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Changing The Subject

Changing The Subject: Mary Wroth and Figurations of Gender in Early Modern England

Naomi J. Miller
Copyright Date: 1996
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Changing The Subject
    Book Description:

    Lady Mary Wroth (c. 1587-1653) wrote the first sonnet sequence in English by a woman, one of the first plays by a woman, and the first published work of fiction by an Englishwoman. Yet, despite her status as a member of the distinguished Sidney family, Wroth met with disgrace at court for her authorship of a prose romance, which was adjudged an inappropriate endeavor for a woman and was forcibly withdrawn from publication. Only recently has recognition of Wroth's historical and literary importance been signaled by the publication of the first modern edition of her romance,The Countess of Mountgomeries Urania.

    Naomi Miller offers an illuminating study of this significant early modern woman writer. Using multiple critical/theoretical perspectives, including French feminism, new historicism, and cultural materialism, she examines gender in Wroth's time. Moving beyond the emphasis on victimization that shaped many previous studies, she considers the range of strategies devised by women writers of the period to establish voices for themselves.

    Where previous critics have viewed Wroth primarily in relation to her male literary predecessors in the Sidney family, Miller explores Wroth's engagement with a variety of discourses, reading her in relation to a broad range of English and continental authors, both male and female, from Sidney, Spenser, and Shakespeare to Aemilia Lanier, Elizabeth Cary, and Marguerite de Navarre. She also contextualizes Wroth's writing in relation to a variety of nonliterary texts of the period, both political and domestic. Thanks to Miller's sensitive readings, Wroth's writings provide a lens through which to view gender relations in the early modern period.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5884-6
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. 1 Figurations of Gender
    (pp. 1-17)

    The subject of the present book is not singular, but multiple: figurations of gender in early modern England, as viewed in relation to the works of a particular, indeed quite singular, writer: Lady Mary Wroth (c. 1587-1653). I have chosen the term “figuration,” which is defined in theOEDas both “the action or process of giving shape or determination to a certain form” and “the resulting form or shape,” in order to consider at once the ongoing construction of the gendered subject in early modern England and specific representations of female subjectivity that both resulted from and continued to...

  5. 2 Dark Lady: This Self Which Is Not One
    (pp. 18-63)

    InThis Sex Which Is Not One, Luce Irigaray observes that female sexuality has always been conceptualized on the basis of masculine parameters, and she proposes a redefinition of woman as “neither one nor two.” In Irigaray’s terms, woman is “indefinitely other in herself.”¹ Irigaray’s focus upon the multiple discursive potential of female sexuality has important implications for any examination of “difference” in male- and female-authored constructions of subjectivity. Early modern women writers in England were faced on all sides with masculine parameters, with definitions of female sexuality and subjectivity as “other” in mirror-image relation to masculine standards and assumptions,...

  6. 3 Matriarch’s Daughter: Ties That Bind
    (pp. 64-108)

    Why does the verb “to father” signify “to beget,” while the verb “to mother” represents not only the act of giving birth, but also an ongoing responsibility to nurture? Why does “patrimony” signify “inheritance from one’s father,” reifying the patriarchal line, while “matrimony” represents “the rite or state of marriage,” in which a bride is given from father to husband? Behind the definitions of theOxford English Dictionarylie multiple cultural figurations of gender which at once reflect and shape the political and familial structures of Western societies. The texts of Mary Wroth offer several alternative constructions of maternity which...

  7. 4 Sovereign Subject: The Politics of Gender
    (pp. 109-142)

    The ambivalence about female independence which marks the debate over women’s roles during the reign of King James suggests the presence of deepseated anxieties regarding women’s cultural authority, which can be traced, at least in part, to the double-edged politics of gender in the Jacobean court. Against James’s proclamations of the theoretical bases for his masculine authority must be balanced the challenges to that authority in practice on the part of women, from Queen Anne to Lady Anne Clifford, and from Esther Sowernam to “Hie Mulier.” Although instructed to remain chaste, silent, and above all obedient, Jacobean women can be...

  8. 5 Engendering Discourse: In a Different Voice
    (pp. 143-181)

    Even when the social parameters of courtship and matrimony, motherhood and daughterhood, courtiership and monarchy prove repeatedly resistant to figurations of gender that challenge cultural norms, authorship offers a perpetually alternative venue for “changing the subject.” A number of critical studies of early modern England, however, as discussed in my first chapter, treat authorship as the exclusive purview of privileged male writers. One apparent rationale for this focus can be found in Jonathan Crewe’s new historicist study, Trials of Authorship, which justifies the exclusion of women from an investigation of “English Renaissance authorship” by maintaining that any attempt to “belatedly...

  9. 6 Between Women: Becoming Visible
    (pp. 182-233)

    Mary Wroth represents bonds between women as both troubled and enduring, at once potentially restrictive and liberating, within social settings that pose multiple challenges to women’s agency and subjectivity. Of the various concerns that mark Wroth’s texts, from her re-vision of Petrarchan forms to her exploration of the often vexed relationship between authorship and desire, her attention to the relations among women has received a surprisingly scant amount of critical discussion thus far. My analysis in this chapter focuses upon the emergence of bonds between women in Wroth’s texts, viewed in relation both to coexisting structures of heterosexual desire, and...

  10. Epilogue: Changing the Subject
    (pp. 234-236)

    Dale Spender’sThe Writing or the Sex?includes a revealing appendix containing comments by male critics who dismiss writings by women (poets, play-wrights, novelists, and critics) as insignificant without having read them. One of the most blatant comments, as quoted by Elaine Showalter, comes from a male academic who, after castigating a feminist critic, responds to the question of whether he has in fact read her book by saying: “Of course not, it would take a miracle to make me change my mind.”¹ Extreme? Indeed. Exceptional? Not as much as we might sometimes like to think. I myself found that...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 237-270)
  12. Index
    (pp. 271-280)