- Women’s Writing in the British Atlantic World: Memory, Place and History, 1550–1700 by Kate Chedgzoy
This is a book about memory and memorials, about the ways memory sustains in times of woe and maintains the past in the face of the present. Ms. Chedgzoy astutely finds a pattern in the writings from what she calls the “British Atlantic World,” a term that does not quite have the breadth of the seventeenth-century transatlantic world, even as it covers much the same territory, but focuses on women who wrote in “British” spaces rather than those who spanned the ocean. Thus, the world of this book includes women who composed in the Celtic tongues of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales as well as those who wrote in England and the English-speaking colonies. The organizing principle is the memorializing of women’s experiences between the two Acts of Union as the world inhabited by these women lurched toward “modernity.”
Women’s writings in this period had long been domestic—recipes, excerpts of sermons, household needs. But as the chaos of the seventeenth century overwhelmed their world, particularly during the Civil Wars and the Interregnum, women’s writing expanded to record the battles and conflicts around them, to manage their estates in the absence of husbands and fathers, to comfort imprisoned loved ones, to call themselves and others to witness God’s justice and mercy, to inscribe the lives of their dead children and spouses. Thus, it is fitting that the book opens with Anne Bradstreet’s memory of her Andover house destroyed by fire—an iconic poem of loss and recollection that itself was saved from loss by the poet’s son Simon. Simon’s rescue work in preserving his mother’s record of loss is echoed by Ms. Chedgzoy’s recovery of a number of women whose work has been largely unnoticed, and as Simon recognized the need to preserve—and remember—so too does this book.
Particularly interesting is the third chapter, on the oral traditions of the Welsh, Irish, and Scottish women, through whose work Ms. Chedgzoy moves confidently, providing translations of major segments. The recording of these documents in itself shows a shift in attitudes of their contemporaries in that their works were deemed important enough to preserve in writing. At times, the Celtic works are juxtaposed with works by English women who lived [End Page 266] at roughly the same time in Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. For example, the section on Wales begins with the well-known transplant, Katharine Philips, who in her poem “On the Welch Language” “engages with Wales” in “almost ethnographic tones,” while noting that the local language “hath her beauty Lost.” Ms. Chedgzoy places in dramatic parallel with Philips one Magdalen Lloyd, a transplant from Wales in domestic service in London, whose memories provide comfort and “human connections despite geographical separation.”
The chapter on “Women’s Writings and the Memory of War” examines Bradstreet’s mediation of past history and current civil war in the 1640s. Attention is also turned to the step-daughters of Margaret Cavendish—Elizabeth Brackley and Jane Cavendish—and their turn to memories that sustained them through the trials of the Civil War, while their father was first in battle and later in exile, and their ancestral homes were besieged and sometimes occupied by Roundheads. Not enough is done with these two fascinating women. Their manuscript collection, Bod. MS. Rawl. 16, an admixture of verse; a play about marriage choices, Concealed Fansyes; and a strange Pastorall involving witches, is discussed without much logic, and, oddly, there is no reference to the publication of Concealed Fansyes (ed. Nathan Comfort Starr, PMLA, 1931). But the chapter turns quickly to Lady Hester Pulter, whose manuscript in the Brotherton Collection (Lt q 32) contains over one hundred poems and an unfinished prose romance, this latter not discussed. Pulter’s poems are highly political, and use public spaces and landscapes as sites of memory for the lost world of the Royalists in...