Royalist Women Writers 1650-1689 contributes to the important growing
critical trend that locates seventeenth-century women’s constructions of gender
in the context of wider socio-political concerns. Hero Chalmers explores the
dramatic changes in England’s political climate in relation to Margaret Cavendish,
Katherine Philips and Aphra Behn, arguing that royalist affiliations are essential
to how such authors negotiate a more assertive model of female authorship,
particularly through royalist conceptions of idealized images of femininity.
What is particularly significant about this study is that Chalmers challenges
critical assumptions that marginalize women writers’ participation in shaping
royalist literary traditions. Also, though there has been much valuable criticism
discussing the influence that male authors had on female writers, Chalmers
offers a fresh approach by her intriguing argument that supporting royalist
authors such as Cavendish, Philips and Behn could demonstrate an act of political
self-definition for male royalist contemporaries. By examining royalist literature,
literary networks and commentary from their contemporaries, Chalmers further
demonstrates the changing roles of women writers in political discourse.
Though royalism in relation to gender is what links these authors in this
study, Chalmers provides a more discerning approach since she does not assume
that royalist women had a uniform political outlook and situates writers within
their individual and localized, historical and political contexts, illuminating
“the multi-faceted nature of pre- and post-Restoration royalist cultures”,
particularly with its idealized images of femininity (7). Chalmers also discusses
how shifts and transformations in the political milieu affected each individual
and their writings. Consequently, the study explores the different manners
in which these authors experienced and promoted royalism, paying particular
attention to the interplay between representations of gender and royalist
Though Chalmers emphasizes the need to acknowledge the potential diversity
and individual nuances within royalist politics of this period, she still
explores shared concerns, strategies and motifs between authors. The first
two chapters demonstrate that Cavendish and Philips function in very different
ways as political writers, yet their representations of gender and methods
of validating their authorship are both motivated by royalist exile and defeat. For
example, the first chapter explores how Cavendish’s presentation of self-affirming
female authorship, which draws from her experience as a petitioner for her
exiled husband, contributes to aristocratic ideals of wifely obedience and
public display. Cavendish uses the royalist tradition of femme forte,
enlivened by perceptions of and loyalty to Queen Henrietta Maria, to espouse
a rhetoric of fame through the royalist tradition of female heroism. This
heroic ideal is central to not only how Cavendish frames her public image,
but also how others situate and perceive her. Chapter 2 further discusses
how Henry Lawes’ coterie, the manuscript circle which inspired Cavendish,
also influenced Philips’ authorial self and motivated her participation in
shaping royalist traditions of politicized notions of friendship. Interestingly,
Chalmers discusses how mid-seventeenth royalist culture privileged female
friendships as propagators of social union and harmony. Consequently, “male
gestures of support for Philips and her friendships with women should be understood
as analogous acts of political self-fashioning” (77, 78). Tracing the changes
in understandings of friendship after the Restoration, Chalmers contends that
friendship is still significant and political in Pompey and influenced
perceptions of Philips as an excellent translator.
Both Philips’ and Cavendish’s texts reflect Interregnum royalist strategies
that conceptualize power within spaces of retirement or inwardness and the
third chapter discusses how both authors represent idealized spaces of feminine
retreat that could allow royalist men to identify with the feminine. However,
Philips’ ideas also simultaneously draw on Puritan ideas and attract Puritans
readership. Alternatively, Cavendish, through the medium of closet drama,
reinterprets Caroline plays in The Female Academy and The Convent
of Pleasure to reconfigure communal female retreat as a site of collective
agency. Yet, Chalmers argues that, in contrast, Blazing World portrays
a solipsistic fantasy to compensate for actual female political agency, further
limiting Cavendish’s influence over the material, political world. Unfortunately,
Chalmers’ reading of Blazing World seems limited in light of the numerous
significant studies that have recently challenged the notion that the text
is a retreat from the ‘real’ world and have explored how it actively engages
with contemporary political and philosophical debates, many of which intrinsically
address gender politics.  Though
this section seems problematic, the final chapter is interesting and discusses
how Behn constructs an image of herself that, like Restoration female actresses,
is perceived as both heroic and erotic, reflecting celebrations of a supposed
morally lenient theatre culture linked to pro-Stuart loyalty. Yet, Chalmers
argues that Behn questions Tory ideology by suggesting that libertine conduct
does not prove equally satisfactory for women and the many injustices that
occur to women in her texts indicate that Whiggish commercial greed inflects
both parties. Behn later attempts to disassociate her eroticized authorial
image from her political agency and indicates that such agency has the power
to control representation.
Though scholars may not agree with Chalmers’ contention
that Behn was a far more self-conscious political writer than Cavendish
or Philips, the study is important overall . Also, though Chalmers refers
to the three authors discussed as case studies, the argument, in general,
would have been more dynamic if more examples of women writers were addressed.
Nonetheless, the study is valuable, compelling and will open up interesting
new avenues for future scholarship.
 For example, Susan James' edition,
Margaret Cavendish: Political Writings, (from the Cambridge Texts in
the History of Political Thought) includes Blazing World. For other
examples of significant studies which have addressed the political, gender
and philosophical dimensions of Blazing World see Eve Keller, "Producing
Petty Gods: Margaret Cavendish's Critique of Experimental Science," English
Literary History 64.2 (1997): 447-471 and Stephen Clucas, ed., A Princely
Brave Woman: Essays on Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (Aldershot:
Ashgate Press, 2003).
Cavendish, Margaret. Margaret Cavendish: Political Writings. Ed.
Susan James. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.
Clucas, Stephen, ed. A Princely Brave Woman: Essays on Margaret Cavendish,
Duchess of Newcastle. Aldershot: Ashgate P, 2003.
Keller, Eve. “Producing Petty Gods: Margaret Cavendish’s Critique of Experimental
Science.” English Literary History. 64.2 (1997): 447-471.
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Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.