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  • Republic of Women: Rethinking the Republic of Letters in the Seventeenth Century by Carol Pal
  • Sarah Gwyneth Ross
Republic of Women: Rethinking the Republic of Letters in the Seventeenth Century. By Carol Pal (New York Cambridge University Press 2012) 316 pp. $90.00

Pal offers a lively analysis of the intellectual dynamism evident at the exiled court of the Bohemian royal family at The Hague, which under the influence of the erudite Princess Elizabeth became the center of a tightly knit learned society from the 1630s to the 1680s. In these decades, personal and epistolary networks connected women intellectuals to each other and to their male colleagues, spanning confessional and geopolitical boundaries and encompassing interests as seemingly diverse as feminism, mathematics and philosophy, practical medicine, high politics, Hebrew studies, pedagogical reform, and Pietism.

Drawing upon an impressive roster of sources—including archival material unearthed from repositories in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States—Pal crafts riveting individual and collective biographies of her main protagonists—Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, Anna Maria van Schurman, Marie de Gournay, Marie du Moulin, Dorothy Moore, Bathsua Makin, and Katherine Jones, Lady Ranelagh. These biographies emerge from a minute examination of the correspondence between members of this inner circle and its many satellite members incorporated through bonds of kinship, friendship, and patronage. The letter trails also reveal a close collaboration between the core protagonists and intellectual men, among them René Descartes, Samuel Hartlib, Constantijn Huygens, and Andre Rivet. The evidence [End Page 258] certainly substantiates Pal’s argument that the influential and productive “Republic of Women” aptly showcases the diversity and complexity of the seventeenth-century republic of letters.

Methodologically, this book primarily uses the tools of intellectual history, but political, religious, and, above all, social contexts receive careful attention. Pal’s acknowledged model for her approach to social networks is Anne Goldgar’s Impolite Learning: Conduct and Community in the Republic of Letters, 1680–1750 (New Haven, 1995), which served as the springboard for Pal's combined analysis of correspondence, networking, publication, and mentorship practices. Given its emphasis on the collaboration between men and women, Republic of Women should also be read in conjunction with two other studies that paved the way for this approach—Julie Campbell's Literary Circles and Gender in Early Modern Europe (Aldershot, 2006) and Diana Robin’s Publishing Women: Salons, the Presses and the Counter-Reformation in Italy (Chicago, 2007).

Gender historians will find considerable substance in this book, particularly those in the growing republic of scholars who are interested in women writers’ rhetorical strategies and the cultural scripts of intellectual kinship. Pal underscores the ways in which women feminized these scripts to create not only discursive fathers and brothers but also discursive mothers and sisters. Chapter 3 provides a compelling excursus on this topic in its interrogation of the relationships between Anna Maria van Schurman, Marie de Gournay, and Marie du Moulin. Yet gender, though important in Pal's account, constitutes only one among several factors, including social rank and economic constraints, that ambitious people worked through and around as they joined their era's prominent conversations and debates.

Scholars of literary culture—to say nothing of visual and musical culture—in different places and times may question the notion that The Hague in the middle of the seventeenth century represented an especially (if not uniquely) propitious environment for the formation of female communities. But this is another way in which Pal’s engaging study will help to keep the conversation vibrant.

Sarah Gwyneth Ross
Boston College


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pp. 258-259
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