Reading Early Modern Women's Writing

Reading Early Modern Women's Writing

Reading Early Modern Women's Writing

Reading Early Modern Women's Writing


This book contains the first comprehensive account of writing by women from the mid sixteenth century through to 1700. At the same time, it traces the way a representative sample of that writing was published, circulated in manuscript, read, anthologised, reprinted, and discussed from the timeit was produced through to the present day. Salzman's study covers an enormous range of women from all areas of early modern society, and it covers examples of the many and varied genres produced by these women, from plays to prophecies, diaries to poems, autobiographies to philosophy. As well asintroducing readers to the wealth of material produced by women in the early modern period, this book examines changing responses to what was written, tracing a history of reception and transmission that amounts to a cultural history of changing taste.


The title of this introduction pays tribute to Denise Riley's important book Am I That Name?—a book in which she interrogates the category of women in history. Here, I want to ponder some of the implications of the rapid establishment in the last few years of early modern women's writing as a body of knowledge, an object of academic scrutiny and a field of pedagogical practice. I want to start with some of Denise Riley's warnings about categorization in relation to the history and practice of humanist feminism, because I think that they can be related quite directly to issues surrounding the category 'early modern women's writing'. Riley warns, at the beginning of her study, that '[women] is a volatile collectivity in which female persons can be very differently positioned, so that the apparent continuity of the subject of [women] isn't to be relied on' (2). This might seem like an unnecessary caution to scholars working in the area of early modern women's writing, who have, after all, been engaged in a very self-conscious recovery of a series of buried and neglected writers and genres. But I think that, to at least some degree, the excitement of recovery and rapid consolidation of the field has meant rather less self-conscious reflection than the earlier phases of feminist theory have produced.

My two (very different) models for this self-examination are Margaret Ezell and Jonathan Goldberg. Ezell has been addressing some of these issues for the past fifteen years, notably in two books: The Patriarch's Wife and Writing Women's Literary History. Having established, in The Patriarch's Wife, the need for some recognition of the manuscript communities with which early modern women writers were intimately involved in considerable numbers, Ezell, in Writing Women's Literary History, produced a cautionary polemic tracing the diminishing presence of early modern women's writing, partly due, in her argument, to the preference for traditional genres in the recovery of women's

Denise Riley, Am I That Name?: Feminism and the Category of 'Women' In History (London:
Macmillan, 1988); further page references in parenthesis.

Margaret Ezell, The Patriarch's Wife: Literary Evidence and the History of the Family (Chapel
Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987); Writing Women's Literary History (Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1993).

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