- Reading Early Modern Women's Writing
Inspired by 'the recent interest in the history of reading' (p. 219), Paul Salzman's book uses a case study approach to re-examine the field of Early Modern women's writing, taking both well-known and less familiar examples. Its seven chapters, plus introduction and conclusion explore 'early modern women's writing as a body of knowledge' (p. 1), arguing that the energy and excitement that has surrounded the discovery of manuscripts and writing by women has had as a corollary a lack of reflection about the nature of that work as it is being used by modern scholars.
The category of gender, which has allowed and enabled the study of women's writing, has also entailed a homogenization of that writing where differences are overlooked, and sameness is instantiated in the process of identifying, preserving and disseminating the work of a group of people that has been undervalued historically. Salzman's project is to rethink the way that women's writing is studied and the contexts in which it might be used. This is a thoughtful reflection from a scholar whose own endeavours in the field of bringing women's writing to light has been pioneering. [End Page 246]
Salzman builds on the work of feminist historians and critics like Margaret Ezell and Danielle Clark in inclusive and generous ways, acknowledging the work and debates that have preceded his own discussion. While he canvasses material that is now becoming quite familiar, even canonical, to scholars in the field, such as that of Mary Wroth, Mary Sidney and Anne Clifford, he brings to readers the work of other writers such as Eleanor Davies, Margaret Fell and Anna Trapnel. The endeavours of women outside what might be thought of as a literary field, unprotected by a more privileged background, need to be understood, and to become part of a history of Early Modern writing more generally. Now that we have such an extensive corpus of material, as academics and scholars we can make new connections between writings and new distinctions within the category of women's writing. We can move away from the need to reify that writing, and let it stand in its own contexts.
A large part of the point of the book is that seeing women as part of a group unified by gender has entailed a '[f]lattening out … [of] political context' (p. 116), so the question that begins the book, taken from Denise Riley's work, is 'Am I that name?' In other words, is women's writing containable in the category that describes it? This is a timely approach, and one that has been broached before, perhaps in less sympathetic ways, in other fields. Allen J. Frantzen's article 'When women aren't enough' in Speculum 1993, discussing the field of medieval women's writing, comes to mind.
The discussion of the history of the work on women's writing is also insightful, assessing, for example, Virginia Woolf's readings of Anne Clifford, and Vita Sackville West's treatment of Aphra Behn. Woolf's desire in A Room of One's Own for women to read back through is part of the story here. As Salzman points out in the concluding pages of the book, critics tend to find in the objects of their study what suits the critical mood of the moment. If poststructuralism has taught us that this is inevitable, and even preferable when weighed against the notion of a timeless and objective criticism, it nevertheless does not hurt to be aware of these critical moods. If the trend in Behn criticism is moving away from sexuality to politics, this acknowledges that in terms of temporary mores the kinds of critics interested in women's writing tend to value radicalism over conventionalism and there is more to be said in one area than another – in Salzman's formulation, there is a preference for sinners over saints (p. 218).
While this book does present serious and...