- Literature, Gender and Politics during the English Civil War
This book has been a long time in the writing. Based on its author's doctoral thesis of 1991, it might be expected to show signs of the kind of unfortunate belatedness that can often afflict monographs completed over such a long period. That it does not do so is not merely a tribute to Diane Purkiss's ongoing industry and attention to recent work in the field, but also a mark of the challenge that her main arguments offer even now to the way in which the politics of Civil War writing is customarily addressed. At the heart of Purkiss's book is the ably supported claim that the experience of the Civil War, literary and otherwise, testifies to a profound crisis of masculinity in early modern English culture. This is a crisis that is manifested on the battlefield in the broken and dismembered bodies of soldiers, and in the grisly acts perpetrated by the soldiery on camp followers and noncombatants; it is also very much in evidence in the polemical exchanges and literary culture of the period which has been the much more common focus of critical attention.
Purkiss's approach promises to renew the engagement of work on Civil War writing with accounts of early modern subjectivity, a topic which has not always been its explicit focus. It has, however, necessarily lurked in the background, at the level either of method or of presupposition, and as such has underpinned some of the most influential readings of the pragmatic functioning of the period's literary texts. David Norbrook's recovery of an obscured republican literary heritage, for example, has been posed against the tendentious accounts of early modern political agency that he detected in new historicism and, in Habermasian vein, attributed to the dubious influence of Nietzsche and Foucault. Other work over the last decade or so has considered the ways in which its own agency becomes an explicit topic of Civil War writing. Purkiss now sets alongside a model of writerly agency that takes texts to be the deeds of "rational liberal subjects" (5) a more complex and conflicted narrative of the subject influenced by the focuses of psychoanalysis. So she sketches an account of the determining psychosocial conditions for the production of early modern masculinities, and reads the political literature of the Civil War period as in large part revelatory of the psychic dynamics traversing the [End Page 982] masculine figures of the king, the soldier, the citizen, and the father. The literary representations of the war with which she is concerned are therefore animated by the apparently impossible project of asserting a properly phallic masculinity in the face of feminizing threats.
This case is pursued through a commendably broad range of newsbooks, dialogues, satires, elegies, and pamphlets. These are far from canonical works, even though many among them are familiar from other critical narratives of recent years. Little attention is paid to unprinted material, which is perhaps a pity, and there is the occasional mistake (the royal Elizabeth to whom Christopher Wase, not Wace, dedicated his translation of Sophocles, for example, was the ill-starred daughter of Charles rather than her equally unfortunate Bohemian aunt). The book is at its most successful when Purkiss's gaze is brought to bear on the obviously canonical texts of Marvell and Milton, as her distinctive combination of psychoanalytic framework and familiarity with the broader literature of the period sheds new light on the Cromwell poems of the former and on both the prose and poetry of the latter. These readings are themselves prepared by an illuminating focus on the gendering of the figure of Cromwell and of republicanism, and are complemented by an analysis of the Civil War preoccupation with monstrosity and witchcraft.
If her approach has its limitations, these are perhaps most in evidence in her handling of the representation of Charles. While her account is always supple and well able to accommodate the tortuous complexities in...