Megan Matchinske. Writing,
Gender and State in Early Modern England: Identity Formation and the Female
Subject. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. 260pp. ISBN 0-521-62254-9.
University of Texas at San Antonio
Andrea, Bernadette. "Review of Writing,
Gender and State in Early Modern England." Early Modern Literary Studies
5.1 (May, 1999): 5.1-5 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/05-1/andrev.html>.
Matchinske begins her study with an anecdote from the
Life of Margaret Cavendish that highlights the possibilities and
pitfalls for a theoretically attentive analysis of "gender," the
"state," and the "subject" in early modern England.
Cavendish is exemplary for her ability "to play the fool," thus
conforming to the stereotype that women are inadequate social subjects,
even as she "chooses this tactic," thus demonstrating her agency
in undermining the stereotype (1). This mode of cultural negotiation is
reminiscent of Luce Irigaray's feminine mimicry, though Matchinske does
not evoke this theorist. Rather, she relies (albeit implicitly for the most
part) on the theoretical model elaborated by Michel Foucault in his writings
on the subject and power. She is explicitly indebted to Paul Smith's materialist
critique of the poststructuralist effacement of agency in its deconstruction
of the subject. Nonetheless, she confuses the precision of Smith's critique
with her ambiguous emphasis on "choice" rather than "agency";
her oscillation between the terms "navigate" and "negotiate"
similarly suggests a slippage between liberalist and materialist models.
Most significant for the strictly theoretical model she attempts to elaborate
in her Introduction, however, is her loose usage of the terms "subject,"
"individual," "self," and "identity," so that
she can confusingly refer to the "subject/individual" (13) or
the "subject/self" (14). I stress such obfuscation in Matchinske's
Introduction, not to mark the failure of her project, but to suggest that
her "theorizing" is far more successful in the subsequent case
studies she considers. In the balance of this review I accordingly highlight
Matchinske's productive elaboration of a theory of gender, state, and subject
formation through her application of historically-situated methods for reading
early modern women's cultural agency, whether those women's "writings"
come to us through texts signed by men or women, pseudonymously or anonymously.
In Chapter One, which focuses on the highly contested
case of Anne Askew and her mid sixteenth-century Examinations, Matchinske
proposes two related theses: first, "Askew's martyr-status underscores
the layer upon layer of historical forgetting that makes up the English
Reformation" (24), a proposition significant enough for Matchinske
to repeat verbatim in her Introduction (19); and, secondly, "it camouflages
the impious and secularly motivated aspects of Askew's initial participation
in that dialogue; it masks the potentially transformative circumstances
of her encounter outside reformist polemic and the narratives that remain"
(24). The methodological trope, "the remaining narratives," Matchinske
foregrounds in this chapter enables us to conceptualize the multiple resistances
encoded in the Examinations that get written out of accounts of the
Reformation as a linear, teleological history. Askew must be seen less as
a figurehead, or even a "spokeswoman," for the English Reformation,
and more complexly as a figure whom the Reformers used to negotiate their
own social and subject positions even as she herself negotiated agendas
that ran counter to Reformation doctrine. Her narrative consequently must
be situated as part of the complex negotiations between its promoters--primarily
John Fox and John Bale--and its subject--ostensibly Askew. In particular,
Bale's construction of Askew as a figurehead and martyr for the Reformation
functions as a medium for his own positioning of himself as a reformer,
exile, and author addressing other men. Matchinske's analysis of Bale as
"author" of Askew's text problematizes any easy celebration of
women's writing as resistance in a patriarchal culture. Yet, Matchinske
also points towards the residue of resistance in Askew's writings that potentially
escapes patriarchal control and for this reason does not get included in
patriarchal histories. What a reading of "the narratives that remain"
reveals is that Askew's resistance elaborates not orthodox Reformation doctrine
but a radically singular, and specifically gendered, self. The case
study Matchinske considers in her second chapter shifts from the mid to
the late sixteenth century, the Henrician to the Elizabethan court, the
gentry to the middling rank, and state-sanctioned Protestantism to recusant
Catholicism. Its subject Margaret Clitherow, "an 'ideal Elizabethan
wife' and an exemplary Catholic" (53), nonetheless shares with her
counterpoint Anne Askew a simultaneously compromised and subversive position
within early modern women’s literary history. Clitherow, whom we know only
from her confessor John Mush's "The Life of Margaret Clitherow,"
remains on the margins of a history of early modern women’s writing that
focuses on female authorship and authenticity. Matchinske counters this
exclusion of Clitherow's cultural agency by proposing a twofold method that
moves beyond reductively positivistic models of literary recovery: "One
strategy is to consider comparatively, to juxtapose Clitherow's missing
voice with available, albeit historically discrete, counterparts. . . .
A second and perhaps equally compelling alternative is to write Clitherow's
voice into being--to create it anew" (54). Matchinske's comparative
approach involves cross-gender discourses, as she analyzes Mush’s relationship
to Clitherow's "Life," and cross-generational discourses, as she
examines Clitherow's life and writings alongside Askew’s. Nonetheless, unlike
Askew, Clitherow did not record her interrogation and trial, and thus left
no written text that may be traced to her. She did leave traces of her cultural
agency in the gaps and contradictions in Mush’s account, however, and it
is from these that Matchinske imaginatively reconstructs Clitherow’s voice.
This strategy, as Matchinske acknowledges, carries the significant risk
of reading our own desire for early modern women's agency back into their
histories. Yet. the more significant risk is that the initial erasure of
these women’s "voices" will be perpetuated by our own methodologies.
Matchinske's judicious approach to historically informed imaginative reconstructions
demonstrates the indispensability of this technique for future studies of
early modern women's writing.
Her third chapter similarly addresses issues of middling
rank women's "authorship," though with a shift to the secular
writings of the Jacobean querelle des femmes and the Shakespearean
stage. The primary subject of this chapter, a respondent to the misogynistic
tract by Joseph Swetnam who signs herself "Ester Sowernam" and
defines herself as "neither Maide, Wife nor Widdowe, yet really all,
and therefore experienced to defend all" (86), remains problematic
for a history of early modern women's writing because of "her"
pseudonymous status. Matchinske productively treats Sowernam's tract in
terms of a textually announced gendering; we therefore may view it as a
significant instance of "women's writing" that simultaneously
constructs and challenges an emerging model of middling rank femininity
dependent on the marriage market. Matchinske aligns Sowernam's emphasis
on exchange, chastity, and conscience with similar emphases
in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, staged
thirteen years before the publication of Sowernam's tract, and the anonymous
play Swetnam the Woman Hater, published three years after. This cross-gender,
cross-generation, and cross-genre approach reveals that each author deploys
"his" or "her" shared concern with female chastity to
very different ends, with Sowernam promoting chastity as an asset to be
"held out" by women in a precarious marriage market and the two
stage plays situating female chastity as a state problem to be handled by
powerful men. Matchinske's cultural studies approach in this chapter blends
historicist and formalist criticism in a predictable way, though one which
yields the measured conclusion that the cultural agency Sowernam constructs
results in multiple layers of complicity for the middling rank women she
addresses, who ultimately uphold a sharply defined domestic sphere in the
service of an increasingly vigilant state.
Matchinske continues in a cultural studies vein with her analysis of Davies
(who also signed herself Eleanor Audeley, Touchet, and Douglas), indisputably
an "author" with over fifty tracts to her name by the middle of
the seventeenth century, yet one who remains a vexing figure for a history
of early modern women’s writing. Matchinske reconceptualizes Davies's seeming
"mad" style as part of a religi-political discourse of "[h]oly
hatred" also characteristic of male apocalyptic writers (127). In its
conventional form during the years leading up to the English Civil War,
"holy hatred" coupled the increasingly intense inward focus on
the individual believer’s conscience that radical Protestantism promoted
with an explosively outward focus on a potentially republican state. This
apocalyptic discourse, to cite a catchphrase from the second-wave Anglo-American
feminist movement, turned the personal into the political. Davies nevertheless
reverses this formula by collapsing the political into the solipsistically
personal, in contrast to the mid seventeenth-century husbands, ecclesiastics,
and courtiers who suppressed her writings and the mid twentieth-century
Anglo-American feminists who would initiate the recovery of early modern
Englishwomen's writing. In addition, Davies, who fiercely asserts her aristocratic
privilege as part of her resistance to patriarchal authority, has remained
an uncomfortable figure for a feminism that requires strictly oppositional
voices. By situating Davies within the broader discourse of "holy hatred,"
Matchinske renders her integral to the specifically Protestant English "[d]ividing
practices" (132) regulating state and subject formation in the years
leading up to the Civil War. Yet, by emphasizing "[t]hat Davies can
depend on no single status to authorize her writings or define her identity"
(141), she also stresses her constitutive eccentricity as a gendered subject
within this largely masculinist tradition. Matchinske's carefully modulated
analysis enables us to reconsider Davies as a writer lucidly aware of her
elliptical negotiations of gender, class, religion, and politics, and thus
one fundamental for a consideration of early modern women's literary history.
- In sum, Matchinske moves away from simply recovering early modern women's
writing to rethinking the imbricated categories of writing, women, and the
early modern. Her materially situated close readings of related clusters of
author figures enables us to reconfigure issues of gender ambiguity and cultural
agency precisely during those moments when distinctions among gender, the
subject, and the state are becoming more discrete. Her attention to the proliferation
of social control that characterized the movement from the English Reformation
to the English Civil War further reveals that women were complicit with these
regulatory practices, even as the structural gaps and contradictions that
simultaneously emerged in the state and the subject enabled women's various
forms of resistance. Matchinske acknowledges that her analysis has its limits:
its emphasis on textual evidence privileges an elite mode of cultural agency
in an era when most women were illiterate, while its emphasis on cultural
issues elides the formal concerns of genre in favor of a broad model of discourse.
Despite these limits, however, Matchinske has presented a repertoire of techniques
for evaluating early modern women's cultural agency that should prove highly
productive for future studies of early modern women's writing.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers'
Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.
© 1998-, Lisa Hopkins(Editor, EMLS).