- Early Modern Women's Manuscript Writing: Selected Papers from the Trinity/Trent Colloquium
This volume selects twelve of the best papers presented from 1997 onwards at a colloquium on early modern women's manuscript writing originated by the Perdita Project at Nottingham Trent University in collaboration with the late Jeremy Maule at Trinity College, Cambridge. Editors Victoria Burke and Jonathan Gibson argue that the essays aim to provide alternatives to the 'print-dominated canon' that highlights women's original poetry and to the prevailing critical emphasis on women's writing as subversive. The miscellany is, to a large degree, successful in these goals, even if the introduction underestimates the extent to which the fast-growing field of early women's writing has already absorbed these changes of emphasis. 'Reading Bells and Loose Papers' - Heather Wolfe's title for her stimulating essay on the English Benedictine nuns - might serve to convey the overall diversity of textual choices in this volume, as authors range far afield from [End Page 242] the traditional literary canon, reading New Year's gift manuscripts (Gibson), keens in Irish memorializing Gaelic chiefs who co-operated with the English crown (Marie-Louise Coolahan), and manuscript recipe collections (Sara Pennell). Despite this focus on scattered bits in manuscript, the kind of archival material that escaped notice over centuries in boxes labelled (literally or figuratively) 'of no importance,' the collection makes for absorbing reading, largely because the contributors so effectively combine their expert studies of manuscript texts with a complex and engaging analysis of relevant historical contexts in their efforts to make the contributions of early modern women more fully visible.
This uniting of archival scholarship with wide-ranging historical analysis is evident in Jane Stevenson's examplary essay on Mildred Cecil, Lady Burleigh. Without Stevenson's detailed grasp of the Elizabethan political scene, the manuscript traces she patiently recovers of Mildred's activities could never be moulded into the complex and highly nuanced account of Mildred's roles in politics, religion, poetry, and education. Indeed, some of the more fascinating conclusions arise not out of manuscript finds but by reading gaps and silences. Thus, that little survives of Mildred's Latin and Greek poetry, despite her demonstrated ability, relates to her shift in focus from writer to patron of scholars and poets. That her extensive correspondence was lost or destroyed, despite the Cecil household's compulsive docketing and preservation of letters, contributes to an argument that Mildred, far from being merely a 'helpmeet' to an important man, conducted business and affected political affairs independently of her husband. Furthermore, that Cecil was ignorant of Mildred's substantial charitable initiatives until after her death, despite yearly expenditures amounting to several hundred pounds, suggests that she had independent access to and control of an income. Stevenson, patiently seeking not only to establish Mildred Cecil's importance but also to convey the unvarnished truth, argues that she raised it by intervening and profiteering in the sale of wardships. Similarly, Coolahan's fine essay brings to life the achievement of Caitlín Dubh, author of the relatively sparse corpus of five poetic elegies on members of the O'Brien family of Thomond, county Clare, through an account of the surrounding political situation and poetic tradition in seventeenth-century Ireland. And Gibson makes the subject of New Year's gift manuscripts by Katherine Parr and Princess Elizabeth - penitent meditations on Christ's Passion - more interesting and legible by 'providing a broad historico-religious context.'
Striking in the construction of context in some essays is an accent on collaborative production involving both men and women, as in Wolfe's assessment of Father Augustine Baker's influence on the reading practices of the English nuns at Cambrai and Paris. Burke's thoughtful study of three commonplace books associated with male strongholds like the universities - yet also identified in some way with female ownership or contribution -persuasively [End Page 243] posits collaboration and 'friendship' spanning succeeding generations of family members. Intergenerational collaboration also figures in Caroline Bowden...