Secular self-assertion, perhaps inevitably, developed more slowly; it was one thing to act in ‘unfeminine’ ways if divinely inspired, not quite so easy to act unconventionally out of personal ambition. Speaking in public, or writing, was all very well when it was in the Lord’s cause, and could be claimed as the product of divine inspiration: ‘I am a very weak and unworthy woman… I could do no more of myself than a pencil or pen can do when no hand guides it’, acknowledged one 17th-century female author. Moreover, many women, Quakers and members of other sects, obviously gained confidence from being part of a supportive community with whom they shared beliefs and values.
Worldly ambition was something else. There had of course been, within living memory of many, a great queen of England, who was learned and well read. Working with the scholar Roger Ascham, Elizabeth became fluent in Latin, Greek, and French; he remarked, approvingly, that ‘her mind has no womanly weakness, her perseverance is equal to that of a man’. But for all her selfassertiveness, she was hardly supportive of other women. Her famous speech to the troops at Tilbury in (1588) made a sharp distinction between her role as woman and as monarch: ‘I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too.’ But her mere existence was probably an encouragement, at least, to some
Englishwomen, to trust in their own talents, and to accept their own ‘unfeminine’ ambition. There were certainly Royalist women who – in the absence of their husbands during the Civil War – struggled bravely to defend their families and homes. Anne Bradstreet (an English-born poet who later emigrated to America) wrote, 40 years after the Queen’s death:
Let such as say our sex is void of reason
Know ’tis a slander now, but once was Treason.
An anonymous work entitled The Woman’s Sharpe Revenge (1640) argued, provocatively, that women’s exclusion from learning was ‘devised by men to secure their own continued domination’. Bathsua Makin, who was governess to a daughter of Charles I and who later founded and ran a school for women, insisted in her Essay to Revive the Ancient Education of Gentlewomen in Religion, Manners, Arts and Tongues on the importance of women receiving a solid education. ‘Let women be fools’, she remarked, ‘and you will make them slaves.’ Her book was probably, in part at least, an advertisement for her school and its curriculum; and it was aimed at well-off women. Interestingly, she offered women the (still rare) chance to study the classics. But she reassured her readers by making it clear that she would not ‘hinder good housewifery, neither have I called any from their necessary labour to the book’. And, with a hint of anxiety, she insists that ‘my intention is not to equalize women to men, much less to make them superior. They are the weaker sex.’
But Bathsua Makin warmly praised the role played by Royalist women during the Civil War: they ‘defended their houses and did all things, as soldiers, with prudence and valour, like men’. And she was generously appreciative of her learned contemporaries, including Anne Bradstreet and the Duchess of Newcastle. The biblical story of how Eve brought sin into the world by eating the forbidden apple, so often used against women, is, Makin argues, merely the earliest example of a need for adequate education.
to publish a prose romance, The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania, it was greeted with hostility, and, on the grounds that it slandered contemporaries, withdrawn from sale. Her rank offered no protection. “Work, Lady, work,’ Lord Denny advised Lady Mary, condescendingly, “let writing books alone/For surely wiser women ne’er wrote one.’
The difficulties – indeed, the outspoken scorn – confronting any woman who actually dared to publish her writings are clearly indicated by the experiences of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. Born into a family of well-established, Royalist East Anglian landowners, she went to court as a young woman, then accompanied Queen Henrietta Maria into exile in Paris, where she met and married the Marquess, later the Duke, of Newcastle. Her privileges – rank and riches – certainly protected her; but they also, along with her flamboyantly eccentric personal style and, most of all, her unconcealed literary ambition, made her an easy target for malicious and denigrating gossip. She was fortunate in her marriage; the Duke, much older than his wife, encouraged her endeavours, and, after one of the many attacks on her work, remarked: “Here’s the crime, a lady writes them, and to entrench so much upon the male prerogative is not to be forgiven.’
Though her situation was, in many respects, very different from that of most other women, she wrote very movingly about women’s common fears and griefs, particularly about their children: “the care for their well being, the fear for their ill doing, the grief for their sickness and their unsufferable sorrow for their death’. These were concerns that might afflict any woman, whatever her status.
Cavendish began to write philosophical verse when she and her husband returned to London; as a modern biographer remarks, she felt torn between “the (feminine and Christian) virtue of modesty’ and her own ambitions. She rightly took her work very seriously, but she was often forced to retreat into defensive, and self-deprecating, justifications. Writing was, she remarked apologetically, the
‘harmlessest pastime’ for leisured women; much better than, say, sitting around gossiping about the neighbours. It was a ‘proper and virtuous’ activity, and men who disapproved, she argued, should hope their own wives and daughters ‘may employ the time no worse than in honest, innocent and harmless fancies’.
However, Cavendish certainly never regarded her own work as harmless fancy. Though she was critical of the exclusive arrogance of the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford, she courageously dedicated two books to them. In 1653, when she published Poems and Fancies, she claimed that she wrote because ‘all heroic actions, public employments, powerful governments and eloquent pleadings are denied our sex in this age. . . ’. The implication being that writing in itself may be a heroic activity; and for any woman of her generation, it probably was. Moreover, in her 1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions, she complained that
we are kept like birds in cages to hop up and down in our houses, not suffered to fly abroad… we are shut out of all power and authority, by reason we are never employed either in civil or martial affairs, our counsels are despised and laughed at, the best of our actions are trodden down with scorn, by the overweening conceit men have of themselves and through despisement of us.
But in nature, she argued in the preface to The World’s Olio, written when she first returned to London but published in 1655, ‘we have as clear an understanding as men, if we were bred in schools to mature our brains and to mature our knowledge’.
But for all her ambition and her persistence, she had few illusions and sometimes, inevitably perhaps, her courage failed her; she gloomily predicted readers’ responses to her autobiographical True Relation: ‘Why hath this lady writ her own life, since none cares to know whose daughter she was or whose wife she is, or how she was bred, or what fortunes she had, or how she lived?’
And, indeed, readers were often unkind. The diarist Samuel Pepys, intensely and maliciously curious, spent weeks in 1667 tracking her around London, then, after reading her life of her husband, condemned her as ‘a mad, conceited, ridiculous woman’. And though Cavendish hopefully dedicated two prefaces specifically to women readers, urging them to spend time ‘on anything that may
bring honour to our sex, for they are poor, dejected spirits that are not ambitious of fame’, she admitted that convention, in constraining women’s talents, made them jealously critical of each other’s achievements, and that she would probably ‘be censured by my own sex’. As she often was. Her contemporary Dorothy Osborne’s response to Newcastle’s Poems and Fancies is sadly revealing about the extent of disapproving prejudice – even amongst intelligent women – against women’s writing. Dorothy was enjoyably shocked when she heard about the Duchess’s book, and wrote to her fiance, Sir William Temple:
For God’s sake, if you meet with it, send it me; they say ’tis ten times more extravagant than her dress. Sure, the poor woman is a little distracted, she could never be so ridiculous else as to venture at writing books, and in verse too. If I should not sleep this fortnight I should not come to that.
She wrote again shortly afterwards, telling Temple not to bother, as she had already obtained and read the book, ‘ . . . and am satisfied that there are many soberer people in Bedlam’. But, ironically and rather sadly, Osborne’s own letters to her fiance reveal a lively, observant, articulate woman; as Virginia Woolf remarked, ‘what a gift that untaught and solitary girl had for the framing of a sentence, for the fashioning of a scene’. In another age, she implies, Osborne might have made a novelist.
Intriguingly, the seedy and cynical world of Restoration London provided some unexpected opportunities for women. They might work as actresses, though that was hardly a socially respectable profession; they were often treated as if they were, in essence, merely prostitutes. But in addition, a number of women emerged as playwrights: Catherine Trotter, Mary Manley, and Mary Pix all had plays produced – and were cruelly mocked in a play by a certain W. M.’ which was staged in 1696. Mary Manley, in the prologue to her first play, foresaw the difficulties they would all face:
The Curtain’s drawn now by a Lady’s hand The very name you’ll cry bodes Impotence,
To Fringe and Tea they should confine their sense.
Aphra Behn is the best-known of these women who were finding the courage to break new ground, and to face down this kind of jeering criticism. Virginia Woolf glimpsed something of Behn’s importance, describing her as
a middle class woman with all the plebeian virtues of humour, vitality and courage; a woman forced by the death of her husband and some unfortunate adventures of her own to make her living by her wits, she had to work on equal terms with men. She made, by working very hard, enough to live on. The importance of that fact outweighs anything she actually wrote.
More recent readers have taken what Behn ‘actually wrote’ much more seriously – she was a skilful and often challenging dramatist – while some critics have found her life almost as interesting as her plays. Before becoming a writer, she had travelled widely – perhaps to Surinam in South America; certainly, as a government spy, to the Low Countries. Though she is best known as a playwright, she also penned Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister. A recent biographer has convincingly argued that this neglected tale is in fact a great erotic novel, which is also a profound exploration of the potency and the perils of romantic fantasy.
She was often attacked – as male playwrights were not – for bawdiness. Alexander Pope was the most famous of those who sneered at her immorality: ‘The stage how loosely doth Astraea tread/ Who fairly puts all characters to bed.’ Behn defended herself eloquently:
Had the plays I have writ come forth under any man’s name, and never known to have been mine; I appeal to all unbiased judges of sense if they had not said that person had made as good comedies, as
any one man that has writ in our age; but a devil on’t the woman damns the poet … I value fame as much as if I had been born a hero.
In fact, a play like The Rover is a cool, clear-eyed analysis of how women have to manoeuvre, negotiate – and inevitably compromise – in their dealings with men, who are portrayed, almost uniformly, as cold-hearted exploiters. Behn’s heroine Hellena – through a combination of luck, wit, shrewd calculation, and skill at roleplaying – achieves respectability (though almost certainly not happiness) in marriage to the predatory Willmore. But there are hints that Behn may have sympathized most, and perhaps even identified, not with the (more or less) virtuous Hellena, but with the whore Angellica Bianca. As modern critics have pointed out, the heroine and her creator share the same initials. Angellica, ironically, is at heart an idealist, and as such alone among a cast of cynics and manipulators. She believes her seducer’s fine romantic words, and at the close of the play she is excluded, left bitter and disillusioned. Behn’s ending leaves us disconcerted, uncomfortable, questioning, for Behn’s sympathies, and ours, are undoubtedly with the hapless Angellica. In a postscript defending her play against charges of plagiarism (women were especially vulnerable to dismissive sneers about their ability), Behn admitted that though she might ‘have stoln some hints’ from an earlier work by Thomas Killigrew, ‘the Plot and Bus’ness (not to boast on’t ) is my own’. And she continued with an ambiguous statement that seems to confirm some kind of personal identification with her unhappy character: ‘I, vainly proud of my judgement, hang out the Sign of Angellica (the only stoln Object) to give Notice where a great part of the Wit dwelt.’