Women Writers in Renaissance England

Women Writers in Renaissance England

Women Writers in Renaissance England

Women Writers in Renaissance England


Of all the new developments in literary theory, feminism has proved to be the most widely influential, leading to an expansion of the traditional English canon in all periods of study. This book aims to make the work of Renaissance women writers in English better known to general and academic readers so as to strengthen the case for their future inclusion in the Renaissance literary canon.

This lively book surveys women writers in the sixteenth century and early seventeenth centuries. Its selection is vast, historically representative, and original, taking examples from twenty different, relatively unknown authors in all genres of writing, including poetry, fiction, religious works, letters and journals, translation, and books on childcare. It establishes new contexts for the debate about women as writers within the period and suggests potential intertextual connections with works by well-known male authors of the same time.

Individual authors and works are given concise introductions, with both modern and historical critical analysis, setting them in a theoretical and historicised context. All texts are made readily accessible through modern spelling and punctuation, on-the-page annotation and headnotes. The substantial, up-to-date bibliography provides a source for further study and research.


A dozen years ago, when this anthology was in preparation, it was almost mandatory to begin with a routine exorcism of the spectre of Judith Shakespeare. In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf explained the apparent absence of Renaissance women writers by imagining Shakespeare’s sister as an aspiring author who, stifled by a hostile patriarchal culture, ‘killed herself one winter’s night and lies buried at some crossroads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle.’ If Woolf invented and then killed off a woman writer in order to mourn her loss, over the past thirty years a new generation of critics has dug up the body of the ‘lost’ woman writer in order to declare her alive and well. The project of recovery has amply demonstrated their claims. In Martin’s anthology, for example, Grace Mildmay records her admiration for her governess, who ‘could apprehend, and contrive any matter whatever propounded unto her most judiciously, and set her mind down in writing, either by letters indicted or otherwise, as well as most men could’ (214–15). Unlike Judith Shakespeare, however, the anonymous gentlewoman never sought to write a play for the public theatre – indeed, she would likely have been horrified at the prospect, since Mildmay presumably learned from her to ‘think all times ill bestowed in books of idle plays and of all such fruitless and unprofitable matter’ (213). Ironically, most of these women writers would doubtless have dith Shakespeares, ‘pathetically isolated eccentrics crying in the patriarchal wilderness’ (Martin 7), but productive and engaged participants in their reading and writing communities.

With the ghost of Judith Shakespeare laid firmly to rest, the project of recovering and collecting writing by Renaissance women might appear to be an unassailably worthy one. Yet fresh challenges to the project’s methods and assumptions have emerged; indeed, it is a sure sign that the study of early modern women’s writing is coming of age when a number of its own practitioners are calling for its demise. Some have argued that the very existence of such anthologies suggests that women writers, unable to ‘compete’ with their male contemporaries, must be confined to a room of their own, in a sense quite unintended by Woolf. Is this ‘room’ of women’s own actually a ghetto? If the traditional literary canon is defined according to the criterion of ‘aesthetic value’ (itself historically

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (London: Harper Collins, 1994), p. 54.

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