Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Guest Post by Anna: A Literary Canon of Women Writers, Part Nine: The Seventeenth Century

(Echidne's note: Earlier parts of this series can be found here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 ,Part 5, Part 6, Part 7 and Part 8.)

Mary Herbert (née Sidney), Countess of Pembroke (27 October 1561 – 25 September 1621), was one of the first English women to achieve a major reputation for her literary works, poetry, poetic translations and literary patronage.

Mary Sidney was highly educated in the humanist tradition. In the 16th century, noblewomen were educated to enable them to have a good understanding of theological issues and the classics, to interpret original texts and, if necessary, to deputize for their husbands. Her education enabled her to translate Petrarch's "Triumph of Death" and several other European works. She turned Wilton into a "paradise for poets", known as "The Wilton Circle" which included Edmund Spenser, Michael Drayton, Sir John Davies, and Samuel Daniel, a salon-type literary group sustained by the Countess's hospitality.

She is regarded as one of the best female poets of the English Renaissance. Her complete works are available in "The Collected Works of Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, Vols 1 & 2," by Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1998.

Anne Dudley Bradstreet (c. 1612 – September 16, 1672) was America's first published poet. Her work met with a positive reception in both the Old World and the New World. In 1650, Rev. John Woodbridge had "The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America" composed by "A Gentlewoman from Those Parts" published in London, making Anne the first female poet ever published in both England and the New World.

Bradstreet's education gave her advantages to write with authority about politics, history, medicine, and theology. Her personal library of books was said to have numbered over 800, before many were destroyed when her home burned down. This event itself inspired a poem entitled "Upon the Burning of Our House July 10th, 1666". She rejects the anger and grief that this worldly tragedy has caused her and instead looks toward God and the assurance of heaven as consolation.

Long considered primarily of historical interest, Bradstreet won critical acceptance in the 20th century as a writer of enduring verse, particularly for her sequence of religious poems "Contemplations", which was written for her family and not published until the mid-19th century. Bradstreet's work was deeply influenced by the poet Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas, who was favored by 17th-century readers. Nearly a century later, Martha Wadsworth Brewster, a notable 18th-century American poet and writer, in her principal work, Poems on Diverse Subjects, was influenced and pays homage to Bradstreet's verse.

Despite the traditional attitude toward women of the time, Bradstreet clearly valued knowledge and intellect; she was a free thinker and some consider her an early feminist. Her complete works are available in "The Works of Anne Bradstreet (John Harvard Library)", by Anne Bradstreet, with a foreword by poet Adrienne Rich (Author).

Aphra Behn (10 July 1640 – 16 April 1689) was a prolific dramatist of the English Restoration and was one of the first English professional female writers.

Her writing contributed to the amatory fiction genre of British literature. A widow at the age of 26, she then became attached to the Royal Court, and was employed as a political spy at Antwerp. Leaving that city she cultivated the friendship of various playwrights, and produced many plays and novels, also poems and pamphlets.

Virginia Woolf declared in her famous book "A Room of One's Own", "All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn... for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds." Her complete works are available for free at: (scroll down to Behn, Aphra), as well as in the book "The Plays, Histories, and Novels of the Ingenious Mrs. Aphra Behn: With Life and Memoirs. Complete in Six Volumes", published by Nabu Press in 2010.

Sor (Sister) Juana Inés de la Cruz (12 November 1648 – 17 April 1695), fully Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana, was a self-taught scholar and poet of the Baroque school, and nun of New Spain. Although she lived in a colonial era when Mexico was part of the Spanish Empire, she is considered today a Mexican writer, and stands at the beginning of the history of Mexican literature in the Spanish language.

In Juana's time, the convent was often seen as the only refuge in which a female could properly attend to the education of her mind, spirit, body and soul. Nonetheless, she wrote literature centered on freedom. In her poem Redondillas she defends a woman's right to be respected as a human being. Therein, she also criticizes the sexism of the society of her time, poking fun at and revealing the hypocrisy of men who publicly condemn prostitutes, yet privately pay women to perform on them what they have just said is an abomination to God. Sor Juana asks the sharp question in this age-old matter of the purity/whoredom split found in base male mentality: "Who sins more, she who sins for pay? Or he who pays for sin?"

Matters came to a head in 1690, when a letter was published attacking Sor Juana's focus on the sciences, and suggesting that she should devote her time to soft theology. However, powerful representatives from the Viceregal Court and the Jesuit Order were her protectors and she was widely read in Spain, being called "the Tenth Muse".

She was lauded as the first great poet of Latin America. Her work was also printed by the first printing press in New Spain. In response to her critics, Sor Juana wrote a letter entitled Respuesta a Sor Filotea (Reply to Sister Filotea), in which she defended women's right to education. In response, the Archbishop of Mexico joined other high-ranking officials in condemning Sor Juana's "waywardness".

By 1693, Sor Juana seemingly ceased writing rather than risk official censure. However, there is no undisputed evidence of her renouncing devotion to letters, though there are documents showing her agreeing to undergo penance. Her name is affixed to such a document in 1694, but given her deep natural lyricism, the tone of these supposed hand-written penitentials is rhetorical and autocratic Church formulae – one signed, "Yo, la peor de todas" (I, the worst/meanest of them all (the women) According to Octavio Paz, Sor Juana's writings were saved by the Viceroy's wife.

In April 1695, after ministering to the other sisters struck down by a rampant plague, she is said to have died at four in the morning on April 17. Some of her works are available in "Poems, Protest, and a Dream: Selected Writings," translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, which includes the Reply to Sister Filotea.