Jonathan Goldberg. Desiring Women Writing: English Renaissance Examples. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1997. vii+255pp. ISBN 0 8047 2984 4 Cloth; 0 8047 2983 2 Paper.
Kate Chedgzoy
University of Warwick

Chedgzoy, Kate. "Review of Jonathan Goldberg, Desiring Women Writing: English Renaissance Examples." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.1 (May, 2000): 12.1-5<URL:

  1. With books like Sodometries and Queering the Renaissance, Jonathan Goldberg has played a key role in fostering a dialogue between queer theory, contemporary sexual politics, and Renaissance texts that has helped to reconfigure the study of early modern sexualities. In his work on the material practices and ideological formation of writing, he has also made a substantial contribution to the revitalization of manuscript studies that has been so enlivening a development in recent Renaissance literary studies. This sustained commitment to exploring the complicated relations between sexuality and textuality forms the backdrop to Desiring Women Writing, in which he addresses women's participation in literary culture at length for the first time. With chapters on texts by Aemelia Lanyer, Aphra Behn, Margaret Roper, the Countess of Pembroke, and Elizabeth Cary, as well as the less familiar figure of Mary Shelton, Goldberg contributes to the confirmation of those women at the heart of an emergent canon, at the same time as casting into question the principles and politics that subtend the very process of feminist canonization.

  2. Goldberg is meticulous in locating his own work in relation to existing feminist scholarship in the field. He constructs his arguments in each chapter by elaborating detailed close readings of the prior feminist work that has enabled his own, and then laying out with some precision the interpretive, political, or theoretical points at which his analysis diverges from it. It is a procedure that elegantly recapitulates the dialectic of incorporation and differentiation that shapes many of the texts he discusses, as well as honouring the transformative effect that feminism has had on the field of Renaissance literary studies. Positioning his own discourse as supplemental to feminist analyses of early modern women's writing, Goldberg enacts the argument he makes about translation in the central section of the book: that rather than being a secondary, limited literary activity, it is in some ways the exemplary site for examining those issues about literary history and cultural production with which the book is most concerned.

  3. One of Goldberg's key missions is to challenge what Natalie Zemon Davis called the "Women Worthies" approach to Renaissance women's writing, which holds individual women up as at once exemplary and exceptional: uniquely bold and creative figures who succeeded in overcoming the constraints placed on them by a patriarchal society, and role models for other women. Clearly, there are limitations to this approach -- Goldberg is not the first to recognize them -- and a challenge to its continuing critical influence both opens up new methodological possibilities, and unsettles its rather conservative cultural politics. But though I have no quarrel with his project, I find the way he goes about it less convincing, involving as it does a rather simplistic inversion of previously dominant critical positions, usually by way of inserting the erotic into places we might not have expected to find it. In the case of Aphra Behn, it entails opposing her canonization within a "legend of good women" (72) by presenting her as a sexy bad girl -- hardly a novel perspective on her. If Goldberg is not wholly successful in this bold attempt to queer the high-mindedness of some work on early modern women, though, his insistence on drawing attention to the complexly overdetermined imbrications of the erotic with other factors such as gender, class, religion, familial relations, and writing, will make an important contribution to resituating debate.

  4. This foregrounding of the erotic is a distinctive -- and distinctively valuable -- aspect of the book. It is accompanied by equally forceful engagements with many other key issues for feminist literary study: above all, as increasing publication in book form and electronic media makes women's texts more widely available, posing the question of "what to make of this emerging body of material" (3). Goldberg suggests that answering this question will involve attending to the material circumstances in which texts are produced and circulated, as well as to interpreting their content. Turning to interpretive strategies, he cites as exemplary the work of Elaine Hobby and Ann Rosalind Jones, which eschewed the focus on individual biography characteristic of much work in this area (13); calls for a decentring of the unthinking "heteronormativity" that often accompanies a focus exclusively on gender that scants such other social determinants as sexuality and class (10-11); and advocates the development of a reading practice that is alert to "shifting historical contingencies" (45) and does not subsume gender under the rubric of the historical, but rather opens to scrutiny the historicity of gender.

  5. Elegantly structured, tightly argued, and rich in editorial and historical scholarship, this is a book that will contribute much to the study of early modern women's writing. Yet its value lies perhaps primarily not in the readings of individual texts -- which veer between the brilliant and the infuriating -- but rather in its dense and thoughtful meditations on the theoretical and political stakes for the study of early modern women's writing.

    Works Cited

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

© 1999-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS)