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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 42.1 (2002) 155-171
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Speaking and Silent Women in Upon Appleton House
Ostensibly, Andrew Marvell's Upon Appleton House is a country-house poem praising Nunappleton House, the Yorkshire estate of the great Parliamentarian general, Thomas, Lord Fairfax. 1 Marvell, however, is never one to do anything simply; Upon Appleton House, ranging widely through the gardens and the history of Nunappleton House, is as much a conflict, on its own poetical terms, as the Civil War itself, the memory of which the poem so uneasily skirts. One locus of this pervasive agon is poetic representation, an arena in which the poem's argument with itself plays out most clearly through its use of feminine voices; as Christopher Kendrick points out, remarking on the sexual connotations of "upon" in the poem's title, "women sum this manor up." 2 Marvell deploys the women in the poem to show ruptures between history and poetry, and between the historical poet and the poetic speaker. There are two feminine voices that disrupt the masculine voice of the speaker, and two other women in the poem who, like these speakers' shadows, do not speak at all. The voices are the unnamed nun and the cook Thestylis; the silent bodies are the virgin Thwaites and the child Maria.
Women's speech is not a new topic, either for literary studies in general or for early modern studies in particular. The culturally constructed link between speech and gender, a link which Marvell exploits in structuring Upon Appleton House, has been examined by many critics; Carol Thomas Neely voices an important and often articulated idea when she observes, in her discussion of the relationship between Shakespeare's heroines and his female relatives, that "Silence was the virtue most often and most [End Page 155] stringently required of Renaissance women, and women's verbal self-assertion was almost invariably associated with sexual self-assertion and promiscuity." 3 Thwaites and Maria, the historically "real" women, are the silent ones; their silence is linked to the suppression of their ability to assert themselves, both verbally and sexually.
In Shakespeare's plays--characterized, like Upon Appleton House, by a male poet's engagement with the issue of female speech--silence is often the price of achieving marriage; Shirley Nelson Garner points out in reference to A Midsummer Night's Dream that, once married, Helena and Hermia are silent throughout the last act. 4 Lorraine Helms observes this same awkward female silence in both Measure for Measure and Pericles, and other critics have traced similar patterns elsewhere in the canon. 5 Marriage, women's proper estate, is linked to silence. This connection, and the general valorization of women's silence in the Renaissance, leads to the question of why Marvell allows women to speak at all. Why do the nun and Thestylis have voices?
Criticism of Upon Appleton House is as wide-ranging as the poem itself, but little of it addresses the issue of who speaks and who is silent. Several critics, among them Patsy Griffin and Peter Schwenger, comment on the nun's speech, but they do not link her to the wider patterns of women's speech and silence; 6 though the nun's power as a speaker is frequently recognized, only James Holstun notes the obvious corollary that "Marvell never lets us hear Thwaites's response." 7 Likewise, Thestylis's speech, which is even more powerful (in textual terms) than the nun's, is curiously ignored by most critics. Both Schwenger and Frank J. Warnke note that, as Warnke puts it, Thestylis "casually crack[s] the frame of fiction so carefully crafted by the narrator," but they only mention it in passing, without giving full consideration to the powerfully metatextual upheaval Thestylis embodies. 8 Rosalie L. Colie does give Thestylis the attention she deserves in a discussion of Marvell's use of magic lantern and masque devices, but the argument is in no way a gendered one. 9
Meanwhile, the silence of Maria has been absolutely...