We are delighted to announce that Women Writers Online will once again be free during the month of March, in celebration of Women’s History Month. This collection includes almost 400 texts written and translated by women, first published between 1526 and 1850.
We also invite you to explore our other publications, which are always open access. These include Women Writers in Review (WWiR), a collection of close to 700 reviews of and responses to works by the works in WWO, and Women Writers in Context (WWiC), a collection of essays exploring topics related to early women’s writing.
If you haven’t visited Women Writers Online before, there are many different ways to find new texts. For instance, you can try filtering by genre or by publication year. The keyword search box is another good way to begin exploring. Or, you might want to go to WWiR or WWiC and browse the themes and topics there for subjects you’re interested in, since both collections link back to the texts in WWO. If you have worked with WWO in the past, you might want to see our recently published texts here.
As another way to help people get started with WWO, we’ve included some of our favorite texts below.
A Little Romance
There are many romances in WWO, including Mary Wroth’s Urania, which has adventure, betrayal, a lost princess, and pirates. If you enjoy reading about reformed rakes, moonlight seductions, and mistaken identities, we have the firsttwo volumes of Eliza Haywood’s Love in Excess. Or, for a bit of satire on romance, check out Sarah Green’s Romance Readers and Romance Writers, whose author exclaims:
Would that, like the monster Briareus, I could strike a hundred blows in the same instant, and that all the vampers of romance, who merit annihilation, were in my presence!—they are the vermin of literature— their spawn creep to our fire-sides, and cover our tables, our chairs, our sofas and our mantle-pieces; we find them in the bed-chambers of our daughters; nay, not unfrequently are they placed beneath their pillows, to occupy their minds at day-break, or to beguile a sleepless night.
Maybe you’d like to try a new recipe—if so, you should check out Hannah Woolley’s Cook’s Guide. Here’s just one example of its delicious contents:
To make little Apple paſties to fry.Take pared Apples and cut them into ſmall pieces to ſtew, ſtew them to papp with claret wine and ſpice, then put in a good piece of ſweet butter, cinnamon, ginger, roſe-water, ſugar and plumped currans; then put them into the puff-paſte and fry them, ſo ſerve them in with ſugar.
Playwright Hannah Cowley answers the relationship questions you never knew you had—how to use cross-dressing to add a little spice to your life, how to manipulate your father into ordering you to marry the man of your dreams, how to get that man to want to marry you in the first place, and much more. Husband have a wandering eye? Victoria demonstrates how to dress like a man and seduce hubby’s mistress inA Bold Stroke for a Husband. If he won’t disguise himself as your dressmaker, it’s not true love. Just ask Elizabeth from Who’s the Dupe?
Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World is sometimes called the first science fiction novel; it describes a woman’s journey, by way of the north pole, to a world with Fish-men, Bear-men, and Worm-men—among quite a few others. We also have many other works by Cavendish—including her plays, historical and scientific writings, and letters.
If you’re looking for something inspirational, we have several of Elizabeth I’s speeches, including twoversions of the Tilbury Speech, which was featured in one of our favorite Kate Beaton comics.
This post is part of a series authored by our collaborators on the Intertextual Networks project. For more information, see here.
By Amanda Henrichs, Institute for Digital Arts and Humanities, Department of English, Indiana University
My contribution to the Intertextual Networks takes up the literary and historical relationships between Lady Mary Wroth (1587–1651) and her aunt Mary Sidney-Herbert (1561–1621). These two women are members of the Sidney family, one of the most influential families in English literature and politics for over 200 years (the 2015 Ashgate Research Companion is invaluable here.) Both women were active in Queen Elizabeth’s court, and both provided literary and artistic patronage to writers, artists, and musicians. Further, both were known as prolific and respected authors to their contemporaries. Wroth in particular has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity (and scholarly praise for her literary skill) over the past few decades.
These women lived together and—scholars tell us—wrote together. Yet, the primary evidence for their relationship is historical. That is, when scholars assert that Sidney-Herbert was a formative literary influence for Wroth, they do not cite stylistic similarities. Rather, they mention the time the two spent together at Penshurst, the Sidney family’s home in Kent, and the loving relationship between the two women. But it seems nearly necessary that there would be stylistic evidence of Wroth’s literary homage to her aunt: Wroth is a highly allusive and intertextual writer, with clear allusions to, and borrowings or translations of, Petrarch, Philip Sidney, Fulke Greville, Edmund Spenser, and others. But Sidney-Herbert seems to be entirely absent from Wroth’s works.
There is thus an absence of intertextual connection where there should be a presence. And this is what my current project takes up. I am writing an R script to mine Wroth’s long prose romance Urania and Sidney-Herbert’s translations The Tragedie of Antonie and A Discourse of Life and Death for similarities in word choice, sentence structure, turns of phrase, and other stylistic similarities. Then, based on these results, I will use another coding language to visualize the results. In effect, I want to visualize literary absence.
I want to pause here, though, and mention some of the problems I’ve run in to. The biggest one is R itself. For those who aren’t familiar, R was originally used to run statistical analyses on very large datasets, and is now quite popular with humanists who want to do things like text mining and topic modeling. R is a very powerful tool, but it is also idiosyncratic, complex, and difficult to master. Even working through Matthew Jockers’ incredible book Text Analysis with R for Students of Literature, I keep getting bogged down in cleaning and parsing the text files I’m examining; I also have to continually remind myself of R prompts and commands, since even a single wrong keystroke creates an error I need to go back and dig out—a debugging practice that is second nature to trained programmers, but less familiar to traditional researchers in the humanities. From what I can tell, this is a common experience for scholars who, for whatever reason, want to employ computational approaches in their research.
Other problems include asking the right questions; or rather, asking questions in a way that R can understand. I am at the point where I can tell R to pull a .txt file from the internet (or my computer), clean out the extraneous metadata from the beginning and end of the text, split the text according to its internal divisions (be they chapters or stanzas), find the relative frequency of a word or words across the text, and plot those frequencies in a graph of my choice. In Shakespeare’s Sonnets, for example, I found that there are 4,612 unique words in the collection. The word “I” accounts for 1.8% of the total words; “my” for 2.6%. But a patient and dedicated reader could do this work without a line of code. At this point, I’m saving enormous amounts of time, which is of course incredibly valuable in itself, but I am gaining old insights more quickly, rather than coming to new conclusions. And what does this data actually mean? It isn’t enough simply to spout statistics, as interesting as it may be to have these numbers handy.
In the case of Wroth’s Urania, for example, I know that the word “she” declines dramatically toward the end of the romance, precisely at the point when the words “lo”, “loue”, “louing”, “loued”, etc., spike dramatically. In the interest of quick results, I uploaded the romance to Voyant, an online visualization tool that remediates a text of your choice. Here, the blue line is the “loue” variations and the purple is “she.”1
Towards the end of the romance is where the heroine Pamphilia finds happiness in love; and “she” simultaneously disappears, both literally and figuratively. Does this chart also open up a feminist critique of the loss of selfhood of an otherwise proactive and literarily productive female protagonist? Or does it simply reflect that Wroth appended the sonnet collection Pamphilia to Amphilanthus to the romance? In this collection, she details her constancy in her “loue” for Amphilanthus, but writes in the first person instead of the third. Thus the decline of “she.” I’m inclined to the latter interpretation; but, given the immense difference in length between the prose romance and the sonnet collection, there is still an interesting shift that might need further investigation. If you’re reading this blog, I don’t need to convince you of the value of digital or computational approaches and what these kinds of results remind me is that approaching old texts in new ways might let us see things we simply haven’t noticed yet. Computational approaches—once we learn them—are not only incredibly fast, they can also help us make remarkably subtle observations.
Though the multi-text capabilities of Voyant are not as subtle as I would like, they still gesture towards the simultaneous reach and delicacy of computational tools that I hope to achieve with R. When I uploaded all three texts to Voyant, I started to find some interesting things. For example, Antonie has the highest vocabulary density, while Urania has the lowest. (Urania is also the longest text; however, Discourse is the shortest, which lends credence to the density result. That is, Antonie seems to have a proportionally higher vocabulary density than the other texts, regardless of length.) More suggestive still are the words which are distinctive to each text; in Antonie, “hir” is most prevalent (56 instances), followed by “cl”—the speaker tag for Cleopatra(43), and “Antony” (40). In Discourse, we have “wee” (51), “worlde” (20), and “porte” (6); in the Urania, “shee” (1,386), “Amphilanthus” (392), and “Pamphilia” (269).
Again, the question is, what do we do with this data? I might conclude that Antonie is an extended blazon of Cleopatra’s qualities: her estates, her person, her speeches, her beauty. I might also say that it appears that the Urania doesn’t pass the Bechdel test; even though “shee” is four times more present than Amphilanthus, we still have more mentions of Amphilanthus’ name, suggesting that characters (or the author) talk about him more than they talk about Pamphilia.
Yet I am not tied to any of these interpretations; they could be completely wrong. Instead, I am more inspired by the possibilities that are suggested by these lists of numbers. While I will eventually need to come to conclusions about the specifics of my data, for now I am content with what tools like Voyant and R certainly provide me: a different view. In other words, numbers are not enough; but more satisfying are the subtle characteristics that computational tools let me visualize, even when the sheer amount of text seems anything but subtle.
One short postscript: I spent hours (three, I think) trying to create a comparative scatterplot in Voyant of the distinctive words I mentioned above. The closest I came was this:
And this is clearly not very legible. In order even to get to this point, I had to use the raw frequency of each word, and manually strip out partial words like “lo-”, “-ed”, “-ing”, “ha-”, and “bra-”. I also had to use a proximity tool; I asked Voyant to show me the words closest to “she,” and limit the results to about 35 words. One thing we can see is that “he” is the most common word closest to “she”; we also see verbs like “doe” and “make.” This suggests that “he” and “she” are both very active in the texts, and because “she” is more common than “he,” that the female protagonists are most active. However, I’m still not committed to these results, partly because I didn’t tell Voyant how to determine proximity, and partly because I still have a very hard time understanding what this plot is telling me. I present this plot for two reasons: one, because the prevalence of verbs is suggestive; and two, because I want to emphasize how important it is for humanist researchers to know at least a little bit about the back-end of the tool they might use. Since I don’t know exactly how Voyant determines proximity, and I also can’t tell it to consider the “u” character as part of a full word (as in loue, haue, or braue), I’m not willing to draw interpretations from this data. In other words, with Voyant I’m left with interesting directions for future inquiry; with R, because I will have written the code myself, I will feel confident in my results.
Radical Love at the Colored Conventions Transcribe-A-Thon
The staff of the Women Writers Project was proud to add our support to the Colored Conventions Transcribe-A-Thon in honor of Frederick Douglass’ birthday and Black History Month, hosted by The Colored Conventions Project (CCP) at the University of Delaware. We joined universities across the country in transcribing the minutes of the colored conventions. The conventions were historic gatherings of African-American leaders; they began in 1830 and continued until well after the Civil War.
Although Douglass was born into bondage, and never knew his birthdate, he choose to celebrate it every year on February 14. We were proud to join the CCP in celebrating “radical love” this Valentine’s Day by commemorating the birthday of Fredrick Douglass with a transcribe-a-thon. For those of you who might be unfamiliar with the term, a transcribe-a-thon is as straightforward as it sounds: a gathering of people participating in a “marathon” of transcription.
We’re happy to report that our local transcribe-a-thon at Northeastern University, jointly hosted by the Women Writes Project, the Digital Feminist Commons, and the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks, was a resounding success. As a group, we transcribed the minutes of the 1859 “New England Colored Citizens’ Convention,” which was held in our hometown of Boston, Massachusetts. Staff and students alike had fun recognizing local places, names, and organizations in the minutes, as well as getting a hint of the basic sense of joy and accomplishment of adding to our national history.
For more information and to join the transcription efforts of The Colored Conventions Project, click here. You can also browse the event’s Twitter action on the event Storify page, here.
Lanyer’s appropriation of the stabat mater in Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum
This post is part of a series authored by our collaborators on the Intertextual Networks project. For more information, see here.
By Megan Herrold, University of Southern California
In my project for Intertextual Networks, I trace the use to which early modern women writers put misogynistic conventions. I’m particularly interested in women’s appropriation of female archetypes that are charged with centuries of societal ambivalence. One such example is Aemilia Lanyer’s use of the stabat mater tradition in her 1611 poem, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. The centerpiece of Lanyer’s book of poems is her meditation on Christ’s passion, but framing that poem are two other sections that are also thematically unified. It begins with a number of dedicatory poems to specific women—including Queen Elizabeth, the Countess of Pembroke, and Queen Anne—and concludes with the country house poem, “The Description of Cook-ham.” Lanyer’s patron, the Countess Dowager of Cumberland, features throughout the entire work: she takes a prominent place among the dedicatory poems, her (temporary) home and daughter are celebrated in the country house poem, and Lanyer features as a particular spectator of Christ’s passion. So while women (and Cumberland in particular) are conceived of as characters and readers throughout the entire work, I will mainly be focusing on the “Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum” poem in this post. In its ostensible focus on the Passion of Christ, Lanyer’s version also includes: an apology for Eve spoken by Pilate’s wife, a discussion of the dangers of beauty for women, and commentary on various historical women’s virtue. By bringing figures like Cleopatra, Eve, and the Virgin Mary to bear alongside her discussion of Cumberland’s virtues alongside a feminized Christ, Lanyer self-consciously builds a community of women whose virtues are based upon their celebrations and defenses of each other. It is in this vein that Lanyer uses the stabat mater tradition.
A poetic and musical sequence that constructs a greater emotional connection to Christ’s passion through the contemplation of Mary as she contemplates the crucifixion, the stabat mater was both widely popular and troubling because of its focus on the spectacle of female mourning. 1 It was both suppressed by the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century and with the growth of Protestantism, increasingly associated with Catholic (and feminized) public mourning rituals.2 But as she uses the trope in her poem, Lanyer suggests that women’s greater visibility, both as beautiful objects of spectatorship and as mourners, potentially derided as excessive in their expressions of grief, coincides with their greater access to Christian virtue. With her descriptions of the compassion of various women who mourn for Christ (among them are Pilate’s wife, the Maries, the Daughters of Jerusalem and Cumberland herself) Lanyer also includes blazons of Christ’s feminized beauty and his compassion for the grievers around him. Taken together, the ways in which the description of the communal comfort in looking at suffering women is aligned with Christ’s being looked at as a woman. Thus, Lanyer’s appropriation of the stabat mater emphasizes women’s consensual deployment of their spectacular mourning. In doing so, she reclaims a suspect (because feminized and Catholic) convention and presents it as a means through which a self-aware community might be built—a community of virtuous suffering women who see and feel for each other.
My research into this topic is still in its preliminary stages. But what I’m most concerned with in Lanyer’s poem is her emphasis on the visual in her version of the Passion and the ways in which community is built through mutual beholding. Likewise, the stabat mater, over and above other conventional depictions of Mary’s suffering (namely, the pieta and the mater dolorosa), emphasizes the space between the visual and textual description of mourning. The third person ekphrastic description of Mary’s compassion for Christ’s suffering is both visual (as in the pieta and mater dolorosa traditions of art) and textual (as in the planctus Mariae). All of these forms of meditations on Mary’s (and at times Mary Magdalene’s) role in the crucifixion were elaborated during the patristic period and early Middle Ages. The original version of the stabat mater from which the title derives and much elaboration stems is said to have been written by either Jacopone da Todi or Pope Innocent III. For the full text and a literal translation, click here. Though women’s involvement in the Passion has limited precedent in the gospels, Marian devotional works like the stabat mater were quite popular at the turn in the twelfth century and beyond. Versions proliferated in poetry and prose, in Latin and the vernacular, and in art and drama and coincided with a greater emphasis on the humanity of Christ and the co-suffering of Mary (Bestul 112).
From its inception, however, the increased interest in Mary and the subjectivity of women in general could be characterized as ambivalent. While these conventions uphold Mary as an exemplar, not only of women’s righteous behavior, but also as a guide to achieving perfect compassion with Christ, they also circumscribe the role of women in devotional literature and the funeral rite. The tradition at once universalizes Mary’s suffering—the poem asks “quis posset non contristari / Piam Matrem contemplari / Dolentem cum Filio? [Who could not be sorrowful to behold the pious mother grieving with her Son?]”—at the same time that it betrays discomfort with the excesses of “feminine” emotion. For example, as Bestul points out, in the related “quis dabit” planctus tradition, Mary oscillates between passive suffering and hysterical outbursts of grief. So while the tradition expresses an implicit (and at times quite explicit) desire to be feminized, the devotional descriptions of Mary’s mourning ultimately construct the rationale for patriarchal control of female agency—in speech and spectacle—in religious rites. The Reformation would see a doubling down on this control of the “feminized” and Catholic excesses of public mourning rituals, a topic taken on by Katherine Goodland in her work, Female Mourning in Medieval and Renaissance English Drama.
It’s my feeling, however, that Lanyer capitalizes off of the ambivalence of the subject-object blurring in spectacles of compassion in Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. As the stabat mater is organized around the Virgin’s spectacle of Christ’s passion, the act of “beholding” and “looking” at suffering permeates Lanyer’s poem. It informs its avowed occasion in depicting Christ’s passion and its effects on spectators including the Virgin Mary, the Daughters of Jerusalem, and the Duchess of Cumberland; and it encodes the particular historical occasion of the poem: Lanyer’s comforting Cumberland amid her legal and familial troubles. In these instances of beholding suffering, Lanyer emphasizes the community-building potential inherent in the public display of mourning. As these women suffer, the spectacles they create evoke compassion from other women including the reader; this occurs even while, and indeed to a greater degree, because the women are aware of the vulnerability to which their spectacular mourning is subject. It is through this awareness of the dangers with which women contend over and above men that Lanyer envisions the formation of a utopic community of women.
But first, she must apologize for Mary’s excessive grief. In the most explicit stabat mater reference, Lanyer describes Mary beholding Christ’s Passion. But Lanyer’s version, unlike others in the genre, seems to anticipate scrutiny of the spectacle Mary creates. Where the traditional stabat asked upon viewing Mary, “Who could not be sorrowful to behold the pious mother grieving with her Son?” Lanyer asks a more defensive rhetorical question while Mary swoons with “griefes extreame”:
How could she choose but thinke her selfe undone,
He dying, with whose glory shee was crowned?
None ever lost so great a losse as shee,
Beeing Sonne, and Father of Eternitie. (1013-1016)
The universality of compassion that the original version assumes is treated defensively here. To combat possible attacks on Mary’s position as spectacular mourner, Lanyer appeals to Mary’s lack of choice in the matter. How could a mother choose otherwise than grieve the loss of her son, Father, Lord and status position? The question begs another: how could we choose but to grieve for her? And for those still uncharitable enough to scrutinize Mary’s grief, we might compare Lanyer’s treatment of the Daughters of Jerusalem. Similarly, Lanyer describes the Daughters’ visible sufferings that together with their verbalizations of grief “intreate[s]” their spectators to pity and compassion:
Poore women seeing how much [Christ’s tormentors] did transgresse,
By teares, by sighs, by cries, intreate, nay proue,
What may be done among the thickest presse,
They labour still these tyrants hearts to moue:
in pitie and compassion to forbeare (995-999)
Lanyer is adamant in presenting the Daughter’s mourning in active verbs: they “labor,” they “entreat,” and they “prove” that spectacle can move an audience. And if members of Lanyer’s audience find themselves unmoved by their grief, Lanyer aligns them with the tormentors of Christ who likewise resist compassion for the women’s spectacular mourning. Indeed, the analogy between Passion (direct experience) and compassion (indirect experience; mourning for another) as suggested by the stabat mater is furthered in Lanyer’s poem when she suggests Christ’s humiliation in the Passion is analogous to Mary’s grief being scrutinized unjustly. Lanyer’s suggests that if we wouldn’t doubt Christ’s pain, his “Bleeding and fainting” while being “Abusede with all their hatefull slaunderous lies,” we shouldn’t doubt Mary’s expressions of grief, especially because we view those humiliations of Christ at the same time that Mary’s “fair eies behold” them (1131-1135). To doubt either sufferer is to choose to further torment them over feeling compassion for them.
While upholding the sincerity of Mary’s grief, Lanyer on the other hand contends with Protestant critiques concerning the faithlessness of the mater dolorosa conventions. Instead of Mary’s grief implying despair of an afterlife, Lanyer’s presents it as celebratory and almost evangelical in its potential for community building. She urges that Mary’s tears “did her good” because they “wash away [Christ’s] pretious blood” so that “sinners might not tread in vnder feet” as they gather on their way “To worship him” (1017-1019). As in the original stabat mater, Mary’s grief in Lanyer’s version is explicitly linked to bringing sinners closer to Christ. Likewise, Lanyer exemplifies the community-building nature of public grief through her description of Christ as the quintessential spectator of grief. Indeed, her Christ is the ultimate stabat mater: he takes time for compassion even amid his Passion.
Although the mourning of the Daughters of Jerusalem ultimately fails to move Christ’s tormentors, Lanyer urges its effect on a more important spectator: Christ himself. Where Pilate and Herod fail to claim Christ’s attention during his passion:
Yet these poore women, by their piteous cries
Did mooue their Lord, their Louer, and their King
To take compassion, turne about, and speake
To them whose hearts were ready now to breake. (981-984)
In these lines, Lanyer stresses the potential for mutual compassion in the stabat mater model: the Daughter’s compassion for Christ arouses his compassion for them. Lanyer celebrates such mutuality of feeling, established and increased upon in the visual realm through looking at, being looked upon, and being conscious of these acts of mutual beholding:
Most blessed Daughters of Ierusalem,
Who found such fauor in your Sauiours sight,
To turne his face when you did pitie him;
Your tearefull eyes beheld his eyes more bright;
Your Faith and Loue vnto such grace did clime,
To haue reflection from this Heau’nly light:
Your Eagles eies did gaze against this Sunne,
Your hearts did thinke, he dead, the world were done. (985-992)
When Christ and the Daughters lock eyes, the connection between them is made and then elevated by consciousness of their being spectacles. These eyes-beholding-eyes build a community precisely in that ambiguous space between subject beholding and object being beheld.
Because the consciousness of self as a spectacle is something women seem better poised to experience and learn from, Lanyer composes her virtuous community solely of women, including a feminized Christ.3 Through this theme, Lanyer’s seeming digression on the dangers of beauty without virtue (lines 185-248) aligns with her concerns throughout the poem. And in a longer piece, I plan to tease out the connections between that section and her later blazon of Christ’s beauty upon the resurrection (1305-1312). In the blazon, she borrows her modifying phrases from the portion of the Song of Songs detailing both male and female beauty, but the line “His lips like scarlet threeds, yet much more sweet / Than is the sweetest hony dropping dew” alludes to explicitly to the bride’s beauty (Woods 1314n). Through these resonances, Lanyer suggests that, like Christ’s, a woman’s subjectivity is constructed in proximity to physical beauty as a cultural value, through an awareness of the spectacle that beauty may create, and cognizant of the potential vulnerabilities to which that gendered subjectivity is subject. Therefore, also like Christ, she is uniquely poised to feel compassion for other women. Indeed, this theme of women’s particular capacity for compassion is signaled in Lanyer’s prefatory letter “To the Vertuous Reader,” wherein she bemoans the capacity of women “to be condemned by the words of their owne mouthes…as to speake unadvisedly against the rest of their sexe” (Woods 48). And in the poem Lanyer makes good on her maxim, modeling the kind of community she wants to build through her dramatic choices. Her assigning Eve’s apology to Pilate’s wife (761-944), her criticizing Cleopatra’s treatment of Octavia even as she has compassion for her suffering (215-224, 1409-1432), and her exhortations to the (assumed female) reader throughout, form anachronistic communities of women based on compassion they felt for each other’s suffering. And Lanyer builds her envisioned utopic community through her appropriation and emendation of the stabat mater tradition, that microcosm of community built upon the spectacle of mutual compassion and suffering.
Bestul, Thomas H. Texts of the Passion: Latin Devotional Literature and Medieval Society. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.
Goodland, Katharine. Female Mourning in Medieval and Renaissance English Drama: From the Raising of Lazarus to King Lear. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2005.
Lanyer, Aemilia, and Susanne Woods. The Poems of Aemilia Lanyer: Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.