Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Rachel Speght as "Criticall Reader"

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Rachel Speght as "Criticall Reader"

Article excerpt

The published works of rachel speght have become prominent fixtures in the recently established and still evolving canon of early modern women's writing. Speght's A Mouzell for Melastomus (1617) offers a prose defense of women at least in part written in response to Joseph Swetnam's popular misogynist pamphlet titled The Araignment of Lewde, Idle, Froward and Unconstant Women (1615). The Araignment attracted four printed responses in all. Speght's volume was followed by two pseudonymous texts, "Ester Sowernam's" Ester Hath Hang'd Haman (1617) and "Constantia Munda's" The Worming of a Mad Dogge (1617), and an anonymous stage play titled Swetnam the Woman-hater, Arraigned by Women (1620, written circa 1618). Speght's other publication, Mortalities Memorandum (1621), is a verse meditation on death in the contemptus mundi tradition prefixed by a shorter poem, The Dreame, in which a female narrator describes her journey from ignorance to knowledge until her learning is curtailed by an "occurrence" left unspecified in the text (l 234). (1)

Through her authorship of Mouzell, Speght is, in Barbara Kiefer Lewalski's words, "the first Englishwoman to identify herself, by name, as a polemicist and critic of contemporary gender ideology" (xi). It is consequently of little surprise that critical reception of Mouzell has focused almost exclusively on questions of gender and the extent to which the text may be regarded as protofeminist. Reception of Speght's other published work has similarly been driven by interest in its promised insight into the experiences of a young, middle-class woman. Described on the title page as "imaginarie in manner; reall in matter" (43), Dreame appears to offer a personal account of Speght's experience of learning and a female-penned argument for women's education. Mortalities Memorandum itself, written in an ungendered narratorial voice, is through Dreames recounting of the death of Speght's mother said to be given "an uncharacteristic autobiographical perspective on the traditional death treatise" (Vecchi, 7). Due to its apparently personal nature, Dreame has been afforded greater attention by critics and anthologists than the much longer poem that it prefixes.

In two important articles that read Mouzell and Mortalities Memorandum as texts with "radical religio-political import" in their criticism of James I's religious and foreign policies, Christina Luckyj has argued that the reception of Speght's work has been too narrow ("Rereading" 122). Through its association of marital hierarchy with monarchical authority, argues Luckyj, Mouzell not only challenges tyranny within marriage but offers arguments for a subject's duty to the king and the monarch's responsibility to his people. And rather than offering a purely personal reflection on mortality--even to the extent of revealing her "bourgeois concern with wills and the disposition of property"--through its apocalyptic allusions, Mortalities Memorandum should, insists Luckyj, be recognized as a "deeply Calvinist admonition to the English monarch and his people" for their failure to attend to Protestant interests (Lewalski xxviii; Luckyj, "Criticall Reader" 247). By reading her as "a woman writing chiefly in opposition to men" and interpreting the works in terms of biography, recent critics according to Luckyj have isolated Speght's writing from the work of a "community of writers, preachers, and publishers defined not by gender but by religious politics" with which it is in dialogue ("Criticall Reader" 114). Speght's accomplishments and her active promotion of her religious and political interests are as a consequence effaced under the weight of present expectations and desires. Luckyj writes of the reception of Mouzell:

If we assume that a woman using religious language must be using it against and differently from men, we are replicating the notion that female authors were both isolated and defined entirely by their gender. There is an irony here; I wonder, with [Margaret] Ezell, if we have "unconsciously continued the existence of the restrictive ideologies that initially erased the vast majority of women's writings from literary history and teaching texts" [Writing Women's Literary History 15] . …

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