Katherine R. Larson. Early Modern Women in Conversation.
Early Modern Women in Conversation by Katherine R. Larson is engaging. Its content adds to the academic discourse about early modern women and the rules of conduct, particularly conversation that governed the lives of women during the time period. Larson opens the book with "an anonymous poem that denounced Charles I's letters at the Battle of Naesby in 1645 and their subsequent publication as the King's Cabinet Opened as a conversation gone wrong" (1). This introduction, while very interesting, is a curious foreshadowing of the book's content. It is curious because it sets the reader up for all that could go wrong with early modern women's conversations. Larson adds that conversation during the early modern period was a form of networking and a means toward women's emancipation in a male-dominated society. She situates women's oral and written conversations while explicating the "interactive dimensions of genres that rely on a conversational structure" (3). The author is very adept in her expositions as she negotiates various written conversations and genres published by the Cavendish and Sidney families. From these explications, readers gain insight into Early Modern women's way of life, in terms of their conversations.
The book is divided into two parts with an introduction, six subsequent chapters and a conclusion. In her introduction, Larson discusses what she sees as the mechanics of early modern conversation such as "[T]he potency of conversation as an early modern social networking tool is complicated, however, both by its gendered status in the period and by its conflation of verbal and physical interaction" (2). Not only were women expected to contain their leaky bodies in oral and sexual terms, they were also expected to maintain decorum in their speech. Through her employment of theories such as "historical formalism, feminist theory, discourse analysis, and cultural studies" (3), Larson discusses early modern women conversations in ways that allow the reader to access the information clearly from different perspectives.
In chapter 1, "Intercourses of Friendship: Gender, Conversation, and Social Performance," Larson defines written rules in conduct books that governed women's conversations and public conduct for women. From pages 22 to 32, she explains how women struggled to maintain their civil conversational boundaries through self-control, community surveillance, male domination, and conscious efforts to main chastity, a prized state for women of that period. Body language was seen as important for women, lest they be judged wrongly. This information is crucial to today's readers, where there are almost no rules of conduct that govern women's conversations or body language. With the advent of viral media, women expose themselves, verbally and physically, as they attempt to define who they are to twenty-first century audiences.
Larson's discussion of Amelia Lanyer's rewriting of Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum demonstrates how women created and used safe spaces to engage in literary discourse. This is an important discussion for contemporary readers who may not all be aware of the class divisions of the early modern period and some individual's inaccessibility to print materials. Her argument that conversation was important for women is interesting as she highlights not only literary texts written by women but also their letter writing that allowed them the freedom to control what they wrote within the boundaries afforded them. Larson's explication of the use of the closet space as a safe and private space allows readers to gain insight into the early modern women's world of privacy and textual conversation. The author also discusses the necessity for private spaces for women in the chapter, "Gendering Conversation and Space in Early Modern England." She examines the symbolism of the closet as a metaphor for women's contained bodies. Such bodies, she explained, were protected from ridicule and male gazes by systems that were put in place for those specific purposes.
In the second half of the book, "The Sidneys in Conversation," Larson foregrounds an interesting comparison between the Sidney women in their textual conversation. She positions "Speaking to God with a 'Cloven Tongue': The Sidney Pembroke Psalter," in chapter 3, as the beginning of a didactic discourse that Sir Philip Sidney began with contributions to the Psalms translation by Mary Sidney Herbert. Larson's argument centres around conversational benefits that emerge from reading the poems as discussions between the siblings (88). I would argue that Larson's use of theoretical arguments brings her idea of the Sydney women as productive conversationalists closer to the reader. The book fills a gap in contemporary scholarly research about women of the early modern period. Larson illuminates the extent to which women's conversation inhibited or liberated early modern women. She describes conversation as an embodied practice that shaped various relationships between women and men and between women and women during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Early Modern Women in Conversation offers the reader interesting and informative insights into the realm of women's social transactions, both private and public, during that period. Most telling for the reader, are the rules that governed women's conversations.
Larson also examines textual conversations between women and the spaces they occupy as writers. While those spaces were limited since, as she points out, women writers were few, textual conversation did open up women's voices and valuable opinions to a wider audience than those within their personal circles. She offers to contemporary readers an open window into early modern women's lives. The book's historical perspective allows the reader to centre early modern women's lives in a period when women accepted patriarchy as the rule and norm of domestic life.
Another telling point in the book is Larson's explication of the closet as an exclusive space for private conversation and the blurred boundaries of private/public within the home. The fact that servants, and other workers, such as apprentices, are always present in the home makes the home less than private. It is at all times a public/private space. As such, Larson points out that women had to be circumspect in their speech lest they found themselves afoul of the rules that were meant to protect them (50). She argues that word usage was unstable and could easily be misconstrued as something sexual rather than verbal exchanges between two people. Thankfully, Larson illuminates these verbal challenges that women faced during that period and women's ability to find agency despite these implicit challenges. Their textual conversations, she explains, surmounted boundaries and gave women a space to discuss topics such as religion and everyday life. Larson's deconstruction of the writings of Mary Wroth, Amelia Lanyer, Margaret Cavendish, and Mary Sidney Wroth brings to contemporary readers a historical view of seventeenth-century female, aristocratic writers and the challenges they faced and surmounted in their bid to be heard as their writing is preserved.
State University of New York
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|Publication:||English Studies in Canada|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2017|
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