Academic journal article
By Gustafson, Kevin L.
Philological Quarterly , Vol. 82, No. 3
Perhaps the single most important trend in criticism of sixteenth-century English prose fiction over the past twenty years has been a shift from questions of genre to those treating the nexus of gender, readership, and subject formation. (1) The preponderance of this work has focused on women. Early scholars, noting both the tendency of these works to deal with "women's concerns" such as marriage and courtship, and the frequency with which they directly addressed or were dedicated to women, considered English prose fiction as a tentative challenge to a largely oppressive patriarchal culture. (2) More recent studies of the cultural work of early modern narrative have expressed much ambivalence about the way in which such writing "produced" women: whether texts that presented powerful women were necessarily designed or seen as a means to open up new avenues for women's agency. (3) Whereas Tina Krontiris emphasizes prose narrative as an oppositional form, Caroline Lucas and Helen Hackett are much more reticent, their chief disagreement concerning whether early modern women were frustrated or fairly content with roles that seem by present standards rather impoverished. (4) Others register skepticism about references to women readers. Even in her pioneering work, Suzanne Hull noted both a growth in books addressed to a female audience and continued anxieties about women reading. (5) Jacqueline Pearson expands the latter point, showing how women's reading was often associated with "disease, madness, deception, rebellion, and transgression of the boundaries of acceptable femininity," (6) while even sanguine accounts of the period acknowledge the relative passivity of women readers. (7) Such evidence leads Lori Newcomb to conclude that, even in the sixteenth but especially in the seventeenth century, women readers and prose fiction were often associated to the detriment of both. (8) And while most discussions of gender continue to focus on women, more recent work has opened up the topic to include discussions of men as well. Critics are much more attuned to the homoerotic potential in much Elizabethan narrative. (9) Beyond that, they are framing questions based on the recognition that man, like woman, is made rather than born: What was the role of early modern prose fiction in defining and reinforcing standards of masculinity? How did works that privileged women characters and even addressed women readers cater to men readers as well? As Lorna Hutson convincingly argues, these questions are closely related: prose narratives that seemed to focus on "women's concerns" were also, or perhaps even foremost, about relations between men. (10)
Dubbed "the Homer of women" by Thomas Nashe, Robert Greene clearly participated in the growing place for women readers in Elizabethan England. Yet while he directly addressed women on several occasions, his work also epitomizes early modern ambivalence towards them. (11) He dedicated Penelopes Web (1589) to the Countesses of Cumberland and Warwick, claiming that the work was devoted to "discouering the virtues of your sex," but made an about-face in a immediately subsequent address "To the Gentlemen readers health," apologizing for writing of "womens prattle, about the vntwisting of Penelopes Web." (12) Similar contradictions can be found in A Myrrour of Modestie, which he dedicated to the Countess of Darbie, but only after telling his "gentle readers" that he had written "such trash," and that only "to feede hir fancie I have shewed my self to be so fonde." (13) Retractions of this sort are merely specific examples of the more global palinode of the late penitential writings, where he rejected his amatory work as just so much prodigality. (14) Here I would like to consider the particularly rich meditation on issues of gender and the readership of vernacular prose fiction in Ciceronis Amor of 1589, an initially popular yet now mostly neglected work dating from just before Greene renounced his amatory fiction. …