Marie De France’s Lanval: Fairy Magic and Gender Bending

Aside from, potentially, “Chevrefoil”, “Lanval” is the most famous, and consequently most widely discussed, Lay written by Marie de France. Originally translated from an Anglo-Norman dialect, the tale follows the endeavours of “a very nice nobleman” (3), Lanval, who, renowned for his “beauty and his prowess” (22), serves as a  knight at the court of King Arthur. Lanval, having spent his life – and all his money –  in devoted service, is subsequently overlooked by the king; as such, sad and alone in a “strange land” he rides off into the country to cheer himself up. At this point he strikes the fancy of a fairy lady and is ‘selected’ as her exclusive love interest; she bestows upon him a number of gifts and provides him with unlimited funds, requiring only that she keep their love a secret. This situation suits Lanval well until Queen Guinevere, the promiscuous wench that she is, attempts to coax him into an extramarital affair; offended by his refusal Guinevere unleashes a slew of homosexual insults causing Lanval, in defence of his masculinity, to reveal his relationship with the fairy – whose beauty, he states, is far superior to that of Guinevere. Unable to comprehend Lanval’s refusal, Guinevere accuses Lanval of treason, to which he must answer in front of King Arthur’s court; in order to absolve himself, Lanval is then charged to present this woman whose beauty outmaches that of the Queen. This, by the logic of the narrative, should be problematic in that, having broke his promise, Lanval has rendered his relationship with the fairy null; fortunately for him, Marie De France breaks narrative convention and has the fairy return to save the day, outshine the Queen and whisk Lanval on horseback to Avalon: an “island far away.”

The fairy mistress motif is a recurring theme within the celtic tradition and, as such, reappears frequently in the associated narratives. Traditionally speaking, the motif is characterised by a woman, who comes from an ethereal world to select a man as her lover; having done so, she imposes upon him some form of prohibition, the breaking of which, is usually punished by the withdrawal of her love. Throughout these narratives, as in every Disney film ever made, however, the male protagonist traditionally maintains a dominant role,  showcasing his honour or resolve in the face of impending doom; the fairy woman, thus, typically takes the form of a prize or reward.

Marie De France’s narrative is slightly unconventional in that Lanval’s fairy mistress holds far more narrative power than is typically granted; unlike the heroes of conventional fiction, Lanval is presented from the beginning as a somewhat powerless man. Having spent all his money, he is socially neglected and becomes depressed, finding solace, only, in a solitary horse ride; the fairy woman, thus, becomes HIS saviour, providing him with the financial backing to gain social appreciation and showcase his generosity. When Lanval breaks his promise, traditionally, she should disappear into the mist, never again to be seen; contrary to convention, however, Lanval’s fairy mistress returns, on horseback, to rescue him from the clutches of doom… despite him having broken her promise. In this regard, the fairy mistress, as presented by Marie De France, is substantially more powerful than is typical for the genre; she, on two separate occasions, saves Lanval from misfortune and seems, literally, to take the reigns in regard to their romantic relationship.

Shifting the Blame: Gender Parity in Aemilia Lanyer’s Salve Deus ex Judaeorum

Lanyer published her sole volume of poetry, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail, God, King of the Jews), in 1611, at the age of forty-two; the book itself consists of three main sections: the lengthy title poem “Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum,” “The description of Cooke-ham” and, finally, a brief concluding paragraph entitled “To the Doubtfull Reader.” To these three main sections are preceded by eleven prefatory addresses – to 1) “Queen Anne”, 2) “the Princess Elizabeth”, 3) “all Vertuous Ladies in Generall”, 4) “Arabella Stuart”, 5) “Susan, Countess of Kent”, 6) “Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke”, 7) “Lucy, Countess of Bedford”, 8) “Margaret, Countess of Cumberland”, 9) “Katherine, Countess of Suffolk”, 10) “Anne, Countess of Dorset and 11) “the Vertuous Reader” all but two of which are written, like the body texts, in iambic pentameter.

Though these prefatory addresses provide interesting contextual material and, in fact, have been used to make assumptions about Lanyer’s life, they draw minimal critical attention in comparison to the three main sections.

“To the Doubtfull Reader”

This ten line concluding paragraph is one of the three passages written in prose form and serves as a justification of the work’s title; it is important, most notably, in that it suggests the work was inspired by one of Lanyer’s dreams and was produced as a direct result of God’s will:

Gentle Reader, if thou desire to be resolued, why I
giue this Title, Salue Deus Rex Judaeorum, know
for certaine, that it was deliuered vnto me in sleepe
many yeares before I had any intent to write in this
maner, and was quite out of my memory vntill I had written
the Passion of Christ, when immediately it came into my re-
membrance, what I had dreamed long before; and thinking
it a significant token, that I was appointed to performe that
Worke I gaue the very same words I receiued in sleepe as the fittest Title I could deuise for this Booke.

Critics have suggested that this ultimate conclusion may have been intended, firstly, to add worth to a poem centered around religion and second, to possibly deflect some of the outrage evoked by her decidedly radical opinions on gender parity.

“The Description of Cooke-ham”

This seven stanza poem, immediately following the title poem, is, ostensibly, the first published country house poem in English (Ben Jonson’s more famous “To Penshurst” may have been written earlier and was first published in 1616). Her inspiration came from a visit to Cookham Dean, where Margaret Clifford, Countess of Cumberland, and her daughter Lady Anne Clifford lived; while visiting the residence she reports to have received a spiritual awakening, inspired by the piety of Margaret. “The Description of Cooke-ham is the only portion of the book that can effectively be dated; the poem must have been written between February 25, 1609 (when Anne Clifford married and took the name “Dorset,” by which she is called in the poem), and October 2, 1610 (when the poem was entered in the Stationers’ Register), but there is no internal evidence to date other portions of the book so precisely and nothing to suggest that all of the poems were written at the same time. (McBride)

“Salve Deus Ex Judaeorum”

The title poem of Lanyer’s collection, “Salve Deus Ex Judaeorum,” is a large work of approximately two hundred stanzas, eight lines each, written entirely in Iambic Pentameter (ABABABCC);it is simultaneously the largest and most critically acclaimed section of Lanyer’s volume. Divided into a number of smaller sections, “Salve Deus” expresses Lanyer’s radical views on gender parity and, using a wealth of Biblical allegory, and advocates a long-neglected “respect of woman-kind” (1603-4). By evoking specific biblical allusions, Lanyer attempts to shift the historical blame paradigm from women to men with regards, specifically, to both the fall from the garden of Eden (“Eve’s Apologie”) and Christ’s crucifixion (“The Passion of Christ.”)

In “Eve’s apologie,” Lanyer centers on humankind’s fall from the Garden of Eden, the blame for which, historically, has always fallen on Eve; in this lengthy passage Lanyer presents a series of eloquent logical arguments with the intention of reallocating biblical responsibility so that it falls, primarily, on Adam.
She begins by positing that the gift of the apple was an act of affection and that Eve, when presenting her loving gift, could not possibly have predicted the result.

Our Mother Eve, who tasted of the Tree,
Giving to Adam what shee held most deare,
Was simply good, and had no powre to see,       765
The after-comming harme

This argument it followed shortly by a confirmation that Adam, not Eve, received the warning from God and, as such was responsible for guiding Eve:

He never sought her weakenesse to reprove,     805
With those sharpe words, which he of God did heare:
Yet Men will boast of Knowledge, which he tooke
From Eves faire hand, as from a learned Booke.

Lanyer concludes with the statement “If any Evill did in her remaine/ Beeing made of him, he was the ground of all” (809-10) and, in doing so, suggests that Adam, being the source material for Eve’s creation, is the undeniable cause of the problem; any inclination towards sin held by Eve must first, necessarily, have existed within Adam. These combined arguments form the platform for Lanyer’s ultimate advocacy of gender parity in education:

Your fault beeing greater, why should you disdaine
Our beeing your equals, free from tyranny?
If one weake woman simply did offend,                  830
This sinne of yours, hath no excuse, nor end.

Lanyer’s argument rests on the notion that gender disparity in the Renaissance was based, fundamentally, on Eve’s initial weakness; having disproven this weakness, then, she intends to detract from the value of conventional perspectives on gender. It is for this reason, her radical attempts at the subversion of conventional gender norms, that many modern critics have labelled her a proto-feminist writer.


The Importance of Looking Back (PART 3): Reclaiming the Feminine Image from Goblin Men

Christina Rossetti displayed, more so than most, an exceptional talent for usurping the masculine gaze; in two of her poems specifically, “In an Artist’s Studio” and “Goblin Market”, Rossetti draws attention to the fragile nature of masculinity (see parts 1 + 2) while undermining existing conceptions of the feminine persona. These notions are consequently replaced by her own feminine self-conceptions which revolve, primarily, around solidarity, individuality and an inherent potential for greatness.

Rossetti’s “In an Artist’s Studio” is a blatant illustration of the process – described in the first two parts of this blog-marathon – by which the male artist, through his art, depersonalizes the individual nature of women, resulting in “one face [that] looks out from all his canvasses” (“Studio”, 1).

Though, on a manifest level, this might – and probably should – be understood as a direct reference to her brother’s constant reproduction of Elizabeth Siddal, Christina Rossetti engages with this “selfsame figure” (“Studio”, 2) on a deeper level: she engages with, what Woolf calls, women’s “magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.” The artist in Rossetti’s “Studio” – regardless of his specific real-life counterpart – stands as a representative for all male artists and, necessarily, presents women “as [they] fill[] his dream[s]” (“Studio”, 14): in their ideal form; these artistic representations do not capture the subject “as she is” (“Studio”, 13), but as he wants her to be, allowing him to “feed[] upon her” (“Studio”, 9) image, reassured by the “true kind eyes” (“Studio”, 10) of his manufactured superiority. Within this dynamic, Rossetti suggests, “every canvas… is neither more nor less” (“Studio”, 7-8) than an artifact of masculine self-assurance; men define themselves “only in relation to” (Woolf) their feminine creations.

This concept is replicated again, albeit allegorically, in Rossetti’s longer narrative poem Goblin Market in which two girls, Laura and Lizzie, struggle to overcome the temptations posed by “goblin men” (“Market”, 42); traditionally, this temptation has been acknowledged, by critics, as decidedly sexual. What I propose instead, however, is a literary allegory, more in keeping with the central tenets of “The Artist’s Studio;” in this scenario the ‘fruit’ proffered by the goblin ‘men’ represents, not sex, but the masculine formations of the feminine image. The girls, then, necessarily must avoid buying into their conceptions for fear of sacrificing their autonomy; when Laura’s capitulates (126) then, she, essentially, allows men to define her femininity, and is hollowed of her beauty (277-9) – individuality. Lizzie, fortunately, is more resolute in the protection of her gender and “brave[s] the” (470) land of literary men; “like a beacon left alone in a hoary roaring sea” (412-13) Lizzie endures the “coax[ing[” (425), “Bull[ying]” (426) of her contemporary artists and is able to maintain control over her own perceptions of gender; “at last[,] the evil people/, worn out by her resistance” (437-8), “vanish[] into the distance” (446), their manufactured illusions of superiority shattered.

The weakness of the “goblin men” is, ostensibly, then, the same weakness harboured in the deep recesses of Rossetti’s “Artist:” a reliance on the willing submission of women; if the artist’s model, for example, were suddenly to pick up a brush and begin editing his work, his reaction would be one, first, of anger; then, when he realizes she knows what she’s doing, this anger would transform itself into a sense of overwhelming terror. Man’s absolute reliance on the willing submission of woman “explains how restless they [become when] under her criticism” (Woolf). Rossetti, aware of this dependence on female inferiority, is able to depict, and simultaneously enact, a reclamation of control of the feminine image. In “Goblin Market,” uniquely, the female characters are defined in relation to one another, in the absence of fully realized men; traditional notions of submission and dependence are shattered and replaced by a focus on independent action, resistance and the power of close female relationships. Similarly, in “In an Artist’s Studio” the gaze is shifted back upon the artist, drawing attention to his self-manufactured, decidedly precarious notions of masculine superiority.

Throughout history men have dictated control of the feminine image and, by political, social and economic means, withheld from women the opportunity to participate in its development; during the Victorian era, however, the circumstantial restrictions placed on female writers begin to disintegrate, allowing them to reclaim, piecemeal, their own femininity. Authors like Christina Rossetti, begin undermining masculine notions of art and, to a degree, masculinity itself; by throwing a curtain over the “magic and delicious” (Woolf) mirror of submissive femininity, man, for the first time in history, is revealed at his true size.

Sam

The Importance of Looking Back (PART 2): If Dudes Had it Their Way – D.G. Rossetti feat. DJ Patty, C.

As mentioned in the preface to my last blog, the Victorian period is a very interesting point of study with regard to this dynamic (see PART 1); it is “here, for the first time” that, Woolf suggests, women begin to find their voice and shelves start to fill with feminine – of not yet feminist – literature. Simultaneously, at this point in history, it is possible to examine both the masculine reinforcement, and the feminine usurpation of the artistic gender hierarchy. Christina Rossetti, in her poems Goblin Market and In an Artist’s Studio, attempts to detract from the self-perpetuating distortions of the feminine image presented in the work of her male contemporaries: Coventry Patmore and, her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Of these men Patmore, possibly, provides the most easily accessible summation of the “masculine opinion” (Woolf) in his “Angel in the House”; this lengthy poem, written systematically in a series of four-line stanzas – in meticulous iambic tetrameter – with an ABAB rhyme scheme, serves, ostensibly, as a list of the expected qualities of the ideal woman. The Angel of the title, presumably, is Patmore’s wife who, the reader is led to believe, exhibits all of these qualities, and, in doing so, facilitates the artist’s “extraordinary desire for self-assertion” (Woolf). Perhaps one of the most telling passages of his text is the first prelude to “Sahara,” “The Wife’s Tragedy,” which begins with a simple declaration of an inarguable truth: “man must be pleased[, and] him to please/Is women’s pleasure” (Patmore, I.IX.Prelude I). A wife, then, is not merely responsible for the maintenance of her husband’s happiness – and indirectly the acceptance of her inferiority – but must also, necessarily, derive fulfilment from the experience; if ever she fails in this primary endeavour she must wait, patiently for him to sooth himself, conveying “pardon in her pitying eyes” (Patmore, I.IX.Prelude I) while “weep[ing] against his breast” in quiet acquiescence that “the sin was hers.” Additionally, Patmore suggests, it is of paramount importance for her to be beautiful and complacently domestic; only by exhibiting these qualities, unflinchingly, can she earn his love, and become the “Angel of the House.”

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, in his poem “Jenny,” presents us with an alternate model for femininity, the prostitute, essentially doubling the number of potential feminine occupations; if you’re not fond of a husband it seems, by necessity, you’re “fond of a guinea” (Rossetti, D.G.). Mr. Rossetti, like Patmore, equates love with beauty and – in this case sexual – obedience; Jenny, like the Angel, relies entirely on the male protagonist to provide her existence with purpose: she is defined, as a character, only in relation to the male speaker. Lying placidly throughout the poem Jenny serves, essentially, as nothing more than a medium for Rossetti’s extravagant artistic reflections: “imaginatively she is of the highest importance [while] practically she is completely insignificant” (Woolf). As if attesting to the precision of Woolf’s derisive aphorism, Rossetti pointedly invokes a wealth of literary imagery, effectively dissociating the feminine world and a world of intellectual involvement; then, having divested her of creative potential, Rossetti emphasises, instead, the aesthetic value of Jenny – “whose eyes are as blue skies, whose hair is countless gold incomparable” (Rossetti, D.G.) – and, accordingly, her suitability for male artistic representation.

This conception of the feminine subject is common to both Rossetti and Patmore and represents, to a large degree, the general consensus of the male-dominated literature of the past millennia: women should be compliant and domestic, defined entirely by their relation to men; their beautiful, yet un-literary, nature should make them suitable models while, necessarily, negating their potential for personal artistic creation; they should willingly relinquish their claim to individuality in return for masculine protection. And how could a woman protest, when “all the conditions of her life” (Woolf), it seemed, “were hostile to [a creative] state of mind”? The answer, Woolf suggests in her eponymous aphorism, is that a woman may effectively “write fiction” only upon procuring both “money and a room of her own”: money, to permit time to write in the absence of labour; a private room in which to foster her creativity in the absence of discouragement. These two things, Woolf suggests, “even in the nineteenth century,” were notoriously hard to come by, but no longer impossible; slowly but surely female writers began to emerge, producing art that, by its very existence began reclaiming the feminine image.

… to be continued some more…

The Importance of Looking Back (PART 1): The Looking-Glass Problem – Christina Rossetti feat. V-Woolf.

— (For this blog I have exceeded slightly (by about fifty years) the upper limit of the class’ material time-frame; I have done this, partly out of a personal interest in the work of C. Rossetti but, primarily, because the Victorian period, as I will explain, seems to be a decisive period for the reclamation of the feminine image.) —

One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
… Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dreams.
(Rosseti, C., “In an Artist’s Studio,” 1-2, 13-14)

In 1928, having been asked to speak about women and fiction, Virginia Woolf, over the course of two papers, provided the most exhaustive study of this specific relationship that the literary world had ever encountered: “A Room of One’s Own”; these two papers – too long to be read in full – over a span of approximately sixty pages express, essentially, what Christina Rossetti captures in the above four lines.

I do not mean to equate the value of the two works, nor the depth of their discussion; in regard to specificity and breadth I concede that Woolf is by far the superior – and, in fact, is the source of a majority of the following material. By equating these two works I merely intend to draw attention to their conclusive thematic similarity: the artistic identity of women as defined, primarily, by men.

Women have never lacked for representation in literature – that has never been the problem; on the contrary, Woolf suggests, “women have burnt like beacons in all the works of all the poets from the beginning of time” (see fig. 1 below). Even the most nominal study of canonical literature will yield a “splendid gallery of fictitious women” (Woolf) whose nobility of thought is “as great as a man[‘s], [if not] greater;” “indeed,” Woolf continues, “if woman had no existence save in… fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance.” In terms of representation, then, neither quantity nor quality – at least in terms of classic literature – seems to present a serious cause for dissatisfaction: the real concern then – and consequently the focus of Rossetti’s poem – is not so much a question of ‘how,’ but ‘by whom’ are women being represented?

The answer to this question is a simple one: men; “men who have taken [an] M.A. degree; men who have taken no degree; men who have no apparent qualification save that they are not women” (Woolf). The simple fact of the matter is that, “even up to the beginning of the nineteenth century” (Woolf), women “w[ere] not encouraged to be [artists].” Though images of femininity “pervade[] poetry from cover to cover” they are images created, primarily, by Rossetti’s ‘him:’ the masculine artist; women, to a massive degree, have been relegated to silence, unable to control the artistic – and necessarily societal – construction of their own gender. From a masculine point of view this artistic autocracy is a fundamentally important condition of man’s existence; men hold a vested interest in maintaining this dynamic primarily because they are able to define their masculinity “only in relation to the other sex.” Woolf explains this notion very elegantly in Part Two of “A Room”:

Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size. That is why Napoleon and Mussolini both insist so emphatically upon the inferiority of women, for if they were not inferior, they would cease to enlarge. That serves to explain in part the necessity that women so often are to men. (Woolf)

As such, the control of artistic freedom becomes synonymous with self-governing gender identity; so long as man determines the feminine image, he is able to perpetuate his narcissistic self-aggrandizement, asserting, without opposition, “his own superiority” (Woolf).

 … to be continued…

“The Wife’s Lament” Vs. “The Wanderer”

“The Wife’s Lament”, an Old English Elegiac poem – more often than not considered to be a ‘fraunlied’ or ‘woman’s song’ (Wikipedia) – of questionable origin, is one of many poems preserved in the Exeter book; the poem itself is 53 lines long and, thematically, concerns itself with the grief of a woman whose lover, due to extenuating circumstances, it seems, has traversed “the storm-crossed sea” (Lament) leaving her to “suffer[] the wretchedness of exile” (Lament). The speaker, despite her condition, retains the “right to [speak her] miseries,” and proceeds – with minimal explanation of the specific circumstances – to draw conclusions on the nature of lost love; her lover, we are led to believe, despite his absence, shares her “endless surging sorrows,” and “suffers great anguish” as a result their separation.

This theme of loss and separation is apparent, again, in “The Wanderer”: a text of similar origin, also found in the Exeter Book; this poem, also an elegy, also of questionable origin, is spoken, this time, by a male protagonist – “the earth-walker” – and concerns, not the loss of lover, but more the loss of his home. He, much like the male figure in “The Wife’s Lament” has been “removed from [his] homeland, far from his kinsmen,” and searches for a location where he might be “receive[d] with gladness” (Wanderer).

The two poems, aside from sharing a common theme and style, also use extremely similar language:

“Removed from his homeland… stand[s] covered with frost-fall”(Wanderer)
“Outlawed from his homeland he sits covered with storm-frost” (Lament)

“The wounds are deeper in his heart, sore for the loss of a dear one.” (Wanderer)
“Woe is the one who, languishing, waits for a lover” (Lament).

“Sad of face he hid in an earth-pit” (Wanderer)
“Luckless, Gloomy… I… live in an earth-cave” (Lament)

The language of the poems are so similar, in fact, that contemporary critics have suggested that the author of “The Wife’s Lament” may “may in fact be male” (Wikipedia), despite it having been written, entirely, with feminine pronouns (Wikipedia); “this interpretation[, however,] is… dependent… on [the] contention that… a later Anglo-Saxon copyist has wrongly imposed feminine gender on the protagonist” and, as such, is generally disregarded. The critically accepted female authorship of the wife’s lament is backed, too, by the tone of the poem – particularly when compared to “The Wanderer.”

The protagonist of “The Wanderer,” while “wretched with care” at having been “removed from [his] homseland” (Wanderer), spends the length of the poem chiding himself for caring so much. According to the earth-walker “it is a fine custom for a man to lock tight his heart…, keep closed the hoard-case of his mind [and]… shut sorrowful thought up fast in [his] breast’s coffer”; to “utter too quickly his breast’s passion” (Wanderer) before first knowing how to “achieve a remedy” would be in opposition to his manly courage. Instead of complaining then, a man should sit “apart in private meditation” and take comfort from the father in heaven” (Wanderer), waiting to speak “until he knows clearly, sure-minded, where the thoughts of his heart may turn: this is a man’s responsibility.

With this in mind, then, it seems clear that the speaker of the wife’s lament must, indeed, be female; despite using a similar language to  “The Wanderer” the female speaker does not relent once from here unmitigated recount of her sorrow. Far from sealing up her emotions, it becomes, instead, her intention to describe “the miseries [she] has endured since [she] grew up, new or old – never greater than now” (Lament); not once does she seem concerned with locking her “heart’s coffer.”

In direct opposition to the image of masculinity presented in “The Wanderer,” the speaker of “The Wife’s Lament”, shows decidedly female (non-male) tonal characteristics; therefore, logically speaking, the author must assumedly be female: that, or a male author, for some reason or another, wrote – purposefully – in the guise of a feminine persona.

Aemilia Lanyer – The Proto-Feminist One Hit Wonder

Aemilia Lanyer, baptised in Bishopsgate, London in 1569, was the first English woman to declare herself a poet; admittedly, she was not the first English woman to publish a book of poetry, but indeed the first to assume the position of poet as primary profession. Over the years, researchers have found it tremendously difficult to produce a comprehensive account of Lanyer’s life; any and all clues about her personal life have been derived either from church documents, court records or the diary of a lusty admirer. Despite the scarcity of biographical information, however, Lanyer’s sole publication Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611) has survived, allowing us to speculate about her political, moral and social values; this book of poetry – written exclusively in Iambic Pentameter, with the exception of two prefatory pieces and a prose afterword – is frequently considered a work of proto-feminist literature due to its radical notions about gender equality. Lanyer, in Salve Deus, argues for gender parity in the social and religious spheres, employing biblical arguments to assert that males, not females, are to blame for both humanity’s fall from grace and Christ’s crucifixion.

And then to lay the fault on Patience backe,
That we (poore women) must endure it all;
We know right well he did discretion lacke,
Beeing not perswaded thereunto at all;
If Eue did erre, it was for knowledge sake,
The fruit beeing faire perswaded him to fall:
No subtill Serpents falshood did betray him,
If he would eate it, who had powre to stay him?

Not Eue, whose fault was onely too much loue,
Which made her giue this present to her Deare,
That which shee tasted, he likewise might proue,
Whereby his knowledge might become more cleare;
He neuer sought her weakenesse to reproue,
With those sharpe words wich he of God did heare:
Yet Men will boast of Knowledge, which he tooke
From Eues faire hand, as from a learned Booke.

Below are some useful analyses of Lanyer’s work, along with a comprehensive version of the full text:

Hodgson, Elizabeth M. A. “Prophecy and Gendered Mourning in Lanyer’s Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 43 (2003): 101-16.

Ng, Su Fang. “Aemilia Lanyer and the Politics of Praise.” ELH 67 (2000): 433-51

Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum: FULL TEXT @ LUMINARIUM

Mary Wollstonecraft – The Original Desperate Housewife*

* Irony: “The expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.”

Below is a Hyperlinked biography of Mary Wollstonecraft’s life and major works.

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Mary Wollstonecraft from an early age was aware of the negative aspects of a patriarchal society; her father was abusive and wasted the family’s money a series of failed business ventures. Her family became somewhat impoverished and, unhappy with this new lifestyle, Mary secured a position as a Lady’s companion.

Her experiences in this profession later provide inspiration for her Thoughts on The Education of Daughters (1787) This book, her first published work, consisted of guidelines for the raising of middle-class, female children. The aim of the book, primarily, is to teach young girls to be effective housewives and mothers – it is through these positions that Wollstonecraft argues that Women are most capable of affecting society. Though this seems contradictory to the feminist works for which she will later become famous there are certain aspects of the text that suggest Wollstonecraft’s willingness to stray from convention.

After working two years as this Lady’s companion Wollstonecraft returned home to care for her dying mother. During this period she became extremely close friends with a girl named Fanny Blood. After her mother’s death She moved in with Fanny’s family and the pair opened a school. This Friendship opened Wollstonecraft’s eyes to the potential power of individual females; Fanny’s death a few years later inspired Mary to write her second book and her only complete novel.

The novel was called Mary: A Fiction (1788). In this story Wollstonecraft employs an industrious, self-taught heroine who, throughout her various escapades, serves to critique the damaging nature of male dominant societies and undermine the value of marriage. By using a rational, independent, female protagonist Wollstonecraft helps set the stage for emerging feminist discourse.

After Fanny’s death, Wollstonecraft took a position as a governess in Ireland where she worked for a year. Her experiences, here, with children inspired her to write Original Stories from Real Life (1788): a children’s book which advocated androgynous notions of virtue, and served to alter middle-class perceptions of happiness. The book, written in opposition to pedagogical texts by Jean Jaques Rousseau and John Locke, promoted reason and intellectualism in young females while dismissing wealth and status as middle-class signifiers of happiness. The second edition of Original Stories was illustrated by William Blake.

 Wollstonecraft, again unhappy with the woman of the house, quit her job as governess in order to pursue a career exclusively as an author. At this point she moved to London and, with the help of Joseph Johnson, a radical publisher, began broadening her intellectual horizons. During this period, Wollstonecraft published her two most influential pieces: A Vindication of The rights of Man (1790) and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).

The first of these, a Vindication of the Rights of Man, was written in response to a political pamphlet by Edward Burke; Wollstonecraft’s text attacks Burkes defence of a constitutional monarchy and, instead, proposes republicanism. Wollstonecraft, in this decidedly political document, also manages to provide the first feminist critique of language; she attacks burkes gendered descriptions of society and discredits his views on the passivity of women.

 A Vindication of the Rights of Women, written two years after her vindication of men, extends, specifically, her ideas on gender and education and focuses less heavily on political structure. This work is arguably her most influential work and, despite popular misconception, was actually fairly well received among her contemporaries. It is one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy and argues in favour of gender equality in education and society. Wollstonecraft responds to certain educational and political theorists who did not believe women should have an education. She argues that women ought to have an education that corresponds with their position in society, claiming that women are essential to the nation because they are responsible for teaching values to its children.  She argues that women are not merely ornaments within society but, instead, that they are human beings deserving of the same fundamental rights as men.

While in London she learned both German and French which she used to translate various texts; she also began socializing with Johnson’s friends who included a number of high profile characters such as Thomas Paine, William Godwin and Henry Fuseli. It was the last of these, Henry Fuseli that most impressed Wollstonecraft and they formed a close, romantic relationship – despite his already having a wife. Eventually, Wollstonecraft asked to move in with Fuseli and his wife; unsurprisingly, Fuseli’s wife thought this was an outrageous idea and forced Henry to end his relationship with Wollstonecraft.

          At this point Wollstonecraft moved to France in order to escape the humiliation of this incident and, also, to participate in the French Revolution – a movement celebrated in her Vindication of the Rights of Men. It was here, in the midst of the revolution, that she met Gilbert Imlay: an American; the pair quickly fell in love and Wollstonecraft, who to this point had denounced the sexual aspect of relationships, soon became pregnant. Thus her first child, Fanny, was born.  As the political situation in France worsened, it became dangerous for English citizens and Imlay registered Wollstonecraft as his wife – though they were not married. Wollstonecraft left France and Imlay, upon seeing her domestic, maternal transformation, lost interest and cut communications.

At this point, Wollstonecraft attempted to commit suicide, twice: once with Laudanum and once by throwing herself into the Thames. Both times she was rescued before succeeding. She soon settled back into a regular routine and eventually married the philosopher William Godwin; they lived happily in a double house which allowed them to maintain their independence. Wollstonecraft died in 1797, ten days after giving birth to her second daughter Mary – who would grow up to write Frankenstein.

After her death her husband, Godwin, in an attempt to glorify her life wrote Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Women. This ended up having a counterintuitive effect because it revealed the scandalous nature of her relationships as well as her two suicide attempts. As such, for almost a century after the memoirs were published, Mary Wollstonecraft’s reputation was destroyed, her work, for the most part, discounted. Notably, Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, Lucretia Mott and George Eliot still credited her during this period. In the late 1800’s and through the 20th century Wollstonecraft’s reputation was steadily returned by wave after wave of feminist thinkers. Virginia Woolf credits Wollstonecraft with having a profound impact on the creation of a modern feminist voice.

… For an easily accessible summary of the above material check out: Wollstonecraft Presentation. (PDF)

Tearing Down the Master’s House – “A Room of One’s Own”

Audre Lorde, in her discussion “The Master’s Tools...”, suggests that ending sexism is primarily concerned, not with eradicating gender differences but, instead, “learning how to take [those] differences and make them strengths.” She proposes, also, that by using the master’s tools (ie. writing: prose, poetry, academic writing etc.) one can temporarily “beat him at his own game” but will not succeed, long term, in destroying his house – patriarchy. It is within the frame of these assumptions that I would like, briefly, to discuss Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

What is her difference exactly? Well, she’s a woman – a state of being which, historically, has carried with it a slew of cultural handicaps. As Woolf states, these handicaps pervade every aspect of life and are not limited merely to literature – though that as the focus of her, and consequently my, discussion. She suggests that, throughout history women have been restricted from participating in the processes that allow people to write creatively; due to social restrictions women have, for the most part, been prevented from acting, writing etc.. Woolf goes on to suggest that, even if they had suddenly been given permission to do these things, women would, probably, have been incapable due to their lack of participation in education, politics etc. With these notable gender setbacks in tow, Woolf begins to write her critique of women in literature. It is this difference – her gender, and consequent removal from literature – that she transforms into a strength; her gender being so long removed from literature Woolf does not feel restricted to the literary parameters that bind men – who have involved in literature for centuries. 

The very style of her writing attests to this assumption. Her “essay” – if it can be called that – is interspersed with fiction, non-fiction, poetry, prose and academic writing; she’s using the master’s tools in a way that the Master – bound by centuries of literary propriety – cannot use them. She’s using her weakness – a removal from literary convention – as a tool to present ideas in a way that cannot be replicated, necessarily, by men. Within this medium she proceeds to introduce ideas concerning literary patriarchy; by presenting gender disparity in such an innovative fashion she forces the reading public to notice – if not accept – certain overt, historical and present, injustices.

Another way in which Woolf attempts to employ the master’s tools is her use of invention. Woolf, throughout her essay, includes non-factual stories of her own invention and proceeds to use them as evidence for greater conclusions – ex: the story of Shakespeare’s imaginary sister. This process, while fortifying some of her key points and emphasizing the versatile nature of her essay, also provides commentary on the way in which gender disparities in literature have come to exist. Much in the same way Woolf invents stories and employs them as truths, man, over history, has made assumptions about women – their physical inferiority, their smaller brain size, their incapacity for learning – and published them as truth. By mimicking this process, Woolf simultaneously comments on its inherent lack of logic and introduces important evidence for her other arguments.

Woolf, in A Room of One’s Own, employs the “master’s tools” innovatively to present a series of literary injustices and academic handicaps that have plagued women writers throughout history; using her difference as a strength, Woolf highlights the fallacy of patriarchal academic dominance, showing that women are as academically capable as, if not more so than, men.