- Women Writers and Public Debate in 17th-Century Britain
Catharine Gray takes up a range of genres and topics in her analysis of seventeenth-century women's written engagement in public debate. Opening with [End Page 1388] Dorothy Leigh's 1616 advice book The Mothers Blessing, Gray goes on to consider, in turn, the mediated writing of mid-century radical prophet Sarah Wight, the verse of Royalist Katherine Philips, and the poetry of American Puritan Anne Bradstreet; the book concludes with a brief discussion of Quaker preachers Katherine Evans and Sarah Cheevers's 1663 account of their imprisonment in Malta. Gray's aim in treating such diverse authors is to confirm women's active role in an emerging "counterpublic" (Nancy Fraser's term, invoked over against a Habermassian definition of the public sphere) that is also a "site of radical activity" (for Wight), "a paradoxically elite sphere of political engagement" (for Philips), and "a means of transnational opposition" (for Bradstreet) (32). Of course, the functions Gray traces may be primary in but cannot be exclusive to the writings of any one of these women. As the topsy-turvy status of the pre-Restoration Philips attests, the counterpublic cannot be easily contained or clearly ascribed: as readily as radical activity can be read as a function of the elite sphere Philips is thought to represent, so do all of these works testify to a Protestantism that reaches far beyond the bounds of Britain.
Gray does a convincing job showing how all four aspects of the counterpublic, to varying degrees, can be seen to function in the texts she has chosen. Her discussion is also thoroughly contextualized, and she carefully rehearses the stories of each of the women's lives, providing a wealth of detail about the political, social, and cultural contexts in which they wrote. The historical narrative may appear intermittently in the course of the book, yet it brings the conditions of its subjects' lives into sharper focus and sometimes makes for compelling reading. The book's strength may, however, also be its weakness. In some ways, Gray's discussion reads more like a series of vignettes than a cohesive whole, and this may be true in its argument as well as the stories it tells. Gray appears to anticipate such an objection with her lengthy introduction, which repeatedly asserts the premises of her argument and their shared relevance to the writers she examines.
Gray further responds by periodically tracing the connections for us. It may be true, as she claims, that Evans and Cheevers, like Leigh, Wight, Philips, and Bradstreet, draw on "private spheres to ground their counterpublic activity" (186), but this information is hardly new or surprising. Gray believes, however, that an author's invocation of "familial and political affiliation, blood and ideology" (166) in the same or across several works in itself constitutes a blurring of public and private that challenges our misguided notions of separate spheres, thereby loosening "the stranglehold of the public/private binary" (8). Gray is tilting at windmills, and it remains unclear whose ideas she is arguing against. The binary she describes is not readily apparent in early modern scholarship, and surely hasn't been at least since the work of historians and literary critics such as Phillip Ariès, Roger Chartier, and Ronald Huebert appeared well over a decade ago.
The contradictions evident in some of Gray's statements may, however, be more troubling than their banality. In attempting to counter what she (cf. Fraser) argues is an overly rigid, exclusive, and elitist concept of the public, she inscribes [End Page 1389] the very delineating term her purportedly less-exclusive definition aims to challenge. Granted, Gray does insist that "private spheres are temporary and dynamic" expressions of "a messy social phenomenon" (34), but fails to explain why such a fluid concept does not also apply to the sphere that is public. What she seems to be arguing is that what is...