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Entitling early modern women writers

By Andrew Zurcher

As Women’s History Month draws to a close in the United Kingdom, it is a good moment to reflect on the history of women’s writing in Oxford’s scholarly editions. In particular, as one of the two editors responsible for early modern writers in the sprawling collections of Oxford Scholarly Editions Online (OSEO), I have been going through the edited texts of women writers included in the OSEO project, and thinking about how well even the most celebrated women writers from the period 1500 – 1700 are represented in this new digital format. In short, early modern English women writers have fared, perhaps predictably, badly.

The essayist, philosopher, and historian Francis Bacon has his place, in the Oxford Francis Bacon in fifteen volumes; but the philosopher and poet and essayist and dramatist and prose writer Margaret Cavendish, duchess of Newcastle, does not. Philip Sidney, famous for his pastoral poems, appeared in a stunningly erudite Oxford edition by William Ringler, Jr. in 1962, now like the Bacon edition a part of OSEO; Katherine Philips, also famous for her pastoral poetry, limps in to the Oxford fold in a 1905 text lightly edited by George Saintsbury, which also includes the minor Caroline poets Patrick Hannay, William Chamberlayne, and Edward Benlowes. Aphra Behn, one of the most prolific writers of the Restoration, hardly figures at all in OSEO, and the Oxford list does not include complete works for Isabella Whitney, Mary Herbert, Amelia Lanyer, or Mary Wroth.

Among those lyric poems and short works by women that are included in OSEO, many return to the silencing of a woman’s voice, the disabling of her love, and the banishment of her person. Typical is Mary Wroth’s “83 Song”, first published in Peter Davidson’s anthology, Poetry and Revolution: An Anthology of British and Irish Verse 1625-1660. Recognising that “the time is come to part” with her “deare”, the woman speaker of the poem gives up not only her own happiness, but his unhappiness. She goes to “woe”, while he goes to “more joy”:

Where still of mirth injoy thy fill,
One is enough to suffer ill:
My heart so well to sorrow us’d,
Can better be by new griefes bruis’d. (ll. 5-8)

The woman lover’s habituation to grief gives her a capacity for further bruising that, not without irony, she embraces as an ethical duty. Hers is a voice constructed for loss and for complaint, so much so that she cannot escape from this loss, and the woes that “charme” her, except by death – as the concluding stanza of the song suggests:

And yett when they their witchcrafts trye,
They only make me wish to dye:
But ere my faith in love they change,
In horrid darknesse will I range. (ll. 17-20)

For Wroth’s loving, jilted woman speaker, identity is constructed out of a wronged fidelity; the two options remaining to her are complaint and oblivion.

Complaint was still a powerful mode for women writers during the Restoration – certainly a mode that modern editors have much privileged in anthologies. A poem by Aphra Behn, “A Paraphrase on Oenone to Paris”, has slipped in to OSEO‘s corpus through its inclusion in John Kerrigan’s wonderful anthology, Motives of Woe: Shakespeare and ‘Female Complaint’: A Critical Anthology.


In this poem the shepherdess Oenone challenges the Trojan prince Paris, who had won her love while keeping flocks on the slopes of Mount Ida; afterward discovering his true birthright, Paris has abandoned her, and sails for Sparta, there to ravish Menelaus’ queen, Helen, and set in train the events that will lead to the Trojan War. Toward the end of Behn’s long poem of complaint, Oenone reprehends her lover for his faithlessness with an argument that seems to gesture at Behn’s own public reputation:

How much more happy are we Rural Maids,
Who know no other Palaces than Shades?
Who want no Titles to enslave the Croud,
Least they shou’d babble all our Crimes aloud;
No Arts our good to show, our Ills to hide,
Nor know to cover faults of Love with Pride.
I lov’d, and all Loves Dictates did persue,
And never thought it cou’d be Sin with you.
To Gods, and Men, I did my Love proclaim
For one soft hour with thee, my charming Swain,
Wou’d Recompence an Age to come of Shame,
Cou’d it as well but satisfie my Fame.
But oh! those tender hours are fled and lost,
And I no more of Fame, or Thee can boast!
‘Twas thou wert Honour, Glory, all to me:
Till Swains had learn’d the Vice of Perjury,
No yielding Maids were charg’d with Infamy.
‘Tis false and broken Vows make Love a Sin,
Hadst thou been true, We innocent had been. (ll. 265-83)

The “Titles” that Oenone disclaims are those of honour, the courtly ranks and degrees to which women might be raised by their paternity, or by their advantageous marriages; wanting titles, shepherdesses can sport in the shades of innocence, their sexual crimes unremarked and undisplayed. The shame and infamy that now await Oenone spring directly from Paris’ perjury, for the woman’s reputation for immodesty flows from the exposure accomplished by her jilting. To her way of thinking, a crime is no crime until it is published; this is a logic she has learned from men, who cover up their own crimes with “Pride”. But “Titles” may also be those of published books, and the “Arts” Oenone lacks may be just those powers of “Pride” that always enable men to abandon women – in a broad sense, the power to speak falsely. What women do, cries Behn’s Oenone, has been betrayed by what men say; what can a woman write, that will not collude in her own untitling?

Early modern women writers have not been much or widely published. There are many reasons, of course, for this history of omission and scant commission. But so long as we continue to anthologize selections from the works of women writers from this period, and to bundle them in mixed fardels, we collude in a history or pattern of dis-titling, of allowing early modern women poets to complain, but not to speak in their more diverse collected works. This pattern is changing: important new editions of Wroth and Behn have appeared in the last few decades, and – closer to home – the works of the translator and poet Lucy Hutchinson, in a meticulously edited text from David Norbrook and Reid Barbour, have recently joined the Oxford list and the OSEO fold. Other early modern women writers will surely follow. As Women’s History Month comes to an end, it’s high time we put a period to infamy, shame, oblivion, and bruising.

Andrew Zurcher is a Fellow and Director of Studies in English at Queens’ College, Cambridge, and a member of the Oxford Scholarly Editions Online (OSEO) editorial board.

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Image Credit: Aphra Behn by Mary Beale. Image available on public domain via WikiCommons

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