Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth, eds. Representing Women in Renaissance England. Columbia, Missouri and London: U of Missouri P, 1997. ix+250pp. ISBN 0 8262 11046.
Kate Chedgzoy
University of Warwick

Chedgzoy, Kate. "Review of Representing Women in Renaissance England." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.1 (May, 2000): 7.1-6 <URL:

  1. As the indefatigable editors of a series of volumes emerging from the Renaissance studies conferences held biennially at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, Summers and Pebworth have made a sustained and substantial contribution to the field. The present book, which gathers papers from the 1994 conference, might usefully be seen as a companion volume to Renaissance Discourses of Desire, which emerged from the 1990 conference and shares some contributors and topics with the later book. Also shared with many of its predecessors in this series are coverage of a more extensive period of time than the "Renaissance" of the title might suggest, ranging from the 1530s to 1680s, and a strong, though not exclusive, focus on lyric verse. This literary focus is a distinctive feature of the volume at a time when most work on gender in early modern writing has embraced interdisciplinarity and seems to aspire to the status of cultural history rather than literary criticism. It gives rise, here, to some fine close readings of verse, but can also produce rather claustrophobic effects.

  2. The editors identify their volume as a contribution to "the exciting process of recovering and evaluating women writers whose works are only now entering the canon of English literature" (1), but also emphasize that many of the essays re-evaluate the more traditional canon, offering gender-conscious readings of the work of male writers. This duality is informed by a sense that gender differences are constructed and maintained diacritically, so that separatist approaches to writing by men or women will be unlikely to do full justice to the complexities of the gendering of literary representation. Some of the freshest and most engaging essays, in fact, explore textual exchanges between male and female authors, and when Helen Wilcox characterizes devotional writing as involving "intimate… dialogue" (9) she coins an apt phrase for many of the literary encounters analyzed here.

  3. Wilcox's essay usefully opens the collection by unpacking some of the diverse meanings of the key concept evoked in its title, "representation." From it she derives three interrelated tasks for feminist work on Renaissance women's writing: to re-present "to a modern readership women who have long been invisible and silenced" (9); to ask how women were represented -- depicted, portrayed, imagined -- by others (by "others", one assumes she means men); and to investigate the strategies by which women succeeded in representing themselves textually. While each of the essays in the volume is quite distinct, these three projects interweave through them.

  4. Several authors share the sense, developed in Wilcox's essay, that the significance of religion has still not been given its full weight in studies of gender and Renaissance writing. Janel Mueller makes a persuasive case for the constitutive importance of religion in the fashioning of early modern identity, and argues forcefully, if in some ways eccentrically, that religion should rank alongside the "almost hallowed triad" of race, class and gender as "anchors for our work on historical texts in historical contexts" (24). Judith Scherer Herz's subtle exploration of the merging of theological and erotic registers in Aemilia Lanyer's verse is an impressive answer to Mueller's call. Sidney Gottlieb's exemplary discussion of An Collins, acknowledging the "complex, overdetermined, and interconnected status of all human consciousness, all human activity" interweaves gender and religion with questions of politics and history, while Paul Parrish's discussion of the women of Little Gidding extends our sense of what religious culture might have meant to early modern women in a fresh direction.

  5. Parrish's essay is one of several that attend to the placing of the making and circulation of texts in networks of social connectedness and reciprocity. Notably, sophisticated and richly detailed essays by Pamela Joseph Benson on Harington's translation of Orlando Furioso, Gareth Roberts on magic and love poetry, Lawrence Normand on Jacobean witchcraft texts, Josephine A. Roberts on Lady Mary Wroth's Love's Victory as an example of female pastoral, and Stella P. Revard on female Pindaric, offer fascinating insights into the complexity of the relations between social location and literary production and consumption. Less dazzling as critical performances, the essays by Roger B. Rollin and Robert C. Evans add to our appreciation of the constraints and opportunities affecting women's relation to literary production, and contribute to the re-presentation of women in Wilcox's first sense, by recovering neglected figures to history.

  6. The remaining essays in this admirable collection share an attention to the relations between sexual difference and textual signature. Cecilia Infante's exploration of these concerns in Donne's "Sapho to Philaenis" offers a striking example of a male-authored work whose canonical status has been drastically revised as the result of feminist priorities. By understanding the lyric poetry of courtship as addressed to a woman in a real sense, and stressing women's activity as readers and listeners, Ilona Bell is enabled to mark out a neglected site for female literary agency, while Barbara K. Lewalski, focusing on both Rachel Speght's reworking of the querelle des femmes tradition and the male-authored marginalia that annotates one copy of her Mouzell for Melastomus extends the volume's sense of early modern literature as a polyphonic, transactional site where men and women carried on vigorous and fascinating conversations with one another.

Works Cited


Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 1999-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).