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Martine van Elk, Early Modern Women’s Writing: Domesticity, Privacy, and the Public Sphere in England and the Dutch Republic (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017)

Martine van Elk, Early Modern Women’s Writing: Domesticity, Privacy, and the Public Sphere in England and the Dutch Republic (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). ISBN 978-3-319-33221-5, 299 pp., £53.99

Reviewed by Lotte Fikkers

[1] In Early Modern Women’s Writing: Domesticity, Privacy, and the Public Sphere in England and the Dutch Republic, Martine van Elk argues that in different countries, social contexts, and political circumstances, early modern women writers were articulating broadly similar ideas. Her monograph therefore presents a comparative study of Dutch and English texts by women. The originality of this work lies in its wide scope. Not only does it have a transnational dimension with its focus on women writers from both England and the Dutch republic, Early Modern Women’s Writing also has an interdisciplinary focus in the sense that it explores a broad definition of authorship by including visual art (such as portraits and glass engravings) alongside literature from the seventeenth century.

[2] The monograph is organised into seven chapters, including introduction and afterword. The introduction aims to make the reader aware of the historicity of the public/private divide. Van Elk rightly points out that this is confusing material, as the use of the words ‘public’ and ‘private’, both from a pre-modern and modern perspective, can be obfuscating. The occasional use of the word ‘dichotomy’ in that light does not help; the rest of the book convincingly demonstrates that the public/private divide was permeable, and that early modern women writers attempted to negotiate this division of spheres and were able to straddle both domains. The second chapter analyses prescriptive literature and visual representations of women in the private domain to demonstrate that women were both hindered and enabled in their literary expression because of the changing perceptions of the household in the seventeenth century. The close-‘reading’ of various paintings and portraits in that light is illuminating. Chapters three to six form case studies: in each chapter the work of at least one woman writer from England is compared and contrasted to that of one from the Dutch Republic. As almost all of the examples used in these case studies date from the seventeenth-century, the actual chronological scope of the book is perhaps slightly more narrow than one may expect from reading the title (‘Early Modern’).

[3] A comparison between the works of women from different countries is necessary, Van Elk posits, because it can show the need to reassess the work of individuals in the light of larger, transnational tendencies. This argument is at times very persuasive. Chapter 4 (“Friends, Lovers, and Rivals”), for example, posits friendship poetry as international phenomenon, with women sharing poems with their international friends, as such crossing national boundaries. These poems, therefore, are served by a cross-cultural analysis. The chapter itself does take a more national focus, as it discusses the friendship poems shared between two sets of Dutch writers (among whom is Catharina Questiers, whose name is conspicuously absent from the chapter’s title) separately, and uses those to try and shed new light on Katherine Philips’ English friendship poetry: Katherine Philips’ royalism, Van Elk argues, “is only part of the explanation for the specific form that her idealization of the friend takes” in her friendship poems – which becomes evident when reading her work alongside that of women in countries with different political organizations (156). Chapter 6 (“Staging Female Virtue”) is perhaps most successful in showing the necessity of a transnational study, as it highlights the remarkable similarities between Elizabeth Cary’s The Tragedy of Mariam and Katharina Lescailje’s Herodes en Mariamne. The parallels between state and household drawn in both these texts, as well as the use of reformist discourse of domesticity and the household, demonstrates that the concerns and occupations of early modern women transcended national boundaries.

[4] Because of its focus on texts written by authors from both England and the Dutch republic in three different languages (Dutch, English, and Latin), Early Modern Women’s Writing may seem to hold appeal for two specific and distinct groups of scholars only: those interested in English women writers, and those studying Dutch women writers (of which there are few). However, Van Elk has done an excellent job at providing accurate and sensitive English translations of source material in Dutch and Latin, and she always supplies the original text in her endnotes for cross-referencing. Moreover, the book explicitly addresses the need for more comparative work to be done on early modern women writers, because otherwise, ‘we risk situating women’s writing too narrowly within a single context’ (259). Those scholars of gender studies and early modern women writers who share this evaluation, and those ready to let themselves be persuaded, should read Early Modern Women’s Writing. At the very least, this study brings Dutch sources under the attention of an international audience by presenting them side by side with their English ‘counterparts’. This alone is a worthy purpose, as the work of female writers from the Dutch Republic has long been neglected even by Dutch scholars. Van Elk’s considerate study rectifies this situation.

Leiden University, February 2018

Theresia de Vroom, The Lady Vanishes: Fantasies of Female Heroism in Shakespeare’s Last Plays (Marymount Institute Press, 2014)

Theresia de Vroom, The Lady Vanishes: Fantasies of Female Heroism in Shakespeare’s Last Plays (Los Angeles: Marymount Institute Press, 2014). ISBN: 978-1941392102, 448 pp., $64.95

Reviewed by Lotte Fikkers


[1] ‘The mystery of the missing mothers’ in Shakespeare’s plays has long fascinated scholars of Shakespeare (Calderwood, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992), p. 2). Theresia de Vroom’s The Lady Vanishes aims to add to this tradition by offering an analysis of the construction of the tragicomic heroine based on her relation to the maternal figure in Shakespeare’s last plays. Moreover, the book sets out to offer an ‘alternative and corrective to the origins of tragedy in the world of men’ (book blurb). On a grander scale, De Vroom seeks to move beyond the literary task at hand to engage with the question of ‘what it means to be a woman’ (pp. 3, 16, 70, 75).

[2] The Lady Vanishes has a two-part structure. In the first section, ‘The Lady Vanishes’, De Vroom focuses on the construction of the heroine in four of Shakespeare’s tragicomedies, whereas in the second, ‘The De-Construction of the Tragicomic Heroine: Shakespeare and Fletcher’, she concentrates on the ostensible lack of female heroism in Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen. The first part opens with an introduction discussing what the author understands to be a Shakespearean ‘tragicomic heroine’. In her attempt to demonstrate that Shakespeare’s female tragicomic hero is indebted to a larger archetype, De Vroom draws on an eclectic selection of cultural sources and references. As such, not only does this book study the formation of the tragicomic heroine and her relationship to the maternal within Shakespeare’s late plays, but also from a broader cultural perspective, drawing on film, photography and painting. For example, to exemplify her contention that women are ‘the construction of many “selves in relation”’ (p. 37), she holds up the relationships between Mother Theresa and Lady Diana, and between photographer Imogen Cunningham and her model Twinka. However, scholars of Shakespeare may find these comparisons distracting rather than exemplifying.

[3] In the four chapters that follow, De Vroom sets out to analyse the construction of the female tragicomic heroine in Shakespeare’s plays Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, dedicating a chapter to each dramatic text. De Vroom’s proposition that the reconciliation of the young female heroine and her mother enables both to be wives (again) works well for Pericles (chapter 2) and The Winter’s Tale (chapter 4). Both plays feature young women (Marina and Perdita) who are defined by the early loss of their mothers (Thaisa and Hermione). The recovery of their respective lost mothers ultimately resolves the play’s tragic elements, and the subsequent (re)establishment of identities allows all women to be with their partner. For Cymbeline (chapter 3), De Vroom recognizes that her case is more difficult to argue. Here, the young Imogen has no mother with whom to be reconciled at the end of the play’s drama. Instead of focusing her chapter on Imogen’s relation to the maternal, the author therefore emphasizes Imogen’s heroism, nicely juxtaposed with the (lack of) heroism perceived in Imogen’s husband Posthumus. According to De Vroom, Imogen gets portrayed as the perfect female hero: the ‘ideal compounded female self’, ‘the height of perfection’, and ‘all that is extraordinary in womankind’ (pp. 141, 149). Moreover, she marks the female presence in a world composed of men alone. By the end of the play, the recovery of a lost mother may not be possible, but Imogen herself, De Vroom claims, can be seen as her brothers’ ‘non-existent mother reborn in a daughter and a sister called “Fidele”’ (p. 164). As such, the author extends her earlier claim that Shakespeare’s female characters are portrayed as many selves in relation, whilst simultaneously retreating from her statement that the reconciliation with a lost mother is the driving force in Shakespeare’s tragicomedies. With The Tempest (chapter 5) De Vroom faces a similar problem. Here, too, the young heroine has no mother to re-discover. In an attempt to solve this issue, De Vroom argues that The Tempest’s masque scene offers Miranda ‘heroic models of feminine and maternal power’ on which to base her own heroism (p. 234). Instead of a real mother, De Vroom argues that the essence of that mother gets bestowed on Miranda through the masque, and in that sense a reconciliation of mother and daughter does take place.

[4] The second part of the book discusses two plays that the author recognizes as problematic to the book’s proposition. The inclusion of Henry VIII or All Is True (chapter 6) is somewhat surprising: instead of a tragicomedy, as De Vrooms concedes, Henry VIII is a history play. As such, ‘the fantasy of tragicomic female heroism is eclipsed by the reality of what actually happened’ (p. 258). Nonetheless, she applies her schema to the three central female characters: Anne Boleyn, Katherine of Aragon, and the infant Elizabeth I. The former, De Vroom argues, is a failed tragicomic heroine, whereas Katherine’s responses to the difficult situation she finds herself in are ‘almost tragicomic’ (p. 292). In an effort to link the play to her claims about the relationship between the young Shakespearean tragicomic heroine and the maternal figure, De Vroom points out that the birth of Elizabeth I in the play can be equalled to the birth of a female heroine. While Queen Elizabeth may not be able to recover her mother, the relationship with her absent mother defines and drives her, according to the book.

[5] The book’s second problem play is The Two Noble Kinsmen (chapter 7), which De Vroom argues is more about two noble kinswomen: Emilia and the unnamed jailer’s daughter. While the other plays reconcile tragedy with comedy through the female heroine, The Two Noble Kinsmen actively and deliberately resists this drive, according to the book. Nonetheless, it is ultimately Emilia’s gift of her horse to Arcite that offers redemption: the horse kills its rider, but also saves Palamon’s life, bringing the play to a more or less neat resolve. This female intervention, then, forms ‘a shred of the narrative of female heroism that is the basis of the other tragicomedies’ (p. 363). While recognizing that the The Two Noble Kinsmen is set in a ‘hyper-masculine world’, De Vroom sets forth the idea that it is this little shred that showcases how the female characters are able to ‘subvert and destabilize the ruling order for an imperceptible instant’, and it is in this instant that the tragicomic heroine can be glimpsed (p. 317). The heroine’s mother, however, gets ignored, both in the play and by De Vroom, who, apart from admitting that ‘[n]one of the women in the play ever mention their mothers’ pays no further attention to (the absence of) the mother figure in the play (p. 333).

[6] The Lady Vanishes: Fantasies of Female Heroism in Shakespeare’s Last Plays invites scholars of Shakespeare to read the late tragicomedies as redemptive through the feminine, with the relationship between mother and daughter at their core. While the complete absence of a mother figure in some of the plays problematizes De Vroom’s reading, the book does offer an in depth analysis of female characters in some of Shakespeare’s most under-studied plays. Although The Lady Vanishes does not quite answer the question of ‘what is means to be a woman’, it is a study that will be of interest both to students of Shakespeare and gender studies.

Queen Mary University of London, November 2015