[This is the original longer version of a review of the above book that appeared in Renaissance Quarterly, 49:3 (Fall 2006):930-32.
Jane Couchman and Ann M. Crabb, eds. Women's Letters across Europe, 1400-1700: Form and Persuasion. Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2004. vii + 336 pp. index. illus. bibl. $94.95. ISBN: 075465106X.
Couchman and Crabb's volume contains 15 thoroughly-researched essays on the actual correspondences of women located across early modern Europe. The essayists ground their discussions on the pragmatic circumstances of their subjects' lives as they focus on many printed letters intended "to bring about some action or reaction on the part of the person to whom [they are] addressed" (3). The book builds on the findings of recent editions of, and anthologies on, early modern through early 19th century epistolary autobiographical writing by real women or attributed to fictional female characters. The essays put us in contact with diverse women through printing what they wrote or dictated, and by explaining what were the constraints, inhibitions, and goals shaping the desires, stories, and matters the women tell of and choices they make (12). The volume's organization and content shows how tightly interwoven are the connections between "'the state' and the 'private', and the 'public' and the 'domestic'" in women's lives (143).
The essayists share a historicizing analytical approach which emphasizes the performative nature of letters. The book's first third presents letter-writers attempting to influence family members and friends to achieve personal goals; the second third, women attempting to influence events and decisions in "public spaces (churches, marketplaces, or law courts [and people's homes])" because they have power to do so in their own right, or, via "informal routes of power through emotional or familial ties" (15, 144). The last third presents women who "derive [an] authority" (16) for forceful aggression in public arenas from their religious beliefs.
The essays open up and continue new lines of enquiry. Natalie Zemon Davis showed how Glikl of Hameln created and arranged materials for a memoir from Glikl's reading in German and Yiddish and memory of oral folktales ( Women on the Margins [Harvard UP, 1995])); Erin and Mark Zelcer Henrikson move on to argue that Gilkl could make her way through several languages, but not very well (65-66), and used her skills to gain protection, conduct business, cope with family members, justify herself, and achieve status. Susan Broomhall examines documents which "female supplicants" put before the poor relief council of Tours to reveal that "no woman was recorded as having an occupational status in her own right," most women supported their claim for relief by describing themselves as "'burdened with children'," and provided "strong justification" for any separations ("always worded as a temporary measure") that may have occurred (234). Through a comparative translation study, Anne R. Larsen highlights how Anna Maria van Schurman's unusual point of view (e.g., she writes she "had sinned more by lack [of self-estimation] than by excess [of it]") were transformed in Guillaume Colletet's French translation: Schurman's retired life is made to exemplify how women should not "meddle with public affairs" (307); her praise of Lady Jane Grey's study of classical languages is marginalized, and Schurman's "direct, almost confrontational honesty" becomes a "polite agreeable indirectness" (308). Deanna Shemek's consumption study of Isabella d'Este's beguiling letters shows Isabella acted compassionately to other women (127, 136-37 139), argued personal property had communal value since women's belongings were to them comforting symbols of "security and minimal autonomy" (135), and validates Shemek's conclusion (one supported by my knowledge of 17th through 18th century women's informal wills) that "women's efforts to keep their possessions" are "lent poignancy by the smallness of the stakes that meant so much to them" (140).
Marguerite de Navarre's letters merit special attention because, as Leah Middlebrook (whose essay Barbara Stephenson summarizes in her essay on Marguerite's correspondence with her brother) says, Marguerite's "agency and political skill were combined with a literary gift that allowed her to give voice to her exploits [and] her deeper feeling on a range of topics, from courtly manners to spiritual quest" ("'Tout mon office:' Body Politics and Family Dynamics in the verse pitres of Marguerite de Navarre," Renaissance Quarterly, 54:4 :1110). Stephenson refutes what she takes to be the consensus view that Marguerite's loving, self-abnegating, and at times intensely or overly-sexualized stance towards Franois I are part of a "lifelong subservience" to him, and that she hardly ever withstood whatever he wanted on behalf of her own, her second husband's, or daughter, Jeanne d'Albert's interests. Stephenson shows Marguerite serving her brother "in male, rather than female terms" as serviteur (193), governing representative, and "advisor on royal policies" (203-4). It's not quibbling to object that many scholarly studies of the religious and political differences between Marguerite and Francois, of Marguerite's poetry, and her Heptameron turn on Marguerite's assertions of her needs and views and awareness of how much she has yielded. Stephenson's argument erases how profoundly Marguerite was sexually answerable to her brother's interests, the high bodily and emotional price she paid for his approval because (like all the women in the volume) she lived in a woman's body.
There are linked troubling tendencies in this book. Important feminist and other political matters are replaced by unadventurous analysis of the characteristics of epistolarity and formal conventions. The essayists are insufficiently frank about issues relating to women's bodies (like male violence) and too determined not to reinforce gender stereotypes and to remain objective and (above all) unsentimental (46). Malcolm Richardson's essay on Elizabeth Stonor's letters is organized as a reaction against Virginia Woolf's statement about the Paston letters ("in all this there is no amusement or any of the million shades of endearment and intimacy which have filled so many English letters since"), itself quoted from a secondary source and (I think) misconstrued (43-44n.): Richardon's strident defense of Stonor's materialistic motivations mars his sensitive close readings. Barbara of Brandenberg turned her homely, crippled daughter, Paula, into an object of exchange when to cement a family alliance she gave Paula as a bride to a man neither knew well. Christina Antenhofer discusses strategies and conventions in the marchesa's letters to her son-in-law to demonstrate how the marchesa's letters depend on kinship systems and follow patterns of reasoned argument; the motivation and anxiety of the relatively impotent mother (because at a distance) to pressure a husband to treat his wife kindly is lost from sight. Jane Couchman analyzes Louise de Coligny's manipulation of epistolary conventions to demonstrate Louise had the power to influence powerful dukes and military events by virtue of whom she was related and married to, brought up, or was friends with. The matter that calls for analysis in the letters is the attraction for Louise de Coligny of these new religious doctrines which some scholars have suggested worked to repress women (e.g., Joan Kelly-Gadol in her now classic essay, "Did Women Have a Renaissance?"), and how is it that she remained indifferent to their manifest threat (from massacre, assasination, burning at a stake) to powerful people she was connected to.
The use of political language is symptomatic. Elena Levy-Navarro describes the terrifying sexual, physically cruel and emotional abuse of Luisa de Carvajal when a child in imprecise euphemisms. She does not quote even one of the passages describing this and written by Carvajal; for these the reader must read Elizabeth Rhodes's "Luisa de Carvajal's Counter-Reformation Journey to Selfhood (1556-1614)" (Renaissance Quarterly, 51:3 :890-94). Levy-Navarro "admires" Carvajal's "unconventional combative behavior" without apparent regard to its concrete consequences or goals because Carvajal's acts project norms society admires in men: she was "confrontational . . .in her spoken and written words" (266); she "pursed an activist life that flouted the conventions of femininity of the time" (265). "Exclamations" defending Philip III's "expelling the moriscos" are "'performatives' or speech acts, which seal [Carvajal's and her correspondent's] mutual commitment to an imperial religio-political agenda" (268).
In Writing a Woman's Life, Carolyn Heilbrun writes that feminist literary scholarship must identify, describe, and validate the styles, patterns and content of women's writing and women writers must "share the stories of their lives" unashamedly and with as "profound" and "brutal truth" as language allows (39-45). The rescue effort at retrieval in Couchman and Crabb's anthology is hindered because a tiny portion of what happens that counts is ever written down; the content of this writing has been determined by what it has possible for people to write down (or have written down for them) without fearing the consequences; what we are left with in the public arena is what has been allowed to survive and for women often has been reframed and published by others at a much later time, e.g., St Teresa of Avila's letters, about whom in the volume Alison Weber writes refreshingly sensibly. Ann Crabb ends her essay on Alessandra Macigni Strozzi's letters by reminding the reader that "religion and irony" were Strozzi's "tools of persuasion" and "defenses when, as was usually the case, she was not fully in control ... of her sons [and] the outer world" (41). . We often encounter a void for precisely the time we would like to have but a single letter by the affected woman (e.g, the last years of Arbella Stuart's life in prison).
But another more immediate problem besets this anthology. The woman whose vocation is to read and to write, the archetypes of the teenage girl diariest and the woman letter writer who naturally writes unself-conscious, intimate and subjective (half-witted) letters, especially about love have all been been favorite targets for satire. But we are today in the midst of a fierce backlash against recent feminist movements. The essayists in this volume write knowingly in the face of inflamed public media which distorts, denigrates, and harshly ridicules women and their writing, which stubbornly substitutes myth for reality. James Daybell estimates that "some 10,000 items of [European] women's correspondence are extant just for the period to 1642" (Daybell, Early Modern Women's Letter-Writing [UK: Palgrave, 2001]:3). Though in places the essayists in Couchman and Crabb's volume have understandably faltered or valued behaviors because they are those that for the most part only males have been allowed and admired for, those which bring, or come with power; nonetheless, by going to this treasure trove in archives, maintaining high standards of historical analytical scholarship and close reading, they do untangle the motives and circumstances surrounding a group of eye-opening letters by women in ways that enable us to read how each woman writer (insofar as she had means to) presented herself and to try to discern what actually could have been "important" to her (12).
George Mason University
'Perhaps you are not sitting in this room, and I am not sitting
by you. These are points in which a doubt is equally possible ...
Every body allows that the talent for writing agreeable letters is
peculiarly female ... '
'I have sometimes thought,' said Catherine doubtingly,
ladies do write so much better letters than gentlemen ...' "
(Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, I:3).