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Book Review: Autobiography and Gender in Early Modern Literature – Reading Women’s Lives 1600-2680 by Sharon Cardamn Seelig

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There has developed, over the past decade or so, agreement on a modest canon of early modern Englishwomen's autobiography (or life-writing – which term you prefer will show your academic associations).

It begins with Margaret Hoby, the Puritan Yorkshirewoman who would probably be astonished to know her modest daily accounting of her time of religious study, household work and village duties has come to achieve such attention.

The canon then moves on to the far more obviously formidable and Lady Anne Clifford, who was clearly constructing her text for the future, then the Civil War pair of Lucy Hutchinson and Ann Fanshawe, and the romantic Anne Halkett.

Finally, towering above them all in output and ambition is Margaret Cavendish, duchess of Newcastle, who now has a society all of her own.

Many who read and write about these texts are often concerned not with them as writing, but as evidence; these rare and valuable words, women's accounts of themselves, are subject to anatomising and theorising, so that the words themselves almost disappear. Sharon Cadman Seelig's Autobiography and Gender in Early Modern Literature can in this light almost be read as a recovery of the words, and the women who wrote them.

Seelig aims to rediscover the texts as literature, to read them asking, in now what seems to be surprisingly simple terms, what did the women mean, how were they feeling, and how do I feel when I read them?

What this produces is both a celebration and a defence of the quality and value of the words in their own right. Seelig makes the obvious but oft neglected point that while these texts might waver across genre forms, lack the well-shaped purpose and direction that we'd expect from a published diary or memoir today, this is equally true of male writers of the same period. Autobiography as a form was just being developed; these women were helping to invent it as they wrote.

The light touch academic approach here makes Seelig's book an ideal introduction to the field of early modern women's autobiography – indeed her short account of Cavendish made me dig out a biography that has been sitting in my "to read" pile for years.

So this is an ideal, and short, introduction to these women; a pity then that it is only available in expensive hardback – this is surely a monograph that cries out for an accessible paperback.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.