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Reviewed by:
  • Women's Writing in English: Early Modern England
  • Janet Clare
Patricia Demers . Women's Writing in English: Early Modern England. Women's Writing in English. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005. x + 364 pp. index. append. illus. chron. bibl. $65 (cl), $32.95 (pbk). ISBN: 0-8020-8710-8 (cl), 0-8020-8664-0 (pbk).

This is the third book in the series Women's Writing in English under the editorship of Gary Kelly. Since early modern women's writing has hardly suffered critical neglect in the past two to three decades, a first impression of Patricia Demers's addition to the series might be that this is a late intervention in the field and that, in offering a descriptive rather than analytical account, it is bound to duplicate what has been excavated elsewhere. This would be an unfair response to a work that is admirably compendious, scholarly in its use of both manuscript and printed work, and evenhanded in its treatment of texts, some of which are arguably canonical and others such as one has scarcely heard of. Alongside discussions of Elizabeth Cary's translations, for example, attention is given to the Catholic apologist Susan Du Verger, who dedicated her translation of moralistic romance tales Admirable Events (1639) to Henrietta Maria. In her final chapter devoted to the work of six writers — Mary Sidney Herbert, Aemilia Lanyer, Elizabeth Cary, Mary Wroth, Margaret Cavendish, and Katherine Philips — Patricia Demers comments that their accomplishments are "transformative of our view of the early modern cultural landscape" (239). In her expositions of the conditions of women's writing and of the multiple and interlacing genres in which they worked and in her engagement with the above writers and their reception, Demers sets out in a measured way to extend the typography of women's writing of this period.

Patricia Demers begins with a balanced overview of past and current work on early modern women's writing that includes a discussion of collaborative projects [End Page 625] and of the various sociocritical trends that impinge on critical reception. The study is then organized around chapters addressing broad categories — social and cultural contexts for writing women, the different genres in which they worked, and, finally, case studies of six writers — all of which are then subjected to careful subdivision. Of the three main chapters, that on genre is the most far-reaching and the most informative. The study of women writers in this period has, perhaps more than any other literary development, contributed to the breakdown of traditional notions of genre and literary categories. In the section on genre, Demers gives space to women's letter writing, mothers' advice books, prophecies, polemics, petitions, and missionary accounts, as well as the more familiar generic types of translation, closet drama, and poetry. She concludes this section with the comment that recognition of the diverse genres of writing of early modern Englishwomen provides an alternative, "as yet incompletely mapped metropolis" (194). This is one of the achievements of the accumulation and representation of published and unpublished writing that previous generations might have dismissed as irrelevant to the broad canvas of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature. But Demers goes further than this in other sections of the book where she breaks down gender-specific barriers and juxtaposes the work of writing women with their male contemporaries. Thus Katherine Philips's tribute "to the truly noble Mr Henry Lawes" is discussed with Milton's sonnet 13, "To My Friend, Mr Henry Lawes, on His Airs" to reveal different emphases, as is Mary Sidney Herbert's translation Antonius with its originating text, Garnier's Marc Antonie.

Faced with such heterogeneity of texts, the chapter demarcations of the book work well, although the outcome is that prominent figures of the discourse of early modern women's writing resurface in various contexts. This is not necessarily a disadvantage, as it serves to reiterate the virtuosity of many women writers, but it does mean that on occasions certain detail is withheld until a later stage in the book when it would have been helpful to have it earlier. The first discussion of Elizabeth Cary, for example, comes in the chapter on genre...


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pp. 625-626
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2009
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