- Women Writing the English Republic, 1625–1681 by Katharine Gillespie
Women Writing the English Republic, 1625–1681 centers on the English republic of the mid-seventeenth century, but as the dates indicate, its scope extends earlier and later, and the author also aims to challenge assumptions behind much scholarship on early American republicanism. Katharine Gillespie’s book is brimming with ideas and fresh readings of works in print and in manuscript by six women with varied backgrounds and interests, some well known and others likely to be unfamiliar to specialists in the period.
To link women with republicanism involves challenging some expectations. Feminist scholars have noted that the foundation of the Roman republic was grounded on Lucretia’s self-sacrifice, an image of passive rather than active virtue. Republicanism as an ideology has often been seen as inherently patriarchal, suspicious of women’s alleged emotional instability and confining them to a private sphere. Many studies of the English republic, my own included, have largely or completely excluded women from consideration. Modern scholarship has centered on secular models for republics while most of the women Gillespie studies were intensely religious, a sphere sometimes assumed to have been largely private and conformist. Gillespie argues, however, that women played an important role in challenging the traditional boundaries of political authority, in some cases through direct engagement with political struggles and in others through utopian re-imagining. Each chapter presents a different political or philosophical paradigm.
Lady Eleanor Davies, whose obscure prophetic texts have been dismissed as insane, is here shown to have pioneered and steadily extended a radical critique of Charles I’s regime, which centered on the image from the biblical book of Revelation of the woman in the wilderness who opposed the earthly church. Gillespie draws parallels between Davies’s representations of Charles I as Samson and John Milton’s Samson Agonistes (1671) and argues that such works developed a “common culture of narrative elements” that were to inform John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) (p. 71). Another Puritan woman, Lady Brilliana Harley, is best known as a dutiful wife who defended her family home against a royalist siege in her husband’s absence; Gillespie argues that these public actions were grounded in her earlier reading, recorded in her commonplace book, in which she synthesized Seneca and John Calvin and articulated a vision of the individual and the wife as agents in resisting tyranny. Gillespie shows how Harley instructed her son in these principles through her letters, fashioning him “as a citizen for a new sociopolitical dispensation” in [End Page 482] “an early example of republican motherhood” and was ready to give advice to her husband too (pp. 127, 128). Less well known (and perhaps not fitting well into the republican paradigm) is Isabella Twysden, whose manuscript comments on printed almanacs Gillespie interprets as formulating an innovative skeptical ideology. Anne Bradstreet was long criticized by feminist critics on the rather odd grounds that poetry about the history of politics was not an appropriate subject for a woman, but Gillespie traces the gendered humoral imagery of her earlier poetry as implying a sustained critique of monarchy and argues that Bradstreet’s The Tenth Muse Lately sprung up in America (1650) implied a model for the American colonies’ status as more independent or Greek than the Roman model favored by the republican government. Anne Venn’s little-studied chronicles of her spiritual experiences practice an ideal of strenuous independence of thought. Gillespie argues that she is “as pivotal a part of the war against tyranny as are soldiers” and shows how the publication of her writings in 1658 made a political statement (p. 272). Lucy Hutchinson’s Order and Disorder (1679) is read as preserving republican ideals after the Restoration through alchemical imagery.
Gillespie’s work is a rich and kaleidoscopic interdisciplinary study, combining detailed contextual study of individual women’s political agency with more general theoretical concerns. Gillespie proposes her book as inaugurating a “mythopoeic turn” in republican studies, complementing earlier linguistic, cultural, religious...