Review of WSG Seminar, 19 September 2020 by Miriam Al Jamil

The first seminar of our 2020-2021 programme took place via zoom on 19th September. It was an inspiring start, with papers from Stephen Spiess, Sonia Villegas Lopez and Anthony Walker-Cook (see programme) and our usual lively discussion to follow. The papers represented research into the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which covers most of the period with which the group is concerned. There were many interesting connections between them through their discourses on shaping narratives of power and chastity by monarchs and mistresses, and their sensual evocations of the beguiling incense of the seraglio and the grease and smoke of the country house kitchen.

Stephen Spiess presented an intriguing discussion of the ‘sexual conversion narrative’, the manipulation of female chastity as a status which could be regained and rewritten. He used the example of Anne Boleyn who was executed as a ‘harlot’ but was quietly reinstated as a chaste wife at the time of her daughter Elizabeth I’s coronation. Ecclesiastical records reveal at the other end of the social scale, the 1589 case of Ursula Shepherd who publicly repented her ‘whoredom’ and vowed ‘hereafter to lead a chaste life’. Spiess asked how this renewed ‘chastity’ might have been accepted by the community and effected in practice. He is interested in the social formation that constructed the ‘epistemology of the whore’ in early modern England as part of an ongoing project. Questions after his paper focussed on the continual making and remaking of sexual representation, the traditions of whore narratives such as that of Mary Magdalen and on the patriarchal institutions which formulated the narratives and why. Legal and religious structures, but also the fact that
women themselves were often the loudest accusatory voices were discussed, and the flexibility of spousal contracts which might condone pre-marital sex if formal marriage then took place. Chastity was clearly a fluid idea, composed of complex socially agreed and reinterpreted meanings.

The beautiful oil paintings which accompanied Spiess’ presentation deserve a mention. Sonia Villegas Lopez examined the idea of libertinism in the seventeenth century which was seen as primarily a male transgression but one which female writers such as Behn and Haywood increasingly redefined (see Laura Linker, Dangerous Women, Libertine Epicures and the Rise of Sensibility, 1670-1730). Lopez based her argument on two ‘Oriental’ or as Lopez prefers
‘transnational’ texts by Sébastien Brémond, Hattige, or the Amours of the King of Tamaran (1680) and Homais, Queen of Tunis (1681) which were thinly veiled critiques of Charles II’s court and the power of royal mistresses. Though at the boundaries of society, the women used their bodies to shape the opportunities which their confined lives presented, and to exploit the fallibilities of the
monarchs who ostensibly control them. The novels play with cross-dressing and multiple identities and show sexuality and politics as almost interchangeable. Ideas raised in discussions after the paper included the possibility that class was more important than gender in novels which featured
kings who raised lower status women to positions of power. This female power could safely be discussed in settings of ‘far-away places’. It was pointed out that Behn’s work demonstrates many of the prejudices against women, not least in terms of age and power. For example, Onahal, the old
wife of the king in Oroonoka, retains much of her power though relegated to second place and communicates with Oroonoko on behalf of Imoinda.

Anthony Walker-Cook took us into the eighteenth century and on a journey to the Underworld and the Mock-heroic as a way of writing in the epic mode through the work of Sarah Fielding and Mary Leapor. He analysed their use of Classical references, particularly from Homer and Virgil. We looked at Fielding’s The History of the Countess of Dellwyn (1759) which uses the references to frame commentary on her contemporary world, one which mirrors the chthonic confusion and dark recesses of myth and its powerful stories. Mary Leapor employs the tradition of ‘katabasis’ (descent)
in her poem Crumble-Hall to take us into the lower levels, the domain of the lower classes, workers and domestics who labour unseen like so many hideous mythological figures. She constructed ‘female narratives within a classical space’, where Sophronia kneads her dough and

‘thro’ her Fingers squeeze
Ambrosial Butter with the temper’d Cheese:
Sweet Tarts and Pudden. Too, her Skill declare;
And the soft Jellies, hid from baneful Air’

(in A Companion to Eighteenth-Century Poetry, ed. Christine Gerard, 2006, p.209).

Who could resist those tarts and ‘puddens’?! During the discussion, the tone of the poem was compared to Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s Washing Day (1797). The translations of Classical work, particularly Horatian Odes by Bluestocking women and the lesser known Mary Goddard were mentioned.

The particularly harrowing image of Hector’s dead body dragged behind a chariot in The Iliad sparked several examples in womens’ writing, notably Mary Wortley Montagu in her poem Saturday (1747) which conjures up the horror in a meditation on the effects of smallpox:

‘A glass in her right hand she bore,
For now she shunned the face she sought before.
‘How am I changed! Alas! How am I grown
A frightful spectre, to myself unknown!’ (line 1-6)

Thanks are due to all the speakers and to the host and chair of our first zoom meeting as a group. If this was a taste of what is to come, we can expect an exceptionally erudite and stimulating season of papers!

Review: Early Modern Female Book Ownership. Edited by Mark Empey, Sarah Lindenbaum, Tara Lyons, Erin McCarthy, Micheline White, Georgianna Ziegler, and Martine van Elk. Reviewed by Valerie Schutte

Early Modern Female Book Ownership is a website dedicated to individual books that can be traced to female owners from 1500 to 1750. On the home page, immediately under the blog title, is the hashtag #HerBook, which the editors want site visitors to use when discussing or mentioning the blog. They often refer blog users to their Twitter page for up-to-date information about their project or to reach out with suggestions.

The main menu for the website has four tabs: Home, About this Blog, Resources, and Finding Aid. The home page is where all of the blog posts appear, one after the next, making the home page incredibly long, as the earliest blog post dates to 3 December 2018. According to this first blog post, which serves as a welcome to the website, the project is designed to showcase short posts of books owned by early modern women featuring an inscription by that woman. The blog features mostly English entries, but would like to include others. Blog posts are typically short, no more than 1,000 words, and are accompanied by pictures of the title page of the book owned by a woman and of her inscription or signature. The pictures appear to have been taken by those writing the blog post, not stock images from the internet or Creative Commons.

On the right side of the home page is both a search tool and a list of categories. In selecting a category, only the books tied to that category are shown on the home page, such as sixteenth century, seventeenth century, Dutch, and drama. There are 24 categories to choose from. However, even when you select a category, the blog posts still appear in the order in which they were posted to the blog and one right after the next on the home page. There is no way for further filtering, unless you only use the search function to look for a specific book or female book owner.

Under the About this Blog tab, the blog editors explain the purpose of the blog and welcome guest posts from scholars, collectors, and students. They hope to contribute to the study of female book ownership by offering examples of female owned books and how women showcased their ownership.

Under the Resources tab, there is a brief bibliography of books, articles, websites, and other blogs that are about women book owners and readers, which is incredibly helpful for further research on the subject. This list is far from inclusive and many of the books and articles mentioned are those by the blog editors.

Under the Finding Aid tab, they offer a list of the books and female book owners for which they have blog posts. They suggest researchers scan this list for patterns and to find specific blog posts quickly, as within the list all of the book titles are hyperlinked to the relevant blog post. This page should perhaps be the home page, in that it is much easier to scan for a specific female book owner or book, while the home page is overwhelming with information and pictures.

Overall, the blog is very useful and offers researchers and people interested in early modern books with short posts of information that they can follow up on for themselves. Most useful are the photos of the inscriptions, which are often not included in book and journal essays on the subject and allow for inscription comparison over time, and as the blog develops, across borders.

Valerie Schutte

Independent Scholar

Valerie Schutte is author or editor of several books on Tudor monarchs and their books, Shakespeare, and Queen Mary I. She is currently writing the first academic biography of Anne of Cleves.

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Early Modern Female Book Ownership. Edited by Mark Empey, Sarah Lindenbaum, Tara Lyons, Erin McCarthy, Micheline White, Georgianna Ziegler, and Martine van Elk. https://earlymodernfemalebookownership.wordpress.com/. Accessed 15 July 2020.