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  • Gender and the Garden in Early Modern English Literature
  • Sarah Dempster
Munroe, Jennifer, Gender and the Garden in Early Modern English Literature (Women and Gender in the Early Modern World), Aldershot, Ashgate, 2008; hardback; pp. vii, 137; 8 b/w illustrations; R.R.P. £50.00; ISBN 9780754658269.

Jennifer Munroe’s study of gender and gardens centres on the gardener’s ability to create an identity through the process of gardening in the Early Modern period. Just as the gardener’s art cultivates, shapes and marks his or her land, Munroe argues that such activity mirrors the shaping of the gendered self. As more people planted gardens in the mid to late sixteenth century for purely aesthetic purposes, gardens functioned as a new space that marked out social status and helped enable social mobility for men and women. [End Page 185]

Munroe examines female manuscripts to correct the view of gendered gardening in the sixteenth century, maintaining that a study of print sources alone reinforces a skewed version of how men and women gardened or how those gardens signified to them and to others. Thus, alert to the masculinist view that published print texts alone would bring to an analysis of gardens at this time, Munroe embraces both manuscript sources authored by women and print sources by men. In this way, she traces how men and women alike shaped the meanings of the gardens they both imagined and inhabited.

Munroe situates her scholarship amongst others less concerned with issues of gender. The author builds on the work of Andrew McRae, Stanley Stewart and Terry Comito, contending that they do not acknowledge women’s participation sufficiently in the discourse of gardening. Where Stewart and Comito reconstitute men as agents and women as objects in the garden, Munroe seeks to emphasize the role of women and men in the creation of gardens, and as such successfully argues that they were co-producers of Early Modern social space. Interestingly, Munroe does not point to the masculine print text as evidence of the stability and authority of their masculine power, but instead focuses on the way male and female writers of this period sought to position themselves in Early Modern social space relative to each other.

Munroe begins her study by marking out the trend in gardening from a subsistence and utilitarian activity to an aesthetic pleasure. The author sees the enclosure movement as the primary reason for this shift in the role of gardens, as the conceiving of previously communal land as private family property meant that large sections of England’s land were for private use and private profit. Thus, published manuals on how to cultivate this newfound land in specialized ways such as Thomas Hill’s The profitable art of gardening, A most briefe and pleasaunte treatise (1558) increasingly sought to define gardening practice according to gender. After a consideration of masculine publishing and its influence, Munroe pursues an equally valuable examination of manuscript evidence written by women. The examination of manuscripts written by the prominent Margaret Cavendish and those penned by women largely lost to the ages such as Mary Gee and Anne Archer, shows women identifying themselves as authorities in the field of gardening. These documents relate to directions for successful gardening, but also show women in supervisory roles contributing to the household economy. When looking at published (masculine) manuals and unpublished (feminine) manuscripts, it becomes clear that men and women were both, [End Page 186] rather indiscriminately, considered authorities on topics related to plants in the Early Modern period.

Although Munroe is particularly interested in both published and unpublished gardening texts, she then narrows her focus to Books Two and Three of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590) and A View of the State of Ireland (1596) to bring to light the pre-eminence of male, English authority over Ireland and the Irish subjects of Queen Elizabeth I. By focusing on the ‘Bower of Bliss’ and ‘Garden of Adonis’ episodes, Guyon’s many temptations in the garden, and ultimate destruction of an infertile space under Acrasia’s rule, prepares the garden for replanting represented by the perpetually productive Garden of Adonis in Book Three. Munroe...


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pp. 185-187
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