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Martine van Elk, Early Modern Women’s Writing: Domesticity, Privacy, and the Public Sphere in England and the Dutch Republic (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017)

Martine van Elk, Early Modern Women’s Writing: Domesticity, Privacy, and the Public Sphere in England and the Dutch Republic (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). ISBN 978-3-319-33221-5, 299 pp., £53.99

Reviewed by Lotte Fikkers

[1] In Early Modern Women’s Writing: Domesticity, Privacy, and the Public Sphere in England and the Dutch Republic, Martine van Elk argues that in different countries, social contexts, and political circumstances, early modern women writers were articulating broadly similar ideas. Her monograph therefore presents a comparative study of Dutch and English texts by women. The originality of this work lies in its wide scope. Not only does it have a transnational dimension with its focus on women writers from both England and the Dutch republic, Early Modern Women’s Writing also has an interdisciplinary focus in the sense that it explores a broad definition of authorship by including visual art (such as portraits and glass engravings) alongside literature from the seventeenth century.

[2] The monograph is organised into seven chapters, including introduction and afterword. The introduction aims to make the reader aware of the historicity of the public/private divide. Van Elk rightly points out that this is confusing material, as the use of the words ‘public’ and ‘private’, both from a pre-modern and modern perspective, can be obfuscating. The occasional use of the word ‘dichotomy’ in that light does not help; the rest of the book convincingly demonstrates that the public/private divide was permeable, and that early modern women writers attempted to negotiate this division of spheres and were able to straddle both domains. The second chapter analyses prescriptive literature and visual representations of women in the private domain to demonstrate that women were both hindered and enabled in their literary expression because of the changing perceptions of the household in the seventeenth century. The close-‘reading’ of various paintings and portraits in that light is illuminating. Chapters three to six form case studies: in each chapter the work of at least one woman writer from England is compared and contrasted to that of one from the Dutch Republic. As almost all of the examples used in these case studies date from the seventeenth-century, the actual chronological scope of the book is perhaps slightly more narrow than one may expect from reading the title (‘Early Modern’).

[3] A comparison between the works of women from different countries is necessary, Van Elk posits, because it can show the need to reassess the work of individuals in the light of larger, transnational tendencies. This argument is at times very persuasive. Chapter 4 (“Friends, Lovers, and Rivals”), for example, posits friendship poetry as international phenomenon, with women sharing poems with their international friends, as such crossing national boundaries. These poems, therefore, are served by a cross-cultural analysis. The chapter itself does take a more national focus, as it discusses the friendship poems shared between two sets of Dutch writers (among whom is Catharina Questiers, whose name is conspicuously absent from the chapter’s title) separately, and uses those to try and shed new light on Katherine Philips’ English friendship poetry: Katherine Philips’ royalism, Van Elk argues, “is only part of the explanation for the specific form that her idealization of the friend takes” in her friendship poems – which becomes evident when reading her work alongside that of women in countries with different political organizations (156). Chapter 6 (“Staging Female Virtue”) is perhaps most successful in showing the necessity of a transnational study, as it highlights the remarkable similarities between Elizabeth Cary’s The Tragedy of Mariam and Katharina Lescailje’s Herodes en Mariamne. The parallels between state and household drawn in both these texts, as well as the use of reformist discourse of domesticity and the household, demonstrates that the concerns and occupations of early modern women transcended national boundaries.

[4] Because of its focus on texts written by authors from both England and the Dutch republic in three different languages (Dutch, English, and Latin), Early Modern Women’s Writing may seem to hold appeal for two specific and distinct groups of scholars only: those interested in English women writers, and those studying Dutch women writers (of which there are few). However, Van Elk has done an excellent job at providing accurate and sensitive English translations of source material in Dutch and Latin, and she always supplies the original text in her endnotes for cross-referencing. Moreover, the book explicitly addresses the need for more comparative work to be done on early modern women writers, because otherwise, ‘we risk situating women’s writing too narrowly within a single context’ (259). Those scholars of gender studies and early modern women writers who share this evaluation, and those ready to let themselves be persuaded, should read Early Modern Women’s Writing. At the very least, this study brings Dutch sources under the attention of an international audience by presenting them side by side with their English ‘counterparts’. This alone is a worthy purpose, as the work of female writers from the Dutch Republic has long been neglected even by Dutch scholars. Van Elk’s considerate study rectifies this situation.

Leiden University, February 2018

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