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Epistolary Community in Print, 1580-1664 by Diana G. Barnes (review)

From: Parergon
Volume 30, Number 2, 2013
pp. 163-164 | 10.1353/pgn.2013.0093

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Diana G. Barnes introduces her fascinating study with correspondence between Edmund Spenser and Gabriel Harvey. She uses their dialogue to argue that epistolary discourse 'is a sociable form that speaks for the group rather than the individual' (p. 1). Thus, Barnes examines early modern letters that have 'appeared at key moments from the 1580s to the 1660s' with the wider community in mind (p. 15). During these periods of political upheaval, letter-writers attempted to influence public opinion.

Chapter 1 examines The English Secretary (1586-1635) by Angel Day. This manual for professional letter-writers also reveals Barnes's additional interest in the importance of 'feminine' letters written by women. It appears an obvious concern given how the figure of 'the secretary' has been distinctly feminised in modern times. Barnes's analysis of the literacy women demonstrated by the reading and writing of letters is here used to chart the development of love letters. Yet Barnes's analysis is also crucial for understanding how women came to define the epistolary tradition.

Michael Drayton's England's Heroicall Epistles (1597) is the subject of Chapter 2. Influenced by the epistles in Ovid's Heroides, Drayton's dialogue form uses love letters 'to challenge singular sovereignty' (p. 69). The king's disgruntled mistresses turned feminine discourse into a powerful political weapon. These epistolary dialogues lead Barnes neatly into a discussion of Jacques du Bosque's The Secretary of Ladies (1638), the subject of Chapter 3. Translated by Jerome Hainhofer and dedicated to Mary Sackville, The Secretary of Ladies invited contemporary concerns into Henrietta Maria's Roman Catholic court. Barnes argues more specifically that feminine epistolary discourse was not private, but 'a differentiating and specifying term in a public discourse' (p. 75). The early modern appetite for gossip within the aristocratic elite sets the tone for the next chapter.

Chapter 4, provocatively titled 'Epistolary Battles in the English Civil War: The Kings Cabinet Opened (1645)', details how Parliament turned the public against King Charles I. Once the New Model Army had seized and published the King's private letters, Charles's ability to rule was open to public debate. Barnes reveals a dichotomy where the King was associated 'with secret language, deception and sin' and Parliament 'with plain prose, God and truth' (p. 113). More interesting is the assertion that the King was ruled by an 'evil secretary' through the Queen's ability to manipulate language (p. 128): femininity was no longer associated with love letters but with political controversy.

In order to restore a positive attitude towards feminine discourse, Chapter 5 tackles Margaret Cavendish's Sociable Letters and Philosophical Letters (1664). Sociable Letters contains letters promoting marital bliss. The wife of this epistolary discourse is not deceptive, but instead 'sets ideals and restores peace' (p. 157). Philosophical Letters is an extension of Cavendish's rhetoric of friendship and love. It was a serious attempt by a woman to voice philosophical opinion in a distinctly male world. Cavendish's discussion of the leading philosophers of the day, Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes, Henry More, Francis Mercury Van Helmont, and Galileo Galilei demonstrates this male preserve set against her own philosophy.

In the Conclusion, Barnes reiterates the social function of what she terms 'the printed familiar letter' (p. 197).The individual voice was still retained but, upon publication, the printed letter became a communal discourse through its wide familiarity. Yet Barnes also identifies the exclusionary nature of the epistolary tradition. Referring once again to the Spenser/Harvey letters, she reflects how the 'familiar printed letter' is hostile to the unfamiliar other.

Epistolary Community in Print, 1580-1664 is an excellent study for students and academics interested in the early modern letter-writing tradition. Barnes's focus on feminine epistolary discourse gives her book welcome depth. Her book is also an exciting read. Each subsequent chapter follows a logical progression to create an absorbing narrative that celebrates the feminine intellect. What is crucial here is Barnes's implication of a strong female community existing within, and undermining, an early modern patriarchal society. It is a study that even suggests how the modern secretary developed into a popular female vocation.

Copyright © 2013 by the Author
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