- Women's Letters across Europe, 1400-1700: Form and Persuasion
Couchman and Crabb's volume contains fifteen thoroughly-researched essays on the actual correspondences of women located across early modern Europe. The essayists ground their discussions on the pragmatic circumstances of their subjects' lives as they focus on many printed letters intended "to bring about some action or reaction on the part of the person to whom [they are] addressed" (3). The book [End Page 930] builds on the findings of recent editions and anthologies of early modern through early nineteenth-century epistolary autobiographical writing by real women or attributed to fictional female characters. The essays put us in contact with diverse women through printing what they wrote or dictated, and by explaining what were the constraints, inhibitions, and goals shaping the desires, stories, and matters the women tell of and choices they make.
The volume's organization and content shows how tightly interwoven are the connections between "'the state' and the 'private,' and the 'public' and the 'domestic'" in women's lives (143). The essayists share a historicizing analytical approach which emphasizes the performative nature of letters. The book's first third presents letter-writers attempting to influence family members and friends to achieve personal goals; the second third, women attempting to influence events and decisions in "public spaces (churches, marketplaces, or law courts [and people's homes])" — because they have power to do so in their own right — or via "informal routes of power through emotional or familial ties" (15, 144). The last third presents women who "derive [an] authority" (16) for forceful aggression in public arenas from their religious beliefs.
The essays open up and continue new lines of inquiry. Erin and Mark Zelcer Henrikson argue that Gilkl of Hameln could make her way through several languages, but not very well, and used her skills to gain protection, conduct business, cope with family members, justify herself, and achieve status. Susan Broomhall examines documents which "female supplicants" put before the poor relief council of Tours to reveal that "no woman was recorded as having an occupational status in her own right" (234). Most women supported their claim for relief by describing themselves as "'burdened with children,'" and provided "strong justification" for any separations that may have occurred (234). In a translation study, Anne R. Larsen highlights how Anna Maria van Schurman's unusual point of view was transformed in Guillaume Colletet's French translation: Schurman's retired life is made to exemplify how women should not "meddle with public affairs" (307). Deanna Shemek's consumption study of Isabella d'Este's beguiling letters shows Isabella acted compassionately toward other women, argued personal property had communal value since women's belongings were to them comforting symbols of "security and minimal autonomy" (135), validating Shemek's conclusion that "women's efforts to keep their possessions" are "lent poignancy by the smallness of the stakes that meant so much to them" (140).
Barbara Stephenson refutes what she takes to be the consensus view that Marguerite of Navarre's loving, self-abnegating, and at times intensely or overly-sexualized stance towards François I are part of a "lifelong subservience" to him, and that she hardly ever withstood whatever he wanted on behalf of her own, her second husband's, or her daughter's interests. Stephenson shows Marguerite serving her brother "in male, rather than female terms" as serviteur (193), governing representative, and "advisor on royal policies" (203–04). The problem is Stephenson's argument erases how profoundly Marguerite was sexually answerable to [End Page 931] her brother's interests, the high bodily and emotional price she paid for his approval because (like all the women in the volume) she lived in a woman's body.
There are linked troubling tendencies in this book. Important feminist and other political matters are replaced by unadventurous analysis of the characteristics of epistolarity and formal conventions. The essayists are insufficiently frank about issues relating to women's...