- Women, Space and Utopia, 1600-1800
Like its subject, Nicole Pohl's Women, Space and Utopia, 1600-1800 is a wide-ranging and hybrid book. The book takes a fresh and innovative approach to a well-traversed topic, moving broadly through a series of different generic variations and manifestations of the notion of utopia. The argument that utopian thought and writing has a specifically gendered aspect is an intriguing insight, even if it might be seen as a rather obvious one — the reader only has to think of the gender roles outlined in More's Utopia or the complex ideas about sex and sexuality in The Tempest. Yet Pohl's book aims to do more than this. As well as addressing the question of the intersection between gender and imaginative space, Women, Space and Utopia aims to look at the relationships between gender and physical space as manifested in buildings and imagined institutional spaces in the early modern period. On the whole it achieves the latter more successfully than the former, although this is an intriguing area of inquiry: it would have been fascinating to have had more analysis devoted to the physical and material aspects of women's experience of space, the most obvious examples being the closet and the threshold.
Women, Space and Utopia concentrates on four key areas, exploring these consistently across the historical range of the book, and attempting to tease apart the relationship between space and the numerous vectors that construct both experience and identity. There are chapters devoted to romance and pastoral, to the country house poem, to convents and academies, and, finally, to Oriental travel narratives. While each of these is interesting in itself, there is a good deal of slippage between categories, as well as significant commonality between them, namely the argument that "[t]he true utopic space of being is . . . outside of a masculinist geography of power" (25). Pohl uses a nuanced critical approach, drawing heavily on modern interpretations of the relationship between architecture and gender: at times this leads her to interpret her chosen texts in rather a uni-directional way. Wroth's Urania, for example, certainly does articulate a consistent interest in notions of space, but the text consistently suggests that the pastoral ideal is unattainable, and that it often produces negative effects for women. Pohl perhaps underestimates the degree to which writing, for many of her authors, is itself both utopian and dystopian, a complex and sometimes unstable intervention. While no one would seriously question many of Pohl's assump-tions — utopias clearly do "both preserv[e] and reconceptualiz[e] the status quo" [End Page 1303] (6) — often her textual analysis ducks this essential contradiction. This is perhaps more clearly manifested in the work on the earlier part of her chosen period, where there is a tendency to be overly selective with key texts: the analysis of Aemilia Lanyer, for example, would benefit from reading "The Description of Cooke-ham" in its full context, namely Lanyer's projection and appropriation of an ideal world of women, which in its social inclusiveness clearly represents Lanyer's own aspirations — a position nicely outlined in Lisa Schell's article, not cited here.
The most successful analysis in the book is that of convents and academies, where utopian idealism and material concerns are seen to work in complex and interesting ways, not least because, by and large, these efforts were failures, but failures with far-reaching impact. They thus embody the central thesis that women's interventions in utopian writing demonstrate not only the "transformational potential of writing," but also that these are "contested sites" (155). Women, Space and Utopia is occasionally guilty of ignoring key critical work — that of Erica Veevers on the culture of Henrietta Maria's court, and recent work on closet drama, for example — and could have benefited from better copyediting — Toni Morrison is referred to as "Tony" — but overall the book is an original and stimulating reading of a...