- Early Modern Women in Conversation by Katherine R. Larson
Early Modern Women in Conversation by Katherine R. Larson is engaging. Its content adds to the academic discourse about early modern women and the rules of conduct, particularly conversation that governed the lives of women during the time period. Larson opens the book with “an anonymous poem that denounced Charles I’s letters at the Battle of Naesby in 1645 and their subsequent publication as the King’s Cabinet Opened as a conversation gone wrong” (1). This introduction, while very interesting, is a curious foreshadowing of the book’s content. It is curious because it sets the reader up for all that could go wrong with early modern women’s conversations. Larson adds that conversation during the early modern period was a form of networking and a means toward women’s emancipation in a male-dominated society. She situates women’s oral and written conversations while explicating the “interactive dimensions of genres that rely on a conversational structure” (3). The author is very adept in her expositions as she negotiates various written conversations and genres published by the Cavendish and Sidney families. From these explications, readers gain insight into Early Modern women’s way of life, in terms of their conversations.
The book is divided into two parts with an introduction, six subsequent chapters and a conclusion. In her introduction, Larson discusses what she sees as the mechanics of early modern conversation such as “[T]he potency of conversation as an early modern social networking tool is complicated, however, both by its gendered status in the period and by its conflation of verbal and physical interaction” (2). Not only were women expected to contain their leaky bodies in oral and sexual terms, they were also expected to maintain decorum in their speech. Through her employment of theories such as “historical formalism, feminist theory, discourse analysis, and cultural studies” (3), Larson discusses early modern women conversations in ways that allow the reader to access the information clearly from different perspectives.
In chapter 1, “Intercourses of Friendship: Gender, Conversation, and Social Performance,” Larson defines written rules in conduct books that governed women’s conversations and public conduct for women. From pages 22 to 32, she explains how women struggled to maintain their civil conversational boundaries through self-control, community surveillance, male domination, and conscious efforts to main chastity, a prized state for women of that period. Body language was seen as important for women, [End Page 110] lest they be judged wrongly. This information is crucial to today’s readers, where there are almost no rules of conduct that govern women’s conversations or body language. With the advent of viral media, women expose themselves, verbally and physically, as they attempt to define who they are to twenty-first century audiences.
Larson’s discussion of Amelia Lanyer’s rewriting of Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum demonstrates how women created and used safe spaces to engage in literary discourse. This is an important discussion for contemporary readers who may not all be aware of the class divisions of the early modern period and some individual’s inaccessibility to print materials. Her argument that conversation was important for women is interesting as she highlights not only literary texts written by women but also their letter writing that allowed them the freedom to control what they wrote within the boundaries afforded them. Larson’s explication of the use of the closet space as a safe and private space allows readers to gain insight into the early modern women’s world of privacy and textual conversation. The author also discusses the necessity for private spaces for women in the chapter, “Gendering Conversation and Space in Early Modern England.” She examines the symbolism of the closet as a metaphor for women’s contained bodies. Such bodies, she explained, were protected from ridicule and male gazes by systems that were put in place for those specific purposes.
In the second half of the book, “The Sidneys in Conversation,” Larson foregrounds an interesting comparison between the Sidney women in their textual...