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Prophetic Writings of Lady Eleanor Davies.

Recent excavation and evaluation of the writings of women in the early modern period is among the most exciting and illuminating work being done in Renaissance studies. Seventeenth-century England is particularly interesting to feminist and cultural historians because of the way that the upheaval of the revolutionary period allowed women to begin to challenge and overcome the tremendous cultural barriers against women's writing and publishing. Their writings clearly map out the strategies and dynamics involved with women finding their voice in a patriarchal society. Esther S. Cope's new edition of the religious and political prophecies of Lady Eleanor Davies (or Douglas, 1590-1652) is a wonderful addition to this work. She presents us with a solidly researched, beautifully edited selection of thirty-eight of Lady Eleanor's fifty-odd works - all prophetic, almost all published by the author with considerable care during her lifetime, and all but two out of print since the 1650s. This book is part of the excellent Oxford series out of the Brown Women Writers Project, which is providing access to a wide range of previously non-canonical women's writings through an electronic database and the print series. Lady Eleanor's prophetic writings add to the growing store of single-author editions of works previously available only, if at all, as excerpts in anthologies such as Her Own Life, First Feminists, or The 'Other' Eighteenth Century. This edition is scholarly enough to be the starting-point for advanced research, yet clear and readable enough for undergraduate teaching.

Cope's biographical introduction, a condensed version of her 1992 monograph Handmaid of the Spirit, provides a fascinating overview of Lady Eleanor's life and struggles. As a prophet she sought political and moral influence on her society, but Lady Eleanor never gave up her aristocratic identity or belonged to a millenarian group. Instead she struggled both in her writings and in the courts to maintain legal and social autonomy (like some other aristocratic women, she went to court to wrest her inheritance from male relatives). Having captured court and public attention in the late 1620s by accurately predicting the deaths of her first husband and the hated favorite Buckingham, Lady Eleanor fell afoul of the authorities in the 1630s by boldly and illegally publishing prophecies against Charles I and Archbishop Laud, and spent most of the decade either in prison or in Bedlam. Her stock rose somewhat in the 1640s and 50s, however, when she participated in the millennial fervor that swept the country, and published alongside other women prophets such as Mary Cary and Anna Trapnel. Her self-presentation as a vessel for God's word and as a "weak woman" forced to write despite her natural modesty were typical strategies for women writers of the period, but her bold linking of her own life with the political and religious life of England and her self-identification with the Word of God made her a controversial figure, earning her the reputation of madness that stuck with her until her death.

The prophecies themselves are rather thick reading, due to Lady Eleanor's circuitous and at times deliberately obscure style, full of metaphysical puns and anagrams. Cope alms to preserve this style out of respect for Lady Eleanor's belief that "those who thought her message was in hieroglyphics were unworthy to understand its contents" (xx). Modern readers might usefully see this style as a example of ecriture feminine. Cope regularizes some letters and punctuation but leaves the rest alone, and provides clear, helpful footnotes, along with a headnote to each prophecy placing it in its biographical and political context. Except for the first, the prophecies are short, easily lending themselves to thematic, political, or biographical grouping. "We need good modern editions of these women's works," said Elaine Hobby in her 1988 study Virtue of Necessity. Cope has provided us with the definitive edition of Lady Eleanor's works and a model for future editions of such women writers.

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Author:Hoffman, Katherine
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1997
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