- Early Modern English Lives: Autobiography and Self-Representation 1500–1600, and: Genre and Women’s Life Writing in Early Modern England
These two books attest to the variety of current interest in the dynamic field of Early Modern autobiography or life writing. Whereas Ronald Bedford, Lloyd Davis and Philippa Kelly’s monograph covers male and female-authored examples, the Michelle M. Dowd and Julie A. Eckerle collection focuses specifically upon women’s writing. Both take a historicist approach, but the Dowd and Eckerle essays employ feminist genre analysis, whereas Bedford, Davis and Kelly intervene in current theoretical debates about Early Modern subjectivity and self-fashioning.
In their introduction, Dowd and Eckerle argue for an approach to genre, not as a rigid classificatory system, but as a means of interpreting the generic hybridity of life writing, particularly that authored by women. The first half of the volume attends to manuscript genres, and the second to print.
In the opening essay, Helen Wilcox focuses upon letters and poetry, two prevalent forms of female-authored autobiography, where the former produces a private representation of the self and the latter a public one. She counterpoises two pairs of writers, Arbella Stuart and Mary Wroth, and Martha Moulsworth and Dorothy Osborne, and closes with a discussion of Margaret Cavendish who wrote in both genres. Wilcox contends that ‘a change of genre clearly implies a change of self’ (p. 28).
Margaret Ezell focuses upon ‘the mode of textual creation and transmission’ of manuscript self-writing, which, she stresses, differ markedly from print genres (p. 33). In her essay, Catherine Field argues convincingly that women’s approach to recipe writing, testing, observation and experience (as witnessed by intergenerational receipt books) reflects their absorption of the empirical method promoted by the new science. According to Megan Matchinski, Anne [End Page 161] ‘Clifford’s fascination with time … suggests … an understanding of history’s complex value as a means through which female legacy may be understood as intervention, as a project of social restitution’ (p. 75).
In a subtle account of Lady Halkett’s diary, Mary Ellen Lamb demonstrates the religious dimension to royalist politics during the Civil War. Religion she argues was ‘a productive rather than repressive force’, less ‘a locus of arid doctrines’ and more ‘a form of desire, fully compatible with sexuality, capable of generating an extraordinary diversity of variously nuanced subjectivities’ (p. 94). Eckerle shows how Margaret Tyler and Rachel Specht exploit the intimacy of the epistolary preface conventionally appended to printed books, to create ‘more possibilities for innovation and even personal commentary than [… is possible in] a primary text’ (p. 98). Dowd explains how the hybrid form of mothers’ legacies, in particular Elizabeth Richardson’s Legacie, encourages readers to adapt the text ‘to fit their own individual circumstances’ (p. 124).
Elspeth Graham argues that a flexible approach to genre is required to account for Margaret Cavendish’s life writing, in such a way as avoids deferring to ‘the stabilities of aesthetic tradition’ (p. 131). Lara Dodds, for her part, argues that Cavendish’s ‘representation of self should … be considered less an unquestioned representation of experience than repeated and various textual experiments’ (p. 151).
Bedford, Davis and Kelly begin Early English Lives with the poststructuralist theoretical premise that discourse precedes experience. They explain ‘our argument is not that people four centuries ago had a different language to express the same emotions that we might entertain today … rather that the absence of a language to describe the intricacies of emotion means also that such intricacies are largely implicit, unanalysed and therefore not recorded as a part of individual self-identity’ (p. 2). This premise produces some fascinating results, including historicist accounts of time, and mirrors.
The book is...