Women's Literature in the 16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries
With the advent of print in Europe in the mid 1400s, literature began to garner a much larger audience. The most famous early book was the Gutenberg Bible of 1456, and twenty years later, William Caxton effectively originated print in England when he set up his press at Westminster. The trend toward literacy and the wider distribution of texts throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries significantly altered not only the intellectual landscape of Europe, but the role of women writers—as print made literature more widely available to the middle class and to middle-class women, the focus of literature changed significantly. Despite often being denied the educational opportunities afforded to men, far more women were able to express themselves in writing than before this period.
Much early writing, including that of female authors, was devotional in nature. Many women wrote prayers, translations of religious works originally in Latin, and other texts primarily centered on spirituality. Notable, and often autobiographical, religious works by authors such as Margery Kempe, were especially popular. The increasing availability of print gradually allowed literature to focus on more secular themes, and many women contributed to the body of literature by writing journals, essays, and letters. Initially a private genre, letters evolved from a basic form of communication into a significant public literary style. Epistolary writing by such authors as Margaret Cavendish and Mary Wortley Montagu elevated the style, contributing to the creation of the epistolary novel genre and to the development of fiction itself. These and other letters by women are currently studied not only for their social and historical commentary, but for their literary merits as well.
Nancy Cotton has traced the contributions of women playwrights to the fourteenth century, noting that the first known woman playwright in England, Katherine of Sutton, rewrote traditional liturgical plays between 1363 and 1376. Cotton credits the Countess of Pembroke, with her Antonie printed in 1592, as the first woman in England to publish a play. Angela J. Smallwood examines eighteenth-century British theater, and notes that the second half of the century was a "heyday of genteel comedy for female as well as male writers." A playwright as well as a novelist, Aphra Behn is known as the first woman to earn her living entirely from writing. Her novels, especially Oroonoko (1688) are widely studied to this day, as are the romantic works of Madeleine de Scudéry, and both authors were highly influential in the further development of literature. Women also participated heavily in the poetry of the era. As poetry writing changed from an act practiced by the aristocracy to one available to women of all classes, working-class women such as Ann Yearsley and Hannah More joined noble-women such as Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, as published poets. Women made significant contributions to a wide variety of literature and literary periods, from the rise of the periodical in the sixteenth century to the rise of literary criticism.
Modern analyses of women's literature from 1500 to 1800 investigate the effects of social, economic, and political conditions under which women lived, in addition to studying the literary merits of their works. For instance, Marion Wynne-Davies demonstrates how women's very lack of status and financial independence served as an important impetus to publish, since they recognized their literary skills as a means to earn money. Elaine Hobby contends that women were more suited than men to write religious meditations, due to the "specifically female advantages of abandoning the world," and its "concerns of state." Margaret J. M. Ezell explains that women's literature was historically neglected by scholars, except in the area of nineteenth-century novels, but that literary historians, particularly since the 1970s, have recovered many previously unknown texts and manuscripts. Isobel Grundy analyzes the many elements involved in recovering a particular text and explores why a text might have been suppressed in the past. The recovery of such texts enables the study of early female writers, and the critical study and popular appeal of these authors continues to grow.
Letters of Mrs. Adams, The Wife of John Adams (letters) 1840
Some Account of the Fore-Part of the Life of Elizabeth Ashbridge (autobiography) 1774
The first examinacyon of the worthy servant of God, Mistresse Anne Askewe … lately martyred in Smith-fielde, by the Romish Antichristian Broode … with the elucydation of Johan Bale (personal narrative) 1546
The lattre examinacyon of the worthye servaunt of God mastres Anne Askewe (personal narrative) 1547
St. Teresa de Avila
El libro de su vida [The Life of the Mother Teresa of Jesus] 1562
El libra de las fundaciones de Santa Teresa de Jesús [The Book of the Foundations] 1576
El castillo interior, o las moradas [The Interior Castle; or, The Mansions] 1577
A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of Their True and Greatest Interest. By a Lover of Her Sex (essay) 1694
A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Part II. Wherin a Method is Offer'd for the Improvement of Their Minds (essay) 1697
Oroonoko; Or, The Royal Slave. A True History...
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SOURCE: Rowlandson, Mary. "Captivity, Sufferings, and Removes (1682)." In Public Women, Public Words: A Documentary History of American Feminism, edited by Dawn Keetley and John Pettegrew, pp. 21-26. Madison, Wis.: Madison House, 1997.
In the following excerpt from her 1682 book, Rowlandson relates her time spent as a captive of American Indians.
On the 10th of February, 1675, the Indians, in great numbers, came upon Lancaster. Their first coming was about sun-rising; hearing the noise of some guns, we looked out; several houses were burning, and the smoke ascending to heaven. There were five persons taken in one house, the father, the mother, and a sucking child they knocked on the head; the other two they took and carried away alive.—There were two others, who being out of the garrison upon occasion, were set upon; one was knocked on the head, the other escaped: another there was, who running along, was shot and wounded, and fell down; he begged of them his life, promising them money, (as they told me) but they would not hearken to him, knocked him on the head, stripped him naked, and ripped open his bowels. Another, seeing many of the Indians about his barn, ventured out, but was quickly shot down. There were three others belonging to the same garrison, who were killed; the Indians getting up on the roof of the barn, had advantage to shoot down upon them...
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SOURCE: de Gouges, Olympe. "The Rights of Women." In Women in Revolutionary Paris 1789-1795: Selected Documents, edited and translated by Daline Gay Levy, Harriet Branson Applewhite, and Mary Durham Johnson, pp. 87-96. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1979.
In the following excerpt from her 1791 pamphlet addressed to the Queen, Marie Antoinette, de Gouges offers a declaration of women's rights.
Man, are you capable of being just? It is a woman who poses the question; you will not deprive her of that right at least. Tell me, what gives you sovereign empire to oppress my sex? Your strength? Your talents? Observe the Creator in his wisdom; survey in all her grandeur that nature with whom you seem to want to be in harmony, and give me, if you dare, an example of this tyrannical empire. Go back to animals, consult the elements, study plants, finally glance at all the modifications of organic matter, and surrender to the evidence when I offer you the means; search, probe, and distinguish, if you can, the sexes in the administration of nature. Everywhere you will find them mingled; everywhere they cooperate in harmonious togetherness in this immortal masterpiece.
Man alone has raised his exceptional circumstances to a principle. Bizarre, blind, bloated with science and degenerated—in a century of enlightenment and wisdom—into the crassest...
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SOURCE: Cotton, Nancy. "Women Playwrights in England: Renaissance Noblewomen." In Readings in Renaissance Women's Drama: Criticism, History, and Performance 1594-1998, edited by S. P. Cerasano and Marion Wynne-Davies, pp. 32-46. London: Routledge, 1998.
In the following essay, Cotton provides a history of England's early women playwrights.
The first recorded woman playwright in England was Katherine of Sutton, abbess of Barking nunnery in the fourteenth century. Between 1363 and 1376 the abbess rewrote the Easter dramatic offices because the people attending the paschal services were becoming increasingly cool in their devotions (' deuocione frigessere '). Wishing to excite devotion at such a crowded, important festival (' desiderans … fidelium deuocionem ad tam celebrem celebracionem magis excitare '), Lady Katherine produced unusually lively adaptations of the traditional liturgical plays.1 Particularly interesting is her elevatio crucis, one of the few surviving liturgical plays that contains a representation of the harrowing of hell. In the visitatio sepulchri that follows, the three Marys are acted not by male clerics, which was customary, but by nuns.2 The Barking plays are not unique, however, in showing the participation of nuns. In religious houses on the continent women sometimes acted in church dramas, and Hrotsvitha of...
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SOURCE: Wynne-Davies, Marion. Introduction to Women Poets of the Renaissance, edited by Marion Wynne-Davies, pp. xix-xxix. New York: Routledge, 1999.
In the following essay, originally published in 1998, Wynne-Davies provides an overview of female Renaissance poets, discusses their social positions, and examines their literary concerns.
And in oblivion bury me
And never more me name.
These words are taken from Isabella Whitney’s The Manner of Her Will . . . to London (lines 267-8), where she asks the city to bury her without show or ostentation. They could apply as succinctly to the body of her work as to her own mortal remains, for, after the first publication of her poem in 1573, the text was buried in oblivion until the late twentieth century, and Whitney’s ‘name’ ceased to be recorded in the annals of English poetry. Nor is such obscurity confined to Whitney (the first poet in this anthology), for, with the exception of Queen Elizabeth I, none of the women represented here is well-known or widely published. Even Elizabeth is recognized more as an icon and a symbol of English heritage than as an author in her own right. This lack of contextual and interpretative information raises some basic questions. To begin, we need to ask: ‘Who were these women poets and what were they writing about?’
It has often been assumed...
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SOURCE: Grundy, Isobel. “(Re)discovering Women’s Texts.” In Women and Literature in Britain 1700-1800, edited by Vivien Jones, pp. 179-96. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
In the following essay, Grundy discusses the process of recovering women’s texts and by what standards the works should be judged.
Discovery has a bad name in the late twentieth century. The old idea that Columbus ‘discovered’ America is now recognised to be Eurocentric. America was there already, full of human societies whose rich experience had not included the knowledge of Europe. Electricity, too, was pulsing through the air and through the human brain before anybody discovered it. Early texts by women have most of them served the purpose for which they were written; but a text which is not now in the hands of readers is in some sense nonexistent.
Still, it is worth pausing over what we mean by (re)discovery and why we need it, before proceeding to what has been done and what needs doing. ‘Undiscovered’ may mean unknown, or lost, or merely neglected. No one at all seems to have read or even heard of the little autobiographies of Martha Moulsworth and Mary More between the time of their composition in the mid seventeenth century, and that time in the 1980s and 1990s when Robert C. Evans and Barbara Wiedemann, and Margaret Ezell, came on them in the...
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SOURCE: Ezell, Margaret J. M. "Women and Writing." In A Companion to Early Modern Women's Writing, edited by Anita Pacheco, pp. 77-94. Oxford, England: Blackwell Publishing, 2002.
In the following essay, Ezell discusses the circumstances and motivations of numerous women writers.
But, why not women write, I pray?
Sarah Jinner, 'To the Reader', An Almanack or
Prognostication of Women (1658)
If this essay were being composed in the 1920s or 1930s the task would have been at once harder and simpler. It would have been harder in that the topic of early modern women writers had not been defined as an area suitable for intellectual enquiry beyond obscure antiquarian or genealogical interests. During that period, too, the dominant metaphor for literary history was of the literary past as a landscape and the historian's job was to provide a map or tour guide through its major points of attraction, defined by genre or monumental figures. The literary critic's task was to point out both the particular and the characteristic beauties of a region and also to warn the reader away from any deceptive shifting sands or literary fens.
In this version of literary history the territory occupied by writing women was largely populated by nineteenth-century novelists. Earlier female authors...
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Altaba-Artal, Dolors. "Theology to Humanism: Aphra Behn's 'The Young King; or, The Mistake'." In Aphra Behn's English Feminism: Wit and Satire, pp. 26-45. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 1999.
Examines The Young King; or, The Mistake 's debt to the work of Calderón de la Barca (1600-1681).
Anthony, Katharine. First Lady of the Revolution: The Life of Mercy Otis Warren. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1972, 258 p.
Biography of Mercy Otis Warren, a prominent patriot, pamphleteer, historian, and woman of letters during the American revolutionary period.
Armstrong, Nancy. "Captivity and Cultural Capital in the English Novel." Novel 31, no. 3 (summer 1998): 373-98.
Contends that eighteenth century English novelists were heavily influenced by the Colonial captivity narrative.
Beckstrand, Lisa. "Olympe de Gouges: Feminine Sensibility and Political Posturing." Intertexts 6, no. 2 (2002): 185-202.
Examines how Olympe de Gouges's use of fictional autobiography enabled her to challenge gender restrictions.
Bohls, Elizabeth A. "Dorothy Wordsworth and the Cultural Politics of Scenic Tourism."...
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