gender and professional authorship in the renaissance

My friend and colleague Laurie Ellinghausen has an essay in the latest issue of Studies in English Literature (subscription required) entitled “Literary Property and the Single Woman in Isabella Whitney’s A Sweet Nosgay“:

Abstract: This essay offers a new perspective on the Tudor poet and maidservant Isabella Whitney’s way of constructing herself as a female author in the early modern literary marketplace. While Whitney is most often read as a writer desiring textual communities through patronage and the exchange of letters, I note that throughout her miscellany A Sweet Nosgay (1573) she continually emphasizes her isolation from family and community. This stance, I argue, helps Whitney develop a sense of herself as a professional writer who must, after losing her post as a servant, achieve economic independence through the sale of her own verse.

A student-edited edition of Whitney’s A Sweet Nosgay can be found here.

This article is a great example of the kind of work in literary studies I’ve been talking about (see comment 97 here).
One of the strongest threads of inquiry in literary studies of the past decade (or more) is the development of the professional author. The professional author

  • balances the demands of art and money in the marketplace, as opposed to navigating the equally complex relationships involved in a patronage system;
  • practices self-representation to present the most attractive image to a large and largely anonymous audience in the print marketplace, as opposed to the more intimate situation presented by, say, coterie verse distributed in manuscript among a group of acquaintances;
  • must develop an understanding of how that print marketplace works, from production to distribution to consumption.

All of these authorship-related developments (and more) took place in Britain between the Renaissance and the late eighteenth century simultaneously with the broader economic changes underway and the radically changing conditions of print production and a populace that was not only increasingly literate but increasingly convinced that reading was a valuable activity. It’s an extremely complex picture, though not one so complex that we cannot understand what’s going on.

Gender is an important category of identity with regard to professional authorship because for all of human history different expectations regarding labor have been applied to men than to women.

In “A Room of One’s own,” Virginia Woolf writes, “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.” However, for several years now, we’ve been learning that Behn had predecessors. Laurie’s article is a valuable contribution to this line of inquiry.

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