- Dido’s Daughters: Literacy, Gender, and Empire in Early Modern England and France
To designate a book as a study in Comparative Literature, one would expect it to offer critical analyses of texts drawn from two or more linguistically different cultural discourses, historical accounts of how and why these discourses call for comparison, and theoretical insights into such issues as they might unfold in other discourses at other times. Such a book could require the space of two or three or more books to execute its task as the author copes with various critical, historical, and theoretical demands, measuring up to specialized scholarship in each instance while advancing beyond parochialism with a comparative vision. Margaret W. Ferguson's Dido's Daughters comes as close to this ideal as I could ever imagine. It weighs in with the worth of several volumes as it offers a sustained critical inquiry into the bonds that link nationalism to literacy with respect to gender differences, a broad historical inquiry into these bonds as they take shape in France and England from the late middle ages through the early modern period, and a judicious theoretical inquiry into the contested natures of nationalism, literacy, and gender difference. It is a book to read with pleasure and profit as it brushes against the grain, submits familiar truisms to sharper scrutiny, and overturns prejudices on which entire systems of academic thought have sometimes been based.
One impetus for Ferguson's approach appears linked to the commonplace that "mass" literacy in a single national language abets the cause of modern nationalism. Who, Ferguson asks, constitute the members of such a "mass"? Social distinctions abound wherever we look, whether with respect to gender, class, religion, ethnic origin, and other ideational categories, so that the concept of "mass" seems itself a constructed fiction. Likewise fictional is the concept of a single national language, which inevitably disposes itself across a grid of social distinction calibrated again by norms of gender, class, religion, and ethnic origin. According to Ferguson, "nationalist ideologies [. . .] may officially promote literacy for all subjects of the polity, while in actuality the nations in question not only tolerate but benefit from multiple language uses and highly stratified forms of literacy" (p. 154). This claim rings true in today's universities (where in addition to courses in ESL we routinely find offerings in French for Travelers, German for Business, and [End Page 176] Japanese for Technology), but Ferguson points to the particularly acute form that it took in Western Europe from the fourteenth through the seventeenth centuries. There and then the question of regional particularisms in conflict with the on-going absorption of far-flung territories into centralized nations points to a spectrum of "dissonant voices in various sociolects" that merit close study (143). Dissonance issues not just from individual voices inscribed in particular texts, but from the aggregated voices of broad-gauged theory as well. Vernacular languages have frequently been thought of negatively as well as positively, as invitations to disorder as well as to order, and in the form of "mother tongues" they have often been construed as feminine according to a binary mode of thinking. But, as Ferguson argues, "the vernacular is most definitely not a homogeneous phenomenon, any more than women are a single social group" (107). Her subsequent analysis of texts and theory quickens from its engagement with the heterogeneity of discursive practices and linguistic models at play in the development of early modern character.
Guiding this analysis is a concept of colinguisme (derived from the French educational scholar Renée Balibar), according to which a certain bureaucratic language and style sometimes leavens and sometimes accentuates discordant usage among contending groups. Elaborating upon this concept, Ferguson notes a separation of reading and writing behaviors in the practice of literacy. This separation bears significant ideological consequences when a particular group dominates one behavior and a different group is suborned to another behavior. In the author's terms, "an emphasis...