Hidden in Plain Sight: Women Writers in the Early Modern Period
Was Emilia Lanyer the first woman poet? No, women have been writing poetry, drama, and fiction, as well as other forms, for a long time, and they have been publishing since the invention of the printing press in 1440. But women writers haven’t always been recognized. Many women writers have been hidden in plain sight.
An example: although Ben Jonson is given credit for the first country house poem in English, Emilia Lanyer’s “Description of Cookham” predates Jonson’s. Her poem was published in 1611 in her book Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, while Jonson’s “To Penshurst” was published four years later in 1616.
Another example: last year I took a course on the sonnet. The professor told us that the first sonnet sequence in English was Sir Phillip Sidney’s “Astrophel and Stella.” After class, I asked him why he didn’t mention Anne Vaughan Locke’s sonnets, published in 1560, which predate Sidney’s by decades. He said the Sidney poems were so much better. But that wasn’t my point: even if Anne Vaughan Locke’s sonnet sequence wasn’t as good as Sidney’s, it was the first one in English. Women’s writings have been read and published, but not always acknowledged.
So Emilia Bassano Lanyer was far from being the first woman poet, or even the first English woman poet. Who are some other women poets and authors who preceded her or who were her contemporaries?
In France in 1405, Christine de Pizan’s Book of The City of Ladies appeared, written as an answer to male authors in the so-called “querelle des femmes,” a literary fashion of writing diatribes against women begun by Jean de Meung, author of the Roman de la Rose. Christine countered de Meung’s slurs by praising virtuous and powerful women from the Bible and classical antiquity. She is known as the first to write a book in women’s defense. Writing before the printing press, Christine created her book with the help of copyists and illuminators and distributed it by offering it to noble and wealthy patrons.
In England in the early 1400s, Julian of Norwich, an anchorite (a nun who spent her life in a tiny cell), wrote religious meditations, gained a reputation for wisdom and holiness, and received many visitors asking advice. One of these visitors was Margery Kemp, a working-class woman who had a vision in which God told her to stop having sexual relations with her husband and to preach the Word. She did so and wrote her autobiography as well, the first such work in English.
In the 1500s, Anne Askew, the Protestant martyr, wrote two works, published in 1546 and 1547, about her imprisonment and torture. These were clearly intended as testimony, inspiration, and encouragement to other dissidents.
Anne Vaughan Locke, mentioned earlier, was also a Protestant dissident of the early 1500s. Her book containing the first sonnet sequence in English was published in 1560. She also published other religious works. This intrepid woman left her husband and child to travel to Geneva, where she lived and assisted John Knox in the community of Protestant exiles.
Isabella Whitney, a London gentlewoman, published two collections of poetry in 1567 and 1573, poems about love and betrayal. Margaret Tyler translated part of a Spanish romance, wrote a defense of women in the preface, and published the book in 1579. Another defense of women in English appeared in 1589 entitled Jane Anger, Her Protection for Women, published in 1589. (Jane Anger is likely a pseudonym.)
The French princess Marguerite of Navarre wrote a devotional work called miroir de l’ame pecheresse (Mirror of a Sinful Soul) in 1531. It was translated by the eleven-year-old Princess Elizabeth into English and given to her stepmother Catherine Parr as a Christmas gift in 1544. Elizabeth not only wrote the translation and penned the text in her best handwriting, but also embroidered the cover. (You can see this remarkable book in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.) Elizabeth went on to become Queen Elizabeth I, writing poetry and speeches and producing many translations from Greek, Latin, Italian, and French. Her stepmother, Queen Catherine Parr, published two books, Psalms or Prayers (1543) and Lamentations of a Sinner (1547).
The most well-known woman writer of Emilia’s time was Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke and sister to the poet, soldier, and courtier Sir Phillip Sidney. Mary Sidney completed her brother’s translations of the Psalms, left unfinished at his death. The Sidney-Pembroke Psalter, as it was called, circulated in manuscript and was widely read and highly influential on other writers. Mary Sidney also published a translation of a French play, Marc-Antoine, the Anthony-Cleopatra story, in 1592. She circulated translations of other works in manuscript. She is one of the women to whom Emilia dedicates her own book of poetry Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail, God, King of the Jews).
Another woman writer and dedicatee of Emilia’s is Lady Arbella Stuart. Cousin to Queen Elizabeth and to King James I, Lady Arbella was well educated and wrote letters and poems, though she did not publish. Her misfortune was being too close to the throne; she married without the king’s permission and found herself locked up in the Tower of London.
Emilia also wrote a dedication to Lady Anne Clifford, Countess of Dorset (and later Pembroke). Lady Anne kept a diary at different times during her lifetime, writing about her life at Court and recording her struggles to keep her lands from male relatives and her own husband. Again, she did not publish her writing.
So Emilia, far from being the first woman to write poetry or to call herself a poet, actually stands in a tradition of women who wrote, translated, and published. She is unique, however, in that she was the first woman author to seek patronage the way a male writer would, by dedicating her work to a wealthy or titled person in the hopes of getting monetary reward or even employment. Seeking patronage makes her the first woman in England to claim an identity as a writer. Her work is not restricted to the home or to the realm of private life or devotionals. She sought to be acknowledged as a writer in the public sphere, like Ben Jonson, Phillip Sidney, or William Shakespeare.
Books for Further Reading:
Beilin, Elaine V. Redeeming Eve: Women Writers of the English Renaissance (1987).
Hannay, Margaret P, ed. Silent But for the Word (1985).
________________. Phillip’s Phoenix: Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke (1990).
Porter, Linda. Katherine the Queen: The Remarkable Life of Katherine Parr (2010).
Salzman, Paul, ed. and introd. Early Modern Women’s Writing: An Anthology, 1560-1700 (2000).
Schleiner, Louise. Tudor and Stuart Women Writers (1994).
Wilcox, Helen, ed. Women and Literature in Britain 1500-1700 (1996).
Wilson, Katharina M. Medieval Women Writers (1984).