Friday , February 23 2024
Academic papers covering the work of Mary Astell, Margaret Cavendish, Aphra Behn, Katherine Philips and Eliza Haywood.

Book Review: Early Modern Englishwomen Testing Ideas by Jo Wallwork and Paul Salzman (eds)

A holiday (finally!) and the chance to read a few books on subjects I’m interested in that have no immediate practical use to me whatsoever. First up was Early Modern Englishwomen Testing Ideas, edited by Jo Wallwork and Paul Salzman.

I understand that a collection of loosely linked academic essays in a monograph is not everyone’s idea of holiday reading, but ranging through Mary Astell, Margaret Cavendish, Aphra Behn, Katherine Philips and Eliza Haywood, this book covers a range of 17th and 18th-century women about whom I’d like to know more. And this is an interesting period in women’s history – as women try (albeit unsuccessfully) to resist the exclusion from the public sphere that was one of the chief characteristics of the Enlightenment (indeed Jo Wallwork argues here in her Margaret Cavendish paper was a central part of its project) and which was to continue for a couple of centuries more.

As you’d expect from a range of academic papers they range widely in jargon-intensity, interest to the general reader and my favourites might not be yours.

But I did particularly take to Jacqueline Broad’s account of Mary Astell’s political spat with Charles Davenant, an uncritical proponent of Machiavelli as a political adviser. Broad shows how Astell (who while she was one of the early proponents of what has been seen as a women’s university is also a Tory and a religious enthusiast with whom I have little natural sympathy) showed that Davenant had managed to uncritically give Queen Anne entirely contradictory advice on the subject of how the ruler should manage faction.

She also skewered him very successfully on Broad’s account on inconsistency in his view of Elizabeth I – Davenant both says that Elizabeth “had a Mind above her Sex”, and that “For the Good Government of a free country, such as this Kingdom, no more Skill, no more Policies are requisite than what may be comprehended by a Woman, as was seen in the Instance of Queen Elizabeth”. In contrast, Astell says that prudence, “the capacity to discern between good and bad in one’s practical deliberations” is a chief political virtue, and for Queen Anne “there’s nothing either Wise, or Good, or Great that is above Her Sex”.

I also enjoyed Wallwork’s discussion of the well documented visit by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, to the Royal Society. The modern author uses this as a way of exploring the way in which the men of the Royal Society used the exclusion of women from their space as a way of defining what they weren’t, as well as what they were. (Not a lot has changed in modern science…women were only admitted to the Royal Society in 1945 under threat of legal action.)

Also exciting was the exploration of the place of the Dublin writings of Katherine Philips from 1662-3 in the politics of the time. Rosaline Schut asks “how could the two most powerful men in early Restoration Ireland [the Duke of Ormond and the Earl of Orrery] possibly benefit from the works of a cloth mercant’s daughter?” and provides a convincing answer through the exploration of the 12 poems, five songs and translation of the French play La Mort de Pompee that was the product of little more than a year’s work.

Those were the three essays I enjoyed best – I found the academic literary framework of Joanna Fowler’s exploration of Eliza Haywood’s The Adventures of Eovaai impenetrably dull, and was less than convinced about the claims in David McInnis’s exploration of Behn’s The Widow Ranter that it was “arguably the first play purporting to represent New World life in and of itself, rather than arbitrarily selecting the New World as a spatial-Temporal displacement of English concerns”.

I stress that’s my view as a general reader seeking to dip deep into some academic pools – no doubt they may have their place for other readers.

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.

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