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Eighteenth-Century Studies 36.4 (2003) 593-598
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Recent Trends in Research on Seventeenth-Century Women Writers
Buffalo State College
Derek Hughes. The Theatre of Aphra Behn (New York: Palgrave, 2001). Pp. viii + 230. $65.00.
Anne Kelley. Catherine Trotter: An Early Modern Writer in the Vanguard of Feminism (Hampshire and Burlington, VA: Ashgate, 2002). Pp. viii + 279. $79.95.
Cristina Malcolmson and Mihoko Suzuki, eds. Debating Gender in Early Modern England (New York: Palgrave, 2002). Pp. xiv + 265. $55.00.
Anita Pacheco, ed. A Companion to Early Modern Women Writing (Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2002). Pp. xx + 391. $104.95.
Irwin Primer, ed. Seneca Unmasqued: A Bilingual Edition of Aphra Behn's Translations of La Rochefoucauld's 'Maximes' (New York: AMS Press, 2001). Pp. lii + 198. $69.50.
Recent scholarship concerning seventeenth-century women writers indicates that these writers have achieved a firm canonical status. The approaches of the five books, like the established criticism of "major" figures, explore a variety of viewpoints on their subjects. The feminist scholarship represented in some of these volumes backs away from essentializing women's voices, and begins to embrace post-structuralism's redefinitions of authorship and intertextuality.
Anita Pacheco's collection of essays, A Companion to Early Modern Women's Writing, offers a fitting overview of the status of seventeenth-century women's studies. Her volume covers the years 1500-1700 and is marketed for undergraduates and new graduate students. The various authors aim their essays well for this audience. Pacheco's introductory essay offers a good overview of recent trends in scholarship on these writers, and repudiates the practice of critics who rely on theory in lieu of history. While some of the essays swerve too far from theorizing their practice at all, most keep the balance between theory and history that Pacheco articulates.
This substantial volume is divided into four parts: Part one provides five chapters that overview various issues in the field, including women and religion, education, work, and writing. Part two offers selected, detailed close readings of major texts. Part three presents a generic consideration of early modern women's writing, including the genres of prophecy and polemic along with the more conventional ones. Part four offers two extended essays on the future of scholarship in this area, one by Melinda Aliker Rabb (on the impact of electronic media) and the other by Margo Hendricks (envisioning the impact of feminist literary research on historical studies). These two essays should be required reading for all scholars who research this field.
The strongest work in this volume represents the vanguard of the field. Patricia Brace offers a carefully contextualized reading of poet Isabella Whitney, arguing that modern definitions of originality are antithetical to this period. She defines in her work the concept of "transformative labor" (102), which could [End Page 593] open up our reading of women's translations. Elaine Beilin adds another remarkable essay to her brilliant corpus with a consideration of Elizabeth Cary's now-canonical play The Tragedie of Mariam, relating it to historiography and seeing it as dynamically multivocal in its interpretations of history, agency, and gendered identity. Naomi J. Miller continues her reflections on Mary Wroth's The Countess of Montgomery's Urania, focusing on homosocial bonds and offering a stellar analysis of Urania and Pamphilia's paths to self-definition. Hilary Hinds offers a close, convincing examination of Anna Trapnel's concept of selfhood, the body, and language. Hinds' work provides an exemplar for the historically situated application of theoretical models. Pacheco adds an excellent essay on Aphra Behn's The Rover, Part I, carefully articulating the anxieties around cavalier masculinity in the play. In the area of genre studies, Elaine Hobby and Brownwen Price offer remarkable considerations of women's prophecy and poetry respectively.
As in most collections of essays, however, there are a few weaker contributions. These essays are illustrative of some noteworthy pitfalls in this area of research. Sara H. Mendelson in her essay on "Women and Work" offers excellent anecdotal research, and a particularly astute...