- Female Alliances: Gender, Identity, and Friendship in Early Modern Britain by Amanda E. Herbert
Historians and literary critics have long had to rely on disparate and fragmentary records in order to study the lives of women in early modern Britain and its territories. Amanda E. Herbert's Female Alliances: Gender, Identity, and Friendship in Early Modern Britain carefully and creatively convenes an impressive range of such sources to offer a fresh account of the social relationships that British women forged with each other in both private and public spheres during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Indeed, one of the major strengths of Herbert's book is how skillfully she models innovative ways to generate important studies within the field of women's history even as she calls attention to the archival limitations of her own project. With this powerful current of archival awareness running through its chapters, Female Alliances works to expand our understanding of social networks among women beyond the narrow concept of friendship and toward a broader idea of alliance, a term that encompasses the wide range of relationships and bonds that formed between women who occupied a variety of social positions. Situated in many ways at the intersection of history and literary studies, this book is poised to enhance our understanding of how female identity was shaped and regulated within communities of women that formed across several local domains in the [End Page 153] British Isles and Ireland as well as in the global sites of the West Indies and continental North America.
While the book's primary focus is elite white British women—largely due to the fact that their voices are often the only ones that survive in written records—Herbert shows that female alliances were also built across class and social position, a fact that makes creating categories for these relationships not only difficult but also limiting. For this reason, the six chapters of Female Alliances are dedicated to the primary spaces and practices of female social network formation, thereby allowing the diversity and complexity of the relationships to come through and even to run from one chapter to the next. Rather than focusing on extended case studies of individual women (as other works of women's history have done in the past), Herbert's book is "structured as a series of interlocking and interrelated microhistories" (17). Such an alternative approach highlights the variety of forms that female alliances took while also showing how some women operated within more than one social arena simultaneously.
Herbert lays the groundwork for the remainder of the book in the first chapter by analyzing the language used to describe female alliances in classical, religious, biological, epistolary, and prescriptive texts circulating in the period. Because letters were a form of "emotional praxis," especially for women separated from their female friends and relatives during a period of increased travel beyond Britain, epistolary exchanges were a particularly important means by which women could "construct and maintain social networks" (21–22) and define the significance of their relationships. Several compelling examples drawn from women's letters to each other show how they actively worked against classical and religious gendered stereotypes about friendship by borrowing the language of both male homosociality and heterosexual marriage to express devotion to their female friends. Herbert's careful linguistic analyses of women's epistolary exchanges show that, perhaps more than any other genre of writing, the prescriptive and behavioral literature of the period provided a self-reflective and self-regulatory lexicon for defining precisely how their relationships with other women influenced social behavior.
Letters were not the only things that women exchanged, however. Building on recent trends in the history of material culture, Herbert's third chapter argues that the act of exchanging handmade or repurposed luxury gifts such as marmalade, perfume, embroidery, and painted pictures allowed [End Page 154] women to create and maintain alliances with other women. Despite the fact that details about gifts are difficult to find in the archives, Herbert...