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  • Romancing the Self in Early Modern Englishwomen’s Life Writing by Julie A. Eckerle
  • Jessica C. Murphy (bio)
Julie A. Eckerle. Romancing the Self in Early Modern Englishwomen’s Life Writing. Farnham, England/Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013. 309 pp. ISBN 978-1409443780, $104.95.

According to Richard Hyrde’s 1529 translation of Juan Luis Vives’s Instruction of a Christian Woman, reading romances is very unhealthy for young women. This “poyson” leads women to think about things that take them away from the virtuous path and thus their potential virtuous selves (E4r). While many critics discuss conduct authors’ edicts against reading fiction as an example of early modern behavioral expectations, most do not consider the possibilities that fiction offers early modern women writers. Julie A. Eckerle’s excellent study of early modern Englishwomen’s life writing argues that romance offers women writers a narrative model for autobiographical and biographical writing. But romance is not merely a model, it is also a genre that the women life writers Eckerle examines use to create a new way of expressing a self. Romancing the Self challenges assumptions about women life writers in early modern England, and at the same time asks us to reconsider the position of romance in literary history.

Eckerle opens with what we know about early modern women’s experiences of reading romance in order to establish the pattern that her study uncovers. Reading romance, according to Eckerle, was a lot like women’s other devotional practices. While women definitely reported pleasure from their reading, they also discussed learning lessons from what they read. The evidence for these reading practices is not always the easiest to locate, and Eckerle argues that we can then turn to women’s life writing itself to see the effects of reading romance. The book’s first chapter offers ample evidence that women readers engaged with the romances they read in the form of marginalia and letters.

Contrary to the long-held belief that early modern women could never really write autobiography, Eckerle claims that the woman’s autobiographical voice present within the romance genre itself in the form of embedded narratives offered women the possibility of the necessary subject position. Eckerle shows, through careful textual analysis, that the embedded narratives used a woman’s voice to speak in a language that early modern women could understand. Expressed in these stories were women’s anxieties about domestic [End Page 1161] violence or abandonment and perhaps also their wishes for the future. The idea that romance might, as Eckerle suggests, offer women models for their wishes and fears will be very familiar to scholars of modern romance. Although only a single chapter in Eckerle’s book, the question of the effect of embedded narratives is one with which scholars of early modern women still grapple.

In her third chapter, “Becoming the Heroine,” Eckerle turns to the evidence that early modern Englishwomen life writers did engage with the conventions of romance in their life writing. Eckerle recognizes a specific voice in what she calls “heroine-making” texts, and this voice comes from the influence of romance. There are a few specific purposes to which early modern Englishwomen life writers tend to put this voice, according to Eckerle: self-justification, presenting a particular image of one’s self to the world, improving or changing the way we perceive history, and providing an “alternate reality.” Throughout the chapter, Eckerle provides examples of texts that use the conventions of romance for these purposes.

Early modern Englishwomen writers could use romance with intention; that is, they could take the tools that the romance genre offered and write their own stories. But, as Eckerle shows, even the writers who specifically reject the genre still must engage with the “specter of romance.” Margaret Cavendish, for example, was very frustrated by the lack of realism in romance narratives. In particular, Eckerle examines the presence of romance conventions in the “occasional meditation” writings of Elizabeth Livingston Delaval and Mary Boyle Rich, Countess of Warwick. Both of these writers were avid romance readers in their youth who fully rejected the genre in adulthood. In their many devotional writings, however, Eckerle detects the presence of...


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