Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, sister of Sir Philip Sidney, circa 1590. Miniature by Nicholas Hilliard
In 1907 Elizabeth Robins, an American-born novelist, declared: “If I were a man, and cared to know the world I lived in, I almost think it would make me a shade uneasy—the weight of that long silence of one-half of the world.” The silence is that of the female.
In England, as in the rest of Europe, women were instructed in silence by the Church; by biblical dictate, they could not preach. Even after that Church had been reformed, the relationship between public speech and public obloquy was continually reaffirmed. In 1675 Richard Allestree composed a treatise entitled The Ladies Calling in which he remarked that “this great indecency of loquacity in women” is “a symptom of a loose, impotent soul, a kind of incontinence of the mind.” Thus it has been suggested that “female silence” was a sign of “female chastity.” 1 Female speech is by its very nature dangerous and lubricious. It partakes of the body, and indeed draws the lineaments of the body into language; that is why male novelists and dramatists enact female speech as a continuous flow of words which, in the mouths of Mistress Quickly and Mrs. Malaprop and Mrs. Nickleby and a thousand successors, has its rational elements subverted and discomposed. There were a thousand images, too, of prattling women in medieval and sixteenth-century drama. Female gossip, in English law, connoted subversion and wantonness; if a man called a woman a “whore” he could defend himself by professing that he implied “whore of her tongue” rather than “whore of her body.” As one tract put it, “More shall we see fall into sinne by speech than silence.” There was every reason, then, “for construing a woman’s closed mouth as a sign for that vaginal closure”2 which rendered a woman’s body the private property of her male partner.
Yet the silence itself is interesting; as Elizabeth Robins intimates, it might even be threatening. Silence might be the token of anger; it might be filled with resentment. It might be the silence of oblivion and of disregard, or what Virginia Woolf in an essay upon women’s writing described as “the accumulation of unrecorded life” as if the silence represented a negative energy. The silence might be fruitful, like the silence of the mystic or the visionary. It might be filled with the explored riches of the interior life. Yet more often than not silence was a token of exile and isolation.
The first Anglo-Saxon poems composed by a woman dwell upon these solitary themes. Tentatively entitled “The Wife’s Lament” and “Wulf and Eadwacer,” these poems might provide a suggestive introduction to subsequent women’s writing in English. The female narrator in “Wulf and Eadwacer” laments her separation from her lover in lines of plangent loss:
Thaet mon eathe tosliteth thaette naefre gesomnad waes uncer giedd geador
Or, in a contemporary version, “that can easily be sundered which was never united, our mutual song.” “The Wife’s Lament” is similarly suffused with suffering experience:
Ich this giedd wrece bi me ful geomorre mirre sylfe sith
“I make this song of my deep unhappiness, of my own fate.” There has been much speculation about the male authorship of these poems, as if somehow there were no possibility of female Anglo-Saxon poets with access to scriptoria or writing materials. In fact the history and condition of Anglo-Saxon women, at least those of high birth, suggest precisely the opposite. “The Wife” identifies herself as a woman and writes in the Old English feminine gender; it takes a peculiar illogic to ascribe the poem to a monk or male scop. If we enter the “earth-hall” in which the Wife is compelled to dwell, we may find in the dust of that place a ring inscribed in the Anglo-Saxon manner: “A lady owns me. May he be cursed who steals me from her.”
The Wife laments the loss of her “husband” or “man” or “friend” who has been forced by his kinsfolk to leave her; she is now living in a strange land, and has been banished to a “barrow” or “earth-cave” in a barren landscape. Throughout she emphasises her private circumstances—“I tell this story . . . I tell of my own experience”—where the pattern of feeling determines the formal shape of the elegy. As its editors have stated, events are narrated “in an order which subordinates them to the dramatic expression of the woman’s lament” as “appropriate to the flux of her feelings”; 3 the use of parallelism and contrast, so much part of the Anglo-Saxon imagination, “emphasises focal points in the woman’s orientation of her feelings.”4 One exemplary study of the subject, Christine Fell’s Women in Anglo-Saxon England, has noticed “the evidence of emotional effect” in both poems and has remarked that “there is little enough of this kind of poetry in Old English,”5 which suggests a defining mood or tone. One literary historian has suggested that “The Wife’s Lament” indicates “an exile from the centre of power,”6 which can be construed as masculine power; could not the whole threnody of desire and separation be part, then, of a more general anger and desolation?
It is not necessary to repeat the old commonplace of the female writer as the medium for “feeling” rather than “thought” (as if there were any true distinction between them), but the dramatic rendition of sorrow and the emphasis upon suffered experience in these two Old English poems are at least suggestive. The “Wife” is also a traveller, albeit a reluctant one, who has settled in a strange land; subsequent narratives will confirm that the theme of exile and travel, whether mental or physical, is a constant feature of English women’s writing.
The role and nature of women in Anglo-Saxon society were far more secure and far more powerful than in subsequent cultures. Before the Conquest of 1066, the pattern of female virtue consisted of wisdom, liberality and nobility; under the Anglo-Norman dispensation her qualities consisted principally of beauty and coquettishness. The Old English word “hlaford,” or lord, could equally apply to a woman, and all the available evidence from Anglo-Saxon England suggests that “women were then more nearly the equal companions of their husbands and brothers than at any other period before the modern age.”7 The status of the female had more practical applications, also. Within a marriage “the finances are held to be the property of husband and wife, not of the husband only” and in the codes of Aethelbert “a woman had the right to walk out of a marriage that did not please her.”8 The penalty for fondling a woman’s breasts was the large fine of sixpence.
It is not too difficult to find, therefore, the context for a female bard. In Old English, “mann” could be used of both sexes. The word for fate in that language, “wyrd,” is a feminine noun which in a fragment of poetry is deemed to “weave” the events of the world. It has its place within the two principal elements which determine Old English descriptions of the female, that of the “peace-weaver” and that of the “shield-maiden.” This is not some piece of antique lore merely. A central theme of this study has been one of unacknowledged continuity with the Anglo-Saxon past; this ancient dichotomy in the description of women, maintained by females as well as males, has deeply imbued the English sensibility. It is perhaps worth remarking, also, that one Old English charm invokes the powers of “eorthan modor” or mother earth.
One of the “shield-maidens” was Aethelflaed, “ famosissima regina Saxonum,” who according to William of Malmesbury “protected her kinfolk and terrified aliens”; one of the “peace-weavers” was Abbess Hilda, who encouraged learning and devotion in her foundations at both Hartlepool and Whitby. It was customary for an abbess to administer the “mixed” or “double” houses of monks and nuns, perhaps as an atavistic remembrance of the period when the Germanic tribes worshipped a principal goddess. The nuns themselves, in foundations such as that of Barking, were widely noted for their learning and for their assiduous work in the areas of grammar, metrics and the holy scriptures. They were known, too, for their study “of the historians and the entries of chroniclers.”9 Their importance now lies, however, in an exemplary historical role connecting female identity and indeed female power with religion. It is a matter of historical resonance, echoing through the later careers of Margery Kempe and Christina Rossetti. One of the great students of the scriptures, albeit from a secular perspective, was Mary Ann Evans alias George Eliot; she translated David Friedrich Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu into English as well as Feuerbach’s disquisition upon Christianity. There is a real affinity between her and the Anglo-Saxon nuns who can be presumed to have been engaged in similar works of translation.
The extant manuscripts cannot now be distinguished by gender, but the work of an English nun named Hygebury has been identified. Two other nuns, Leoba and Berhtgyth, composed religious poetry and were equally renowned for their learning “in liberali scientia.”10 Yet Berhtgyth’s letters also “reveal intense loneliness and a sense of isolation,” 11 while on missionary work in Germany, which may suggest that the nuns were more willing or better prepared to evoke their private experience as well. The association between poetry and the life of the nun is in any case a potent one. Thus in the sixteenth century Aemilia Lanyer depicts herself “as defender and celebrant of an imagined community of good women, sharply distinguished from male society and its evils.” 12
The hagiographical tradition of female saints and martyrs is significant in this context; the first books about women, often written by women, emphasised their preternatural power of courage and endurance in the face of otherwise unendurable pain. These devotional lives were also read by women; the power of this communal activity may then be said to have coloured the later status of women as besieged and afflicted victims of predominantly male power. The visionary fervour of Mary Wollstonecraft, or of Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst, was perhaps in part inspired by latent folk-memories from the time of the Anglo-Saxons; it was a period, after all, when “the inclination to hold women in reverence remained, and found expression in the readiness with which they revered women as saints.”13 It is an invisible power of suggestion and association, comparable with the persistence of legend; it was reported that Hilda transformed the snakes along the Whitby coast into ammonites, and those same minerals are to this day popularly known by local people as “snake stones.” The images persist.
The changed and inferior status of women in England after the Conquest materially affected their literary expression, and scholars have long noticed the paucity of women’s writing in Middle English; what literature there is, is of a devotional nature. Two or three lives of saints, in Anglo-Norman, can be attributed to nuns; certain hagiographies are also dedicated to female patrons, whether sacred or secular. Two of these lives are of St. Audrey and of St. Catherine, and we may place them within the context of an audience of “noble” women who journeyed easily from a lay state to a spiritual vocation. The narratives define what has been described as “career virginity,” where the refusal of marriage or of an inheritance leads ineluctably to a religious commitment and to a life among other women; it was a way of eschewing male power and of avoiding the network of male associations and references that characterised a feudal state. The theme of rejection, however carefully veiled (in more than one sense), is of enormous consequence in the continual struggle of the female voice to be heard.
We may note here the formidable presence of Marie de France, who, despite the evidence of her name, was an Anglo-Norman poet living in England. She is best known for her lais, over half of which concern the plight of women married to men whom they do not admire or reverence; they are caught “in unhappy and unpromising marriages,” while also restrained by “chivalric demands and ambitions.”14 In other circumstances they might have become anchorites or nuns, sustained by a diet of hagiographical literature, but Marie de France’s characters are filled with passionate sentiment. She is concerned “with the inner life of the emotions,”15 exemplified in her own case with the words of the prologue in the lais :
Who ever has received knowledge and eloquence in speech from God should not be silent or conceal it, but demonstrate it willingly.16
In the context of the late twelfth century, this is a bold declaration. Marie’s themes are equally significant, of course, dwelling upon “women’s need to free themselves, by the mind and will, from oppressive situations.” 17 She might almost be anticipating Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, who, despite their diverging genius, would surely have recognised a common maternity. Marie de France is concerned, too, with “problems of daily reality” and with “the truth that is revealed by experience” 18 rather than that relayed by authoritative tradition or masculine chivalric ideals. In that sense her work may be deemed characteristic.
One scholar of the early medieval period has suggested that the relative dearth of material is the result of the fact “that each woman writer has to wield her pen as an experimenting individual rather than as the fully official inheritor of a tradition.”19 This is not in itself a local problem; there never was a recognised or recognisable female “tradition,” so that individual female writers have had to discover it within themselves. They have always been isolated. Aphra Behn and Virginia Woolf are in that sense the true inheritors of a medieval dispensation. The absence of any imaginative line or bond—the fact that most female writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries did not know the works that preceded them—may in part explain that recourse to living experience and to individual feeling which is characteristic of many later English women writers. It is not a question of female sensibility as opposed to male sense, but rather a necessary compensation for the absence of a written tradition.
Only in this context, therefore, can we comprehend the literature of female piety in the medieval period; it is predominantly a record of spiritual experience. The writings of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe are in that sense emblematic, particularly in their determination to celebrate the claims of bodily experience and physical sensation over doctrinal matters. The Wife of Bath, in Chaucer’s poem, declares, “By God! If wommen hadde writen stories”; to which Julian of Norwich replies, “Botte for I am a woman, schulde I therfor leve that I schulde nought telle yow of the goodenesse of God?” When Julian explains to her readers, no doubt themselves predominantly female, that “I am a womann, leued, febille and freylle,” it ought to be recalled that her most notable contribution to medieval religious writing is her revival of the concept of God as the Mother and Christ as the mother of humankind. She invokes “Mother Jesus” vouchsafed in “tendernes of love.” It has been suggested that “she developed the theology of divine motherhood far beyond any previous writer” in terms of initial creation, redemption and spiritual nourishment with the milk of grace. 20 The emphasis is once more upon the experience of loving and even, by implication, upon the experience of childbirth as the feminine version of Genesis. Private revelation and personal experience may thus be a substitute for the authority of the Church. In the case of Julian these more private sources of authority are extended and amplified by her own knowledge of the scriptures and of patristic literature; it has been demonstrated that she used her own translations of the Vulgate, and was well acquainted with all relevant Latin and vernacular writing. It has also been concluded that she was well versed in all the devices of rhetoric, and employed its colores to embellish her argument. Her favourite expedients include rhyme and alliteration, which in turn raise an interesting matter of inheritance.
It could be argued that the Anglo-Saxon respect and reverence for women are somehow emmeshed in Old English itself, and that by instinct or intuition certain female writers have recourse to alliteration as a measure of their original pre-eminence. What might be termed “philogyny” can thus be seen as a measure of cadence as well as of sensibility. In her influential essay on women’s literature, “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf has recourse to alliteration in her impassioned moments of meditation—“that spot the size of a shilling” 21 which the sexes can discern in each other, a moment of stillness when a “single leaf detached itself from the plane tree at the end of the street, and in that pause and suspension fell,” and how sexist writing is “doomed to death.” Alliteration is a formidable textual feature of Wuthering Heights, also, as, for example, in Cathy’s invocation of “woods and sounding water, and the whole world awake and wild with joy.” There is also a stern tactility in Emily Brontë’s language which may not be unconnected to Anglo-Saxon origins. The name of Heathcliff itself is suggestive; Hareton and Catherine incorporate “heart” and “earth,” which itself is the last word of the novel. 22 Woolf speculates upon “the rhythmical order” of her perceptions, but it may represent some atavistic longing to be part of an earlier and more benign dispensation.
Another aspect of medieval women’s literature may offer suggestive analogies. Julian of Norwich dictated her narrative to a willing amanuensis, and the pressure of speech lies behind her insistent cadences; in similar fashion the autobiography of Margery Kempe is conceived as an oral feat, with plentiful references to women’s speech throughout it. She explains, for example, how the Abbess of Denny “oftyntymys sent for the said creatur that sche xulde come to speke wyth hir and wyth hir sisterys”; Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich spent several days in converse, “for the ankres was expert in swech thyngys and good cownsel cowd yeuyn.” Julian’s revelations were couched in the form of speech. In her desolation she was vouchsafed a vision of Jesus “syttyng upon hir beddys syde” in the shape of a man clad in purple silk. “Dowtyr,” he said, “why hast thou forsakyn me, and I forsoke neuer the?” Once more the intimacy of address, and homeliness of detail, mark out a characteristic native spirituality; in Margery Kempe’s spiritual journal there is none of the brooding plangency of Thomas à Kempis’s Imitatio Christi, for example, but rather the unaffected and somewhat rambling narrative of a Norfolk gentlewoman. When she began to describe her experiences of spiritual love, her neighbors asked her: “Why speke ye so of the myrth that is in Heuyn; ye know it not & ye have not be ther ne mor than we.” But from this time forward she became a loquacious pilgrim towards eternity; she spoke so volubly that certain preachers would not allow her in their churches. Others would not eat with her because she spoke of nothing but the gospels, and many accused her of being a charlatan too ostentatious in her avowals.
The Book of Margery Kempe, one of the first autobiographies in English, is devoted to the “forme of her leuyng” or the form of her living in the world, where the circumstantial detail of the fourteenth century is manifested. The reader can hear the voices. When she left Canterbury Cathedral she was harassed by cat-calls—“Thou xalt be brent, fals lollare!” You will be burned! On her devotional visit to Julian of Norwich, the recluse imparted to her these final words: “I pray God grawnt you perseuerawns.” There are many “Chaucerian” moments, by which is meant that strange but exhilarating conflation of the sacred and the secular, of piety and farce. She was, after all, both garrulous wife and mystic visionary, and in that respect she seems to have been as thoroughly English as Noah’s Wife in the mystery plays. She held acerbic conversations with monks and bishops. She “spak boldly and mytily” but saw Our Lord in all humbled and wounded creatures. She sat weeping in a poor woman’s house, until the woman herself begged Margery to stop; at which moment Jesus whispered to her, “Thys place is holy.” In the work of the female mystics, speech is revelation.
A scholar of the Paston letters largely composed in the fifteenth century has noted of the female members of that family, “even those who could not write were thoroughly articulate . . . for the most part the language is manifestly the speech of the time, only organised and sometimes heightened a little.”23 The description might equally well be applied to the novels of Fanny Burney, who was unique among writers of the late eighteenth century in creating a conversational argot. Her novels rely “heavily on the power of speech to reveal character and class” and contain “long stretches of dialogue.”24 The Oxford English Dictionary lists no less than 114 additions first cited in her works—including “dabble,” “gay-looking,” “unappeasable,” “undemurringly,” “unamusing,” “showable” and “plain-sailing,” all of which might be described as elements of eighteenth-century demotic. Her preoccupation with speech, therefore, manifests a concern for the texture and process of daily life.
The writings of Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich are characterised by one great sustaining voice. The visionary experience allows occasion and place for the manifestation of a female sensibility; it is a sacred area where the privileges of the male hierarchy do not apply, and where female authority can plausibly be asserted. It is the context for the succession of female mystics and prophets, from Jane Lead to Joanna Southcott, who oppose themselves to the dispensations of male power. Jane Lead, the seventeenth-century Protestant mystic, was vouchsafed the sight of “a Woman Cloathed with the Sun” who proclaimed, “Behold me as thy Mother”—an apparition not unrelated to Julian’s insistent invocations of God as the Mother. Lead gave precedence to the “exploration of her inner life,”25 where the emphasis rests again upon the power of experience rather than upon the stages or levels of visionary meditation outlined by male mystics.
It has been estimated that in the period from 1649 to 1688 “well over half the texts published by women ... were prophecies,”26 and there were very many female radicals or polemicists caught up in the religious controversies of that period. One of them, Margaret Fell Fox, reiterated one of the central claims—“the Church of Christ is a Woman”—which springs directly from the texts of Julian. In historical and scholarly accounts of this female activity the name and example of medieval women visionaries are continually invoked to suggest a line of influence or inheritance. We are not far removed from the poetry of Emily Brontë—
God within my breast Almighty ever-present Deity! Life, that in me has rest As I undying Life, have power in Thee!
—where mystical experience has gone through the refining fire of her fervent imagination. Or, as Jane Eyre puts it, “As I saw them with my spiritual eye, before I attempted to embody them . . .” The somewhat patronising assumptions about female “intuition” find their origin in the visionary acts and writings of medieval and seventeenth-century women. It was the claim of Dorothy Richardson, the great exponent of a language formed by female perception, that women possessed the faculty of prophecy. “It’s because they see the relation of things which don’t change,” she wrote, “more than things which are always changing.” It is a suggestive remark, implying a commitment to the ground of being rather than the busyness of becoming, and is complemented by Virginia Woolf ’s description of life as “a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.” This uterine light is not far removed from Jane Lead’s vision of the “Woman Cloathed with the Sun” and suggests a profound affinity between these otherwise quite different writers. It is the vision of glowing maternity which Julian of Norwich also saw.
In this light we may return to the manifestations of religious verse among female writers. In the fifteenth century are noted a hymn to the Virgin written by “an holy anchoress of Mansfield” and another hymn attributed to Eleanor Percy, Duchess of Buckingham. It has been speculated that certain other poems concerning the Mother of God, particularly those in which she laments the death of her son, are composed by women because they emphasise those inward themes of loss and isolation which have been discovered in the female poetry of the Anglo-Saxon period. It will become clear that the Reformation, with its emphasis upon the guiding light of inner experience, lent legitimacy and authority to the religious works of women, but of course the connection between gender and piety was already well established. The daughter of Thomas More, Margaret Roper, had been thoroughly educated in the classical disciplines; yet her devotion was such that she translated Erasmus’s treatise upon the Pater Noster and composed a devotional manual upon the Four Last Things . Fifteen such devotional works were written by women in the sixty years after 1545; it may not seem a considerable number but, in the context of the time, it is prolific and “established the literary presence of women” 27 throughout the sixteenth century.
Many female prose-writers and poets from that period have been rescued from time’s oblivion by recent scholarship, among them Katherine Parr, Anne Locke the martyr, Anne Askew, who was sustained by the direct and powerful utterances of forebears such as Margery Kempe, and Anne Wheathill, who is tentatively supposed to have possessed a “feminine consciousness” 28 and who wrote: “I cannot but lament, mourne and crie for helpe, as dooth a woman, whose time draweth neere to be delivered of hir child; for she can take no rest, till she be discharged of hir burthen.” It has been suggested that religious piety is “the principal subject-matter of women’s verse, the principal justification for women’s writing and the best guarantee of a poetess’s success for two hundred years.” 29 It is not a question of a “feminine” sensibility, as promulgated in the nineteenth century and sustained by various scholarly guises into the present century; “intuition” and “sentiment” are not at odds with reason or doctrine, nor is religious devotion necessarily a displacement of “emotion” and “passion.” Women were as capable of writing treatises and sermons as were men. It is simply that for social and historical reasons their imaginative competence was deemed to be within the sphere of affective piety—in things unchanged, to use Dorothy Richardson’s account, rather than in the changing world.
At this point we may embark upon a short journey. A medieval prelate was visiting the isolated cell of a female anchorite when he remarked that her great compassion and understanding were unusual in one who had no contact with the world. “On the contrary,” she replied, “I am always travelling.” She was indeed a mental traveller, with the same facility for venturing into distant places as the contemporaneous female mystics. Travel itself was a reality, rather than a metaphor, for other medieval women. If Julian of Norwich wandered through time and space in search of the divine vision, Margery Kempe engaged in more earthly pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Rome, Constantinople and Danzig. In that sense she is the forerunner of eminent women travellers who include Lady Hester Stanhope and Gertrude Bell. The journeys were fuelled by attitudes of discontent and sentiments of exclusion; the only way to escape a masculine world was, literally, to get away. The fervent contemplations of Julian of Norwich can be deemed modes of withdrawal, just as Margery Kempe’s extensive travels are a sure token of her resentment at an English ecclesiastical polity which seemed designed to exclude or marginalise her.
There is another aspect to these journeys, however, which lies in the affirmation of individuality and individual experience. Many English women travellers have been noted for their apparent eccentricity of demeanour, Margery Kempe and Lady Hester Stanhope being practically indistinguishable in that respect. But this is only a sign both of their evident difference and of their desire not to be chastened or modified by male preconceptions. When Mary Wollstonecraft decided to travel within continental Europe she remarked: “You know I am not born to tread in the beaten track”; when Lady Hester Stanhope embarked upon a journey which would lead her to a flamboyant exile in Turkey, she concluded: “Go out of England I am determined.” Both of them derided the idea of feminine “weakness” or powerlessness, and in a literal way demanded their liberty. The Wife of Bath was only one of the women who in Chaucer’s narrative “longen . . . to goon on pilgrimage.” It is appropriate, then, that Dorothy Richardson should entitle her twentieth-century fictional sequence Pilgrimage.
The most important female poet of the sixteenth century was undoubtedly Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke and sister of the more famous Philip. She created a space beside her illustrious sibling, and her growing mastery of English verse implied an assiduous pursuit of a literary career. It has been suggested that her goal was “to extend the formal range of English lyric and to demonstrate the capacity of Elizabethan poetry to match the variety and flexibility of the French,”30 but it is important to note that she established her mastery in poetry of a Calvinist persuasion. This coincidence of female expression and religious devotion is further adumbrated by Aemilia Lanyer, perhaps best known as the putative “dark lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets but with a more lasting claim upon the attention of posterity as the first English female poet to publish a substantial collection of her verse. In Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum she invokes an imagined community of good women and remarks upon what is
. . . seldome seene A Womans writing of divinest things
The association between female creativity and “divinest things” is clearly an assertion of worth rather than of incapacity before the more scholarly male. The various divisions within her completed work are entitled “1. The Passion of Christ. 2. Eves Apologie in defence of Women. 3. The Teares of the Daughters of Jerusalem. 4. The Salutation and Sorrow of the Virgine Marie”; the emphasis upon female virtuosity and piety can hardly be overlooked. Lanyer also composed nine dedicatory poems to various royal and noble women, thus confirming the volume’s status as a female document. She asserts that “it pleased our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, without the assistance of man . . . to be begotten of a woman, borne of a woman, nourished of a woman, obedient to a woman; and that he healed women, pardoned women, comforted women.” In her poem upon a community of women at “the Paradice of Cookham,” the estate belonging to the Countess of Cumberland, Lanyer seems in some instinctive manner to have been looking back at the communities of Anglo-Saxon nuns who were located in the same region of Berkshire. Cookham of course became the enchanted place of Stanley Spencer’s imagination, where he envisioned both The Nativity and Bridesmaids at Cana. The connections run deep.
In sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century drama composed by women such as Joanna Lumley and Elizabeth Cary, the emphasis rests upon “the spiritual heroism of their female characters, exalting the feminine archetype of the Christian soul.”31 The same preoccupation exists among female pamphleteers and female autobiographers who explicitly aligned their sex with their religious experience; the standard comparisons are once again made with Margery Kempe, as the original of what has been called the “forthright” woman. As Margaret Fell Fox puts it, in Womens Speaking Justified published in the calamitous year 1666, “the Church of Christ is a Woman, and those that speak against the Womans speaking, speak against the Church of Christ, and the Seed of the Woman, which Seed is Christ.” The woeful events of 1666, together with the ferocious civil conflict which preceded them, may in fact have materially assisted the enterprise and pugnacity of female writers with an unstated presumption concerning the ills of the masculine world. We will notice a tone of barely restrained anger and frustration, not unconnected with subversion, in women’s writing of this and a later date. Certainly the imperatives of silence and obedience, once enjoined upon women, were now scarcely honoured by those females whose formidable piety forced them into expression.
Mary Sidney’s Psalmes is of course a translated work. Translation itself has been deemed to be an intrinsic feature of the English imagination, but the connection between translation and female literature is a peculiarly close one. It was generally considered to be a secondary activity, appropriate to women who could not be considered to have “authored” a text without some prior fertilisation. It is inevitable that earlier literate nuns, under the direction of their abbess, would have translated portions of the sacred scriptures and passages of prayer for their less educated sisters. That is why Chaucer characterised his Second Nun as a translator. There was indeed in the medieval period an efflorescence of female translators who in their submissive role towards the authoritarian text may be said to have followed the injunctions of silence and obedience in a literary context. Their self-effacement may have disguised the fact that they were surreptitiously appropriating the authority of these texts, but in the period their activity was seen as akin to that of embroidery. In the sixteenth century, too, there was a “great outpouring of translation.” 32 It has been estimated that one-third of the extant works by women are couched in this form. John Florio felt compelled to apologise for his translation of Montaigne on the presumption that “all translations are reputed femall,” but the remark obscures the real achievement. Mary Sidney’s great task was to re-create the sacred literature of the Psalms in the vernacular, thus asserting the capability and strength of the English language itself. The mode of translation was also an indirect means of establishing a tradition or at least a continuity of women’s writing.