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The forgotten literary canon

By Cireena Simcox - posted Wednesday, 28 December 2005


When Virginia Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own she was unaware of the full extent of an entire body of literature that had disappeared from the public consciousness. She cited the few Early Modern women writers of whom she was aware, saying “Without these forerunners, Jane Austen and the Brontes and George Eliot could no more have written than Shakespeare could have written without Marlowe, or Marlowe without Chaucer ...” More recently, Joanna Russ has argued “In the face of continual and massive discouragement, women need models … as assurances that they can produce art without inevitably being second rate or running mad or doing without love”.

The term “Early Modern” loosely refers to the period between the end of the Medieval era and the beginning of the Industrial Age. The majority of great works which form the English literary canon before the emergence of the Romantic movement are from this period. Milton, Shakespeare, Donne, Marvell and Jonson are Early Modern writers. So are Cavendish, Cary, Bradstreet, Lanyer and Phillips. While it is not necessary to be an academic or scholar to have heard of the former group, it is unlikely anyone other than a handful of academics would ever have heard of the latter. They are all women. And history has branded them and their contemporaries with the labels identified by Russ.

The fact an entire genre evolved from the writing women did in the 17th century is unknown to all but the most ardent scholars. Women were denied access to the great libraries and universities and were therefore denied access to older texts on which to base their work. Chaucer’s appropriation of Boccaccio’s Decameron resulted in The Canterbury Tales, and Shakespeare’s rummaging through previously written plays and histories brought us the most familiar texts in English literature. Women began to fashion their works from inside their own heads, calling them “phantasies”.

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History commonly informs us the birth of the English fiction genre began in the 18th century. Even today, university classes dealing with 18th century literature investigate Swift and Defoe in depth, as the vanguard of the great explosion of novel-writing that marked the period. History, however, neglects to inform us the majority of 18th century novels were written by women: an historical fact easily verifiable through existing Stationers Lists. The fact both Swift and Defoe modelled their work on the new “phantastick” genre, introduced by women writers in the previous century is not explored in mainstream literature classes.

Although this might be considered interesting, it is unlikely those not involved in the study of literature would question the value of such knowledge. However, at some stage in their lives, most women involved, or simply interested, in the arts have been asked the inevitable question: "If women want equality where are the proofs of equal capability? Where are the female Shakespeares?" As Russ states “When the memory of one’s predecessors is buried the assumption persists that there were none … The spectre of ‘If women can, why haven’t they’? is as potent as it was in Margaret Cavendish’s time.”

The premise that there has been a deliberate movement aimed at first marginalising, then concealing early women’s works might seem to smack of conspiracy theory. However it is no longer denied in academic debate. As Gayle Donkin, writing about 17th century women playwrights, says, “Given the constraints - economic, educational, social and legal - the fact that a handful of women made their way to the top of the profession has changed not only how I assess that history of women, but also how I assess the historians who erased it”.

It has been calculated that in 1600 10 per cent of London's women were literate - a figure which increased only to 20 per cent by 1640. In the neighbouring county of East Anglia, 100 per cent of women were still unable to read or write.

Both Henry VIII in the 16th century and Oliver Cromwell in the early years of the 17th combined, through the dissolution of the monasteries, to deprive women of legitimate centres for both learning and for the dissemination of knowledge. A sanctified alternative to marriage was also denied them.

However, from the time of Elizabeth I, herself a scholar and translator, some women were fortunate enough to receive an education through the support of indulgent fathers and husbands or, more infrequently, from learned mothers. Thus some women were able to undertake translations of existing documents (Margaret More Roper); to write moral treatises or advice books for other women or their own families (Dorothy Leigh); to write their own wills for the disposition of such goods that did not fall to their husbands automatically upon their deaths (Sarah, Duchess of Somerset); or, to write manuals of instructions regarding certain female occupations (Jane Sharp). Female authorship of such documents was tolerated on the understanding they fell within the private parameters of woman’s place within the home.

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It is perhaps difficult for modern women to envisage a time when women’s place was confined almost entirely to the private space of the home, and only men were allowed a public identity. While we easily identify with the idea of good and bad reputations, it becomes difficult to imagine a time when a reputation of any kind - good or bad - was something a woman was not permitted. A reputation meant others knew her. Society treated the verb “to know” in its biblical sense. Relegated to the private, home sphere, a woman became properly invisible to any but immediate family.

Our only means of discovering anything about women of the period has, until recently, been through reading what men have to say about them. From poetry and prose we gain the idea that women were beautiful, gentle and loving. We further learn they could be capricious and cruel. From the plethora of didactic tracts and pamphlets that abounded one finds women were regarded as being on the same level as animals. From the deliberate genocide involved in witch trials we discover tens of thousands of women were evil: and from written history we regard them as invisible.

But when we start listening to the voices which are at last being heard again after centuries of silence, our entire way of looking at women - and women’s struggles - starts to change. In fact, the word “gobsmacked” is not at all out of place when used to describe how one feels when entering into the world of Early Modern women.

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About the Author

Cireena Simcox has been a journalist and columnist for the last 20 years and has written a book titled Finding Margaret Cavendish. She is also an actor and playwright .

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