Spenser's Faerie Queene and the Reading of Women.
Newark: University of Delaware Press/London AUP, 2002. 308 pp. index. bibl. $52.50. ISBN: 0-87413-768-3.
Caroline McManus offers a useful addition to the small but significant collection of books applying the evolving study of women in the Renaissance specifically to The Faerie Queene. As her title suggests, she focuses both on the way Spenser's female audience may have read the book differently from their male counterparts and on the way the poem itself "reads" women and their role in Elizabethan culture. One of McManus's major claims is that previous studies of The Faerie Queene have emphasized Queen Elizabeth as its main female reader so much that they have ignored the extent to which it also targets the group of aristocratic women, especially ladies in waiting, who surrounded her at court. McManus aims to redress the balance by exploring the "interplay" between Spenser and the entire class of courtly ladies who formed a significant part of the reading audience and whose character, along with that of gentlemen, the poem also seeks to fashion. She finds evidence of these aristocratic women both in the dedicatory sonnets accompanying many editions of the poem and, more importantly, in the poem's female characters, whose experience reflects, interprets, and comments on the experience of courtly women.
One of the major challenges of such an enterprise is the scarcity of historical evidence about women's actual reading in the Elizabethan period. McManus provides a very useful overview of what we do know about reading practices of aristocratic women in chapter 1, looking at library inventories, prescriptions for women's reading, and reading journals, and concluding that Spenser's women readers shared the political awareness of his general readership and that women read broadly, not always conforming to dicta about what they should read. In chapter 2 she focuses on the range of interpretive strategies open to women, implicitly delineated in sixteenth-century moralistic literature about the proper limits of female education. She argues that The Faerie Queene in particular engages sixteenth-century cultural anxiety about female interpretive autonomy and the tendency to sexualize women's reading, using the Castle Joyous and Hellenore-Paridell episodes in book 3 to argue that Spenser endorses Britomart's correct, patriarchal reading of romance, Petrarchan, Ovidian, and historical genres, and yet presents the possibility of more subversive reading in characters such as Malecasta and Hellenore.
Having established the cultural backdrop of women's literacy in her first two chapters, McManus turns her attention in the rest of the book to The Faerie Queene's participation in the Elizabethan cultural construction of women as readers, as negotiators of cultural meaning, and as cultural figures whose meaning is constantly under interpretation. Chapter 3 compares the use of common romance motifs in Spenser's book 3, the Orlando Furioso, and The Mirror of Princely Deeds to explore the cultural tensions that women's literacy raised in the sixteenth century. The progressive impulse to encourage women to read because literacy provided them with "cultural scripts" that kept them firmly under the thumb of patriarchy was balanced by fear of the possibility they might co-opt them for subversive purposes. In McManus's reading, Spenser always presents the "correct" reading (in book 3 with Merlin, Britomart, and Glauce), but also shows the very real threat of the subversive ones that affirm female desire and agency.
In chapters 4 and 5, McManus makes her best contribution in a series of fine readings of passages in books 2, 4, and 6, in which Spenser engages the complexities of the cultural situation of the court ladies, who found themselves in a double bind between the twin cultural imperatives to be irreproachably chaste, and yet put themselves forward to make marriages advantageous to their aristocratic families. McManus argues convincingly that these women may have read The Faerie Queene all the more avidly for feeling their own vexed negotiations played out in the tortured plots of the Amoret, Florimell, Serena and Priscilla stories. The mixture of romance and courtesy genres reflects the complicated cultural scripts courtly ladies had to juggle as they advanced socially from the status of maid to wife. In chapter 6, McManus demonstrates Spenser's analysis of the cultural script for pious wife and mother in Una's balance between modesty and authority in book 1.
These readings place McManus firmly in the school of those who see the didactic impulses of Spenser's poem undercut by its romance tendencies. Her contribution here is her focus on a large but neglected part of Spenser's audience--the women of the Elizabethan court, who, like Elizabeth, in The Faerie Queene saw themselves reflected in mirrors more than once. McManus's book is written with enough clarity for advanced undergraduates and enough sophistication for graduate and specialized study, and makes a strong case for the value of The Faerie Queene as a rich resource for understanding the politics of women's reading in the Elizabethan period.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2004|
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