The reign of James I has long been considered a period in which patriarchal orthodoxy revived in an especially virulent form to counteract 45 years of female rule. Barbara Kiefer Lewalski quotes King James’s advice to his son to illustrate what she frequently calls the era’s ‘dominant ideology’:
Ye are the head, [your Wife] your body; It is your office to command, and hers to obey; but yet with such a sweet harmonie as she should be as ready to obey, as ye to command ... suffer her never to meddle with the Politicke government of the Commonweale, but hold her at the Oeconomicke rule of the house; and yet all to be subject to your direction.
Professor Lewalski demonstrates that, despite such strictures, some women (mostly noble and aristocratic ladies) meddled in state matters, asserted their property rights and other interests against the advice of their male relatives, independently exercised cultural power and even openly questioned male prerogatives in their writing. Writing Women in Jacobean England draws its evidence from the books and careers of nine Jacobean women, devoting a chapter to each and arranging them in three sections: ‘The Royal Opposition’ (Queen Anne, Princess Elizabeth and Arbella Stuart), ‘Rewriting Patriarchy’ (the Countess of Bedford, Anne Clifford and Rachel Speght) and ‘Literary Revisions’ (Elizabeth Cary, Aemilia Lanyer and Mary Wroth). Each chapter contains a short biography and textual explications that analyse ‘the conflicts among the various authorities that claimed a woman’s duty – her own family, her husband, her King, her religion’. Lewalski is most successful when tracing the paradoxical effects of such conflicts in the lives of each woman: ‘When the patriarchs do not line up neatly in support of one another, women must choose, and their struggles to do so may serve as a catalyst for self-definition, resistance and writing.’
Queen Anne is the most prominent example of a woman whose mixed loyalties resulted in ‘self-definition’. Her husband was reluctant to acknowledge her autonomous royal status as the daughter of the King of Denmark, and he further alienated her through exclusion from his intimate circle, formed around male favourites. The consequences were an unusually wide separation between the King’s and Queen’s courts, as well as the Queen’s determination to exercise as much cultural power as possible. Her most spectacular contribution to Jacobean art was her patronage of Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones, whose court masques (subtly criticising King James, Lewalski argues) she both commissioned and performed. The Queen’s court was also a place where other noblewomen could uphold the dignity and worth of their families of origin without their husband’s co-operation. The Countess of Bedford’s husband, for example, was reclusive, but the Countess became one of the most important courtiers and patrons of the period, using her paternal family connections to promote John Donne, among others, and participating in literary exchanges with her clients. The cultural prestige of these ladies in turn inspired Aemelia Lanyer, a commoner, to seek their patronage for her own poetry, which celebrated women’s virtues. Another writer, Mary Wroth, though not an insider at Anne’s court, also based her career on an identification with her father’s family, which included Sir Philip Sidney and Mary Sidney Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke. This illustrious literary patrimony, we are shown, might have inspired her to risk the King’s displeasure by publishing her scandalous prose romance, The Countess of Mountgomeries Urania.
What Lewalski shows and what she wants to prove, however, are slightly different things. She demonstrates that not all Jacobean women subscribed to James’s absolutism or let it determine the horizons of their world-view, but she asserts that all their acts of self-definition, ambitious striving or resistance to tyranny were modes of ‘subverting the dominant ideology’. Every gesture of individual defiance, whatever its motivation or contemporary reception, is automatically inflated into a potentially destabilising political act, with the result that the book’s claims seem hyperbolic. They also seem inconsistent. When, for example, Queen Anne asserts her dignity and rights as the daughter of a king and King James disallows them with the words, ‘quhither ye waire a King’s or a cook’s dauchter ye must be all alike to me, being once my wyfe,’ it’s difficult to say who is being more stubbornly patriarchal. Lewalski, nevertheless, insists that the Queen’s position fits a general pattern of ‘subversion’.
Lewalski’s need to keep all of these women in the ranks of the ‘oppositional’ precludes most other comparisons, and obvious conflicts of interest among the women get especially short shrift. For example, she presents the pro-Catholic Queen Anne and the Protestant militant Princess Elizabeth as equally ‘subversive’ of James’s pacific neutrality in international politics. The reader, however, easily sees what the author does not discuss: the policies these two women most vehemently opposed were each other’s, not the King’s. Arbella Stuart’s desperate manoeuvres to marry and produce offspring who might inherit the throne are portrayed as similar, instead of antithetical, to the pursuits of both Queen and Princess: ‘Arbella Stuart’s notorious rebellion offered the example of yet another royal lady challenging James’s patriarchal and absolutist claims. Never mind that Arbella’s rebellion challenged the interests and claims of the Queen and Princess as well.
The suppression of comparisons and distinctions between the women makes each chapter seem isolated and static, and Lewalski’s insistence on presenting every woman she treats as an illustration of the same rebellious phenomenon turns them into adolescents motivated less by principle than by inchoate desires to assert themselves against patriarchal hegemony. Their positive beliefs appear mere vehicles: Protestantism allows Princess Elizabeth to fashion herself into a romance heroine and humiliate her father; love of the arts is an opportunity for the Countess of Bedford to exercise power as a patron; belief in patrilineal descent is an excuse for Anne Clifford to defy her two husbands and her sovereign (a nice irony, too briefly discussed by Lewalski). Lewalski conscientiously tries to describe what these women believed, but since her unifying motif is simply subversion, the details of their thought keep fading into superficial mystifications. Religious motivations are especially susceptible to this process: she tells us that, because of historical constraints, Rachel Speght’s Biblical exegesis ‘does not directly challenge gender hierarchy as a social arrangement’, but it nevertheless has ‘subversive potential’ because it points towards the contradictions in the Protestant discourse about female inequality. Speght, however, was attempting to reconcile the Biblical passages, not to reveal their contradictions, and hence her oppositional achievement must be set against her polemical failure.
Lewalski’s thesis also obviates a vein of historical inquiry that should have been central to a study of ‘Writing Women’: there is no sustained analysis of the intellectual forces and institutions that promoted women’s writing. Since Lewalski thinks their deepest motivation is always the same – to assert themselves against a cultural imperative to remain silent – the circumstances surrounding the composition and publication of their works are all but ignored. The writers surveyed in her book take up the pen in reaction to various patriarchal constraints and find sundry justifications for doing so, but the acts of writing and publishing are not themselves scrutinised. We are told about each woman’s educational history, for example, but it is seldom placed in a larger context. Why, one wonders, were some girls given humanist educations? What was the impact of print culture on women’s lives? What was the specific appeal of women’s contributions to religious controversies? What was especially interesting about a female-authored scandalous court romance or Senecan tragedy? Where did the demand for women’s literary works originate, and what was the motivation of the booksellers who published them? What, in other words, were the immediate circumstances that invited even these few women into public discourse?
By way of explanation for Elizabeth Cary’s decision to publish her Tragedie of Mariam, we are told that her ‘one-time tutor Davies of Hereford’ publicly praised her writing and regretted that it remained out of print:
Such nervy Limbes of Art, and Straines of Wit
Times past ne’er knew the weaker Sexe to have;
And Times to come, will hardly credit it,
If thus thou give thy Workes both Birth and Grave.
Lewalski speculates that the compliment ‘may have prompted Cary to publish Mariam shortly thereafter’. The explanation for this young aristocrat’s extremely unusual decision to publish goes no further, implying that any woman would like to see her work in print if only she could find an excuse. We are then informed that ‘in the wake of that publication the bookseller Richard More dedicated his new edition of Englands Helicon to her as “Englands happy Muse, / Learnings delight”.’ We are told nothing further about Davies of Hereford or the bookseller Richard More, who, though men, obviously represent the cultural opposition to the injunction against women’s public language. Looking too hard at these men, and others like them, would imperil Lewalski’s claims that the women faced a patriarchal consensus against which their writing could only appear as subversive.
Why has Lewalski imposed such a constraining brief on so much promising material? The answer would seem to lie in her own opposition to what she considers the new orthodoxy in Renaissance studies. The ‘Foucaultian Renaissance’, she complains, is unrealistically monolithic: ‘hierarchical, patriarchal, absolutist, unsubvertible’. Lewalski shares a widespread misconception of Foucault’s ideas, summing them up simply as a belief in ‘the irresistible power of ideology’; and it is to counter this supposed view that she harps relentlessly on the presence of subversive elements in the lives and works of Jacobean women. In the process, the terms ‘subversive’ and ‘oppositional’, instead of being clarified, become as vacuous as most slogans.
It is regrettable that Lewalski allowed her book to become trapped inside this binary scheme, for the richness of her material and her historical understanding might have carried her beyond it. In her Introduction she even seems to promise such a breakthrough: ‘By attending to the several kinds of resistance inscribed in these women’s texts, we may be led to recognise important aspects of Early Modern literature and culture that the overused New Historicist formula, subversion and containment, may obscure.’ One can only wish that she had taken her own advice and swept aside the terms of this now futile debate.