(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In A Room of One’s Own (1930), Virginia Woolf observes of the woman of William Shakespeare’s time: “Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history.” What Barbara Kiefer Lewaiski does in Writing Women in Jacobean England is to examine several women of this period whose lives were not “completely insignificant.” Drawing upon the perspectives of biography, literary criticism, and literary theory, she searches out the factors that allowed these unusual women to break out of patriarchal molds and construct a public and private identity that transcended the role of daughter or wife.

Lewalski’s title incorporates two meanings: She is discussing women who wrote in Jacobean England, but she is also discussing the construction of gender at this period, “writing” society’s images of the individual women and the sex as a whole. She examines not only the poems, novels, tracts, letters, and diaries written by her nine subjects but also masques, dedicatory poems, and public statements written by their contemporaries, works that helped form their images as individuals.

This book demands much of its readers. Lewalski assumes some background in the history and literature of late Elizabethan and Jacobean England, and she quotes extensively from seventeenth century texts. Her formidable scholarship is evident in the eighty-seven pages of notes, which constitute an important resource for further study of her topic.

While the content of the book is demanding, however, Lewalski’s structure and style make the reader’s task somewhat easier. She lays out her premises in a brief, clear introduction and summarizes the main points at the end of each of her chapters. She makes occasional use of the language of contemporary critical theory, but only in contexts where the meaning is accessible; some may find the quotations from Jacobean texts hard going, but her own prose style is clear and precise. The body of the book is divided into three sections. The first treats three royal women; the second combines studies of two noblewomen with a discussion of a middle-class minister’s daughter. Lucy, Countess of Bedford, Lady Anne Clifford, and Rachel Speght “rewrite patriarchy by using contemporary institutions and interpreting contemporary discourses so as to claim within them rights and status normally denied women.” The final group is composed of women who wrote in the traditional literary genres: Elizabeth Cary, Lady Falkland, author of a tragedy and a history of Ed-ward II; Aemilia Lanyer, a poet; and Mary Sidiiey Wroth, who followed her famous uncle, Sir Philip Sidney, in composing both a Petrarchan sonnet sequence and a prose romance.

While acknowledging that the three royal women had little real power, Lewalski demonstrates that each found ways to assert her own will against the authority of James and his courtiers. Anne, sister of the King of Denmark, brought to her marriage a sense of her own value. As James came under the control of a succession of male favorites, Anne set up an oppositional court, pro-Spanish, pro-Catholic, which attracted both men and women of the nobility who wished to counter the power of the king. To illustrate Anne’s independent perspectives Lewalski looks to court masques, the elaborate royal entertainments that provided amusement for courtiers and foreign ambassadors while often serving as political propaganda for the royal sponsors. Samuel Daniel’s The Wsion of the Twelve Goddesses (1604), the first of the Jacobean masques, presents the Queen as Pallas Athena and her ladies as other goddesses, representing “earthly embodiments of the deities who bring to James qualities and gifts which (by implication) his reign does not yet have.” This work and others of its kind were subtle assertions of female power, Lewalski concludes.

Princess Elizabeth, like her mother, cannot be construed as a writer in the conven-tional sense, but she, too constructed a public persona. Married at sixteen to Frederick, the Elector Palatine, Elizabeth was for the rest of her life seen as a romantic heroine, particularly after her husband’s Protestant forces were defeated by the Hapsburgs and she and Frederick went...

(The entire section is 1758 words.)