Caroline McManus. Spenser’s Faerie Queene and the Reading
of Women. Newark: U of Delaware P, 2002. 308pp. ISBN 0 87413 768 3.
University of East Anglia
Woodcock, Matthew. "Review of Caroline McManus, Spenser’s
Faerie Queene and the Reading of Women." Early Modern Literary
Studies 12.1 (May, 2006) 13.1-6<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/12-1/revmcma.htm>.
There have been many studies that examine the relationship
between Spenser and Elizabeth I, and identify the different strategies deployed
throughout The Faerie Queene in addressing the poet’s ultimate implied
reader. Caroline McManus’ book, however, challenges such a narrow conception
of Spenser’s female audience and focuses on the poet’s evident awareness
of a non-royal female readership. The originality of McManus’ study lies
in the attention to the relationship between Spenser’s female characters
in the poem and the aristocratic women he sought to fashion as readers.
Spenser’s stated general intention set out in the prefatory letter to Sir
Walter Raleigh, to ‘fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and
gentle discipline’, clearly has a wider applicability than has been previously
- Spenser dedicated many of his works to aristocratic figures, including Mary
Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, Elizabeth Spencer, Lady Carey and Alice Spencer,
Countess of Derby. In addition to apostrophes to Elizabeth I he also includes
several direct addresses in The Faerie Queene to a female readership,
especially in the more Ariostan book three. Up until now the implied aristocratic
female audience of the poem has received relatively little attention, but
McManus draws such figures from the text’s margins and considers them in concert
with both Spenser’s female characters and contemporary models of female characteristics
found in numerous early modern didactic manuals.
- McManus’ initial chapters examine both what and how early modern women seem
to have read. Working from records of books owned by aristocratic women found
in catalogues and inventories, texts and paratexts addressing female readers,
and individuals’ journals of domestic and devotional reading, McManus assembles
a survey of early modern women’s reading. She reveals that books owned and
read did not always align with models for female readers prescribed by pedagogues
and moralists. In particular, McManus reveals a female engagement with matters
relating to history, politics and theological controversy, as well as with
more diversionary works of secular entertainment. As McManus states, the autonomy
women exercised as readers ‘reminds us that overly didactic strictures about
social behaviour, whether in educational treatises or fictionalized courtesy
literatures such as The Faerie Queene, might, or might not, have been
carried out’ (47). But there were many concerns expressed by Spenser’s contemporaries
that secular reading of romances and the like would lead female readers into
wantonness and degradation. It was also suggested in both literary and non-literary
texts that unless carefully checked women would intentionally read secular
literature for its erotic, titillating content. Nevertheless despite censure
from humanists such as Vives and Ascham, chivalric romance was particularly
popular reading for women from the late sixteenth century onwards.
- McManus begins to apply her contextual analyses to Spenser by examining
those female characters in The Faerie Queene (Malecasta and Hellenore) who
embody the fears of moralist critics regarding the monstrous effects of romance
on women readers. McManus also discusses the Busirane episode from book three,
arguing that Britomart provides an alternate reading of Amoret’s suffering
within the enchanter’s Petrarchan torture chamber. The martial heroine is
neither titillated nor charmed by the sight of Amoret in the chamber, and
Spenser (it is suggested) demonstrates how female desire can form alternative
readings channelled towards more epic, rather than purely amorous ends. What
becomes clear as McManus’ book progresses is a new way of reading The Faerie
Queene subversively. The third chapter – which reads Britomart’s adventures
in concert with John Harington’s translation of Ariosto and Margaret Tyler’s
translation of The Mirrour of Princely Deeds and Knighthood – continues
to identify the range of different models for a female readership in Spenser’s
poem. The knight of chastity’s ‘reading’ of Merlin’s prophecy demonstrates
the significant interpretative agency exercised by potential female readers.
- The second half of McManus’ book focuses on virtues that the early modern
moralists judged that women should possess: modesty, chastity and piety. Once
again Spenser is seen to respond to the complex situation of female courtiers
and offer a range of models of virtuous conduct for those women amongst Elizabeth’s
ladies-in-waiting who were forced to sublimate any suggestion of sexual advance
or availability but simultaneously secure an advantageous marriage. Medina
and Alma represent idealized models of those successfully performing this
balancing act, whilst Phaedria and the bathing nymphs in the Bower of Bliss
constitute negative examples of Spenserian fast women. McManus also revisits
the historical allegory relating to Elizabeth’s disfavour towards Raleigh
following his marriage to Elizabeth Throckmorton (traditionally identified
in Belphoebe’s rejection of Timias) and explores associations between Serena’s
fate and that of Raleigh’s wife. The final chapter examines the numerous models
of female piety in book one in relation to contemporary devotional discourses
read by women and reveals Spenser’s repeated use of ‘holy mother’ figures,
exemplars of female piety characterized by imagery associated with maternity
and good nurturing.
- This is a most useful series of readings of The Faerie Queene that
continues to broaden our understanding of Spenserian reception and application
and demonstrates the wide-ranging interpretative significance of Spenser’s
female characters that are so often viewed in relation to Elizabeth alone.
At times it seemed as if the forces to which Spenser’s aristocratic female
audience were subject could have been discussed productively in relation to
those upon the queen (as in the discussion of how to market and manipulate
marriageability in chapter four), but this is surely the stimulus for a reader’s
own questions rather than an omission or failing on the author’s part. McManus
offers a valuable contribution to scholarship on subversion in Spenser through
revealing how the female characters of The Faerie Queene invite a variety
of responses from women readers, many of which do not conform to the ‘chaste,
silent and obedient’ model posited by the poet’s contemporaries. This book
also complements other recent studies on early modern women’s responses to
romance, including Helen Hackett’s Women and Romance Fiction in the English
Renaissance and Alex Davis’ chapter on Katherine Philips in Chivalry
and Romance in the English Renaissance.
- Davis, Alex. Chivalry and Romance in the English Renaissance. Cambridge:
- Hackett, Helen. Women and Romance Fiction in the English Renaissance.
Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000.
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).