Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Elizabeth Hodgson: “An English Sappho”

Elizabeth Hodgson

Book Review

Elizabeth Cooke Hoby Russell: The Writings of an English Sappho. Ed. Patricia Phillippy, with translations from Greek and Latin by Jaime Goodrich. The Other Voice in EarlyModern Europe: The Toronto Series, 14. Centre for Renaissance and Reformation Studies (Toronto, 2011), 514 pp. ISBN 978-0-7727-2112-9. $45.95 (USD)

1> This volume represents another major contribution to the “other voices” of English literature. In a series which has produced new editions and translations of works by a wide range of medieval and early modern European women writers and their interlocutors, this edition of Elizabeth Russell’s letters, translations, epitaphs and designs is a welcome addition, handsomely edited for modern readers.

2> Elizabeth Russell was an institution in Elizabethan and early Jacobean England, with a formidable intelligence and learning, complex familial networks in the Tudor/Stuart court, and a persistent public presence. Born Elizabeth Cooke in 1540, related to both the Cecils and the Bacon family, and marrying into the Hoby and Russell families, she ran two households and managed legal suits, building projects, marriage negotiations and court controversies until her death in 1609. She has been known by reputation, and via her influential designs and monumental epitaphs, but until the ITER edition we have only had indirect access to her letters and other documents.

3> Given that Russell was writing to William and Robert Cecil, Thomas Egerton, Elizabeth and the Privy Council, her letters alone provide a key insight into the complex negotiations of power and favour at the center of court life. This volume also includes however three other key sets of texts which are no less valuable to students and scholars of this era. The first set is Russell’s plans and designs for funeral ceremonies and processions, along with her epitaphs and designs for funeral monuments. These together flesh out the practices of heraldic funerals so key to the inheritance narratives of late Elizabethan and early Jacobean England. They illustrate as well the complexities surrounding death rituals and commemorative art for post-Reformation English families with a social standing to preserve. Insofar as the College of Heralds met resistance not only from impoverished aristocrats but also from anti-ceremonialist protestant families, and insofar as the court itself more than once intervened to enforce these strict heraldic principles for publicizing death and inheritance in the aristocracy, Russell’s drawings, plans, notes and models are a particularly invaluable primary resource.  Phillippy and ITER have done an admirable job of preserving the designs and plans Russell worked on for a number of funerals. The colour illustrations and carefully typeset diagrams offer extremely useful reproductions of materials normally only availabe at the College of Arms archives or in rare printed funeral accounts.  The edition also includes the small collection of poems and poetic epitaphs written by Russell; her translation of Ponet’s A Way of Reconciliation of a Good and Learned Man; her anti-theatrical petition; and the documents from her legal case to protect her familial inheritance.  The texts (mostly poems and epitaphs) written by Russell in Greek and Latin have been translated by Jaime Goodrich as well as reproduced in the original. All of these documents tell the story of the long and public life of a major figure in a major family, and they illuminate the networks, ideological positions, gendered politics, and cultural dependencies of Russell’s familial, intellectual, religious and social spheres. Her obvious erudition and wide-ranging intellect, her fearlessness, and her acute sensitivity to both tradition and innovation are evident in these works.

4> As a scholarly edition, this volume has much to commend it. Phillippy has organized the material chronologically in four sections, each marking an important stage in Russell’s life and work: Part 1 Lady Hoby (-1573); Part II Lady Russell (-1593); Part III A Courtier and Parliament Woman (-1600) and Part IV Elizabeth Russell, Dowager (-1609). Within each section the materials are organized very helpfully by genre: Letters; Documents; and Monuments. The “documents” category is necessarily the most wide-ranging, including dedications written to Russell; her will; petitions and court records; the Bisham entertainment for Elizabeth; bills and financial documents; and funeral plans. This conflation of very different documents, while perhaps bewildering to a student expecting a literary anthology, in fact provides a fascinating perspective on the lived experience of an aristocratic Elizabethan: one day planning a funeral, another drafting a petition, and another writing a Greek epitaph.

5> The textual editing is likewise designed to open up Russell’s work to modern scholars and students. Many aspects of orthography have been modernized, though Phillippy has used a light touch here. Most useful as well is the record in the notes of places where Russell revised her wording as she went; this helps us to see how Russell was thinking as she worked. It would have been good if Phillippy could have matched this with a record of carets and insertions, but every editing choice is a compromise. Slightly more doubtful to my mind is the silent addition of paragraph breaks in the letters. As a scholar I would want these noted as editorial interventions, since the paragraph break is often an important interpretive sign. This choice is nonetheless consistent with the volume’s effort to make Russell’s texts visually accessible. The footnotes are extremely helpful, providing a wide range of biographical, textual, scriptural, social and artistic contexts for Russell’s works. This represents an enormous scholarly labour, deftly presented, for which the editor should be rightly commended. The Glossary of Persons is another very useful resource, and while a family tree would have been a helpful additional aid, the collection makes clear how difficult it would be to parse Russell’s family system without including most Elizabethan aristocratic families in the picture. The translations from Greek and Latin are nicely handled, with a fairly literal transcription which does not attempt to replicate rhyme or meter, and particularly knowledgeable notes and comments. These reveal the ways in which Russell borrows from a wide range of classical authors and texts, her interesting manipulations of form and allusion, and the freedom with which she reinvents authoritative works.

6> The introduction to the volume provides a very specific and helpful summary of Russell’s life and circumstances for the reader. It is clearly aimed not at the early-modern specialist but at a somewhat more general audience, with its discussions of “Womanhood and Widowhood,” “Imagery and Iconoclasm,” “Reform and Religious Activism” fairly brief and relatively lightly annotated. This does make me wonder about the intended audience of this volume: my own guess would be that it is aimed at early-modern specialists (graduate students and scholars) rather than at undergraduates, but the introduction seems to be aimed at a less-knowledgeable readership. This may be a question for the series editors to consider as they continue, as most of us who work on early modern women writers and who would therefore be likely to buy this volume are in need of rather more focused material. Editors of “new” authors have as their greatest resource a really detailed understanding of the life of the author (see Suzanne Wood’s edition of Salve Deus, for instance). Sometimes they have also developed particularly richly nuanced readings of the major works (Margaret Hannay on Pembroke’s dedications; Josephine Roberts on Wroth’s Urania). These introductions, born of the intense and extended intimacy with a body of work that an editor acquires, provide invaluable syntheses of often-disparate archival sources and contexts. Perhaps in future the ITER editorial board could allow some of such detailed and carefully amassed knowledge to flow not only into the wonderful notes but also into the introductions of their volumes as well.

7> My only other quibble with the series editors is the choice of title for Russell: “The English Sappho.” Given recent trends in queer theory and gender studies, it seems a little provocative to use the “Sappho” label while avoiding (except in footnotes) its homoerotic implications. Phillippy does write very knowledgeably about the use of Sappho to denote any wise or learned woman, especially classically trained, and this is a helpful context, but I’m not sure I would make this choice for a title. This is perhaps just a tactical question, and it is certainly minor in relation to the treasures of the volume as a whole.

8> This volume of Russell’s writings will be for a long time to come a great resource for scholars of early modern England. Phillippy, and Goodrich as well, have done us a great service. The care, sensitivity, scholarly thoroughness and attentiveness of the editing is everywhere apparent, and we owe them a debt of gratitude, not least because now we can know Elizabeth Russell anew and afresh.

Elizabeth Hodgson is an associate professor in the English Department at the University of British Columbia. Her second monograph, Grief and Women Writers in the English Renaissance, is forthcoming from Cambridge UP (2014), and she has published on Lanyer, Donne, Milton, Shakespeare, Chapman and Pembroke.
Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture,
Volume Seven (2014): Genres & Cultures

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