Reading, Society, and Politics in Early Modern England

By Kevin Sharpe; Steven N. Zwicker | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THREE
'Boasting of silence': women readers
in a patriarchal state

Heidi Brayman Hackel

A late sixteenth-century treatise on marriage prescribes each spouse's role in a harmonious household: 'The dutie of the man is, to bee skillfull in talke: and of the wife, to boast of silence.'1 Taking this oxymoronic ideal of displayed silence as emblematic, this essay examines the silence of early modern women readers – both literal and figurative, prescribed and performed. Certainly, reading in late medieval and early modern England was as often public and social as it was private and silent, and gentlewomen's reading, in particular, frequently took an oral form. Women's experiences as readers, however, were nevertheless circumscribed by legal and cultural injunctions for silence. For women's reading, like women's writing and speaking, aroused controversy and attracted comment throughout the period,2 and the pressures of the patriarchal state on female readers can be felt in legal statutes, educational practices and conduct books. While legal and institutional practices demonstrate the workings of a partriarchal state, early modern conduct books reveal the assumptions of patriarchy in its 'domestic form', which Kathleen Brown defines as the 'historically specific authority of the father over his household'.3 This essay considers three prescribed forms of female readerly silence – restraint from public reading, limitations on linguistic proficiency and abstention from vocal criticism – as the context for women's habitual silence in the margins of their books. As readers' marginalia have emerged as a central archive for the history of reading in early modern England, that history has focused on goal-orientated, professional and contestatory readings, and it has largely elided women readers.4 For the cultural and material practices that discouraged women from annotating their books have also made it difficult for modern scholars to write them into the emerging history of reading. If women as readers are not to remain inaudible, we must shift the fields of evidence and listen very closely.

In concert with the urgings of conduct books, English laws provided little room for women's public performance of reading. The application

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