Christina Luckyj, 'A moving Rhetoricke': Gender and Silence in Early Modern England. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2002. viii+198pp. ISBN 0 7190 6156 3.

Eve Rachele Sanders, Gender and Literacy in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. xvii+260pp. ISBN 0 5215 8234 2.
Danielle Clarke
University College Dublin

Clarke, Danielle. "Review of
Christina Luckyj, 'A moving Rhetoricke': Gender and Silence in Early Modern England and Eve Rachele Sanders, Gender and Literacy in Early Modern England." Early Modern Literary Studies 9.1 (May, 2003): 14.1-8 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/09-1/clarkrev.html>.

  1. These two books represent what might be thought of as the second phase of gender-inflected work on the early modern period. Neither author has a strong attachment to the kind of ideological feminism that characterised the pioneers in this field - some of whom are given short shrift by both authors (notably Elaine Beilin and Mary Ellen Lamb)--although both studies could be broadly construed as feminist in orientation. Kicking against critical foremothers is perhaps inevitable given the methodological bases of both studies, committed as they are to the exploration of "gender," and to a broadly historicist and materialist approach. In this, these emerging critics are more influenced by Montrose and Greenblatt than they are by Joan Kelly or Barbara Lewalski. Both books are concerned more with signifying practices than they are with the idea of the female author, or ultimately the female subject, although both are interested in agency. Luckyj and Sanders look at two sides of the same linguistic coin, placing questions about language, speech and power at the very heart of early modern perceptions of the world. This turn towards issues of signification and representation is very welcome, particularly where it is tied to central questions about the masculinization of rhetoric, literary prowess and linguistic regulation in the period.

  2. Luckyj's title is taken from Richard Brathwait's The English Gentlewoman (1631), a text that is central to both studies, and the phrase she chooses points immediately to the paradoxical and contradictory nature of her subject. Silence would not immediately present itself as a fruitful topic, despite its high profile in early modern texts, not simply as an absence of sound, but as a plural and complex epistomological category of its own: "Out, out, brief candle./Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,/And then is heard no more." [1] However, other critics have dared to venture here, most recently Philip McGuire and Mary Hazard. Luckyj approaches her topic by means of a historical and theoretical overview (Chapter 1), an exploration of the relationships between silence and gender (Chapter 2), a reading of silence on the stage (Chapter 3), and a reading of silence as a trope in women's writings (Chapter 4). This structure, whilst logical, does give rise to some repetition and a little confusion, particularly over the category of gender itself, which seems to be used rather loosely to denote both women and what one might define as the social and cultural construction of sexual difference more generally. The core of the argument lies in Chapters 2 and 4, with Chapter 3 as an interesting, but slightly tangential addition. 'A moving Rhetoricke' is a short book with a precise focus, and it thus manages to cover a lot of ground, ranging across a wide variety of texts, from conduct literature to Titus Andronicus, King Lear and several other canonical texts. The difficulty that Luckyj faces is one that she articulates herself, namely that silence is difficult to read precisely because silence is, in a sense, inscrutable, a withdrawal from socially sanctioned signification. Self-imposed silence involves a willed refusal to participate that in turn may be read variously as passivity, resistance, or high principle.

  3. It is inevitable, given the focus of the study, that the lines between speech and silence should be rather starkly drawn at times, whilst the work of Bruce Smith demonstrates how fluid and complex the sound-scape of early modern England actually was. In her effort to recuperate silence from its negative stereotyping Luckyj does sometimes miss its powerfully negative connotations, and it is here that careful attention to context is needed. In other words, in her exploration of the complexities of silence, Luckyj inadvertently reproduces its plurality and slipperiness. For example, it is not always easy to differentiate between acoustic and symbolic silences--these may be distinct, but they may also coincide. Textual silence (or silencing) is quite different from oral or aural silence, and being silent can be surrounded by a swathe of contradictory motivations. Luckyj touches on many of these issues and her readings of specific texts are often illuminating and perceptive. But the book is not really the sum of its parts, and some of the more sweeping statements used to unify the argument sound rather strained and creaky: "Only when silence cuts itself off from rhetoric...can it exploit its own multivalency as a source of power" (24). I remain intrigued by, but also unconvinced by, the notion of silence as a strategy of resistance, particularly for women. If silence provides "multiple and mobile possibilities" (70), then surely it is highly risky as a form of subversion, vulnerable to miscontruction?

  4. Silence is many of the things that Luckyj asserts it to be, and more. It can of course be "a potentially dangerous and aggressive posture" (32), as well as a form of eloquence, resistance or subversion. I would have welcomed more on the historical contexts for silence, particularly in relation to the legal process and issues of conscience. The final chapter, on women writers, is potentially the most interesting, as it tackles a crucial but neglected paradox. But Luckyj slightly loses control of her narrative, mainly due to trying to pack in too many texts and writers (this is a common failing in treatments of women writers in the period). Many of her assertions here need further contextualisation and examination; "the trope of feminine silence" (127) is often a good deal more than a trope for many women writers, and there is little real evidence to link "subversive silence" (136) with ideas about female authorship. Here too, the almost exclusive concentration on printed texts sells the argument short. The book is also ill-served by a very poor index.

  5. It is difficult to approach a book like Sanders' Gender and Literacy on Stage in Early Modern England at this remove, given the various plaudits that the book has so far received. The book has many wonderful things in it, and is particularly strong on close readings and unpicking contexts. Gender and Literacy on Stage is very much a post New Historicist book, with all the pluses and minuses that this implies. It takes a well-established topic within social history and segues this with cultural and literary materials to produce a complex and nuanced reading of the gendering of literacy in the early modern period. Sanders is careful to delimit her field in quite specific ways. "Literacy" here is strictly the reading and writing of text, and the restriction to plays enables her to advance a particular (and slightly old-fashioned) thesis about the role that drama plays in the creation of subjects. It is in a sense, Renaissance Self-Fashioning re-fashioned. [2]

  6. Like many of the other books in the Cambridge Studies in Renaissance Literature and Culture series, Gender and Literacy advances a broad thesis by means of a dual concentration on key texts (The Faerie Queene, Hamlet, Love's Labour's Lost, Antonius and its adjuncts, Richard III, and the diaries of Lady Grace Mildmay and Lady Anne Clifford) combined with widely ranging discussions of the key concepts (reading, writing, rhetoric, humanist education). This makes for an elegant and highly readable book, but it is worrying (as with Luckyj's book) that the shift to gender as a category through which to approach early modern writing (which I am broadly in sympathy with) has resulted in the relative marginalisation of women's writing. The two shortest chapters, by a considerable margin, in Sanders, are those devoted to women writers; so too is what in my view is the weakest chapter (Chapter 5, "She writes"). By the same token, heavily canonical texts dominate, as do printed texts, which seems an important limitation in a book about gender and literacy.

  7. Gender and Literacy is an excellent example of well-researched, scholarly work. Much interesting material is to be found lurking in the copious footnotes, and a lot of the most enlightening analysis is to be found in those parts of chapters framing the discussion of the canonical texts. Sanders is an excellent cultural historian, and her excavations of meaning from less obviously literary texts is frequently riveting. Like many studies in this vein, though, the sample is too small to bear out the main theses--I suspect that this is not Sanders' fault, but the constraints imposed by modern publishing. Some of the issues presented here are much more complex than the analysis allows. I am not sure that literacy alone "helped to engender new and profoundly different forms of subjectivity" (2) and I don't think that Sanders really believes this either; her analysis of the subtle shifts between late medieval literacy and early modern literacy is exemplary for not carving the period up into epochs in the way that this statement suggests. The notion of literacy that Sanders engages is really quite limited by its restriction to purely written forms, despite the multiple possibilities opened up by her concentration on the irredeemably plural theatrical text. What about exposure to literacy in other forms? Can such large claims be made for the role of literacy in identity formation when so many people had no access to individuation in the form that Sanders describes? If textuality equates with subjectivity, where might this leave the female subjects whose subtle exclusion from this means of identity formation Sanders so carefully analyses? The writings of Elizabeth I would make an interesting case study for the kinds of textual self-fashioning Sanders describes as the exclusive province of boys, as would numerous early modern women (Elizabeth Cary, Elizabeth Weston, Lady Lumley, amongst others). Sanders is well aware of the unstable and plural nature of literacy in this period, and the implications of this could usefully be extended, particularly in relation to women. These are the kinds of criticisms which are provoked by an excellent and stimulating book, which Gender and Literacy undoubtedly is. Much of its strength lies in its close readings and the fascinating ways in which different types of texts are placed together. Many of its arguments will be modified and extended in years to come, and deserve to be complemented by the exciting work now happening in early modern manuscript studies.

  8. Both of these books are scholarly contributions to a field which is starting to configure itself out of existing work on early modern women's writing. Both Sanders and Luckyj, in quite different ways, have opened up new vistas for the study of gender in the period. Each of them treats the early modern period as indebted to the medieval period, and this movement away from overzealous periodization is to be welcomed, as is the willingness to deal with once marginal modes of production such as translation and imitation. Having said this, the narrow focus on England represents a larger scholarly trend, as does a failure to engage with texts in other languages (Latin, most obviously). The heavy concentration on print needs at least to be explained, if not rectified. Both books represent significant contributions, and both will serve as stimulating springboards for future work on the relationships between gender, language, culture and textuality in the early modern period.


1. Macbeth 5.5.22-25.

2. Sanders does finally give in and use the term "self-fashioning" on p. 183.

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

© 2003-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).