Maureen Quilligan explores the remarkable presence in the
Renaissance of what she calls "incest schemes" in the books of a
small number of influential women who claimed an active female
authority by writing in high canonical genres and who, even more
transgressively for the time, sought publication in print.
It is no accident for Quilligan that the first printed work of
Elizabeth I was a translation done at age eleven of a poem by
Marguerite de Navarre, in which the notion of "holy" incest is the
prevailing trope. Nor is it coincidental that Mary Wroth, author of
the first sonnet cycle and prose romance by a woman printed in
English, described in these an endogamous, if not legally
incestuous, illegitimate relationship with her first cousin. Sir
Philip Sidney and his sister, the Countess of Pembroke, translated
the psalms together, and after his death she finished his work by
revising it for publication; the two were the subject of rumors of
incest. Isabella Whitney cast one of her most important long poems
as a fictive legacy to her brother, arguably because such a
relationship resonated with the power of endogamous female agency.
Elizabeth Carey's closet drama about Mariam, the wife of Herod,
spends important energy on the tie between sister and brother.
Quilligan also reads male-authored meditations on the relationship
between incest and female agency and sees a far different Cordelia,
Britomart, and Eve from what traditional scholarship has heretofore
Incest and Agency in Elizabeth's England makes a signal
contribution to the conversation about female agency in the early
modern period. While contemporary anthropological theory deeply
informs her understanding of why some Renaissance women writers
wrote as they did, Quilligan offers an important corrective to
modern theorizing that is grounded in the historical texts
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