Jo Wallwork and Paul Salzman (eds), Early Modern Englishwomen Testing Ideas

Jo Wallwork and Paul Salzman (eds), Early Modern Englishwomen Testing Ideas (Burlington and Aldershot: Ashgate Press, 2011), 158 pp. £50 hb. ISBN: 978 1 4094 1969 3.

(BSLS members receive a discount on all Ashgate titles)

Jo Wallwork and Paul Salzman’s Early Modern Englishwomen Testing Ideas is a collection of essays about how women writers from the mid-seventeenth through the eighteenth century were in dialogue with some of the most prominent male philosophers, politicians, and scientists of the period. This collection is a timely addition to the growing body of work on this topic. And the range of essays in the collection offers readings of women with such diverse interests and backgrounds as Mary Astell, Margaret Cavendish, Katherine Phillips, Eliza Haywood, and Aphra Behn. In her Introduction to the collection, Jo Wallwork argues that the essays found here seek to include women from this period in the “considerable intellectual and cultural diversity” from which they had been previously excluded (1). As the essays that follow show, early modern women were indeed engaged in these ways.

Jacqueline Broad and Michal Michelson both focus on Mary Astell, with Broad arguing that Astell “cites Machiavelli’s advice principally in order to turn it against [Charles Davenant]” and Michelson that Astell uses religious philosophy to empower her writing (11, 25). Jo Wallwork and L.E. Semler follow with essays that situate Margaret Cavendish in the context of early modern science. Wallwork shows how Cavendish’s writing (and her infamous presence at the Royal Society meeting) “demonstrates an incursion into the male community of early modern science which disrupts the politics of exclusion operating at this time” (53). And Semler documents the relationship between Cavendish and natural philosopher Water Charleton. Each of these first four essays promises a revision of current ways of thinking about early modern philosophy, women, and science; and each offers readings of early modern women writers that fleshes out a connection that had for the most part been unexplored until now.

In the second part of the collection, Wallwork and Salzman include two essays on “Women and Drama,” one on Margaret Cavendish’s drama and the other on Aphra Behn’s The Widow Ranter. Alexandra Bennett’s essay on Cavendish’s The Unnatural Tragedie is a particularly bright spot in this collection, as it aims to recover Cavendish’s dramatic work from critical dismissal and shows how it instead “deliberately confronts established expectations of genre” (75). Bennett goes on to show how “Like Plato, Cavendish advocates performance as a tool for learning and social hegemony,” a move that repositions Cavendish’s drama convincingly as having more heft and potential influence than scholars have tended to conclude to date. The piece that follows by David McInnis on Aphra Behn’s The Widow Ranter makes the argument, as scholars have of other writers in this period, that Behn uses in the play references to the New World to represent concerns in England; but McInnis takes this argument a step further to suggest that Behn’s play attempts an accurate portrayal of English Virginia as well.

In the final two essays, Rosalinde Schut and Joanna Fowler form the section titled, “Politics and Intrigue.” Here, Schut takes up the topic of how Katherine Philips’s Dublin writing made her an influential figure in the political dealings of James Butler (Duke of Ormond) and Roger Boyle (Earl of Orrery). Even behind the scenes and through the act of translation, argues Schut, Philips negotiated her own political interests by way of aiding Butler and Boyle in theirs. In the last essay of the collection, Joanna Fowler “considers the differing representation of the figures of the Narrator and the Translator” in Haywood’s The Adventures of Eovaai and “looks at the intratextual links between all of the narrative vehicles in the novella” (122).

While I was excited to read this collection, I found myself often frustrated with it. First, in the Introduction, when I hoped that Wallwork would use that opportunity to frame the collection theoretically and reflect on the field as it has changed since the publication of her first collection of essays (also with Paul Salzman), Women Writing, 1550-1750. I expected to find in the Introduction a thoughtful consideration of, at least, the scholarly conversation to date about early Englishwomen’s engagement with philosophy, politics, science, and religion and to get a sense of what this collection aims to contribute. Instead, the Introduction moves quickly through descriptions of individual essays, only sometimes pausing long enough to consider their implications to the field more broadly. The result is a collection that has the potential to offer a coherent look at the relationship between women’s writing and ideas in this period, but that instead seems hastily or haphazardly conceived and organized. This may result in part from the fact that the essays found here stem from a conference to commemorate the publication of the first collection co-edited by Wallwork and Salzman. The editors may have found themselves constrained to some extent by the topic or range of participants.

With only a few exceptions (especially Bennett’s and Broad’s essays) individual essays, too, demonstrate great potential but often fall short of fully engaging the depth and breadth of existing scholarship on their topics. While all of the topics presented here are worthy of study, the bulk of the essays would benefit from a fuller and deeper engagement with scholarship on the women writers in question and the topic more broadly.

This collection would, therefore, serve as an introduction to students and scholars just getting their feet wet in the field, as the essays here present preliminary arguments that could point those interested to writers and topics that they might want to explore further.

Jennifer Munroe, University of North Carolina at Charlotte