- Strong Voices, Weak History: Early Modern Writers and Canons in England, France, and Italy
The fifteen essays in this excellent collection proceed from two observations, implied in the volume's title, on the status and history of women's writing: that women writers in medieval and Renaissance England, France, and Italy were far [End Page 143] from silent; and that their place in the literary histories of these countries has been "less stable than men's, their niches more shallow or precarious, their memory more quickly occluded by time" (1). Collectively, these essays marshal overwhelming evidence in support of the first premise through close readings of numerous works by women in the period, including Christine de Pizan, Helisenne de Crenne, Louise Labé, and Catherine des Roches in France, Vittoria Colonna, Isotta Nogarola, Laura Battiferra, Tullia d'Aragona, Gaspara Stampa, and Veronica Franco in Italy, and Mary Sidney Herbert, Aemilia Lanyer, and Anne Askew in England. Beyond these useful readings, however, the real innovation of the collection lies in tackling the second premise. Why should it be, the essays ask, that women writers whose reputations were widely and firmly established in their lifetimes should fall so precipitously and so pervasively into oblivion?
As contributors advance various answers, it becomes clear that this question itself penetrates to the heart of the matter, enabling the essays to document a startling number of early modern "canonizations" of women writers, and to explore in detail the features of early modern women's writing itself and (more importantly) its publication, dissemination, and reception over the course of centuries that have resulted in women's marginalization from European literary histories. For example, John N. King explores the conundrum that is Thomas Bentley's compendious Monument of Matrons, a three-volume, 816-folio anthology of English women's writing which appeared in 1582 but was not reprinted until 2004, and which promises to "attract a greater readership during the twenty-first century than [it] did in the compiler's own age" (235). Deanna Shemek's astute and engrossing study of Lodovico Domenichi's Rime diverse d'alcune nobilissime et virtuossime donne (1559), an anthology of fifty-three Italian women writers, argues that although the "book proposed women's poetry as a literary and bibliographical category, a gender turned genre" (242), it failed to establish a canon of women writers due to Domenichi's casting of his subjects as curiosities and of himself as a collector. Stuart Curran examines the editorial assumptions informing Luisa Bergalli's Componimenti Poetici (1726), an anthology which identifies no fewer than 114 women writing in Italy prior to 1575, but which compiles their work through "a radical decontextualization of her sources" (267) that often obscures or alters their meanings. And Elaine Beilin explores the reception and perennial reinvention of Anne Askew's Examinations, from John Bale's 1547 edition to a contemporary television version, demonstrating the various means by which "a 'self,' as constructed through her own words, is subsumed by the 'story' of her life, a story that is cut and shaped by pressures created at the intersection of genre, gender, and religion" (345).
Central to the collection's exploration of the tantalizing gap between women's strong voices and the weak histories attending them is the question of canon, understood as multiple in both its historical and national dimensions. Developing and exploiting the connection between early modern efforts at canon formation and the contemporary undertaking, the volume advances "a multicanon model of [End Page 144] European medieval and Renaissance writing" (11) and offers a noteworthy example of the benefits of a comparative or transnational approach which "displays the nuances of local difference and the commonalities of European culture as single nation studies cannot" (1). Although there is something of a disparity among the national literatures represented in the collection (with the majority on Italy), the timeliness of its discussion, at this moment of recanonization of...