- Gender and the Garden in Early Modern English Literature
Gardens have long been figured as places of refuge from the turmoil of business and politics. However, gardens are not born but 'made,' with labor and imagination, and are thus as much social as natural places. If in creating our gardens, we cultivate an idea of ourselves, then garden history can tell us much about the evolution of social identity.
Jennifer Munroe's fascinating Gender and the Garden in Early Modern Literature takes up this story with a new focus on "the dynamic process of gendered self-fashioning" in the garden and in garden writing (p. 6). Her book sits at the intersection of feminist scholarship informed by attention to material cultural practices (such as cooking, needlework, housewifery, and gardening), and an ecocriticism centered on cultural and political interactions with nature in early modern England.
Munroe's book is based on the premise that "early modern gardens, both actual and imagined, provide a window into how early modern social space—and of particular interest here, the gendered power relationships in it—was shaped and reshaped by people as they made and remade the places they inhabited" (p. 1). The idea that people used gardens to negotiate social status is not a new one,1 but Munroe does significantly advance this work through her focus on the gendering of these constructions of garden work and aesthetics.
Munroe contends that earlier garden history scholarship's reliance on the printed texts tends to replicate those books' exclusion of women, whereas reading manuscripts lets us reposition "women as co-producers of social space" (p. 9). In fact, few scholars would deny that women played a significant role in early modern gardens, but it is indeed hard to uncover the facts because of the bias of the printed record. Munroe seeks to fill that gap to tell a more positive story about women's garden work. Unfortunately, in chapter one she can only muster up six pages of manuscript evidence, so we must continue to take a lot for granted in relating that history. But both the point and the effort are admirable.
However, the book's argument does not rest on this manuscript evidence since the remaining three chapters are devoted to a thoughtful close examination of the literary record, examining how three poets, male and female, appropriated the significance of gardening and mapped it "onto other domains to imagine social reform in them" (p. 10). Chapter two takes up Edmund Spenser's colonial rhetoric in A View of the State of Ireland [End Page 375] (1633), and his gendered garden scenes in the Bower of Bliss and the Garden of Adonis in The Faerie Queene (1596). Munroe offers a persuasive interpretation that Spenser's dangerous Bower of Bliss and fecund Garden of Adonis are informed by his ideology of "plantation" in Ireland, asserting both English and male authority.
The final two chapters of the book are devoted to women's writing, finding gardens in unexpected places. Chapter three looks at Aemilia Lanyer's Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611), a religious poem imbued with garden imagery, and reads it in terms of Lanyer's contestation of women's exclusion from property ownership. Munroe sees that through garden allegory Lanyer imagines another world where women might lay claim to the land they occupy. In the final chapter, Munroe offers an inventive interpretation of Mary Wroth's sonnet sequence Pamphilia to Amphilanthus (1621), in which the linked material arts of needlework and gardening are interwoven with Wroth's imagery of writing.2 In this net of significance, Wroth is both bound and freed to make art.
Gender and the Garden in Early Modern Literature represents an important contribution to both materialist feminist criticism of the early modern period and our knowledge of what gardens have meant—and still mean—to both men and women.
Rebecca Bushnell is Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. She is...