Sharon Cadman Seelig. Autobiography and Gender in Early Modern
Literature: Reading Women's Lives 1600-1680 . Cambridge: Cambridge
UP, 2006. 114pp. ISBN 0 521 85695 7.
Kate Chedgzoy. Women's Writing in the British Atlantic World, Memory,
Place and History, 1550-1700 . Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007.
267pp. ISBN 978 0 521 88098 5.
La Trobe University
Paul Salzman. "Review of Sharon Cadman Seelig. Autobiography and Gender in Early Modern Literature: Reading Women's Lives 1600-1680, and Kate Chedgzoy, Women's Writing in the British Atlantic World, Memory, Place and History, 1550-1700 ." Early Modern Literary Studies 15.1 (2009-10) <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/15-1/revsalz.htm>.
These two books are further evidence of the shift in early modern women's
writing from the margins of criticism to something approaching the mainstream. They also serve quite neatly to, in Seelig's case, sum up the strengths of some earlier approaches to the field, and, in Chedgzoy's case, point to some exciting new directions.
Seelig's book appears almost twenty years after the pioneering anthology,
Her Own Life , introduced us to twelve heterogeneous examples of early modern women's autobiographical writing. In some respects, Seelig's analysis of six women represents a more predictable 'canon' than one might expect, given the ever-growing list of examples being brought to light as scholars continue their fruitful work on manuscript material in particular. I do wonder if it is now the case that Margaret Hoby, Anne Clifford, Lucy Hutchinson, Ann Fanshawe, Anne Halkett and Margaret Cavendish can serve to represent the full range of women's writing of an
autobiographical cast. Seelig offers sound, scholarly summations of this material, and her approach will appeal to those in search of a more traditional, literary analysis of writing that is still, in the wider world, shaking off the stigma of being of interest only to social historians. Seelig is prepared to ask some straightforward questions about this material (eg. Isn't Hoby's diary exceedingly monotonous?)and provide some straightforward answers, and accordingly her book will be valuable for undergraduates, who tend to ask such questions and require such answers.
Seelig is a fine and meticulous reader of diaries like Hoby's and Clifford's, but they are read from a perspective that seeks forms of selfhood. This approach tends to set aside consideration of the way that a woman like Clifford can be seen as having considerable political agency, as evidenced in recent work by Mihoko Suzuki, Susan Wiseman, and, indeed, as demonstrated in a chapter in Chedgzoy's book. In a similar
fashion, Seelig's account of Halkett's biography, which analyses it largely in relation to narrative structure, can be contrasted with the sophisticated account in Susan Wiseman's Conspiracy and Virtue (published in the same year as Seelig's book), which unpacks the political implications of Halkett's memoir in the context of both the time of its writing and the earlier civil war events it recounts.
This politically nuanced approach to early modern women's writing is evident throughout Kate Chedgzoy's ground-breaking book. Chedgzoy analyses early modern women's writing and oral literature as involving a nexus of place and memory. Acts of women's memorialising, in Chedgzoy's terms, leave 'textual traces across many genres and modes of transmission of their efforts to recollect, interpret and communicate their experiences in a changing world' (3). And the 'world' Chedgzoy's study encompasses is the world of the Atlantic archipelago, so that she is able to align writers who have often in the past been placed in national ghettos. As well, her reach into oral as well as literary traditions in Wales and Ireland, and her attention to voices often unheard within anglophone culture, produces a kind of postcolonial rescue of traces that have to be recovered from a colonising erasure.
So Chedgzoy offers a fascinating chapter on how women drew upon the
training in memory that was part of a general humanist heritage and its intersection with commonplace books. This is both a generic explanation for the heterogeneous nature of a great deal of early modern women's writing, and a way of opening it up to include a wider, oral context. Chedgzoy moves from a varied set of examples of these heterogeneous kinds of writing to a consideration of how an ongoing oral culture in Ireland, Scotland and Wales was manifested in women's cultural production; she also examines the encounter with oral cultures of colonised North America. These are truly original and illuminating chapters which cast a wide net and analyse groups of women and their cultural contexts that are largely unknown to scholars working in the anglophone field of early modern women's writing. But Chedgzoy's work also feeds into the broader field of early modern cultural history, and complements some other recent work that has removed the anglophone blinkers from criticism. I have read this book with a notebook in hand, listing authors to read. But Chedgzoy is not simply engaged in archival recovery work; she offers a careful methodology for understanding the cross-currents that stem from clashing national, political and gender interests, and as she herself notes, her book open the way for a great deal of further work on these writers.
In her third chapter, Chedgzoy analyses the way that a varied group of writers responded to the political turmoil surrounding the English revolution. Through her account of Anne Bradstreet, the sisters Elizabeth Brackley and Jane Cavendish, Hester Pulter and Lucy Hutchinson, Chedgzoy is able to contrast Royalist and Republican or Puritan responses, as well as looking at local and Atlantic locations for those responses. In some ways this chapter tests the book's scope, because it aligns the earlier account of what we might term resistances to and engagements with colonialism, with a relocation of England 'not as the geographical core in relation to which the Celtic countries and the British Americas are peripheral, but as a vulnerable and contested site of political memory and identification' (125). I am certainly convinced by this alignment, although the subtle analyses of the individual writers in this chapter make me wish for similar detail in the earlier chapters where often the
examples are adduced but given less critical attention. In her final chapter, Chedgzoy explores dislocation and migration, once again as they intersect with memory, using as her examples Aphra Behn's Oroonoco and Mary Rowlandson's captivity narrative, and here again she offers detailed and sophisticated critical analysis. This produces a final, enriching picture of women writers' envisaging of the expanding Atlantic world with new interpretations of her two most canonical writers. (I should note here that Chedgzoy's grasp of criticism in this diverse field is generally impressive, but in relation to Behn it would have been worth citing Jane Spencer's 2000 study, Aphra Behn's Afterlife.) Chedgzoy's admirable clarity of argument will ensure that her book remains a touchstone in a field that is beginning to achieve a place at the centre of early modern studies.
Graham, Elspeth et al., eds. Her own life: autobiographical writings by seventeenth-century Englishwomen. London: Routledge, 1989.
Spencer, Jane. Aphra Behn's Afterlife. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.
Suzuki, Mihoko. Subordinate subjects: gender, the political nation, and literary form in England, 1588-1688. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003.
Wiseman, Susan. Conspiracy and Virtue: women, writing, and politics in seventeenth-century England. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006.
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