Longfellow, Erica. Women and Religious Writing in Early Modern
England. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004. 252pp. ISBN 0 5218 3758 8.
L. E. Semler
University of Sydney
Semler, L. E. "Review of Women and Religious
Writing in Early Modern England". Early Modern Literary Studies
11.1 (May, 2005) 12.1-7 <URL:
Erica Longfellow’s book is a useful addition to a growing body of scholarly literature that addresses early modern women poets specifically in relation to religion. The book offers, in particular, readings of Aemilia Lanyer, Lady Anne Southwell,
Eliza’s Babes, Anna Trapnel and Lucy Hutchinson. The preceding sentence is meant to imply a blurring of author and text, a sense that
both are to be read congruently, because Longfellow’s approach is very much to read the chosen texts as actions and symptoms of their culturally embedded authors. This is not to suggest any naïveté on Longfellow’s part, for she is well aware of the constructedness of the textual subject: it is, rather, to highlight the academy’s current preoccupation with the constructive praxes of authors and texts within social matrices. In short, we still believe, perhaps more than ever, that literature is political. Any sense of loss, or probably nostalgia, I feel in reading this book is properly a response to the decline of literary aesthetics generally, to the softening of our collective interest in the art of words as art. This is not to say we can no longer read a poem as a poem, but it is to say we are becoming better and better at not doing so. Presumably, our students may develop in the course of their studies, even to our surprise, a finely honed incapacity to do so. The current historicist turn in literary analysis is unquestionably fascinating and productive of exciting meanings, not the least of which is the question of the current meaning of our academic discipline (particularly in contradistinction to the neighboring discipline of History), but no doubt we are wise, in our classrooms, to promote also an aesthetic appreciation capable of electing to see beyond politics.
These reflections aside, I enjoyed Longfellow’s book, which does, indeed, offer some insightful readings of men and women’s prose and verse. The diverse range of texts addressed was unified, for me, by three ever-present considerations: the early modern idea of the mystical marriage between the believer and Christ; the theoretical and cultural explorations of what defines “public” and “private”; and the religio-political (indeed, authorial) maneuverings apparent in texts. These considerations work very well together to animate the thesis, and they are applied to the chosen texts via a critical voice that self-consciously seeks to moderate older binary paradigms of the feminist writer striving against or skirting around a monolithic and antagonistic, patriarchal machine. As with Clarke and Clarke’s
This Double Voice, Longfellow’s book emphasizes the variety of gains and losses, the collusion as well as resistance to “patriarchal” societal structures, experienced by women writers in early modern England. And she is right to question the politics, one might even say the political correctness, of some of our approaches to female writers—all in pursuit of the venerable historicist goal of paring back our own biases so as to apprehend more clearly the truth of the matter.
Longfellow opens with a discussion of the mystical marriage topos in the seventeenth century including some of its male promoters and medieval antecedents. Earlier literary criticism addressed this issue, along with the relevance of the
Song of Songs and garden topoi to early modern piety, but we do need more modern discussions of it and Longfellow’s is a helpful addition to the current revival of interest. She highlights problems in the biblical sources and disjunctions between the ostensibly analogous earthly and heavenly marriages, these ruptures being of particular importance in the ensuing literary corpus.
The discussion of Lanyer resists the “community of women” critical commonplace and develops the more recent notion of
Salve Deus as an extremely class-aware text that functions, perhaps rather more conservatively, as a joint attempt by Aemilia and her husband to improve their position. I came away with a sense of how complexly integrated Lanyer’s pursuit of Christian virtue is with her desire for social promotion. The Southwell chapter extends Longfellow’s interest in the idea of texts as family projects enacted with social goals in mind. A number of thought-provoking observations arise in this chapter. For example, Southwell’s awareness that “Christ’s virtues are the opposite of what is termed masculine in the world” (115) raises interesting questions regarding masculinity and Christianity that remain alive today; and the reference to “playfulness, even spitefulness” (119) in Southwell raises the very difficult and longstanding question of how one perceives and argues for differences of tone in literary texts.
The next two chapters, on Eliza’s Babes and Anna Trapnel, usefully foreground the problems associated with inadequate scholarly definitions of public and private. The anonymous book,
Eliza’s Babes, is discussed in terms of the female author’s moderate doctrinal base and yet powerful “emotional” driving force and radical rejection of earthly marriage. The questions at the start of this chapter—such as, “How aware is Eliza herself of the gendering of her voice?” (123)—confirm for me the feeling that many more questions can be asked of this enigmatic book and that it has a great future beyond our initial claims of royalist vs. parliamentarian. Its absorbing self-reflexivities and complex poetics of “anonymity” are capable of sustaining, and will no doubt evoke, some enduring conceptual and theoretical analyses in the future. The Trapnel chapter continues the interest in public vs. private, as her prayers become prophesyings, and these in turn become “psalms.” The issues raised here connect in evocative, liberating ways with Hannibal Hamlin’s
Psalm Culture and Early Modern English Literature. The latter half of this chapter was especially interesting, dealing with Trapnel’s massive 1658 folio (about which I’d have liked to have heard more) and the relationship of Trapnel to passivity and audience.
The book concludes with an analysis of Hutchinson’s elegies that emphasizes her lack of interest in gender issues including the vindication of women, and stresses her intellectualism, republicanism and piety. “She is the exception that disproves the rule, once again reminding us that early modern debates were not our own, and that we need to read women’s writing in particular with careful attention to its own political concerns. While she may not champion her own rights or those of any other woman, Lucy Hutchinson’s use of ungendered moral paradigms to authorise her highly politicised voice is a fascinating manifestation of a woman’s power within what we might traditionally consider masculine domains” (191).
Overall, Longfellow’s book is a successful reinforcement and development of contemporary approaches to women writers and religion in early modern England. Not all the readings of poems and tropes are dazzling, but numerous thought-provoking concepts are presented, and the conclusion dealing with contemporary feminist Christian responses to the biblical texts and issues explored earlier in the book is refreshing,
welcome, and all too short.
Clarke, Danielle and Elizabeth Clarke, eds. “This double voice” : gendered writing in early modern England. Houndmills: Macmillan, 2000.
Hamlin, Hannibal. Psalm Culture and Early Modern English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers'
Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).