to do what no English king had done before—he looked over scripts and even suggested plots for several plays written by others. The queen introduced from France the cults of préciosité and Platonic love and persuaded courtiers like Cartwright and Carlell to write plays illustrating her pet theories; thus the gentleman playwright came into existence. By the Restoration persons of the highest social rank in England were writing for the public stage.

This upper-class interest in playwrighting is seen in Lady Jane Cavendish (1621-69) and her sister Lady Elizabeth Brackley (c. 1623-63).18 The Cavendish sisters, daughters of William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle, were, by both upbringing and marriage, part of the world of aristocratic theatricals. Before the war their father was a patron of the playwrights Brome, Shirley, and Jonson. In 1633 and 1634 Jonson wrote entertainments for the king's visits to the Newcastle estates; perhaps Jane and Elizabeth were present. About 1640 The Country Captain, publicly attributed to Newcastle but largely written by James Shirley, was performed at the Blackfriars Theatre. Lord Brackley, Elizabeth's future husband, in 1634 appeared with the king in Thomas Carew's masque Coelum Britannicum. The same year Brackley acted in Milton's Comus at Ludlow Castle; his sister and brother were also principal performers, their parents the chief spectators. With this background, it is not surprising that the Cavendish sisters should themselves write plays. Sometime between 1644 and 1646, the young women, both in their early twenties, collaborated on two plays. A Pastoral remains in manuscript, but The Concealed Fansyes was published in 1931. The authors here had promising raw material but were unable to construct a coherent plot. The story line, clumsily handled, shows a sound and simple comedic pattern: two sisters, Lucenay and Tattiney, are wooed by Courtly and Presumption. The men plan to tame their wives after marriage, but the women turn the tables and tame their husbands. The dialogue reflects the concerns of the authors as heiresses. Lucenay and Tattiney repeatedly and bluntly discuss marriage as the buying and selling of heiresses for dowries and estates. Lucenay dreads marriage: 'My distruction is that when I marry Courtly I shall bee condemn'd to looke upon my Nose, whenever I walke and when I sitt at meate confin'd by his grave winke to looke upon the Salt, and if it bee but the paireing of his Nales to admire him' (p. 815). After her marriage she describes how she escaped this servility. By refusing to keep her place, she throws her husband into a

conflict, betwixt Anger and mallencholly not knoweinge whether my behaivour proceeded from neglect or ignorance, then hee declared himselfe by allygory and praysed a Lady, obedyent ffoole in towne, and swore hir Husband was the happyest man in the world. I replyed shee was a Very good Lady, and I accounted him happy that was hir Husband, that hee could content hinmselfe with such a Meachanick wife. I wishe sayd hee shee might bee your Example, and you have noe reason to sleight hir, for shee is of a noble family. I knowe that sayd I, and doe the more admire why shee will contract hir family, Noblenes and Birth, to the servitude of hir husband, as if hee had bought hir his slave, and I'm sure hir Father bought him for hir, for hee gave a good Portion, and now in sense who should obey?

(pp. 834-5)

The conversational patterns are convincing; the use of indirect conversation suggests a writing skill born of epistolary, rather than dramatic, cultivation.

After collaborating with her sister in The Concealed Fansyes, Lady Jane Cavendish was present during the military action when the Parliamentarians captured and recaptured her home, Welbeck Abbey. She saved the art treasures of Bolsover Castle, another of the Newcastle estates. She raised money for her exiled father by selling her jewels and plate and sent him a thousand pounds of her private fortune. She refused to marry until the age of 33 because she refused anyone but a royalist, and at the time most royalists were in exile. After her marriage, she bore three children and continued to write, producing several volumes of verse. Nothing further is known of Lady Brackley.

The Cavendish sisters' young stepmother, Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623-73), was the first woman in England to publish collections of plays and England's first feminist playwright.19 Her career as a prolific writer is surprising in view of her secluded upbringing and poor education. She was born Margaret Lucas, youngest of the eight children of a wealthy country gentleman who died before she was 2, leaving the family affairs in the strong hands of his wife. The family was exceptionally close-knit and exclusive, drawing the sons- and daughters-in-law into the family orbit. Margaret, as the youngest, grew up painfully shy of strangers. As a child she was indulged in her habit of wearing clothes of her own flamboyant design, one of the trademarks of the 'eccentricity' for which she was later notorious among her contemporaries. Her education was undisciplined. After the death of Queen Elizabeth, a reaction had set in against rigorous studies for gentlewomen. Margaret describes an education almost negative:

As for tutors, although we had for all sorts of virtues, as singing, dancing, playing on music, reading, writing, working, and the like, yet we were not kept strictly thereto, they were rather for formality than benefit; for my mother cared not so much for our dancing and fiddling, singing and prating of several languages, as that we should be bred virtuously, modestly, civilly, honorably, and on honest principles.20

Her lack of education marred all her writing; she never absorbed some elementary principles of grammar, and the idea of revision was unknown to her. Later in life, Margaret felt keenly her lack of learning and spoke strongly for education for women.

At the age of 20, the bashful Margaret Lucas astonished her family (and her biographers) by attending the distressed Queen Henrietta Maria as a maid of honor and then following the queen into exile in France. The explanation of her puzzling behavior is that Margaret was a female cavalier, whose romantic gesture for a lost cause was in the spirit of the age. In France she met and married the exiled Marquis, later Duke, of Newcastle, thirty years her senior, whom she adored with fervent hero worship. Her marriage was an ideal one for a seventeenth-century woman writer. William Cavendish was himself an amateur poet and playwright, and a generous patron of writers, philosophers, and artists. He encouraged and assisted his young, beautiful, childless wife in her writing, her 'chiefest delight and greatest pastime' (Plays Never Before Printed, 1668). She describes their relationship in a letter to the duke in her Philosophical and Physical Opinions (1663):

Though I am as Industrious and Carefull to serve Your Lordship in such imployments, which belong to a Wife, as Household affairs, as ever I can … yet I cannot for my Life be so good a Huswife, as to quit Writing.…you are pleased to Peruse my Works, and Approve of them so well, as to give me Leave to Publish them, which is a Favour, few Husbands would grant their Wives; But Your Lordship is an Extraordinary Husband, which is the Happiness of Your Lordships Honest Wife and Humble Servent Margaret Newcastle.

After her marriage, she began, out of ambition, to write with a view to publication: 'I am very ambitious, yet 'tis neither for beauty, wit, titles, wealth, or power, but as they are steps to raise me to Fame's tower, which is to live by remembrance in afterages.'21 This desire for fame is the key to her personality.22 She saw literature as the only avenue to renown for a woman:

I confess my Ambition is restless, and not ordinary; because it would have an extraordinary fame: And since all heroick Actions, publick Imployments, powerfull Governments, and eloquent Pleadings are denyed our Sex in this age, or at least would be condemned for want of custome, is the cause I write so much.

(An Epistle to my Readers, Natures Pictures, 1656)

The first Englishwoman to publish extensively, the duchess produced a dozen books, including poetry, fiction, scientific and philosophical speculations, letters, and declamations. She was the first woman in England to publish her autobiography, the first to publish a biography of her husband, the first to write about science.

In 1662 the duchess published Plays, a collection of closet dramas written while she was abroad. The volume includes fourteen plays, several in two parts. In 1668 she brought out a smaller collection, Plays Never Before Printed, which includes five plays and various dramatic fragments. In these volumes are some of the most ardently feminist plays ever written. In Part II of Loves Adventures, for example, Lady Orphan, disguised as the page Affectionata, wins great fame as a soldier; the Venetian States make her Lieutenant-General of the army and a member of the Council of War. The Pope invites Affectionata to Rome and offers to make her a cardinal.

Another military woman, Lady Victoria, appears in Bell in Campo. Refusing to be left at home when her husband goes to war, Lady Victoria raises a female army and accompanies the men to battle. Victoria points out to her troops that masculine contempt for female ability ultimately rests on the physical weakness of women, but urges that right education could make women good soldiers, 'for Time and Custome is the Father and Mother of Strength and Knowledge' (Plays, p. 588). She urges:

Now or never is the time to prove the courage of our Sex, to get liberty and freedome from the Female Slavery, and to make our selves equal with men: for shall Men only sit in Honours chair, and the Women stand as waiters by? shall only Men in Triumphant Chariots ride, and Women run as Captives by? shall only men be Conquerors, and women Slaves? shall only men live by Fame, and women dy in Oblivion?

(Plays, p. 609)

Encouraged by Victoria, the woman army achieves heroic exploits, rescuing the men from military disaster. They are rewarded after the war with special privileges. Lady Victoria herself is given a public triumph, a suit of gold armor, and a sword with a diamond hilt; her statue is set up in the center of the city.

In Youth's Glory and Death's Banquet Sir Thomas Father Love, over the objections of Lady Mother Love, is rearing their daughter, Lady Sanspareille, with an education masculine and intellectual:

MOTHER LOVE. What? would you have women bred up to swear, swagger, gaming, drinking, whoring, as most men are?

FATHER LOVE. No, Wife, I would have them bred in learned Schools, to noble Arts and Sciences, as wise men are.

MOTHER LOVE. What Arts? to ride Horses, and fight Dewels.

FATHER LOVE. Yes, if it be to defend their Honour, Countrey, Religion; For noble Arts makes not base Vices, nor is the cause of lewd actions, nor is unseemly for any Sex.

(Plays, p. 124)

Lady Sanspareille is melancholy because of her desire for fame, which she describes in words like those that Margaret used about herself:

Know it is fame I covet, for which were the ambitions of Alexander and Caesar joyned into one mind, mine doth exceed them … my mind being restless to get to the highest place in Fames high Tower; and I had rather fall in the adventure, than never try to climb.

She despairs that she may not have 'a sufficient stock of merit, or if I had, yet no waies to advance it' (Plays, p. 130). She resolves, with her father's consent, never to marry, but to devote herself to poetry:

for that time which will be lost in a married condition, I will study and work with my own thoughts, and what new inventions they can find out, or what probabilityes they conceive, or phancies they create, I will publish to the world in print … but if I marry, although I should have time for my thoughts and contemplations, yet perchance my Husband will not approve of my works, were they never so worthy, and by no perswasion, or reason allow of there publishing; as if it were unlawfull, or against nature, for Women to have wit.… some men are so inconsiderately wise, gravely foolish and lowly base, as they had rather be thought Cuckolds, than their wives should be thought wits, for fear the world should think their wife the wiser of the two.

(Plays, p. 131)

In Part II Lady Sanspareille fulfills her ambitions, addressing assemblies of amazed savants on learned and literary topics. After her untimely death, her memory is preserved by statues set up in all the colleges and public places in the city.23

While interesting for their early feminist heroines, the Duchess of Newcastle's plays are the poorest of her works. Her plays, like those of her stepdaughters, are structurally incoherent. She produces original and arresting raw materials for plots that are never constructed; actions are discussed rather than dramatized. Her usual method of organization is to take three unrelated story lines and alternate scenes among them mechanically. Often the individual scenes have no beginning, middle, or end; one scene simply stops abruptly and an unrelated scene follows. The most common type of scene is a dialogue or trialogue in which one character orates, harangues, or lectures to the other(s). Occasionally there is a real conversation, but generally there is no interaction among characters. The characters are personified abstractions, such as The Lord Fatherly, The Lord Singularity, The Lady Ignorant; and development of such characters rarely occurs.

The duchess was aware of these obvious flaws: 'Some of my Scenes have no acquaintance or relation to the rest of the Scenes; although in one and the same Play, which is the reason so many of my Playes will not end as other Playes do' (To the Reader, Plays). She offered this poem as 'A General Prologue to all my Playes':

But Noble Readers, do not think my Playes,
Are such as have been writ in former daies;
As Johnson, Shakespear, Beaumont, Fletcher writ;
Mine want their Learning, Reading, Language, wit:
The Latin phrases I could never tell,
But Johnson could, which made him write so well,
Greek, Latin Poets, I could never read,
Nor their Historians, but our English Speed;
I could not steal their Wit, nor Plots out take;
All my Playes Plots, my own poor brain did make
From Plutarchs story I ne'r took a Plot,
Nor from Romances, nor from Don Quixot,
As others have, for to assist their Wit,
But I upon my own Foundation writ.

There is another reason for the peculiar structure of her plays. In the 1662 collection she says that she wrote her plays from her husband's example, and, indeed, the duchess's plays follow the pattern of the duke's unaided efforts. An example of his unretouched work survives, A Pleasante & Merrye Humor of A Roge,24 an unstructured dramatic sketch. Professional playwrights like Dryden, Shirley, and Shadwell turned the duke's sketches into professional plays which were then performed in the London theaters. The duchess, looking up to her husband, assumed that this was the way plays were written: 'I have heard that such Poets that write Playes, seldome or never join or sow the several Scenes together; they are two several Professions.' She explains that, as her plays were written while she was in exile, she was 'forced to do all my self … without any help or direction' (To the Readers, Plays).

Structurally incoherent as they are, the plays of the Duchess of Newcastle are historically significant as early feminist statements. They made a statement to her contemporaries partly by their physical appearance. The two volumes of plays, like all the duchess's works, were large, handsome books with sumptuous engravings of the author's portrait. Her title pages carried the resounding ascription 'Written by the Thrice Noble, Illustrious, and Excellent Princess, the Duchess of Newcastle.' With princely arrogance, she sent copies to friends, protégés, and even to the libraries of the universities. And no matter how much she was ridiculed, she was too rich and powerful to be ignored. Her books, although often empty of artistic worth, existed, and the medium—handsome folios written by a woman—was the message.

Contrary to general contemporary belief, none of her plays was performed. Pepys, on 30 March 1667, recorded, 'Did by coach go to see the silly play of my Lady Newcastle's called "The Humourous Lovers".' A month later Pepys was still unaware that the play was a professional version of one of the duke's sketches. In April he wrote that the duchess 'was the other day at her own play, The Humourous Lovers.'25 The same play was attributed to the duchess by others. In May 1667, Gervase Jaquis wrote to the Earl of Huntington, 'Upon monday last the Duchess of Newcastls play was Acted in the theater in Lincolns Inne field the King and the Grandees of the Court being present and soe was her grace and the Duke her husband.'26


  1. Katherine of Sutton's plays are preserved in the Barking ordinarium. Sibille Felton, abbess of Barking from 1394 to 1419, caused this to be written and presented it to the convent in 1404. Karl Young was the first to publish the Barking plays, in 'The Harrowing of Hell in Liturgical Drama,' Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters 16 (1910): 888-947. Young later included the plays in his Drama of the Medieval Church, 2 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1933), 1: 164-6, 381-4. Meanwhile, the entire ordinale had been edited by J. B. L. Tolhurst and printed in two volumes of the Henry Bradshaw Society Publications in 1927-8. The Latin quotations are from Young, Drama, 1: 165.
  2. Although English women did not act on the public stage until almost exactly three hundred years later, they participated more widely in English medieval drama than is generally realized. Women belonged to religious gilds responsible for plays—for example, the York Pater Noster Gild and the Norwich St Luke's Gild—and participated to some extent in the trade gilds. See Karl Young, 'The Records of the York Play of the Pater Noster,' Speculum 7 (1932): 544; Lucy Toulmin Smith (ed.) York Plays (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1885), pp. xxviii-xxxix; Harold C. Gardiner, Mysteries' End, Yale Studies in English, 103 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1946), p. 42; Eileen Power, Medieval Women (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), pp. 55-69. At Chester the 'wurshipffull wyffys' of the town bound themselves to bring forth the pageant of the Assumption of the Virgin. This pageant was a regular part of the Chester cycle until it was excised at the Reformation. The wives acted their play separately in 1488 before Lord Strange and again in 1515. See W. W. Greg (ed.) The Trial and Flagellation with Other Studies in the Chester Cycle, Malone Society Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1935), pp. 137, 170-1; F. M. Salter, Mediaeval Drama in Chester (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1955), pp. 50, 70-1. Women also participated in church ludi. There are records of an Abbess of Fools or Girl Abbess elected from the novices on Holy Innocents' Day at the nunneries of Godstow and Barking in the thirteenth century. See Eileen Power, Medieval English Nunneries c. 1275-1535 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1922), p. 312.
  3. Barking was an abbey holding of the king in chief; as tenant in chief, Katherine of Sutton was a baroness in her own right. She was almost certainly a noble-woman by birth also. In the later Middle Ages Barking accepted novitiates only from the aristocracy and the wealthiest bourgeois class; moreover, the nun of highest social rank usually became abbess. See Power, Medieval English Nunneries, pp. 4-13, 42.
  4. Information about Lady Lumley is taken from the introduction to Iphigeneia at Aulis, edited by Harold H. Child for the Malone Society Reprints (London: Chiswick Press, 1909). Myra Reynolds, The Learned Lady in England 1650-1760 (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1920), pp. 13-14, also discusses Lady Lumley.
  5. In The Poems of Elizabeth I, ed. Leicester Bradner (Providence, RI: Brown University Press, 1964).
  6. Biographical information is taken from Frances Berkeley Young, Mary Sidney Countess of Pembroke (London: David Nutt, 1912) and Mona Wilson, Sir Philip Sidney (London: Duckworth, 1931). Antonie has been edited by Alice Luce (Weimer: E. Felber, 1897) and by Geoffrey Bullough in Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 8 vols. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1957-75), 5: 358-406. The translation of the psalms by the Countess of Pembroke and Sir Philip Sidney has been edited by J. C. A. Rathmell (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1963). This volume is supplemented by G. F. Waller, 'The Triumph of Death' and Other Unpublished Poems by Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke (Salzburg: Institut für Englische Sprache und Literatur, 1977). The Pembroke circle of Senecan writers is discussed by John W. Cunliffe, The Influence of Seneca on Elizabethan Tragedy (London: Macmillan, 1893); Joan Rees, Samuel Daniel (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1964); Cecil Seronsy, Samuel Daniel (New York: Twayne, 1967). T. S. Eliot discusses the influence of the Pembroke circle in 'Apology for the Countess of Pembroke,' The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (London: Faber and Faber, 1933). Mary Herbert is memorialized beautifully but stereotypically in 'On the Countesse Dowager of Pembroke,' long ascribed to Ben Jonson but written by William Browne of Tavistock, in Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925-52), 8: 433.
  7. The Complete Works of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. Albert Feuillerat (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1912-26), 3: 38.
  8. The Countess of Pembroke's 'Antonie', ed. Luce, p. 97.
  9. A. W. Pollard and G. R. Redgrave, A Short-Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland, and Ireland 1475-1640 (London: The Bibliographical Society, 1926), pp. 255, 412.
  10. A Poetical Rhapsody, ed. Hyder Rollins (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931), 1: 17.
  11. This was edited and published in 1861 by Richard Simpson as The Lady Falkland: Her Life (London: Catholic Publishing Company). In-text citations refer to this volume. Two biographies based on the Life are Lady Georgiana Fullerton, The Life of Elisabeth Lady Falkland (London: Burns and Oates, 1883) and Kenneth B. Murdock, The Sun at Noon (New York: Macmillan, 1939), pp. 6-38. Both are concerned with Cary as a Catholic convert; neither is aware of her unique position in the history of English drama. Mariam was edited for the Malone Society Reprints by A. C. Dunstan and W. W. Greg (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1914). In-text citations refer to this edition; I have modernized the u/v and i/j conventions and discarded nonfunctional italics. Mariam is discussed at length by A. C. Dunstan in Examination of Two English Dramas (Königsberg: Hartungsche Buchdruckerei, 1908). Dunstan also discusses Cary's use of source material in the introduction to the Malone Society edition of the play. Mariam is briefly discussed by Alexander Witherspoon, The Influence of Robert Garnier on Elizabethan Drama (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1924), pp. 150-5, and Maurice J. Valency, The Tragedies of Herod and Mariamne (New York: Columbia University Press, 1940), pp. 87-91. Valency points out that Cary's Mariam is the first of many English plays written about Herod and Mariamne. Donald A. Stauffer, 'A Deep and Sad Passion,' The Parrott Presentation Volume, ed. Hardin Craig (1935; reprinted, New York: Russell and Russell, 1967), pp. 289-314, shows that Elizabeth Cary wrote The History of Edward II, formerly ascribed to Henry Cary.
  12. Introduction to the Malone Society edition, p. ix.
  13. Quoted by Fullerton, Life of Lady Falkland, p. 120.
  14. The Complete Works of John Davies of Hereford, ed. Alexander Grosart (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1878), 2: 4-5.
  15. Biographical information is taken from Carola Oman, Henrietta Maria (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1936). Henrietta Maria's pervasive influence on theatrical history is discussed in detail by Alfred Harbage, Cavalier Drama (1936; reprinted, New York: Russell and Russell, 1964), which suggests the queen as the author of Florimene; and by Kathleen M. Lynch, The Social Mode of Restoration Comedy (New York: Macmillan, 1926).
  16. Quotations are from Gerald Eades Bentley, The Jacobean and Caroline Stage (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1941-68), 4: 548-9.
  17. Quoted by Harbage, Cavalier Drama, pp. 14-15.
  18. Except for my inferences about the effect of Newcastle's dramatic activities on his daughters, biographical information on the Cavendish sisters is taken from the DNB and from Nathan Comfort Starr's introduction to his edition of The Concealed Fansyes in Proceedings of the Modern Languages Association 46 (1931): 802-38. Page references in the text refer to Starr's edition. Harbage, Cavalier Drama, pp. 228-9, describes the plays of the Cavendish sisters.
  19. I have drawn on a number of sources for biographical information. Standard and useful are Douglas Grant, Margaret the First (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1957) and Henry Ten Eyck Perry, The First Duchess of Newcastle and Her Husband as Figures in Literary History (Boston, MA: Ginn, 1918). Of the numerous biographical essays, the finest is Virginia Woolf's in The Common Reader (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1925), pp. 101-12. The best source of biographical material is the duchess herself, particularly in the introductions, dedications, and letters in her various works. Her autobiography, 'A True Relation of my Birth, Breeding, and Life,' originally the last section of Natures Pictures (1656), is included by C. H. Firth in his edition of the duchess's Life of William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle (London: John C. Nimmo, 1886). These two works of the duchess are available in several editions. Firth also prints the duchess's letter 'To the Two Most Famous Universities of England,' a moving appeal for education for women.
  20. 'A True Relation,' ed. Firth, pp. 157-8.
  21. Ibid., p. 177.
  22. My interpretation draws upon Jean Gagen, 'Honor and Fame in the Works of the Duchess of Newcastle,' Studies in Philology 56 (1959): 519-38.
  23. Jean Gagen focuses on this type of character, which she calls 'the oratorical lady,' in her excellent discussion of the duchess's plays in 'A Champion of the Learned Lady,' ch. 2 in The New Women: Her Emergence in English Drama 1600-1730 (New York: Twayne, 1954). Gagen's discussion led me to examine the pervasive feminism in the duchess's plays.
  24. Francis Needham (ed.) Welbeck Miscellany, 1 (1933) from a fair copy in the duke's handwriting.
  25. Pepys on the Restoration Stage, ed. Helen McAfee (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1916), pp. 171-2.
  26. The London Stage, 1600-1700, ed. William Van Lennep (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965), p. 108. Harbage, Cavalier Drama, pp. 232-3, suggests that the duchess wrote at least the first draft of Lady Alimony, performed at the Cockpit in 1659. While the play is structurally odd and schematic enough to be hers, its anonymity is conclusive proof against her authorship.


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ANNE BRADSTREET (1612?-1672)

Bradstreet was America's first published poet and the first woman to produce a lasting volume of poetry in the English language. Her work is considered particularly significant for its expression of passion, anger, and uncertainty within the rigid social and religious atmosphere of Puritan New England, and for the insight it provides into the lives of women from that period. Bradstreet was born in England to a Puritan family. Her father, Thomas Dudley, was steward to the Earl of Lincoln, a leading nonconformist in the religious strife of England. Because of her father's high position and the availability of the Earl's extensive library, Bradstreet's education was unusually comprehensive for a woman of her time. In 1630 she moved with her husband and her parents to the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

In 1647 her brother-in-law returned to England, taking with him the manuscript of Bradstreet's poems. He published them without her knowledge, under the title The Tenth Muse, Lately sprung up in America (1650). The volume met with immediate success in London. Surprised by the work's reception, though unhappy with its unpolished state, Bradstreet revised the poems, some of which were lost in a fire that destroyed the Bradstreet home in 1666. In 1678, six years after Bradstreet's death, the revisions and some new poems were published under the title Several Poems Compiled with great variety of Wit and Learning, full of Delight. Her prose meditations and later poems did not appear in print until 1867. Most of Bradstreet's works may be placed into one of two distinct periods. The "public" poems that appeared in The Tenth Muse are structurally and thematically formal, written in the style of Renaissance poetry. Bradstreet's later poems—described by most scholars as her "private" poems—are less stylized in form and more personal in content.

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APHRA BEHN (1640-1689)

Behn is best remembered as the first woman to earn her living solely by writing, and she is credited with influencing the development of the English novel toward realism. Behn competed professionally with the prominent "wits" of Restoration England, including George Etherege, William Wycherley, John Dryden, and William Congreve. Similar to the literary endeavors of her male contemporaries, Behn's writings catered to the libertine tastes of King Charles II and his supporters. Her works, especially her dramas, are usually coarse, witty farces which focus upon the amatory adventures of her characters. Occasionally they excel as humorous satires recording the political and social events of the era. After nearly 300 years, however, Behn's most enduring work is the novel Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave (1688). This work is considered one of the earliest novels to use a realistic technique, and the title character is often regarded as the first portrait of the "noble savage" in English literature.

Behn is acknowledged for her revolutionary influence on the novel form and as a pioneering example for other professional women writers. She was a controversial and vital figure during her lifetime, contributing to Restoration literature and boldly attempting to overcome the barriers of seventeenth-century prejudices. Behn dared to expose the hypocrisy of the era by advocating, through both her literary works and her manner of living, individual freedom for women in matters of love, marriage, and sexual expression. Although her works never equaled the polished, sophisticated writings of her more prominent contemporaries, such as Dryden or Congreve, they provided Restoration audiences and readers with the kind of farcical entertainment they enjoyed. Today her dramas and novels offer the modern reader an interesting and perceptive account of the colorful period in which she wrote.

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SOURCE: Ezell, Margaret J. M. "Women and Writing." In A Companion to Early Modern Women's Writing, edited by Anita Pacheco, pp. 77-94. Oxford, England: Blackwell Publishing, 2002.

In the following essay, Ezell discusses the circumstances and motivations of numerous women writers.

But, why not women write, I pray?
Sarah Jinner, 'To the Reader', An Almanack or Prognostication of Women (1658)

If this essay were being composed in the 1920s or 1930s the task would have been at once harder and simpler. It would have been harder in that the topic of early modern women writers had not been defined as an area suitable for intellectual enquiry beyond obscure antiquarian or genealogical interests. During that period, too, the dominant metaphor for literary history was of the literary past as a landscape and the historian's job was to provide a map or tour guide through its major points of attraction, defined by genre or monumental figures. The literary critic's task was to point out both the particular and the characteristic beauties of a region and also to warn the reader away from any deceptive shifting sands or literary fens.

In this version of literary history the territory occupied by writing women was largely populated by nineteenth-century novelists. Earlier female authors could be pointed out as interesting examples of rare creatures; typically mentioned in passing were Katherine Philips and Anne Finch, who dwelt in the realm of feminine sentimental or melancholy verse, or Margaret Cavendish, who occupied the isolated mansion of aristocratic, eccentric scribblers. Those readers game for a more robust tour of the literary past might encounter the bawdy Restoration dramatist Aphra Behn but none of her female contemporaries, respectable or not.

This topographical understanding of literary history, however, also made the task easier. The numbers of individuals to be discussed was small and the regions, or genres, in which to search for them clearly defined, either poetry or fiction. Using this approach, the critical questions to be answered about early modern women writers would have been why did not more women write and why were there no great women writers to rival their male contemporaries, apart from a handful of later women novelists.

While a recent literary historian will start with the same premise that a 1920s or 1930s one would, that early modern women writers existed within a conventionally patriarchal and hierarchical social structure, the oft-cited injunction that women should be chaste, silent and obedient and confine their creative work to needles and threads rather than pen and paper can no longer be taken as an accurate delineation of women's participation in early modern literary culture. Likewise, the traditional assumption that one reason why so few women wrote was because so very few were literate has also come under fire during the last few decades. As Margaret W. Ferguson has observed in her article examining Renaissance concepts of the 'woman writer', it is important to recognize still that we 'know little about how many women might have merited the label "writer" in any of that term's various senses', and that the 'concept of the "woman writer" in the early modern period signifies a shifting mix of illusion and empowerment; the consequences of women's emergence as writers were equally complex' (Ferguson 1991: 149, 163). What has changed between the 1920s and recent modes of thinking about women writers is not only the ways in which literacy is assessed but also the development of an appreciation of what is encompassed by the term 'authorship', the layers of issues involved in assessing connections between early modern women who wrote and women who read in terms of how texts were created, reproduced, circulated and preserved.

Since the 1970s, literary historians have recovered significant numbers of women's texts in both manuscript and print form. In addition to making rare individual items more widely available through the ESTC microfilm project, other groups such as the Brown University Women Writers Project, the Renaissance Women Writers Online, and the Perdita Project have worked to include such texts in electronic databases. Simultaneously, the last twenty years have seen an explosion of printed anthologies and editions, from Angeline Goreau's early collection The Whole Duty of a Woman: Female Writers in Seventeenth-Century England (1985), Germaine Greer et al.'s Kissing the Rod: An Anthology of 17th Century Women's Verse (1988), Roger Lonsdale's Oxford Book of Eighteenth-Century Women Poets (1989), to the most recent Oxford Book of Early Modern Women Poets (2001), edited by Jane Stevenson and Peter Davidson. Along with such anthologies, facsimile reprint series such as the Ashgate Library of Essential Writings by Early Modern English Women headed by Betty Travitsky and Patrick Cullen continue to call attention to the wide range of texts by early modern women which were in circulation among their contemporary readers.

Helen Wilcox has noted the paradox about early modern women that 'the centuries in question were thrilling ones in terms of new achievements by women writers … [however, their accomplishments] have always to be set against the backdrop of women's severely constrained social and legal position. In law, women had no status whatsoever but were only daughters, wives or widows of men' (Wilcox 1991: 4). Clearly, our earlier assumptions (shaped in part by Virginia Woolf's fictitious Judith Shakespeare in A Room of One's Own) that these conditions absolutely prevented women from writing, were misleading. Indeed, Jane Stevenson states that in the preparation of The Oxford Book of Early Modern Women Poets the editors determined that 'there were in the region of fifty English and Scottish women who wrote some kind of verse before 1600 which still survives in some form or other (and also a number of women composing in Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, or Irish, whose work falls outside this discussion). Of these fifty, about half printed at least some of what they wrote' (Stevenson 2000: 1). To explore more fully these rediscovered texts by women who lived and wrote within such social and legal constraints, we need to consider several issues in a larger context of literary culture and the dynamics of textual production and circulation. We need to think about not only women who wrote and published and got paid for doing so, but also about women who wrote and circulated texts socially, women who compiled volumes and managed the preservation and transmission of texts by themselves and by others, women who patronized and supported other writers through their writings, and even those early modern women who owned books and who interwove their own writing into others' texts.

Sites of Writing, Scenarios of Authorship

I turned it into English in a roome where my children practiz'd the severall qualities they were taught, with their Tutors, & I numbred the syllables of my translation by the threds of the canvas I wrought in & sett them downe with a pen & inke that stood by me.

(Lucy Hutchinson, dedication of her translation of Lucretitus' De rerum natura)

Traditionally, when thinking about women and writing, the first question asked has been what a woman wrote, in terms of genre: did she write poetry? Fiction? Drama? A diary? Perhaps a more revealing way of rethinking the literary culture of early modern women might be to ask where did she write and why. Virginia Woolf imagined the early modern woman writing secretively, hiding her activity, yet her ultimate goal was to achieve public recognition and money. For Woolf, one essential requirement for being an author was the possession of private physical space for writing, a room of one's own, with a lock on the door, enabling the woman writer to close out the distractions of everyday domestic life as well as her society's definitions and expectations of her as a woman. Given the recovery of a much wider range of early modern women's texts than Woolf had access to in shaping her story of women and writing, what other scenarios can we imagine for an early modern woman writing? What types of questions can we raise for exploration of her writing and her reading as part of a larger picture of literary culture? Did some have a 'room of her own', some female domestic space, or was this, indeed, even viewed as a necessary prerequisite for authorship in early modern literary culture?

Let us begin with familiar images of women writing. Certainly, during the early modern period there were women writing in solitude and isolation as Woolf imagined them. Most, however, sought no immediate readership other than themselves and their God, and they wrote not for the financial reward which Woolf felt validated the act of writing for women, but for personal profits. Elizabeth Burnet (1661-1709), who wrote extensively and published her Method of Devotion (1708), observed that for the purpose of serious meditation a crowded household should still be able to provide 'little rooms or closets' in which to retreat. Sometimes used as a dismissive adjective of women's writing, such 'closet writing' needs to be reconsidered. The importance of the closet as a feminine site of authorship is combined with the fact that it also served multiple social functions in the household in addition to private devotional ones, from the preparation of medicinal concoctions to a place of private reflection and storage of books and writing materials.

It was in this type of domestic space, for example, that Anne, Lady Halkett (1623-99) retired to both read and write. At her death she left behind 21 folio and quarto manuscript volumes, composed between 1644 and the late 1690s, which are now housed in the National Library of Scotland, in addition to what her contemporary biographer described as 'about thirty stitched Books, some in Folio, some in 4tc. Most of them of 10 or 12 sheets, all containing occasional Meditations' ('S.C.', Life: 64). Her biographer 'S.C.' explained that Halkett regularly set aside five hours a day for devotion, 'from 5 to 7 in the Morning, from one in the afternoon to two, from 6 to 7, and from 9 to 10, together with nine [hours] for Business', and 'ten for necessary refreshment' (ibid.: 55). Clearly, for Anne Halkett, the act of writing down her meditations on the texts she read, her analysis of her dreams, her hopes for her children, and her autobiography were a vital part of her daily domestic devotions. As she herself observed in one of the volumes begun in 1676, 'It is naturall for all persons to please themselves in pursuing what is most suitable to there inclination. & to aime att an eminency in what ever profession there Genius lead them to, from wch many have arived to Great Knowledge in Severall Arts and Sciences' (National Library of Scotland MS 6494, f.1). Anne Halkett, as did other early modern women, wrote extensively and wrote for pleasure, but it was for her spiritual, not worldly, profit.

Examples of domestic devotional writing by women throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries span numerous social classes and settings, from mothers recording spiritual advice for children (Dorothy Leigh, The Mother's Blessing: Or the Godly Counsaile of a Gentlewoman not long since deceased, left behind for her children, 1616; Elizabeth Clinton, Countess of Lincoln, The Countess of Lincoln's Nurser, 1622; Elizabeth Richardson, A Ladies Legacie to her Daughters, 1645), to women recording private prayers and meditations and keeping diaries or journals. Many of the volumes of this type of women's writing were published as historical records during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but many still remain in manuscript copies. A brief survey of only a representative few suggests the appeal of diary and journal writing for early modern women of a variety of social backgrounds, religious persuasions and political positions: Lady Elizabeth Brackley, Countess of Bridgewater (1626-63), who wrote pastorals, occasional verse, and masques with her sister Lady Jane Cavendish, which will be discussed later, left behind a manuscript collection of Meditations on the Several Chapters of the Holy Bible; a maid of honour in Catharine Braganza's court, Elizabeth Livingstone Delaval (1649-1717), created an elaborate memoir intertwining pious devotions and prayers with her romantic misadventures; the businesswoman Alice Thornton (1626-1707) wrote down her prayers as well as her fears over childbirth and poverty in her Diaries; Elizabeth, Vicountess Mordaunt (1632/3-79) carefully recorded wasting her time reading plays as well as the arrest of her husband for treason against the commonwealth in 1658; the parliamentarian paymaster's wife Mary Carey (1609/12-80) shared the pages of her meditations and verses with those of her second husband, George Payler, as they moved from town to town with the army.

Elizabeth Bury (1644-1720) offers an extended example of this type of women's writing. Born into a comfortable but not aristocratic family, Bury devoted her life to study, 'of almost every Thing … taking continual Pleasure in Reading and Conversation' (5). Her husband had portions of her diary printed after her death, noting that during her life, she had maintained an extensive correspondence on philosophical, historical, and spiritual subjects: 'in Writing of Letters, she had a great Aptness and Felicity of Expression; and was always so close and pertinent, and full to the Purpose; and withal, so Serious, Spiritual, and Pungent, that her Correspondence was greatly valued, by some of the brightest Minds, even in very distant Countries' (ibid.). This same talent for expression, Mr Bury maintains, shines through her diaries, begun when she was between 18 and 20 years of age and kept continuously until the end of her life; he was only able to publish the portions written after 1690, when she changed from recording her thoughts in shorthand with 'many peculiar Characters and Abbreviations of her own' (ibid.: 11). In her diaries, in which she wrote both in the morning and evening, 'with a very great Liberty and happy Variety of Expression', she recorded daily events, including providential acts of God towards herself and her family, 'the solemn transactions betwixt GOD and her own Soul, in her Closet, in her Family, in the Assembly, and in her daily Walk and Conversation with others; the Substance of what she had Read or Heard' (ibid.: 11-12). In short, Elizabeth Bury used writing to record, interpret and create a spiritual narrative of the events of the everyday life of a clergyman's wife in late seventeenth-century Suffolk.

For Englishwomen living abroad as part of religious houses, writing, too, was an integral part of their religious avocation and the convent house. Such separate devotional communities, including the Anglican community of Little Gidding, have remained a very little appreciated site of female participation in the creation, preservation and circulation of texts, as a site of communal authorship and vital supporting roles in maintaining a literary culture. The English nuns residing at the Benedictine community at Cambrai, founded in 1623 by Dame Gertrude More, produced meditations and prayers as part of their daily spiritual practice. Heather Wolfe stresses the importance of both reading and writing in these women's lives, pointing out that 'there was a particular emphasis on reading during Lent' in this community and that 'death notices' or biographies of fellow nuns were important texts as 'an example to posteritie' (Wolfe 2000: 206). At a nun's death, Wolfe notes, her 'loose papers' frequently were placed in the convent's library, bound together in a titled volume, such as 'a little book of Dame Mary Watsons Collections' or 'Eight Collection Bookes of … Mothere Clementia Cary'. Wolfe argues that the Life of Lady Falkland is an example of such convent-created texts. Other texts by the nuns, including the prayers and meditations of Gertrude More, for example, were occasionally published later for a general readership.

There are scenarios of women writing in solitude to consider other than religious retreat; some women had solitude imposed on their practice of writing because of their particular personal circumstances. Elaine Hobby has called such writers women who were 'making a virtue of necessity'. Hobby discusses at length the examples of Elizabeth Major and An Collins as 'celebration[s] of women's writings' where an authorial voice is created out of bodily distress and spiritual trials (Hobby 1989: 61-6). Elizabeth Major tells her readers that after having led a secular life wedded to 'earthen pleasures', 'God was pleased to visit me with lameness.… Then I was forc't to repair home to my Father again'. As part of her repentance, Major created Honey on the Rod: Or a comfortable Contemplation for one in Affliction (1656), detailing in prose and verse how her illness, 'I / In prime arrested, here I in prison lie', forced her to analyse the narrative of her past life as part of seeking future salvation and to organize and communicate her findings poetically (Greer et al. 1988: 183, 184).

Likewise An Collins, who published her Divine Songs and Meditacions (1653), was kept house-bound by her illnesses and offers her poetry as 'the offspring of my mind' since her body will not have children. For Collins, her apparently sickly childhood created a scenario of authorship as a means of overcoming those 'Clouds of Melancholy over-cast / My heart' and writing formed part of her recreation: 'I became affected to Poetry, insomuch that I proceeded to practise the same; and though the helps I had therein were small, yet the thing it self appeared unto me so amiable, as that it enflamed my faculties, to put forth themselves, in a practise so pleasing' (Collins 1653: Sig. A1). Through writing, Collins continues in 'The Preface', 'sorrow serv'd but as springing raine / To ripen fruits, indowments of the minde, / Who thereby did abillitie attaine / To send forth flowers' and, although her circumstances dictate solitude while writing, she is determined to 'publish … those Truths' and to 'tell what God still for my Soule hath wrought'.

Thus far we have looked at scenarios of women writing which are not far removed from our modern expectations of the requirements of authorship: solitude, leisure and private domestic space. What other scenarios are revealed when one examines texts by early modern women writers? Lady Falkland: Her Life (1645), written (as Heather Wolfe has convincingly argued) by her daughter Lucy while a member of the convent at Cambrai, offers glimpses of some unexpected circumstances under which an early modern woman might conduct her reading and writing. We are told that as a child Elizabeth Cary, Lady Falkland (1586-1639) 'spent her whole time in reading; to which she gave herself so much that she frequently read all night; so as her mother was fain to forbid her servants to let her have candles' (Weller and Ferguson 1994: 187). Married at age 15 to Sir Henry Cary, the young bride fell out with her mother-in-law who 'used her very hardly, so far, as at last, to confine her to her chamber; which seeing she little cared for, but entertained herself with reading'; when her mother-in-law had all the books removed from Elizabeth Cary's room, 'then she set herself to make verses' (ibid.: 189). Life improved with the return of her husband and

he grew better acquainted with her and esteemed her more. From this time she writ many things for her private reaction, on several subjects, and occasions, all in verse (out of which she scarce ever writ anything that was not translations). One of them was after stolen out of that sister-in-law's (her friend's) chamber and printed, but by her own procurement was called in. Of all she then writ, that which was said to be the best was the life of Tamberline in verse.

(Ibid.: 189-90)

In addition to the solitude imposed on her by her mother-in-law, Elizabeth Cary supposedly was able to compose under rather more distracting circumstances: she cared little about her appearance except to satisfy her husband's wishes and 'her women were fain to walk round the room after her (which was her custom) while she was seriously thinking on some other business, and pin on her things and braid her hair; and while she writ or read, curl her hair and dress her head' (ibid.: 194).

Throughout her subsequent conversion to Catholicism and her estrangement from most of her family and friends, Elizabeth Cary continued to write. Her environment was drastically changed, but her literary output continued even in conditions represented as being far removed from the comfort of her previous life. During this period of her life, waiting ladies did not follow her from room to room as she wrote, but instead she was reduced to living with a single servant, her room only furnished with a bed on the ground and 'an old hamper which served her for a table, and a wooden stool'; according to her daughter, here is where she composed in verse the lives of 'St Mary Magdalene, St Agnes Martyr, and St Elizabeth of Portingall … and of many other saints' (ibid.: 213-14).

Elizabeth Cary might seem to be an anomalous example of an early modern woman writing in extreme situations, but a closer look at the elements which characterize her sites of writing—her writing spaces, her scenarios of authorship, and her readers and the nature of the production of her texts—suggests further possibilities for exploring the literary activities of other women. Clearly, for Elizabeth Cary, the possession of a special space for writing was not central to her endeavours as an author. Nor do we see the scenario of the writer as the self-imposed social exile because of her literary pursuits, nor the woman hiding her identity as an author. As Margaret W. Ferguson points out in the preface to Cary's translation of The Reply to the Most Illustrious Cardinall of Perron (1630), 'she not only used her own name but explicitly mentioned her refusal to "make use of the worne-out forme of saying I printed it against my will, moved by the importunitie of Friends"' (Weller and Ferguson 1994: 158).

The close connection between Elizabeth Cary's reading and writing habits is a key element in Barbara Kiefer Lewalski's assessment of the literary activities of other aristocratic women writing during the Jacobean period. Lewalski examines the accumulated writings of Lady Anne Clifford (1590-1676), including her histories of her parents as well as her own. Writing about her mother, Margaret Clifford, Anne noted that 'for though she had no language but her own, yet was there few books of worth translated into English but she read them, whereby that excellent mind of hers was much enriched' (Lewalski 1993: 134). In addition to her habit of studious reading, Margaret Clifford was also 'a lover of the study and practice of alchemy, by which she found out excellent medicines that did much good to many', which she, like many early modern women, recorded in a manuscript volume. Lewalski notes that in the 'Great Picture' of the Clifford family Margaret is painted with all the elements of her reading and writing practices defining the nature of her domestic space, 'holding the Psalms of David; the Bible, and English translation of Seneca, and (her own) handwritten book of alchemical distillations and medicines are on a shelf over her head' (ibid.: 373, n. 43).

Cary's example also invites a reconsideration of how and why women were writing. The scenario of Cary surrounded by her waiting women as she both read and wrote, for example, is one which Louise Schleiner has called a 'reading formation', a social situation consisting of aristocratic women and their waiting ladies, 'circles of women encompassing two or three social classes liv[ing] in daily association, reading and often making music together' (Schleiner 1994: 3). The practice of reading as part of a female circle, Schleiner maintains, 'might inspire various urges to write, up and down its encompassed social spectrum' and, she argues, is mirrored in the way in which women poets such as Aemilia Lanyer and Isabella Whitney use paratexts to celebrate the relationship between the waiting woman and her aristocratic female reader or, as in Whitney's situation, to lament its loss (ibid.: 4, 23, 25). Examples such as these cause us to ponder the scenario of a woman writing for an audience of women readers, perhaps even doing such writing in their company: in this scenario, rather than the isolated individual writing in solitude and not daring to seek an audience, we have instead the performance of reading and writing among women as part of their domestic life and an accepted elite social practice.

The female reading circles discussed by Schleiner and those women loosely associated with Queen Anne's court between 1605 and 1609 at Hampton Court and Somerset (Denmark) House, the Countess of Bedford, Cecily Bulstrode, Lady Ann Southwell (more of whom later in this essay) and Lady Mary Wroth also suggest that we can look for women writing as part of intricate social interactions as well as for moral or medicinal improvement. Leeds Barroll places Anne of Denmark at the centre of a 'rich and hospitable climate' for the arts, surrounding herself with literate and literary women and female patrons of contemporary male writers (Barroll 1998: 55). Mary Ellen Lamb likewise points to the importance of 'poetic numbers' for early modern women writers: for Lady Mary Wroth in particular, the numerous women writers in the Sidney family as well as the Vere family provided a '"safe house" in which women could write' ambitious literary projects (Lamb 1990: 150). On a more casual level, as Jane Stevenson has observed, surviving textual evidence suggests that 'a number of women of the rank of gentlewoman or above participated in the writing of ephemeral poetry as a social activity' (Stevenson 2000: 4). Lewalski (1993) notes that some of the prose 'inventions' by Bulstrode and Southwell ended up being included in Sir Thomas Overbury's collection of miscellaneous pieces, Sir Thomas Overbury His Wife (1611), and Stevenson points to George Gascoigne's even earlier Hundred Sundrie Flowers (1573) containing several examples of witty exchanges of verses between gentle-women and their male admirers (Stevenson 2000: 5-7).

Later in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century, the titles of women's poems found in published volumes often reveal both the connection between a woman's reading and her writing and the social or coterie origins of her verse. Writing at the end of the seventeenth century, the poet, novelist and medicinal writer Jane Barker (1652-c. 1727) participated in a number of literary exchanges throughout her life. Kathryn R. King describes Barker's first appearance in print, Poetical Recreations (1688), as an example of a 'sociable text'; 51 of the 109 poems are by Barker and the rest are by 'Gentlemen of the Universities, and Others' (King 1994: 552). The titles of the poems reflect the occasions of their composition and their function as a type of social performance. This same pattern of linked verses where one poet writes in response to another's verse, typically written to record social occasions from weddings and deaths to broken friendships and flirtations, is not infrequently found in posthumous collections of poetry by women writers, such as Anne Killigrew's Poems (1686) and Mary Monck's Marinda (1716). Such posthumous volumes serve as a type of blueprint of the patterns of social verse exchange among women and their friends, both male and female: Killigrew's volume includes, for example, 'To My Lord Colrane, In Answer to his Complemental Verses sent me under the Name of Cleanor', while Mary Monck's volume includes 11 poems addressed to her as 'Marinda', as well as one entitled 'Upon an Impromptu of Marinda's, in answer to a Copy of Verses'.

This practice of the exchange of verses as part of a social pastime is clearly continued throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and was not restricted to highly placed courtiers and aristocrats. At some times, too, the composition, compilation and preservation of manuscript volumes by women also act as a means of confirming religious or political loyalties within the woman's literary circle. Constance Aston Fowler organized her family and friends to contribute verses to her compilations in the 1630s and 1640s, and her correspondence contains several references to her compilations and to her family's lively literary life (Ezell 1999: 25-8). Fowler's manuscript miscellany reveals both her reading and writing practices: in addition to collecting poems by her father, her brother Herbert Aston (whose wife later assembled a separate manuscript volume of his verse), her brother-in-law Sir William Pershall, her sister-in-law Katherine Thimelby, her friend Lady Dorothy Shirley, and possibly herself, Constance Fowler also included verses by Ben Jonson, John Donne, Richard Fanshawe and Aurelian Townshend. Victoria Burke has described this as 'a clearly definable literary network', tying together a diverse group bound by their 'embattled Catholic faith', ranging from 'her blood relatives, to her relatives by marriage, to her friends in the Catholic faith, to diplomatic friends of her father's, to the people who were the means by which popular poetry circulating in manuscript reached her' (Burke 1997: 139).

The same practice of literary compilation and collaboration among family members rather than the scenario of the isolated artist is found in the manuscript volumes compiled by Lady Jane Cavendish (1621-69) and Lady Elizabeth Brackley (1626-63), the daughters of the Duke of Newcastle by his first wife. As with the Aston family circle, the manuscript volume, Poems Songs and a Pastoral, also reveals how literary exchanges were used to cement social bonds during times of duress. The two sisters were at Welbeck when it was besieged by parliamentary troops, and several of the verses reflect the women's concerns for their absent relatives fighting for the king in the Civil War, while the play The Concealed Fansyes features scenes of witches overturning natural order and harmony to create civil strife. As preserved miscellanies and family papers show us, the Duke of Newcastle encouraged his children from an early age to write and to compose little social verses; their surviving manuscript volumes embody their continuing literary activities as young women, wives and mothers (Ezell 1998: 256-7).

The social aspect of women's writing can also be seen in the practice of writers sharing space on the page itself. The Cavendish sisters, for example, intermingled their poems, not dividing them into separate author sections. Manuscript volumes often reflect multiple generations of women readers and writers at work, and such volumes often display their multiple functions within the family and household. Anna Cromwell Williams assembled A Books of Several Devotions collected from good men (1656, 1660), whose inscription declares it to have been a gift between sisters. Williams also embellished the good men's devotions with her own verses; in the same volume other hands recorded poems on family events, such as the death of Bettina Cromwell (British Library Harl. Ms. 2311).

The shared commonplace book of Lady Anne Southwell (1573-1636) and her second husband, Captain Henry Sibthorpe, likewise displays multiple hands, voices, agendas and genres of writing. Lady Anne's original verses are mingled with copies of her letters, one to Cicely MacWilliams on the superiority of verse to prose, and one to Elizabeth Cary's husband on his return to England. The same volume also contains the hand of her father-in-law, John Sibthorpe, prosaically recording his account of receipts for moneys spent during the Dutch war, as well as Ann Johnson and Mary Phillips signing receipts for rents. As Jean Klene notes, this remarkable collection also includes Henry Sibthorpe's tribute to his departed wife, 'the pattern of conjugall love and obedience', and Klene views the preservation of manuscript text with all its hands and purposes as a husband's monument to his remarkable spouse (Klene 1998: 165).

Still other women joined together to write collaboratively for pressing political reasons. By far the largest single group of women publishing their writings during the Restoration period were Quakers, who wrote not only to record their individual spiritual journeys for the assistance of their fellow travellers, but who also turned out accounts of persecutions, trials and incarceration where the authorship of a single document is the work of several hands, carrying several signatures. They sent petitions and appeals with over 100 women's signatures attached to plead their causes. Such use of the press to present a public appeal can be seen as a continuation of the practices of other women petitioners during the 1640s and during the Civil War years. In 1642 the 'Gentlemen and Tradesmens Wives, In and About the City of London' petitioned parliament to protect its citizens against the dangers of papistry and false prelates (Archbishop Laud), citing as their precedent for writing Esther's petition to King Ahasuerus on behalf of the church. During the war years women associated with the Leveller movement petitioned for the release of John Lilburne in 1649, and in 1653 a group of some 6,000 women petitioned parliament to stop his trial. The Quaker Mary Forster (c. 1620-87) explained 'To the Reader' in a petition presented in May 1659 arguing against tithes that the 7,000 women who attached their names to the petition do so in order to be the 'weak means to bring to pass his mighty work'.

Better known than such examples of multiple women writers combining to create a single female public voice are individual women such as Katherine Chidley (believed to have participated in the Leveller group petitions), who used pamphlet writing to explain her political opposition to a national church and to argue for the right of women to preach. Other women turned to printed pamphlets and broadsides to map out their visions of England's future: Mary Cary (c. 1621-53) wrote petitions explaining to parliament the plans to build God's kingdom on earth, A New and Exact Mappe or Description of New Jerusalems (1651), and in Twelve Humble Proposals (1653) she, like Chidley and the 1659 women petitioners, recommended the abolition of tithes as a first step. In the 1680s and 1690s Elinor James (fl. 1675-1715), in contrast, used broadsides to support the established church and the Stuart monarchy, the titles of her broadsides clearly displaying her loyalties; for example, 'Mrs. James's Defence of the Church of England in a short answer to the canting Address: with a word or two concerning a Quakers good advice to the Church of England' (1687) and 'Mrs. James's letter of thanks to the Q——n and both houses of Parliament for the deliverance of Dr. Sacheverell' (1710).

We also find individual women making their private writing public in response to legal cases involving their families. During the war years individual women such as Elizabeth Lilliburne petitioned on behalf of their imprisoned husbands. During the Restoration women such as Mary Love approached parliament with numerous petitions to spare the life of her husband Christopher; the unsuccessful petitions were subsequently published, along with letters between the husband and wife in a volume called Love's Name Lives (1663). Rachel, Lady Russell (1636-1723) took the notes at her husband's trial for high treason that were used as part of his defence; like Mary Love, she unsuccessfully pleaded for his life and as with the letters of Love, Lady Russell's letters to her husband and to her spiritual advisers were subsequently published.

Still another group of women whose writings begin appearing as printed volumes during the period following the Restoration were motivated by a desire to improve the status of the female sex as a whole and to respond to male writers' representation of women's roles and natures. Polemical writers such as Judith Drake (fl. 1696), Bathsua Makin (c. 1600-?) and Mary Astell (1666-1731) argued strenuously for the education of middle- and upper-class women as rational rather than ornamental creatures. Others such as Sarah Fyge Egerton (1669-1722) turned to satire, publishing The Female Advocate (1686) to rebut Robert Gould's attack; Mary, Lady Chudleigh (1656-1710) was sufficiently provoked by the Revd John Sprint's advice to brides to reply with The Ladies Defense (1701). All of these women share the view that while men had rejected the notion of absolutism in national politics, they had strenuously preserved it in the domestic realm. For these women, writing and reading were the keys to middle-class women's improvement of their lives, and they argued for a system of education for women which paralleled that offered to men of that station.

Finally, the scenario of authorship most familiar to us, the commercial, professional woman writer, also begins to be performed more frequently during the latter part of the seventeenth century. As Janet Todd has observed, 'the Restoration and early eighteenth century is the first period when women as a group began writing for money clearly and openly' (Todd 1989: 37). With the reopening of the theatres, the expansion of commercial publishing, as well as the development of new types of literary genres such as periodicals, earning money by writing became more of a possibility for middle-class women in search of an income. The theatres were hungry for new materials to present, and women dramatists such as Aphra Behn (c. 1640-89), Delarivier Manley (c. 1663-1724), Catherine Trotter (1679-1749), Eliza Haywood (1693-1756) and Mary Pix (1666-1729) provided comedies and tragedies for the new theatre companies at a considerable rate. Jacqueline Pearson's study of women dramatists of the period credits Behn with over 20 plays, Manley 6, Pix 13 and Susanna Centlivre (?-1723) with 19 (Pearson 1988: 288-91). While Trotter produced fewer dramas, only five, she was widely known for her attempts to write for a 'reformed' stage, although she, along with Pix and Manley, was satirized in The Female Wits (1696). As unpleasant as the caricatures of these women dramatists are, it does suggest that women commercial writers as a group posed a sufficient, visible competition to provoke defensive measures from concerned professional rivals.

Although professional women writers drew attacks from male professionals, it is also clear that women writers were frequently supportive of the literary activities of their peers. Todd notes that during the later part of the seventeenth century 'there was … a sense of a female writing community, which in many ways looked towards the Bluestocking groupings of the last half of the eighteenth century' (Todd 1989: 40). Sometimes the public, printed endorsement of another woman's writing was simply a continuation of a literary relationship begun as part of a social literary exchange: Elizabeth Thomas wrote enthusiastic letters and poems to Mary Chudleigh which she later published; Chudleigh and Mary Astell knew and endorsed each other's works and opinions in verse as well as prose; and Chudleigh introduced Thomas to Astell's circle. Women dramatists provided prefaces and commendatory verses for other women's plays. Aphra Behn included verses by other women, such as 'Mrs. Taylor', in her verse miscellanies. In Nine Muses, or Poems written by as many Ladies Upon the Death of the Late Famous John Dryden Esq (1700) Manley assembled poems by herself and her female acquaintances, including Egerton, Trotter, Pix, and Trotter's patron, Lady Sarah Piers.

The self-representations of this generation of women writers we see in their printed texts are remarkably similar to the various masks of authorship assumed by their male contemporaries. Elizabeth Singer Rowe (1674-1737) jauntily rejected the advice of a friend 'Who Persuades me to leave the Muses' on the grounds that her literary pursuits harm no one:

Forego the charming Muses! No, in spite
Of your ill-natur'd prophecy I'll write;
And for the future paint my thoughts at large,
I waste no paper at the hundred's charge:
I rob no neighbouring geese of quills, nor slink
For a collection, to the church for ink:
Yet I'm so naturally inclined to rhyming,
That undesigned, my thoughts burst out a chiming;
My active genius will by no means sleep,
Pray let it then its proper channel keep.
I've told you, and you may believe me too,
That I must this, or greater mischief do:
And let the world think me inspired, or mad,
I'll surely write whilst paper's to be had.
Poems on Several Occasions, Written by Philomena, 1696 (Goreau 1985: 291-2)

In her poem 'The Liberty' Sarah Fyge Egerton voiced even more strongly her commitment to her pen in her role as the defender of the female sex. She rejects the model of a woman's writing as being confined to 'lofty Themes of useful Houswifery, / Transcribing old Receipts of Cookery': for Egerton, 'My daring Pen, will bolder Sallies make / And like myself, an uncheck'd freedom take' (Greer et al. 1988: 347). Elizabeth Tipper (fl. 1690s), on the other hand, considers and rejects the role of satirist for herself: 'Where's then my Muse? Does my Poetick Vein! / Want Skill or Courage for this useful strain? / … / I find no Moment where I need explore / The Faults of others, but my own deplore' ('The Pilgrim's Viaticum', 1698; ibid.: 71-2).

Although, as we have seen, the genres of women's texts varied widely and most wrote in more than one, there are some recurrent metaphors used by women for writing which transcend both period and geographical location. While the metaphor of a poem or a book as the author's child is a common one for both male and female writers during the early modern period, it seems important to look at the particulars when considering how early modern women viewed their writing. While male authors such as Dudley, 4th Lord North, tended to dwell upon the image of poetic creation as involving labour and birth pains—'a burden of perplexed thoughts, the very being delivered (a terme well known to you Ladyes)' (Ezell 1999: 35)—the use of the image by women more typically focuses on the pleasure of the creation and the subsequent fond pride in the literary 'offspring'. This characterization of writing by women as giving birth and the writers' affection for their productions crosses the social classes of those women who wrote about writing. Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623-73), in 'An excuse for so much write upon my Verses', pleads: 'Condemme me not for making such a coyle / About my Book, alas it is my Childe' (Poems, and Fancies, 1653, Sig. A8v). A year before her volume appeared, 'Eliza' published Eliza's Babes: or The Virgin's Offspring (1652), describing, as did An Collins, the pleasure of writing; her poems, 'my Babes … were obtained by vertue, borne with ease and pleasure' through divine inspiration (Sig. A3). In a more exasperated use of the metaphor, in the American colonies, Anne Bradstreet (1612-72) described her collection of verses as 'my rambling brat' when she remarked on their publication in England under the title The Tenth Muse: 'Thou ill-form'd offspring of my feeble brain, / Who after birth didst'st by my side remain, / Till snatcht from thence by friends, less wise then true' ('The Author to her Book', Several Poems, 1678). For such women, writing was a natural process of generation from the woman's self and a process over which nature, not the individual will, had the final say about production.

Early modern women also shared with contemporary male writers reasons to write other than God's command or the urging of friends. In her 'Preface' to her Miscellany Poems (1713) Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea (1661-1720) quotes from Beaumont's verse to Fletcher: 'no more can he, whose mind / Joys in the Muses, hold from that delight / When nature, and his full thoughts, bid him write'; adding 'I not only find true by my own experience, but have also to many witnesses of it against me, under my own hand in the following poems'. She concludes, sounding rather like her friend Alexander Pope, that it was 'an irresistible impulse' which is her primary reason for writing. Occasional dramatist, coffee-house keeper, and novelist Mary Davys (1674-1732) used the preface to her Works (1725) to assure her readers that 'idleness has so long been an excuse for writing, that I am almost ashamed to tell the world it was that, and that only, which produced the following sheets'. She concludes by hoping that 'my pen is at the service of the public, and if it can but make some impression upon the young unthinking minds of some of my own sex, I shall bless my labour and reap an unspeakable satisfaction'. Writing for women was variously presented as childbirth, as an irresistible compulsion, a divine channelling, and an amusing pastime, and the wide variety of metaphors employed suggests to us the wide variety of scenarios of authorship.

Conclusion: Why Write?

Surveying the different materials written by early modern women as a whole, we find that by the end of the seventeenth century into the early part of the eighteenth, we are looking at a collage of various overlapping sites and scenarios of women writing rather than a map giving us individual landmarks and clearly defined territories. For example, the practice of keeping diaries and journals for private spiritual improvement feeds into the developing forms of fiction for profit; the mother writing for her children seems related to the woman writing for the improvement of her sex; the woman sitting with her waiting ladies or sending her poems to her friends in letters seems reflected in the links between the growing numbers of professional women writers praising and contributing to each other's works.

How did early women themselves describe their desires to write? As we have seen, many felt compelled to share with others their experiences of God and salvation, pain and hope. Tudor women, Margaret P. Hannay suggests, found a means to 'find their own voices through their proclamations of the Word of God' as translators and devotional writers (Hannay 1985: 14). During the Civil War years and Restoration period, women prophets from diverse social backgrounds such as the Quaker Ester Biddle (c. 1629-96) and aristocratic Lady Eleanor Douglas (1590-1652) felt compelled to publish their warnings and prophecies for the good of England. Other women were clearly motivated by a compelling combination of contemporary politics and profit. As Paula McDowell has suggested in her study of the women writers, printers and booksellers occupying Grub Street during the years after the Restoration, 'religious and religio-political works' formed the 'largest category of women's (and men's) writings' (McDowell 1998: 18), but these are markedly different from the books of private devotions or solitary prophecy from the start of the century. The period following the Civil Wars, as she notes, was remarkable for the simultaneous 'birth of the modern literary marketplace … concurrent with women's emergence in significant numbers as publishing authors' (ibid.: 5). We are most familiar with women's participation in commercial literary culture as authors, but, in the same way that we have tended to overlook women's participation in the production and dissemination of manuscript texts, McDowell draws our attention to the activities of women 'working in all aspects of material literary production, and doing so for pay' (ibid.).

Where were early modern women writing and why? As their surviving manuscripts and volumes reveal, writing for women and men was a social activity as well as a means of private consolation. Once we leave behind the notion of authorship as an act defined by solitary alienation and the text as an isolated literary landmark, we start to see a much livelier literary landscape for early modern women. While looking at the diversity of texts they created and which have recently been recovered, we now can see them more clearly at their writing—alone, in groups, in the closet, in the courtroom—and for whom they wrote—for themselves, God, their friends, their children, parliament and for future readers. For many early modern women, writing was an essential part of their devotional life, as much a part of daily domestic life as prayer; while historians are right to remind us about the separation of the teaching of reading and writing skills, it is well to remember the role that reading played in inspiring many such women to write their own thoughts in response to what they read. For other women, writing was a means to reinforce family and social ties, often in manuscript volumes compiled by women and passed through generations of family readers and contributors. Writing women also created collections and compilations of others' works and added their annotations to printed books in their libraries. Separately printed broadsides and pamphlets permitted individual women such as Anna Trapnel, Lady Eleanor Douglas and Jane Lead to share their prophetic visions of God's wishes for England, while petitions gave groups of women a means of making written statements on political events which they were legally barred from participating in directly.

For early modern women, writing could be both a private pleasure and a means of public performance. Writing could be a response to a particular life crisis or a sustained life-long practice. When we imagine scenarios of authorship for these women, we need to remember that writing could function as an act of creation, a bid for fame, an affirmation of allegiances, and a part of a prayer, and that a woman who wrote probably did so in a variety of genres for a variety of audiences. In this expanded sense of the literary stage for early modern women—in her closet, in the children's schoolroom, in the sickroom, in the kitchen, in the great hall, in the courtroom, in prison and in the parlour—wherever one looks, the possibility is there that one will find women writing and that, indeed, there are more early modern women writers still waiting for us to see them.

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Women's Literature in the 16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries: Overviews

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Women's Literature in the 16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries: Overviews