- “Grossly Material Things”: Women and Book Production in Early Modern England by Helen Smith, and: English Women, Religion, and Textural Production, 1500–1625 ed. by Micheline White
To Ethel Smyth, 22 August 1933:
“. . . I’m reading a vast number of books — when I’m not getting tea for the Editor of the New Statesman. Turgenev: Shakespeare’s life, and huge masses of MSS. Do you know the difference between the Quarto’s and the [End Page 130] folios. I never did, till last night. Think of having spent a scholars life, correcting misprints!”(218) [sic]1
In the field of early modern women’s literature, Virginia Woolf’s Judith Sakespeare has launched many searches for literary history’s missing women writers, but it is the above quotation that points to feminist scholarship’s current directions. In it we see Woolf experiencing several textual materials—modern editions, manuscripts, and early printed books— while at the same time fetching tea for a male editor, a familiar tension for women working in textual production. Helen Smith’s “Grossly Material Things”: Women and Book Production in Early Modern England argues that the search for the missing woman writer has now become a search for her books—those she wrote, but also those she edited, annotated, compiled, commissioned, patronized, typeset, and hawked. As feminist scholarship meets the history of the book, we can recognize textual labors beyond the single-author model, responding now to Woolf’s other great point, namely that books “are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in” (see Smith 2012, 2). Smith prods scholars to widen their definitions of textual labor to include books’ physicality—an unexamined aspect of their cultural and intellectual impact.
In the first chapter of Grossly Material Things, examples of women’s expressive agency in material texts include women’s roles as copyists, translators, and editors: parishioners copying out sermons from memory as devotional practice; women translating male texts; widows and sisters editing male texts as grieving and memorial. In her second chapter, Smith examines women’s patronage as authorship, distinguishing between books that women commissioned, texts offered in exchange for tangible support, whether money or hospitality, and instances of stationers (rather than authors) presenting books to potential women patrons in the hope of receiving financial or marketing support. In doing so, Smith repositions patronage away from tidy New Historicist imaginings of patronage as systematic and coordinated to a version where patronage consists of messier networks that navigate between the ticklish traditional patron/artist relationships and the emerging and capricious marketplace.
In chapters three and four, Smith looks more closely at women’s presence in places of material production: the printing house, the bookseller, [End Page 131] the Stationers’ Guild, the street sellers of ballads and pamphlets, and the sellers and printers of illicit Catholic books. She examines women’s participation in the Stationers’ Guild both during and after marriage (as widows). She describes various interventions by women, or on behalf of women, in the day-to-day workings of the guild. Selection and editing are practices driven by ideology as well as profit, a point emphasized in her examination of women’s roles in Catholic print networks. In her final chapter, Smith builds on recent scholarship on theories of reading to argue that reading practices are also textual production, looking at micro-histories of women reading as well as male-authored prescriptions for how women ought to read.
Smith’s surveys reveal a wide range of women’s previously unacknowledged textual labors: inspiring paratext, cleaning the Stationers’ Guildhall, keeping a printing house running after a husband’s death. The strength of her book is its theoretical sweep accompanied by multiple examples of women’s textual production, thoughtfully and no doubt painstakingly excavated from the archives. While it is no...