Manuela Scarci, Creating Women: Representation, Self-Representation, and Agency in the Renaissance.
The essays in this volume originated from the November 2005 conference, 'Creating Women: Notions of Femininity from 1350-1700,' sponsored by the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies at Victoria College in the University of Toronto, Canada. The title phrase, 'creating women,' should, as Manuela Scarci, the volume editor and one of the conference organizers, notes in her Introduction, 'signal a dual meaning: women create and women are created by others' (p. 13).
The 11 chapters, divided into four parts ('Women and their Fictions,' 'Women and their Writings,' 'Women and their Bodies,' and 'Women and their Agency'), offer an expansive perspective on the legal and social status of early modern women in France, England, Spain, and Italy with respect to medical practices and practitioners, religious institutions, printing and publications, household economics, property rights, and spousal relationships. Beyond the value of the individual chapters, some fruitful dialogues emerge across the various contributions, such as that established in the first two chapters with Jean-Philippe Beaulieu and Diane Desrosier's considerations of the rhetorical modes adopted to legitimize the woman's role in public discourse. Desrosier's examination of the fictional personae adopted by Suzanne de Nerveze builds on the foundation laid in the first chapter by Beaulieu's analysis of works by Suzanne de Nerveze and Charlotte Henault as illustrative of the tendency of several mid-17th century women writers, especially in the context of the Fronde, to construct their public self-image on representations of Joan of Arc.
These opening chapters also introduce some of the salient unifying themes of the volume as a whole: the topos of humility and the various disguises, postures, and pseudonyms adopted by early modern women writers in order to access legitimate channels of self-expression in political, religious, literary, and familiar arenas; the response and contribution of 17th-century women writers to the querelle des femmes and the reactivation, as Beaulieu argues, of 'a 'strong woman' model whose actions are now more discursive than martial' (p. 25). Anne Lake Prescott's chapter, 'Female Impressions: Some Women Writers in Seventeenth-Century English Print,' explores similar themes as she looks at how the identities of women writers are revealed, interpreted, or purposefully masked, as in the case of Anna Weamys' continuation of Philip Sidney's Arcadia, published in 1651 under the initials 'A.W.' Prescott pays particular attention to how the agency exercised by the woman author in her desire to control her own self-image is often compromised by changes in the paratextual elements of subsequent editions. As exemplified by the publication history of the English translations of the memoirs of Marguerite de Valois, altered titles, title pages, printer's marks, and dedicatory epistles point to what Prescott views as the crux of'early modern mythologizing' and 'paratextual transmutation' (p. 102), since the author's identity is refashioned with each change to the paratext.
The relationship between control over women's writing and control over their physical bodies is explored in Elena Brizio's archival work on late-14th- and early-15th-century notarial records in Siena, which reveal discrepancies between the legislation regarding women's property rights and actual practices. Despite statutes aimed at limiting women's economic power, Brizio finds ample proof that women often used their last testaments to forge lasting economic networks with other women. Dana Wessell Lightfoot's study of marital contracts in 15th-century Valencia likewise focuses on the relationship between legal statutes and practical and social interpretations of the law, with particular regard to the understanding of rape, adultery, and domestic violence. The translation or reinterpretation of traditional models is also explored in Patricia Demers' reflections on 16th-century women's translations and commentaries on the Penitential Psalms, particularly Psalm 51 or the Miserere, as well as in Renee-Claude Breitenstein's study of Madeleine and Georges de Scudery's Femmes illustres ou les harangues heroiques. While Demers shows how such commentaries also become 'commentaries on their authors' (p. 90), Breitenstein notes that the celebration of illustrious women also allows for 'a re-evaluation of feminine nature' (p. 49), an observation about the participation of early modern women in the querelle des femmes that is echoed by other contributors to this volume.
In the context of post-Tridentine France, Jane Couchman's chapter, 'Models for Women in the Letters of Huguenot Noblewomen 1560-1620,' which focuses on the letters of Eleonore de Roye, Catherine de Bourbon, Charlotte de Bourbon, and Louise de Coligny, reveals the degree to which an adherence to Calvinist models of women's behavior allowed for a careful navigation between obedience and agency both within these writers' families and the larger political arena. The coexistence of deference and defiance with regard to traditional models is further explored in Bridgette Ann Sheridan's analysis of midwife manuals written by two 17th-century French midwives, Louise Bourgeois and Marguerite du Tertre de la Marche, and also in Christian Berco's analysis of the fine line between discipline and transgression, obedience, and subversion in the unsolicited confession of a 17th-century nun in Barcelona, Orosia Bisbe y Vidal, which detailed to inquisitors the illicit nature of Orosia's relationship with her confessor.
These, along with other thematic ties that can be traced in various chapters, reflect Scarci's aim, perhaps particularly in the organization of the original conference panels, of facilitating dialogue between diverse areas of scholarly expertise. However, one potential risk in maintaining such a thematic structure in the process of transforming conference proceedings into a book format is the lack of a coherent historical perspective. The absence of a chronological or geographical trajectory creates several abrupt divisions in the volume, which takes the reader back in time from 17th-century France in the first chapter to 14th-century Italy in the final section, with many temporal and spatial hiccups in between. Readers should be wary of the false homogeneity of 'early modern women' that might emerge from the vast range of historical and cultural perspectives offered by volumes such as this one which, as Scarci herself notes in the Introduction, is 'eclectic and spans, across several centuries, the boundaries of disciplines and theoretical approaches' (p. 13). Finally, by no fault of the contributors or the editor, Italianists will lament the lack of contributions on Italian women writers of the 16th and 17th centuries, despite the value of Elena Brizio and Francesco Divenuto's respective studies on notarial records and testaments documenting women's economic power in 14th- and 15th-century Siena and Queen Maria Amalia of Saxony's role in the construction of the Royal Palace of Caserta in the mid-18th century. Though united by the 'common search to define paradigms of femininity' (p. 13), the value of these essays lies not in their proposal of universal reflections but rather of a spectrum of refractions that shed light on the multifaceted modes of representation and self-representation of women in the early modern period.
Reviewed by: Aria Cabot, University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2014|
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