Artemisia Gentileschi and Feminism in Early Modern Europe by Mary D. Garrard. London: Reaktion Books. 2020. Pp. 320. £15.95 (hardback), ISBN 9781789142020.

Artemisia Gentileschi is an artist whose time has more than come. New acquisitions of her work continue to emerge with great fanfare into the gallery spaces of the world’s most august art institutions, the most recent being the Getty Museum’s acquisition of her Lucretia (1627). In 2020, London’s National Gallery built an important show around the acquisition of Gentileschi’s Self Portrait as Catherine of Alexandria (1615–17). Gentileschi’s paintings are reentering a world in which not nearly enough has changed for women since the time when she was painting her original visions. In a climate of feminist protest, in which women’s voices are rightly loud and insistent, Gentileschi’s work retains a force of resonance, a relevance, that renders it as compelling and urgent as ever it was.

Not least, the parallel between Gentileschi’s experience of taking a rape complaint to trial and the experiences of women today who enter a courtroom in the hope of obtaining justice is painfully obvious. It is by now impossible to approach Gentileschi’s oeuvre without knowledge of this crime against her, and of the horror of her trial. The MeToo movement has highlighted how common it is for women to experience the crime of sexual assault and how rarely such crimes are punished. Society continues to accommodate systemic violence against women and girls. The crime of rape, then, is apposite to women’s reception of her work at this contemporary moment. It cannot be evacuated from Gentileschi’s history as an artist without enacting a distortion.

Yet too often, Gentileschi’s works of art have been framed as materially indexical to her rape, as symptoms arising from a private trauma. At their worst, such framings figure Gentileschi’s artistic agency as secondary to that of her abusers, whose actions not only “author” her works but provide their natural interpretive framework. Clearly, there is a balance to be struck between telling the whole of the important story of this female artist and allowing the undoubted quality and originality of her work to stand on its own terms. This can only take place outside of the tired psychobiographical framework that serves only to suppress Gentileschi’s painterly originality within a reductive teleological narrative of victimhood.

Eminent scholar, founding member of the field of feminist art history and pioneer of Artemisia Gentileschi studies, Mary D. Garrard is perhaps uniquely equipped to plot a course through these rocky waters. If, as Garrard argues, the repetition and magnification of artists and their work is a central strategy for canon formation, then Garrard is rightly feted for having been responsible for some of the most effective and transformative repetition and magnification of women’s art in the discipline of art history. Her new book represents a new and full account of Artemisia Gentileschi’s life and work. There are seven chapters, organised around recurring and important themes in Gentileschi’s work. This structure facilitates an interrogation of the contemporary visual and literary context illuminating these pictures and their subjects – their Judiths, Susannas, Lucretias, musicians, saints and allegorical figurations.

Garrard’s strategy of situating Gentileschi’s paintings within the contemporary writing and patronage of women avoids the shallows, contextualising the paintings within a broad and lively field of female authorship, creativity and crucially, feminism avant-la-lettre. This does not render the emotion in Gentileschi’s paintings insubstantial, but rather rebalances it against a feminist intellectual ballast, recuperating this extraordinary artist’s richness and range. It reframes Gentileschi’s work as a deliberate intervention in public debate.

Garrard’s book establishes Gentileschi very firmly as a player within the artistic and intellectual networks spanning Europe’s great courts and cities. This is really fascinating stuff, which, moreover, serves to situate Gentileschi’s art within a transterritorial conversation, as visual currency circulating within an intellectual exchange, that both draws on and responds emphatically to contemporary discourses. Moreover, Garrard demonstrates how Gentileschi’s paintings intervened in the flourishing feminist debates then known as the querelles des femmes, resituating her oeuvre within a lively community of early modern women who thought, knew, spoke, wrote, performed and painted. Intriguingly, Garrard argues that Gentileschi’s painting visualises this community of women as one which crosses class lines. Garrard extends this idea beautifully throughout, showing how Gentileschi’s work too spans historical time, forming a rallying point for the entry of new members into this feminist community persevering into our own present day.

While acknowledging the dangers of the biographical fallacy, Garrard makes a good case for reading Gentileschi’s pictures with her biography in mind. She argues convincingly for the painter’s use of her own likeness in her paintings, a matter of some recent debate. Garrard’s love for her subject is apparent, certainly no bad thing, and her connoisseurial, but also heartfelt, engagement with her subject produces a rich intimacy in her treatment of the artist’s history. Garrard’s use of the painter’s first name throughout is indicative of this intimacy, which feels very genuine, even ethical, as the evident product of so many years of patient study (I don’t claim the same privilege for myself here, although Garrard’s point about the status of Gentileschi’s celebrity, her name brand recognition, is well made). Accordingly, Garrard works hard to centre the originality of Gentileschi’s style, of her painterly voice, and points to several areas fertile for new research, not least, early modern women’s feminist patronage of women artists.

This intimacy extends into Garrard’s formal discussions of Gentileschi’s paintings, their remarkably palpable women, livid with corporeality, their straining hands, solid forearms and locked elbows, their stolid calm in the face of blood and danger. Gentileschi’s painting of women psychologically and physically absorbed in the back-breaking work of political murder, their total commitment to assassination, retains the power to arrest the gaze. Both Gentileschi and Garrard debunk the cherished myth that women of early modern Europe were all as modest and submissive as the conduct literature of their own day and an art historiography rooted in the nineteenth century would have them be.

The book’s approach stands on it own in quite a busy field. Much is being published on Artemisia Gentileschi right now, but nothing quite like this. The book is written in an engaging and conversational style appealing to a generalist audience, but there is plenty here for specialists to value. As standard with Reaktion Books, there are lovely endpapers and a cloth cover, and many high quality colour reproductions. There is a useful bibliography. A small caveat: I would have liked more information in the image captions, where the dimensions of paintings and their locations are not usually listed; it’s important for us to know the scale at which Gentileschi worked.

Dr Sara Ayres

Affiliate Researcher

Centre for Privacy Studies at Copenhagen University

Reminder: WSG seminar March 2021

The sixth seminar of the year takes place on Saturday, 1pm (GMT), 20 March 2021.

This meeting will be delivered on Zoom. All meetings will start promptly at 1pm GMT (with arrivals from 12.30 onward to allow for necessary preparations and administration). We aim to finish by 3.30pm. If you would like to attend, please make sure your membership is up-to-date to receive the Zoom link.

March 20, 2021
Cheryll Duncan: ‘Much want of judgment’?: new evidence concerning the singer Jane Barbier.

The contralto Jane Barbier enjoyed a long and illustrious career on the London stage, performing in Italian and English operas, masques, pantomimes and afterpieces at leading theatres between 1711 and 1740. Her personal life was subject to some colourful contemporary comment, particularly in response to her reported elopement in 1717. This paper presents a number of archival discoveries which significantly expand Barbier’s known biography; these include new information about her family, the man with whom she eloped, her financial activity and details of the contract for her final season at Covent Garden. The findings prompt a reassessment of Barbier’s reputation and allow a more nuanced portrait of the singer to emerge.

Maria Clara Pivate Biajoli: Understanding Current Readers’ Reception of Jane Austen through Fan Fiction.

Over the last two decades, mostly due to the “Austenmania” encouraged by several TV and movie adaptations of Jane Austen’s work during the 1990s, an overwhelming amount of sequels, variations, and modern retellings have been produced by fans who were not satisfied with the six completed novels Austen has left us. They constantly bring their favorite characters back to life by giving them new stories, new settings, new problems to solve, but never missing the chance to relive all the emotions created by their happy ending. Since Pride and Prejudice is, today, Austen’s most popular novel, it should be no surprise that it is also the one with the greatest number of sequels and variations. Fans have taken Elizabeth and Darcy from adventures with pirates to a shelter for the homeless in Canada, always making sure that their love would conquer it all.

Although the happy ending is indeed the destiny of all of Austen’s heroines, it is difficult to say for sure that it was the main purpose of their journey in the novels. On the contrary, many critics have argued that there are complex issues present in Austen’s text that we risk disregarding when we look only at the love story. Although Austen has probably never been more popular than today (a “global brand”, according to Janet Todd), this phenomenon was built on a very specific image of the author – the writer of romantic and naïve novels. Since the love story is exactly what current fan fiction focuses on, it can be said that they are both part of the cause and the consequence of the loss of other “Austens” in the public’s mind, such as her social criticism and acute perception of gender roles in her society.

This paper will address then the paradoxical question of how current fan fiction helps to promote Austen’s long-term popularity and, at the same time, her death. By presenting examples from sequels, variations, and modern adaptations, I will explore how the analysis of fan fiction can further our understanding of the current reception of Austen’s work. My premise is that fan-authors rewrite the novels according to their interpretation of the story, highlighting aspects they like, seeking repetition of the pleasures of the first reading, and changing or excluding aspects they didn’t like. In this sense, fan fiction could be a strategic source of information to answer the famous question “Why Austen”.

Miriam al Jamil: The Grand Duchess of Tuscany’s Birth Days: Weary and Waiting at the Florentine Court.

The late eighteenth-century Court of Leopold II, Arch Duke of Tuscany does not receive much scholarly attention in its own right. Leopold’s wife Maria Luisa attracts even less interest. Described as gentle and kind, she fades into the background of the wider political picture, as she quietly fulfils her duty and produces children destined for strategic dynastic Hapsburg marriages.

However, archival research into the State Papers records between Whitehall and Sir Horace Mann, British Resident in Florence, has enabled an unanticipated focus on Maria Luisa’s life through Mann’s regular reports and observations on the Ducal Court. His presence there for the frequent birth days of Maria Luisa’s children, together with details of her health and birthing practices offer insights which are unavailable elsewhere. His comments also counter the assumption that Maria Luisa did not participate in Court functions and ceremony.

This paper both charts the Ducal couple’s lives together and celebrates the potential for archival material to contribute to a range of hitherto untapped historical inquiry.

Reminder: WSG seminar February 2021

The fifth seminar of the year takes place on Saturday, 1pm (GMT), 20 February 2021.

This meeting will be delivered on Zoom. All meetings will start promptly at 1pm GMT (with arrivals from 12.30 onward to allow for necessary preparations and administration). We aim to finish by 3.30pm. If you would like to attend, please make sure your membership is up-to-date to receive the Zoom link.

February 20, 2021
Sarah Ailwood: ‘In justice to myself’: Legal and Textual Subjectivities in Eighteenth-Century Women’s Memoirs.

Costas Douzinas identifies the modern legal subject as both subjectum – the subject of the law – and subjectus – or subject to the law: simultaneously participating in law’s authorial creation, and obedient to its command.[1] Historically, however, women have occupied a status that is more subjectus than subjectum: as placed under the law’s authority with few opportunities to participate in its creation or authorisation. In this paper, I explore how, from the mid-eighteenth century, women began to contest their status as subjectus to the law through the writing, publication and dissemination of memoirs that interrogated their experience of the substance and process of law. Although women’s memoirs addressing the law and justice questions by the so-called ‘scandalous memoirists’, actresses and celebrities have received some scholarly attention, memoirs by comparatively little-known women that explicitly targeted law have been overlooked. Yet these memoirs offer a rich opportunity to explore relationships between gender and legal and textual subjectivities in the context of burgeoning print culture in eighteenth-century England.

From mid-century, women appropriated the newly emerging genre of the published memoir to publicise their experience of the law and justice system, to contest the subjectivity constructed of them and authorised as ‘fact’ by legal process, and to counter the representation of this subjectivity within the newspaper and periodical press. The published memoir offered women an opportunity to discursively construct an alternative self framed through reference to legal ‘norms’ as well as the emerging conventions of the memoirs genre. In this paper I will particularly focus on two memoirs that reveal women’s discursive negotiation of legal and textual subjectivities: The True State of the Case of Sarah Rippon (1756), by Sarah Rippon, a middle-class widow who published her memoir after a protracted series of law suits triggered by her husband’s death, to contest both the injustice she experienced through the court system and her representation as a litigant within wider public culture; and The Memoirs of Mrs Anne Bailey (1771), in which a woman living on the social margin details the violence inflicted upon her by high-profile men and her experiences of summary justice and the bridewell. If, as is widely argued, legal subjects are produced and imagined through language and law, memoirs by these and later eighteenth-century women reveal the centrality of the published memoir genre not only to women’s construction of textual subjectivity, but also to their conceptualisation of legal subjectivity and its relationship to power.

[1] Costas Douzinas, The End of Human Rights: Critical Legal Thought at the Turn of the Century (Hart Publishing 2000) 216–22.

Daisy Winter: “I who am but dust”: mortal fear in Elizabeth Delaval’s ‘Memoirs and Meditations’.

Known as a memoirist and Jacobite, Lady Elizabeth Delaval (1648? -1717) left a manuscript volume of memoirs and meditations that provide a fascinating insight into the often-unhappy life of a devout seventeenth-century gentlewoman. Biographies of Elizabeth have largely focused upon her failed romances and later, loveless marriage. While these real-life events certainly contributed to her unhappiness and induced her to write, this paper will instead consider Elizabeth’s expressions of anxiety in relation to a persistent, psychological trigger: her fear of the passage (and therefore, loss) of time. In the late seventeenth- and early eighteenth centuries, the mode of recording time increasingly “called attention away from endpoints and invested it in middles” (Stuart Sherman, Telling Time, 1996). ‘Memoirs’ responds to this trend for recounting the “middle” of one’s life, and Elizabeth records daily events and actions in detail. However, her fixation with time goes beyond the daily – thanatophobic paranoia often overwhelms her writing. Trying to make sense of her usage of time is, for Elizabeth, as much a reflection of her anxiety over her mortal “endpoint” as an urge to record. In a close reading of two key moments of Elizabeth’s manuscript, the chronophobic poem ‘Upon the singing of a lark’, and a morbid account of parasitic infection, this paper will explore the ways in which Elizabeth’s writing confronts the ephemerality of life and the inevitability of her own mortality.

Valentina Aparicio: Maria Graham’s Journal of a residence in Chile (1824): a transnational community of women.

Maria Graham became a widow in 1822, on her way to Valparaiso as the wife of the captain of HMS Doris. When arriving at Valparaiso, Graham decided to stay in Chile for a year and live by herself in the port in a rented cottage. She spent her time writing her Journal, as she travelled central regions of the newly independent country. In the ‘Preface’ of the journal, she expressed that she hoped to fill a gap in knowledge with her publication.  She considered most of the accounts on Chile to be tainted by political interests. She, on the other hand, wished to show that ‘there is so much of good in that country, so much in the character of the people and the excellence of the soil and climate’ (iv). As a widow, British traveller, artist, and female intellectual, Graham found herself able to socialise with people of different social stations, providing a variety of very complete accounts of Chilean life. Her positive depictions of people in Chile cover from countryside workers to the half-Irish president of the country, Bernardo O’Higgins. Graham’s accounts are particularly interesting regarding other women, their occupations, and education. My paper will focus particularly on this subject. Graham’s Journal provides several sympathetic descriptions of the life of women in the early republic of Chile – a subject ignored by male writers of the period, both European and South American. Graham’s Journal sheds light on the lives of women from creole aristocracy, creole lower classes, and women of indigenous backgrounds. While an inequality of power is inevitably present in these accounts, Graham’s work creates a remarkable sense of a community of women with her Chilean peers – including herself, the female pottery-makers of Pomaire, the high-society creole women of Santiago, the indigenous wife of the cacique of Yupeo, amongst many others. I will argue that the rich accounts of Chilean women found in Graham’s work provide a glimpse into an early nineteenth-century sense of female solidarity and understanding that goes beyond imperial divisions, as Graham places both herself and her peers in one shared space of female-centred dialogue.

For further information including abstracts, see our seminars page.  To join the WSG, see our membership page.

Reminder: WSG seminar January 2021

The fourth seminar of the year takes place on Saturday, 1pm (GMT), 23 January 2021.

This meeting will be delivered on Zoom. All meetings will start promptly at 1pm GMT (with arrivals from 12.30 onward to allow for necessary preparations and administration). We aim to finish by 3.30pm. If you would like to attend, please make sure your membership is up-to-date to receive the Zoom link.

January 23, 2021
Megan Shaw: Looking towards a cultural history of Katherine Villiers, Duchess of Buckingham (1603-1649).

This paper will explore how Katherine Villiers (neé Manners, 1603 – 1649), Duchess of Buckingham harnessed portraiture – in miniature and in large – and epistolary exchange as devices for affection, commemoration and self-preservation at the Stuart court. Katherine was the wife of George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham (1592 – 1628), the royal favourite to both James VI & I and Charles I of England. This paper is contextualised through painted portraits and by analysing the highly emotive, and often distressing, letters which the duchess wrote to her “dear heart” throughout their marriage. The Duke of Buckingham was assassinated in September 1628 which prompted a visual display of grief and a reassertion of loyalty in Katherine’s mourning portraits painted by Anthony van Dyck and Henri Beaubrun. These poignant portraits featured her husbands’ likeness in miniature. Connections will be drawn between the functions of the portrait miniature as devotional objects which could be privately concealed, displayed or activated in public at the will of their owner or wearer. I argue that their presence in the duchess’ mourning portraits conveyed a public message of her loss, and furthermore reinforced the political leverage of remembrance and the renegotiations – and even performance – of power that commemoration offered.

Gillian Beattie-Smith: Catherine Helen Spence: a consideration of her feminist and transnational agency.

Catherine Helen Spence (1825-1910), born in Melrose, Scotland, emigrated to Australia as a girl with her family.  Spence was a novelist, journalist, a leader in the international suffragist movement, a Georgist, and a proponent of proportional representation.  She was a public intellectual, who addressed audiences across Australia, America and Britain, and was a widely-respected social reformer.  Her life is commemorated in a statue, Australian currency, and place names, and memorialised in her extensive body of writing.

Spence’s novels have been compared with those of Eliot and Gaskell, and positioned in the development of European realist fiction, and the international tradition of feminist writing.  The body of literary critique and biographical record has grown on Spence in recent years, enabling alternative discourses of settler women writers as cultural agents in Australian foundational history.

This paper reflects on Spence’s feminist and transnational agency in her life and work.

Kate Stephenson: Lawyers, Débardeuses and Pages; Women Masquerading as Men.

Masquerades became popular in Britain in the early-18th century, finding a home at theatres as well as pleasure gardens such as Ranelagh and Vauxhall. These provided the opportunity for attendees to dress up in a huge variety of creative costumes and this tradition continued into the 19th century with fancy dress balls. Contemporary reports suggest that a not insignificant number of women used these events to subvert established gender norms and dress as men. This led to contemporary anxieties regarding the transgression of moral and social boundaries and the suggestion that cross-dressing, as well as fancy dress events more generally, could lead to homosexuality, sexual liaisons (and consequently pregnancy and venereal disease) and the breakdown of established social structures. This work-in-progress paper will examine women’s costume choices at masquerades and masked balls in the long 18th century with a focus on cross-dressing, investigating what kinds of women cross-dressed, what costumes they chose and how their choices changed over time.

For further information including abstracts, see our seminars page.  To join the WSG, see our membership page.

Reminder: WSG seminar 5 December 2020

The third seminar of the year takes place on Saturday, 1pm (GMT), 5 December 2020.

This meeting will be delivered on Zoom. All meetings will start promptly at 1pm GMT (with arrivals from 12.30 onward to allow for necessary preparations and administration). We aim to finish by 3.30pm. If you would like to attend, please make sure your membership is up-to-date to receive the Zoom link.

December 5, 2020

Daniel Beaumont: Melancholy and Despair among Early Modern English Women: A case study of Hannah Allen’s Satan’s Methods and Malice Baffled (1683).

In an age where mental health is receiving more attention than ever, it is essential to remember that perceptions of mental health are themselves historical constructions. This paper examines a key part of that historical construction in early modern England, exploring the case of Hannah Allen, who, according to her published narrative Satan’s Methods and Malice Baffled (1683), suffered from temptations by the Devil and a “deep melancholy” for much of her life. Allen’s striking and disquieting narrative traces her decline into life-threatening despair, in which she believed herself worthless and a “cursed reprobate”, before describing her gradual recovery and restoration of faith. Amidst a field still largely dominated by research into medical and spiritual treatises and literary works written by men, Allen’s text offers a rich opportunity for exploration into the perceptions and mentalities of melancholy and despair amongst early modern women and their communities.
This paper asks how we might best explore this work, paying attention to the textual structure and context of production as well as the substance of the narrative itself. I present two underexamined lines of inquiry: The first is the cultural and religious lens through which Allen perceived her own state of mind and the ways in which she presents that state to the reader. This interpretive schema exhibits a complex combination of ideas about Allen’s despair and melancholy that is informed by, but not restricted to, contemporary physiological and spiritual theories and authorial customs. The second line of investigation examines the glimpse the text provides into the social and emotional communities surrounding melancholy and mental distress amongst non-aristocratic English women of the seventeenth century at a local and familial level. Crucially, such attitudes seldom appear in the more frequently examined medical or religious treatises on melancholy, and what scholarship there is on Allen’s text has largely refrained from examining this more social aspect of her narrative. However, if we wish to understand the place and conceptualisation of this “affliction” (as Allen describes it) among early modern English women, an investigation into both areas is essential.

Yvonne Noble: Elizabeth Elstob, Mary Delany, and Money.

Valerie Schutte: Popular Literature at the Accession of Queen Mary.

An analysis of the literature written to celebrate Queen Mary I’s accession makes clear that several genres of writing were used and each seemed to have a different audience in mind. Of course, there were royal proclamations, such as those that announced both Jane and Mary as Queens of England, meant to be read or heard by all. Ballads, which were mass produced “because of people’s interest in the news and because of a genuine mood of celebration.” There were both official and non-official letters shared among Mary, her council, and all of the resident ambassadors, each meant for their specific recipient. Sermons were given and often later printed in Latin, meant for a learned audience, specifically those interested in the religious ramifications of Mary’s accession. And, plays and panegyrics were written and performed at court, meant for an audience of courtiers that surrounded Mary and even for Mary herself.

For the purposes of this essay, I am going to look at the broadsides, ballads, and pamphlets that were produced to celebrate Mary’s accession. These short, often single-sheet, texts were meant for a broad audience and essentially served to spread the news of Mary’s accession, as well as give a brief account of what had happened since the death of Edward. Often, they stressed the treasonous activities of Northumberland, almost never mentioning Jane at all, and they attempted to assuage concerns over possible changes in religious policy. Many were printed in the immediate aftermath of Mary’s proclamation as Queen, and give insight into the most pressing concerns for both Queen and country at that moment. Overwhelmingly, these popular texts concluded that Mary’s hereditary right was of the utmost importance, never questioning that right on the basis of her gender.

These ballads, broadsides, and pamphlets were what spread the news of Mary’s accession and both reinforced and guided the popular reaction to it. I will pull out the themes and commonalities of these popular sources, which are predominantly accepting of Mary as Queen. I suggest that popular sources produced at Mary’s accession were all generally positive about and accepting of Mary as Queen, based on dynastic tradition and her lineage. Any anti-government tracts produced at Mary’s accession were not against Mary’s accession per se, but were often Protestant works that tended to be anti-Catholic and not Mary-centric.

For further information including abstracts, see our seminars page.  To join the WSG, see our membership page.