- Early Modern Women’s Writing and the Rhetoric of Modesty by Patricia Pender
Patricia Pender’s engaging and thoroughly researched book argues that early modern women writers’ uses of modesty tropes need to be taken as just that – that is, as the use of conventional tropes available to male and female writers alike. Such tropes should be read, Pender writes, as the marks of ‘literariness’, not as endorsements of misogynistic exhortations for women to remain silent and subordinate (p. 3). Although current feminist scholarship has, to some extent, recognized this fact, Pender argues that literal readings of modesty tropes have continued to inform women’s literary history and limit our understanding of what those tropes signified for their writers and readers. As Pender suggests, early modern women’s uses of modesty tropes do differ from those of their male contemporaries, but more because their ‘historical position placed women in profoundly different relationships to discourses of authorship and modesty in the early modern period’ (p. 11). It is by attending to these differences that we can come to a more accurate understanding of what modesty tropes could accomplish for women writers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The first chapter offers an overview of modesty tropes and their place in classical and Renaissance rhetorical theory, showing that the range of rhetorical models available to early modern women was considerable. Indeed, in some ways rhetoric itself was seen as a feminized art. Each of the following chapters focuses on one female writer of the period, examining each one as an example of how modesty tropes could be used to justify publication and claim authority. Thus, Chapter 2 looks at Anne Askew’s assertions of modesty as strategic moves in her confrontations with her accusers in her Examinations; Chapter 3 studies Katherine Parr’s use of sermo humilis (‘humble style’), in her book Prayers or Meditations; Chapter 4 addresses Mary Sidney’s modest disclaimers in favour of her brother; Chapter 5 focuses on Aemilia Lanyer’s use of the dream vision form to structure her appeal for patronage to Mary [End Page 266 ] Sidney; and Chapter 6 suggests that Anne Bradstreet’s apparent reluctance to appear in print reveals a skilful use of the trope of the reluctant author rather than a simple autobiographical truth about Bradstreet’s modesty.
This brief overview of chapters does not do justice to the range of topics with which Pender engages in the course of this volume. For example, in her discussion of Askew’s use of modesty tropes, Pender also engages with the question of John Bale’s editorial shaping of Askew’s texts. Feminist scholars have long deplored Bale’s ‘interference’, and Pender describes their concerns as legitimate. She also points out that Bale makes the mistake that so many recent critics have also made in reading Askew’s assertions of modesty literally, rather than strategically. However, Pender argues that it makes more sense to consider Askew and Bale as co-authors in a collaborative effort. In this reading, the Examinations offer the chance to ‘delve deeper into the theoretical and historiographical assumptions that we bring to early modern women’s authorship and the role of male editors’ (p. 51).
An especially interesting aspect of Pender’s book emerges in her work on Mary Sidney, where she argues that while Sidney presents herself as properly, femininely submissive, her writing nevertheless articulates a strongly competitive and ambitious self at odds with the ostensible humility of her dedicatory poems. Moreover, where Philip Sidney has been given credit for mitigating the stigma of print and for setting the example of publishing an author’s collected works, Pender argues that if anyone deserves such credit, it is Mary Sidney, not her brother. Yet Pender suggests we have more to gain by recognizing how anachronistic modern claims for early modern authorial autonomy are. As with her chapter on Askew, Pender here emphasizes the collaborative nature of early modern authorship, and by distinguishing ‘writer’ from ‘author...