Renaissance Women

A new book celebrates—and sells short—Shakespeare’s sisters

Catherine Nicholson

Ramie Targoff's Shakespeare’s Sisters tells the occasionally interlocking life stories of four women writers born in the latter half of the sixteenth century, including Mary Sidney. Adapted illustration via JSTOR

The great problem” of women and literature, as Virginia Woolf defined it in A Room of One’s Own (1929), is a prob­lem in two senses of the word. There is the practical question of how women with the ability and the desire to write might succeed in doing so, and then there is the historical question of why so very few women have. Woolf’s answer to the first question takes the form of an aphorism: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Her answer to the second is a story: “Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say.”

The brief and tragic life of Judith Shakespeare unfolds over a single vividly plotted paragraph. Born in Stratford-upon-Avon, she possesses every ounce of her older brother’s talent and ambi­tion but has none of the privileges or protections of his sex: “She was not sent to school. She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone of reading Horace and Virgil.” To avoid an unwanted marriage, she runs off to London, tries and fails to find work, gets pregnant out of wedlock, and dies by suicide before her twenti­eth birthday. It must have been thus: a woman in Shakespeare’s day with Shakespeare’s genius could only have squandered it, but, Woolf adds, “it is unthinkable that any woman in Shakespeare’s day should have had Shakespeare’s genius.”

Unthinkable because, although genius is ineffable, the condi­tions for its realization, what it needs to get “itself onto paper,” are concrete: time and quiet, access to books and freedom from inter­ruption, a full belly and a reasonably comfortable chair. As Woolf puts it, “Intellectual freedom depends upon material things . . . Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor.” Therefore, the woman “who was born with a gift of poetry in the sixteenth century” was necessarily and irredeemably stymied: “All the conditions of her life, all her own instincts, were hostile to the state of mind which is needed to set free whatever is in the brain.”

Conjuring that state of mind leads Woolf to Shakespeare, placid, discreet, and chameleonic, rich in invention and devoid of self-interest:

His grudges and spites and antipathies are hidden from us. We are not held up by some “revelation” which reminds us of the writer. All desire to protest, to preach, to proclaim an injury, to pay off a score, to make the world the witness of some hardship or grievance was fired out of him and consumed. Therefore his poetry flows from him free and unimpeded.

As the portrait of a poet who wrote with the primary aim of making a living and—if titles like As You Like It and What You Will are any­thing to go by—some fleeting irritation at having to do so, Woolf’s tribute to Shakespeare is idealized at best. More troublingly, as a template of poetic sensibility, it is at stark odds with the circum­stances of early modern women’s lives as Woolf herself imagined them. Indeed, Woolf’s paean to Shakespeare’s “free and unim­peded” art seems designed not simply to explain but to guarantee the exclusion of women writers from the literary canon. Stunted by hardship and maddened by constraint, by her lights, they could only have written badly or not at all.

“Woolf had good reasons for her pessimism,” says Ramie Targoff in her new book, Shakespeare’s Sisters: How Women Wrote the Renaissance, rehearsing the list of forces that conspired to “dras­tically reduce” the scope and possibilities of early modern wom­en’s lives. They were almost universally denied formal education, legally and economically subordinated to first their fathers and then their husbands, and barred from any form of political participa­tion and most professions—including, famously, the stage. Given their programmatic exclusion from nearly every sphere of learning, law, wealth, politics, art, entertainment, exploration, experimenta­tion, and civic engagement in which the culture of sixteenth-and seventeenth-century England was forged, it makes sense to won­der, as Joan Kelly does in the title of a classic essay from 1977, “Did Women Have a Renaissance?” Drawing on the intervening decades of rich research by historians and literary scholars, Targoff answers confidently that they did.

Running through the whole, behind and beyond the pyrotechnics of form, is a voice of complaint, the psalmist’s ceaseless song of pleading and rebuke.

Shakespeare’s Sisters tells the occasionally interlocking life sto­ries of four women writers born in the latter half of the sixteenth century: Mary Sidney, Aemilia Lanyer, Elizabeth Cary, and Anne Clifford. Each married and bore children. None went to school, though three were raised in homes with private tutors. Indeed, Sidney, Cary, and Clifford were not simply well-off but wealthy, daughters of the English aristocracy or heiresses who married into it. In this respect, Woolf’s instincts about the material requirements for artistic creation were perfectly sound. Only Lanyer, the daugh­ter of a musician, offers any resistance to her dictum about the need for money and a room—better yet, a country house—of one’s own. But the stories of all four women testify, often in startling ways, to the limits of Woolf’s assumptions about early modern women’s eagerness and capacity to create literature. Among them they pro­duced translations of scripture and Seneca, masques and tragedies, history and autobiography, sonnets, verse epistles, psalms, and a book-length poem on the Crucifixion as seen through the eyes of women. Targoff’s protagonists did not simply write poetry and prose; they identified themselves as writers. “Their writing largely defined who they were and how they wanted to be remembered,” she declares. “Writing was their life force.”

In every case, however, writing was tangled up with frustration and loss: with death, disinheritance, marital disputes, legal trou­bles, religious anxieties, financial disappointments, loneliness, and humiliation. Their circumstances inarguably constrained them. Targoff’s subjects are superbly gifted, but their gifts flourished in what Woolf would have seen as lesser forms like translation and diary-keeping, devotional verse and closet dramas. Worse yet, just as Woolf suspected and feared, their subordination as women left legible imprints on their work, marks of haste, distraction, insecu­rity, anxiety, and rage. The recuperative impulse and celebratory ethos of Shakespeare’s Sisters does not allow for much lingering on these imprints—for noticing, pondering, interpreting, and even cherishing them—but doing so is one of the chief rewards of reading early modern women writers. Spend enough time in their company, and you realize that the great problem of women and literature has a third dimension, one that implicates us: how to reckon with genius that is impeded and unfree.

strikingly often in Targoff’s account, writing follows on disas­ter. For Mary Sidney, 1586 was an annus horribilis: the loss of her three-year-old daughter was followed by the death of her father, Sir Henry Sidney, and then—horribly, from a gangrenous wound—of her beloved elder brother Philip, who had written his prose romance Arcadia specially for her. Grief seems to have cata­lyzed Mary’s creativity, turning her from a passionate reader to an increasingly bold and experimental writer who sought to salvage wisdom from the wreckage of faith. She began, in 1590, with a pair of translations from French, one a treatise on Christian stoicism and the other a tragedy about the death of Marc Anthony. In 1592, in an unprecedented choice for the wife of a nobleman (Mary had been wed at fifteen to Henry Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke), she published them with her name attached.

Next she turned—or perhaps returned—to a legacy of her lost brother, an unfinished translation of the Hebrew Psalms into English verse. Philip had drafted forty-three poems, which Mary revised, and to which she added the remaining 107. The resulting collection of 150 poems is not simply a full and astonishingly deft rendering of the biblical song cycle into the vernacular; it is also a virtuosic test of the formal capacities of English poetry. Targoff observes that, unlike the earlier, collaboratively authored version known as the Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter, “the Sidney Psalter bears no relation to liturgy: it’s a work of literature.” Like the pas­toral eclogues Philip wrote to adorn the Arcadia, Mary’s translation of the Psalms is a dazzling compendium of prosodic possibilities. There are ballad stanzas and sonnets; hexameters, tetrameters, and ottava rima; triple rhymes and internal rhymes; long lines and short lines; rhyme schemes that repeat and rhyme schemes that reverse palindromically. Psalms 111 and 119 are both alpha­bet poems; Psalm 117 is an acrostic spelling out PRAISE THE LORD. Running through the whole, behind and beyond the pyrotechnics of form, is a voice of complaint, the psalmist’s ceaseless song of pleading and rebuke, whose theme is abandonment and whose audience is God himself.

The finished Sidney Psalter circulated in manuscript, first among Mary’s family and friends and then more widely, eliciting admiration and acclaim. However, not everyone credited Mary with the achievement. Several surviving copies of the psalter attri­bute the poems solely to Philip Sidney, while Sir John Harington speculated that the bulk of the work had been done by Mary’s chaplain. “It was,” Harington avowed, “more than a woman’s skill to express the sense so right as she hath done.” Mary herself seems to have hesitated to claim the position of author. In a lavish folio manuscript prepared as a presentation copy, perhaps for Queen Elizabeth, a prefatory poem by Mary dedicates the psalter “To The Angel Spirit of the most excellent Sir Philip Sidney,” ascribing its “divine” aspects to his pen and apologizing for her “presumption” in adding to them. In the years that followed, she began to devote her literary energies to patronage, but though she was hardly left destitute when her husband died in 1601, she lost her sway as a potential benefactor. She also seems to have stopped writing. “Her accomplishments were by no means erased,” Targoff hedges, but her star had unmistakably faded.

And yet. A series of letters sent between 1614 and 1616 from Spa—where Mary enjoyed a surprisingly lively retirement, shoot­ing pistols, smoking tobacco, taking a lover (or so it was rumored), and palling around the Belgian resort town with the wife of a European count—hints at a late-life resurgence of creative power. Writing to her friend Sir Tobie Matthew, she promises to send a copy of “my translation,” which Targoff speculates may have been of the poems of Petrarch. A later letter makes tantalizing ref­erence to “this Nothing, which yet is all that I have been able to get,” and assures him that more work will follow soon (nothing of the “Nothing” survives). In a portrait of Mary by the Dutch engraver Simon van de Passe, dated 1618, the Dowager Countess of Pembroke appears richly and conventionally robed, ruffed, and bejeweled and unconventionally crowned with a laurel wreath. As in many portraits of well-bred women of the time, she holds in her hands a little book of prayers, an emblem of her pious devo­tion. But the words “David’s Psalms” appear along the edge of the volume, marking it as an emblem of poetic achievement. The book Mary reads is the book she herself had written.

Even so, the brass tablet on Mary Sidney’s casket hailed her as “Sidney’s sister, Pembroke’s mother,” which, as Targoff observes, is a “crushingly male definition of her identity.” Sidney comes first in Targoff’s pantheon of women writers not only because she was the eldest and best known but also because her case establishes the steep odds against them. If a woman with the Countess of Pembroke’s resources and connections had her achievements sub­ordinated (or simply reassigned) to men, what hope was there for anyone else? The case of Elizabeth Cary underscores the point, but it also hints at the unexpected affordances of social exclusion. On the face of it, the fate of Cary’s History of the Life, Reign, and Death of Edward II offers an enraging instance of gender bias. First printed in 1680, forty years after her death, Cary’s bold retelling of the fourteenth-century monarch’s notorious career was misattributed by its publishers to her estranged husband Henry, Lord Falkland, a “gentleman . . . above fifty years since.” Never mind that, unlike his prolific, prodigiously gifted wife, Henry was known not as a writer but as a soldier and a courtier. Never mind, too, that “The Author’s Preface to the Reader” was signed “Elizabeth Falkland.” “Very few,” the publishers assured readers, could have “express[ed] their con­ceptions in so masculine a style.”

The owner of that style was indeed exceptional. Born to a wealthy lawyer who delighted in and encouraged her ability, Cary translated Latin and French as a child, argued with her father about Calvinism, and had the poet Michael Drayton for a tutor. But her marriage at seventeen, in 1602, to the fashionable and footloose Sir Henry Cary forced her into an unhappy domesticity, thanks partly to a mother-in-law who disapproved of her learning, took away her books, and confined her to her bedchamber, and partly to Henry himself, who spent her fortune freely while she bore him eleven children over a span of twenty-three years. Pregnancy and childbirth were hard for Elizabeth. After giving birth, as her daughters later recalled, she suffered episodes of “deep melan­choly” and fits of “plain distractedness.” “Transported with her own thoughts [she] would forget herself, where she was and how attended.” But despite such an abundance of circumstances “hostile,” as Woolf would no doubt have judged, to art, Elizabeth continued to write. Indeed, hostility was her specialty. While shut up at her mother-in-law’s, her output included poems, plays, and various “things for her recreation,” including a life in verse of the bloodthirsty Scythian warlord Tamburlaine, who seized his bride in battle and put helpless virgins to the sword. After Cary began bearing children, she undertook a closet drama about the suffering of the virtuous Hasmonean princess Mariam at the hands of her cruel husband, Herod the Great. Mariam is a moral exemplar, but she is no patient victim. When she hears a rumor of Herod’s death, she weeps for joy; when he murders her relatives, she announces that she will never sleep with him again: “Yet had I rather much a milkmaid be.” Remarkably, The Tragedy of Mariam was published in 1613 and attributed on its title page to “that learned, vertuous, and truly noble Ladie, E. C.”

Henry Cary seems not to have objected to this print debut, but he objected furiously to Elizabeth’s growing interest in Catholicism. When, in 1626, she “declared herself . . . a Papist,” she was cut off financially, lost custody of her four youngest children, and was placed under house arrest by order of King James I. It was a catastrophe—and an opportunity. Over the next two years, liv­ing with a single serving woman in “a little old house” ten miles outside of London, Cary completed two massive literary under­takings: the translation of a nearly five-hundred-page defense of the Catholic faith by a French cardinal and The History of Edward II. Christopher Marlowe’s version of Edward’s tragedy for the late sixteenth-century stage had focused on the king himself, portray­ing his struggles with rebellious councilors, his passionate attach­ment to a male favorite, and his brutal murder. Cary’s account pays equally close attention to Edward’s neglected queen, Isabella, “in name a wife, in truth a handmaid.” Although Cary’s Isabella comes to regret the relatively small part she plays in Edward’s downfall, she regrets its smallness even more, “tast[ing] with a bitter time of repentance what it was but to be quoted in the margin of such a story.” Cary was determined that Isabella’s fate would not be her own. Following Henry’s death from a hunting accident in 1633, she regained custody of her youngest children, whom she smuggled to France to be reared as Catholics, and secured from her eldest son a modest annual allowance. In her final years, according to her daughters, “her whole employment” was “writing and reading.”

To be made a pariah was, for Cary, a strange sort of boon. It released her from a life dominated by the demands of family and society into a freedom that was at once marginal and entirely her own. Though she would have been loath to admit it, disinheri­tance accomplished a similar transformative magic for Lady Anne Clifford, the cosseted only child of George and Margaret, the Earl and Countess of Cumberland. Presumed to be the heiress to a fan­tastic fortune, Anne was raised in luxury. Items from an expense book kept by her governess include “[m]usicians for playing at [her] chamber-door,” embroidery silk and silkworms, a month of dancing lessons, a masque, her portrait painted on canvas, “11 bunches of glass feathers,” and “2 dozen of glass flowers.” Though she had the poet Samuel Daniel for a tutor, Anne’s father set strict limits on her education. Reading was one thing: Anne had access to a lavish library of English books. Writing was another: among various luxuries and frivolities, the expense book includes an entry for “two pap[er] books, 1 for account, the other to write her cate­chism in.” Account-keeping and spiritual exercises, the care of one’s estates and the care of one’s soul, were the only acceptable uses for a young lady’s pen. But at some point in her late teens or early twenties, reeling from the discovery that her father had written her out of his will in favor of a pair of male relations, Anne Clifford began to use her paper books for something else: a record of her own experiences from one day, month, and year to the next. Today we might call it a memoir. Anne called it The Life of Me.

Over the course of the next sixty-some years, through two marriages, the births of two daughters, the death of her beloved mother, and an all-consuming, unrelenting legal battle to recover her lost paternal legacy, Anne filled countless paper books with the consequential and inconsequential details of her existence, including visits from friends and neighbors, quarrels with her hus­bands, bouts of depression and ill health, ups and downs in her ongoing lawsuits, the arrival of children and grandchildren, and the memory of an occasion on which “I ate so much cheese that it made me sick.”

In 1643, having outlived both of the male relatives to whom she lost her inheritance, Anne recovered the vast Clifford estates and with them access to a trove of family records. Over the next three decades, The Life of Me was incorporated into a still larger project of self-commemoration, a compendium of legal documents and family histories that Anne dubbed her Great Books of Record. About five-sixths of the more than a thousand handwritten pages in the three oversize folio volumes chart the fortunes of the Clifford dynasty, from the twelfth century through the late sixteenth. The remaining pages are all Anne. The details of her last days, from January through most of March of 1676, are recorded in one final paper book. A deaf woman from the almshouse brought too much lace to the house and was scolded for it; a beloved dog had pup­pies, “but they were all dead”; the local schoolmaster paid a visit. She died on March 22, her account books—the catechism of her existence—complete.

the losses and disappointments of Mary Sidney, Elizabeth Cary, and Anne Clifford mark their writing with what Virginia Woolf would have seen as the stigmata of sorrow, although none of them was ever as imperiled as Woolf imagined Judith Shakespeare to be. The last of Targoff’s four protagonists came remarkably close to Judith’s fate. In 1587, eighteen-year-old Aemilia Lanyer, daugh­ter of an Italian, likely Jewish, immigrant court musician and his common-law English wife, found herself orphaned, friendless, and near-penniless in the city of London. Like Woolf’s imagined heroine, Lanyer sought protection in an affair with an older man, and, also like her, she eventually became pregnant. But here history diverges startlingly from myth. Where young Judith Shakespeare takes up with the playhouse impresario Nick Greene, Lanyer caught the eye of Henry Carey, Baron Hunsdon, Lord Chamberlain of England, cousin to Queen Elizabeth herself, and a married father of thirteen. When she realized she was expecting his child, rather than kill herself to avoid ignominy, Aemilia informed Hunsdon, who wed her to a member of his staff, Alfonso Lanyer. It does not seem to have been an especially successful union, but Aemilia would later look back on the affair that had prompted her marriage with equanimity and a hint of pride. The old Lord Chamberlain, she reflected, “kept her long . . . maintained her in great pomp,” and “loved her well.” Her years as his mistress were, in many ways, the happiest time of her life. If their relationship had not ended, she might never have written a word.

Freedom was never what Lanyer most craved for herself. Instead, poetry was a demand for recognition and attachment, not a consolation for exclusion but its intended remedy.

Much of what we know about Lanyer comes from the prurient case history of Simon Forman, a London astrologer and medical practitioner whom she consulted about her efforts to conceive a child with Alfonso. Forman’s records reveal how Aemilia strug­gled, in her marriage and on the fringes of court society, but also how she thrived, naming her baby Henry (after his well-known father) and lobbying keenly for her husband’s promotion. When those efforts proved unsuccessful, Lanyer parlayed her connections into a place in the household of Margaret Clifford, Countess of Cumberland and mother to young Anne. The association did not last—she seems to have spent just a few months with Margaret and Anne in the summer of 1604—but it proved pivotal for Aemilia. Through some alchemy of affection and envy, Lanyer’s time with the Cliffords made her a poet. In October 1610, a volume titled Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum was entered in the records of the London Stationers’ Company, and in 1611 it appeared in print, “[w]ritten,” as the title page announces, “by Mistris Aemilia Lanyer.”

The contents were remarkable. The book opens with a col­lection of dedicatory epistles in verse and prose summoning the attention and support of an exclusively female readership, from Queen Anne herself to “all vertuous Ladies in generall.” This is fol­lowed by a long narrative poem in ottava rima, retelling the story of the passion of Christ from the perspective of the Gospels’ female characters. Lanyer’s adaptation of scripture is allusive, emotive, and strikingly free. She digresses to consider, among other sub­jects, the creation of the world, the paradox of redemption through suffering, the erotic career of Cleopatra, the martyrdom of St. Stephen, and the conjunction of Christ’s divinity and humanity. Throughout the poem, Lanyer repeatedly foregrounds the unjust plight of women, yoking their sufferings to the suffering of Jesus and holding the patriarchy responsible for it all. In one memorable detour, she endows Pilate’s wife—a figure who appears in a single verse in the Gospel of Matthew—with a lawyerly and full-throated defense of Eve, the original fallen woman. Her argument gleefully inverts the orthodox doctrine of atonement, whereby Christ’s death redeems the fall of Adam. The crime of authorizing and imposing the Crucifixion, Pilate’s wife reasons, is itself so great as to dwarf and swallow up all previous trespasses, including Eve’s own: “Your indiscretion sets us free, / And makes our former fault much less appear.”

But freedom was never what Lanyer most craved for herself. Instead, poetry was a demand for recognition and attachment, not a consolation for exclusion but its intended remedy. Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum concludes with a poem dedicated to Anne and her mother, recalling their summer together. “The Description of Cooke-ham” is a record of shared but unequal privation. As the poem begins, all three women are being forced to leave the lovely estate where they had spent the summer of 1604. “Farewell (sweet Cooke-ham), where I first obtain’d / Grace from that Grace where perfit Grace remain’d,” read the opening lines. The triple play on “grace”—as patronage, as aristocratic position, and as the perfection of inner and outer beauty—at once identifies the three women as versions of one another and sharply defines the hierarchical distinctions between them, as dependent, mistress, and mistress-to-be. And as the poem continues, mourning their imminent departure, it becomes clear that Lanyer feels herself doubly abandoned. Wherever Margaret and Anne are headed next, she is not coming with them.

“The Description of Cooke-ham” is often called the first English country-house poem, a genre marked by its graceful conversion of praise for a place into praise for its possessors and heirs. But Lanyer imbues the gesture with melancholy and more than a hint of passive aggression, as she labors to articulate, for the Clifford ladies and for herself, the peculiar sadness of losing something that was never really yours to begin with. Before leaving Cookham, young Anne bestows “a chaste, yet loving kisse” on a tree where she, her mother, and Aemilia used to read together. Aemilia, “ingrate­full Creature,” repeats the gesture, but for the purpose of stealing Anne’s kiss from the tree and keeping it for herself. The nature of this ingratitude is hard to pin down: it is Aemilia’s for the tree, which she deprives of its intended reward, and, by extension, for Anne, whose liberal affections she would jealously hoard. But it is also, though this cannot be said, the Cliffords’ ingratitude for Aemilia herself, who is unkissed, unthanked, and evidently forgot­ten in the rush of departure. The final lines of the poem represent it as having been solicited by Margaret or Anne in tribute, but that bond of obligation is obviously the wishful product of Lanyer’s imagining. “The Description of Cooke-ham” is not only an expres­sion of love and regret for a place where women communed with books, trees, and one another; it is also an attempt to recreate the attachments it—briefly—sustained by fencing them in rhyming couplets, as if assonance could compensate for defects of attention and care. “And ever shall, so long as life remaines, / Tying my heart to her by those rich chaines.”

although she invokes A Room of One’s Own in her title, Targoff declares at the outset of Shakespeare’s Sisters that Virginia Woolf’s own “tastes and biases” are “a topic beyond our interest here.” Why should a high-modernist preference for aesthetic impersonality govern our appreciation of works written centuries before? It is certainly true, as Targoff insists, that “There’s so much more to learn through reading women’s writing than we can measure on strictly aesthetic or formal grounds.” Reading Mary Sidney illu­minates the anguish of losing a child, and reading Elizabeth Cary shows how women interpreted and revised pieties about wifely obedience. Reading Anne Clifford and Aemilia Lanyer teaches us a great deal about the relationship between gender and property, about the difficulties women faced in staking claims of ownership and the satisfaction they took in doing so nonetheless. Shakespeare’s Sisters samples a rich archive of gendered experiences, opening windows onto aspects of early modern life that are rarely, fleetingly, and often only partially visible in the writings of men. And yet, Targoff ruefully observes, “One of the questions I’m frequently asked when I talk about these writers is, are they any good? Is there a reason, people want to know, why we should bother to read them?” The questions clearly irk her. She answers them briskly, in the affirmative, in an epilogue, but they represent an opportunity it would be a shame to miss. For if we wish not only to recover early modern women’s writing for academic study—a project well underway since the 1970s—but to claim it for readerly enjoyment, we will have to confront the matter of taste.

The ghost of Judith Shakespeare has haunted the study of early modern women’s writing for nearly a century. It is time, perhaps, for an exorcism. The introduction to the recent, and admirable, Oxford Handbook of Early Modern Women’s Writing in English, 1540-1700, edited by Danielle Clarke, Sarah C. E. Ross, and Elizabeth Scott-Baumann, calls the fable of Shakespeare’s sister “a defining narrative for feminist scholarship on women writers of the past, bequeathing a framework of occlusion and loss, exclu­sion and defiance, and a desire to recover matrilineal literary tra­ditions.” This is generous, for it was also a witting and willful counterfactual. Proffered to explain women’s absence from the lit­erary canon, the story of Judith Shakespeare simultaneously pro­duced that absence as a rhetorical effect. To be sure, the archive of early women’s writing was in 1929 by no means as rich, varied, well-studied, and easily accessible as it is today, thanks to modern editions, monographs, collections like the Oxford Handbook, and digital undertakings like the online Bibliography of English Women Writers (1500–1640), The Perdita Project, The Pulter Project, The Lucy Hutchinson Project, Seventeenth-Century Women Poets, and more. But neither was it the bare shelf of Woolf’s imagining. Indeed, by the time A Room of One’s Own appeared in print, anthologies of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century women’s poetry and prose had been in circulation for nearly two centuries. George Ballard’s 1752 Memoirs of Several Ladies of Great Britain, Who Have Been Celebrated for their Writings or Skill in the Learned Languages, Arts and Sciences offered extracts from more than sixty authors, going back to the early Tudor period. George Colman and Bonnell Thornton’s col­lection, Poems by Eminent Ladies, appeared in three separate edi­tions between 1755 and 1785 and was followed by Alexander Dyce’s Specimens of British Poetesses (1825) and Frederic Rowton’s The Female Poets of Great Britain (1848). Woolf evidently knew some of these volumes, or at least knew something about their contents. In A Room of One’s Own, she references a range of earlier women writers, though always critically and often dismissively. Two she mentions date to the latter part of the seventeenth century, just after Shakespeare’s time: Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, and Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. The poetry of Lady Winchilsea “is harrassed and distracted with hates and grievances,” Woolf writes, and that of “hare-brained, fantastical Margaret of Newcastle . . . disfigured and disformed by the same causes.” She laments, “What a vision of loneliness and riot the thought of Margaret Cavendish brings to mind! . . . What a waste.”

In light of such despairing judgments, the suicide of Judith Shakespeare starts to look more like a euthanasia. Had she lived to write, Woolf insists, “Whatever she had written would have been twisted and deformed, issuing from a strained and morbid imagina­tion.” Woolf evidently preferred her fictive vision of Shakespeare’s sister to Vita Sackville-West’s account of Anne Clifford, whose diaries Sackville-West edited for publication in 1923. This was shortly after Vita and Virginia met at a party, when the pair was in the throes of their early infatuation. As Targoff points out, Woolf clearly knew about the book, which is prefaced by Sackville-West’s astute and affectionate portrait of Clifford:

She went through her life permanently embattled, whether the quarrel lay with her husbands,—for she had two, and fought with both of them—with her servants, her tradesmen, or her tenants, to all of whom she spoke her mind on one occasion or other, or with Cromwell, whom she defied, or with Charles II, of whom she disapproved, or with a mere canvasser for parlia­mentary election, to whom she wrote, “I have been bullied by a usurper, I have been neglected by a court, but I will not be dictated to by a subject. Your man shan’t stand.”

Woolf, if she read this, was not swayed in Clifford’s favor; maybe she was even repelled. Although she acknowledges Clifford in pass­ing in a 1932 essay on John Donne, where she salutes the “active and practical and little educated” noblewoman as a generous liter­ary patron, she makes no mention of her in A Room of One’s Own. As an author in her own right, Clifford seems not to have registered at all—except, perhaps, in the negative. Woolf’s admiring portrait of Shakespeare, as someone who quarreled with no one and never spoke his mind, is such a precise inversion of Sackville-West’s description of Clifford that it is hard not to wonder if it was writ­ten in conscious or unconscious reaction to it. Here, after all, was a writer who made grievance her muse, whose grudges, spites, and antipathies are a continued theme and the vital spirit of her style.

And Clifford was not the only one. The enlivening revelation of early modern women’s writing is that good writing does not have to transcend or efface the straitened circumstances of its produc­tion. It can sing them, too, even in the key of rage. The writers Targoff champions are proof of this. Mary Sidney’s psalter is the pious offering of a devoted sister and a faithful Christian, but it is also a litany of righteous indignation: “Let God but rise, his very face shall cast / On all his haters flight and disarray,” implores Psalm 68; “Babylon, that did us waste, / Thyself shall one day wasted be,” promises Psalm 173. (Targoff notes the tenderness of her depic­tion of maternal love in Psalm 51, but here Sidney cheerfully envi­sions the “little ones” of Babylon “dash[ed] against the stones.”) As the villainous foil to virtuous Mariam, Elizabeth Cary’s Salome is the engine of the play’s tragic plot and gets many of its best lines, including an impassioned speech in praise of women’s right to divorce: “I’ll be the custom-breaker,” she declares, “to show my sex the way to freedom’s door.”

The woman “born with a gift of poetry in the sixteenth century was an unhappy woman,” Woolf declares, and so she may have been. But unhappiness is not necessarily a bar to art. Indeed, it might even serve as an inspiration. Consider the case of Isabella Whitney. Though she is mentioned only in passing by Targoff (and was unknown to Woolf, who would almost certainly have disliked her), Whitney is, to my mind, one of the greatest of early modern English writers. She is our poet laureate of resentment, brilliant and embittered, sarcastic and self-deprecating. When she moved to rented lodgings in London’s Abchurch Street in 1573, she had neither money nor a room of her own. That was why she turned to poetry, as she declares in “The Auctor to the Reader,” the opening poem of her 1573 collection of verse, A Sweet Nosegay:

This Harvest tyme, I Harvestlesse,

            and servicelesse also:

And subject unto sicknesse, that

      abroade I could not go,

Had leasure good, (though learning lackt)

      some study to apply.

She begins by reading the things she knows she ought to read—the Bible, chronicle histories, classics in translation—but they leave her confused, exhausted, and bored. She starts instead to compose a book of her own, this book, the book we are reading. A Sweet Nosegay is what Whitney’s contemporaries might have called a miscellany: a hodge-podge collection of long and short poems on various themes. Many of its pages are taken up by Whitney’s ver­sification of moral sayings gathered in a then-recently published commonplace book, Hugh Plat’s 1572 The Floures of Philosophie; others are filled with verse epistles addressed to Whitney’s own family members and friends.

She writes in spite of everything, in all senses of the phrase.

As a landmark of literary history, A Sweet Nosegay has much to rec­ommend it to the attention of scholars. It is the first solely authored printed book of poems by a known English woman and one of the first solely authored printed books by any English poet living at the time. It is a vernacular miscellany by a poet who dared to prefer English ballad meter to the hexameters of Virgil and Ovid. It was published by the pioneering printer Richard Jones and offered for sale in St. Paul’s Churchyard at a time when very few male authors risked committing their names to the press. It is also—and this is why you should read it—aggrieved, impatient, sly, petulant, defiant, fully alive (and utterly unreconciled) to the conditions of its making.

“All desire to protest, to preach, to proclaim an injury, to pay off a score, to make the world the witness of some hardship or grievance was fired out of him and consumed,” said Virginia Woolf of Shakespeare. Isabella Whitney—who, as it happens, had a poet-brother of her own, the emblem-book maker Geoffrey Whitney—does nothing but protest, preach, proclaim injuries, and pay off scores. To a married sister, she explains,

Had I a Husband, or a house,

      and all that longs thereto

My selfe could frame about to rouse,

      as other women doo:

But til some household cares mee tye,

My books and Pen I wyll apply.

Here and elsewhere, Whitney draws the connection between grievance and art that Woolf refuses. She writes in spite of every­thing, in all senses of the phrase, and by doing so, gives the lie to Woolf’s insistence on writerly detachment. Woolf and Whitney emphatically agree that “Intellectual freedom depends upon mate­rial things.” That poetry should depend upon intellectual freedom is not necessarily the case. Poetry can also depend, even feed, on the knowledge of privation and constraint, of all one has not been granted and cannot accomplish, given the world as it is.

“The Maner of Her Wyll,” the final poem in Whitney’s volume, invites us to imagine, with characteristic melodrama, her forced departure from London as a kind of death. What follows is both an outpouring of frustrated appetite and ambition and a refusal of their terms: a furious lament for the goods, pleasures, privileges, people, and properties to which Whitney has been denied access, and (as the scholar Crystal Bartolovich argues) the utopian sum­mons of a world in which they are hers, or anyone’s, to command. The poem is a darkly exuberant catalogue of urban scenes, char­acters, and commodities, but it turns on a pair of linked puns, at once simple and profound: leaving and willing, willing and leaving. London has left Whitney nothing, and so she is leaving it, but in leaving the city, she can at last claim it, by leaving it to others. The thwarting of her will is countered by the writing—and, in some imagined future, the reading—of it. A will is a deathbed testament, but it is also a prophetic utterance, an attempt to shape and deter­mine the content of time to come. The witnesses to Whitney’s “Wyll” are her faithful companions: “Paper, Pen and Standish [ink­well] were: / at that same present by.” Time, she says, will deliver her testament to readers. We are its executors.

Catherine Nicholson is a Professor of English at Yale University, where she teaches and writes about early modern literature. She is the author of Uncommon Tongues: Eloquence and Eccentricity in the English Renaissance and Reading and Not Reading The Faerie Queene: Spenser and the Making of Literary Criticism.
Originally published:
March 4, 2024


Louise Glück’s Late Style

The fabular turn in the poet’s last three books
Teju Cole

The Critic as Friend

The challenge of reading generously
Merve Emre

Rachel Cusk

The novelist on the “feminine non-state of non-being”
Merve Emre

You Might Also Like


Gender Wars

Two scholars excavate the origins of today’s trans backlash
Paisley Currah

The Auteur of Fatherhood

How Steven Spielberg recast American masculinity
Phillip Maciak


Mylar Balloons on Horse Island

Incidental objects at the Peabody Museum’s outpost
Claire Hungerford


New perspectives, enduring writing. Join a conversation 200 years in the making. Subscribe to our print journal and receive four beautiful issues per year.