Victoria E. Burke and Jonathan Gibson, eds. Early Modern Women’s Manuscript Writing. Selected Papers from the Trinity/Trent Colloquium. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004. 288pp. ISBN 0 7546 0469 1.

David Colclough
Queen Mary, University of London

Colclough, David. "Review of Early Modern Women's Manuscript Writing. Selected Papers from the Trinity/Trent Colloquium". Early Modern Literary Studies 11.1 (May, 2005) 8.1-3 <URL:>.

  1. Early Modern Women’s Manuscript Writing, edited by Victoria E. Burke and Jonathan Gibson, is an important contribution to the growing field of manuscript studies. In their brief introduction (somewhat too brief, I felt), Burke and Gibson set out the ways in which their contributors challenge still dominant stereotypes about women’s writing in both manuscript and print—for example, that it is by definition subversive or empowering, or that it is always the record of, or composed in, privacy. Some essays do indeed deftly complicate such assumptions, and encourage the reader to reconsider the ways in which writing by early modern women took its place in the world; others, however, show that prejudices are not always ill-founded, and that women’s writing in manuscript could—like men’s—frequently be concerned with the domestic and the personal, and could often be rather bad.

  2. An impressive range of writers and texts—and a large span of English history—are treated throughout the collection, with Jane Stevenson on the writing and patronage of Mildred Cecil, Lady Burghley, Marie-Louise Coolahan on the keens of Caitlìn Dubh, Erica Longfellow on Lady Anne Southwell’s vituperative attacks on Adam, Heather Wolfe on English Benedictine nuns, Caroline Bowden on Rachel Fane’s youthful writings, Sarah Ross on Katherine Austen, and Sara Pennell on manuscript recipe books. In her excellent essay on women’s participation in early Tudor manuscript albums, Elizabeth Heale delivers a stinging rebuttal of Jonathan Goldberg’s more extravagant and loosely supported claims in his Desiring Women Writing. She explores the way in which literary voices could be appropriated by copyists of manuscript poems and offers interesting reflections on the use of the complaint form, as well as describing the way in which women’s active participation in the culture of the Tudor balet declined with the growth of print. Jonathan Gibson reconsiders Elizabeth I’s youthful composition of New Year’s gift manuscripts as part of a deliberate Protestantising of Catholic devotional practices that had been initiated by Bishop John Fisher and Katherine Parr. His focus is therefore on presentation manuscripts that were barely circulated beyond their immediate recipients: the sheer range of what is meant by “manuscript writing” is something that could have been usefully explored in a separate essay (or a longer introduction) rather than being left to emerge from the contrasting examples given by the subjects of the various essays. Victoria E. Burke gives a fascinating account of women’s participation in apparently male-dominated areas of literary culture, such as the University-based miscellany; she finds women rewriting ‘male’ poems and (in the case of Folger MS V.a.89) a woman reading material composed at the centre of political life—the court. Alison Shell reads an especially intractable source—a commonplace book belonging to the Feilding family which is hard to date and whose author is difficult to identify—but makes a marvellous job of showing how critics and historians can approach such texts. The gem of the collection, though, is Arnold Hunt’s outstanding chapter on the books, manuscripts, and literary patronage of Mrs Anne Sadleir. Hunt exploits the possibilities of the case study to great effect, using a careful (and witty) reconstruction of Mrs Sadleir’s literary life to illuminate an anxious period of English history (she was profoundly troubled by the “abominations” of Cromwell) and show how writing and patronage played a large part in the maintenance of family honour and political identity for an early modern woman.

  3. At the conclusion of his chapter, Arnold Hunt challenges the strict division between the public world of print and the private world of manuscript in recent scholarship, arguing that manuscript writings may be just as public in their intentions and effects as printed ones. His point is well taken, and it would have been good to see more acknowledgement of this in other essays in the collection. A tendency remains in much writing about manuscripts to treat the form as allowing a more immediate access to the lived experience of the past than that offered by print, and even this generally excellent collection sometimes falls into this trap. Important as the concentration on the specifics of manuscript as a medium has been, it is imperative that we read manuscripts and printed books as linked parts of a broader literary culture whose forms and motives are continually in dialogue rather than in opposition to one another.

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© 2005-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).