Sunday, August 16, 2015

Elizabeth Hodgson: “Lady Hester Pulter’s Works”

Elizabeth Hodgson

Book Review

Alice Eardley, ed., Lady Hester Pulter: Poems, Emblems, and The Unfortunate Florinda. The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe: The Toronto Series, 32, ITER (Toronto, 2014), 420 pp. ISBN: 978-0-7727-2164-8

1> This volume represents a fascinating and new contribution to the “other voices” of English literature. Lady Hester Pulter’s recently discovered 17th century MSS. of poems, emblems, and a prose romance are published here in a complete edition for the first time, in a handsomely produced volume.  Hester Pulter (1605-78) seems to have assembled her 160 poems and a prose romance in a fair scribal copy in about 1660, making her a contemporary to Cavendish, Philips, Marvell, Cowley and other midcentury English writers.  Though her work appears not to have circulated during her lifetime, Pulter was clearly writing into her own cultural milieu, with royalist laments like Philips’, devotional poems like Herbert’s, and prose romances like Cowley’s. Alice Eardley has done us a great favour in bringing her work to view.

2> Eardley’s editorial introduction provides us with a much-needed biographical profile of Pulter: her aristocratic father, her position as a royalist in a pro-Parliament district, her numerous children, and the political dissension within her extended familial network. Eardley also provides a brief introduction to the texts themselves, providing very useful comments on the topicality of Pulter’s romance, her unusual emblem-poems, and the metrical borrowings of her devotional poems.  It would have been helpful to have more of this kind of analysis and situating of Pulter’s texts, given how new these works are to readers, but this is a productive framing of Pulter’s oeuvre.

3> As with other editorial introductions in this series, Eardley’s historical contextualization of Pulter’s work is somewhat unexpected in its tone. I have trouble imagining that this book would actually be assigned as a classroom text; at the very most, I would assign a few poems or one part of the romance to students. The introduction’s descriptions of the Civil War and its discussions of science and religion seem nonetheless deliberately geared to this neophyte audience. Eardley’s comments suggest that Laudianism and Presbyterianism are terms which require basic definition, that Galileo needs an introduction, and that we might not know that James I is Charles I’s father.  The editors of this series would do well to recognize that the most probable purchasers of this series are more much more likely to be scholars than students. What we want is not only the fruit of Eardley’s archival work—the biographical treasure-- but also her suggestions about how to contextualize Pulter’s writing more richly. Eardley refers briefly to fascinating material on the fad for French romances in this era, on the local wartime violence in Pulter’s neighbourhood, and on the complex politics of London soldiers during the wars; it would be wonderful to let her loose on these concepts to add value to the introductory frame for its scholarly readership.

4> Pulter’s writing itself is quite interesting indeed; Pulter is clearly well-read and well-educated, with a lively and immediate voice and some quite interesting experiments in form. The strikingly Herbert-like devotional poems with their short lines and metrical variation are particularly notable, as are the unusually frank and unmannered personae in her poems to and about her children. A particularly ribald satire on Davenant’s syphilis is remarkable amongst the pieties of her elegaic verse, and her frequently royalist diatribes form an important adjunct to our understanding of this genre. The striking moments both of racist and proto-feminist commentary in the romance, The Unfortunate Florinda, are worth considerable discussion. I am particularly interested in the comparative-religion trope running through the narrative: Jews, Mahometans, and Christians are all described almost anthropologically. There are also occasional gems like the delightful moment in which Pulter’s heroine says to a misogynist that since he persists in rejecting women, she can only “wish his father had been of the same mind” (333).

5> As a body of work, Pulter’s oeuvre raises fascinating questions about the nature of women’s writing in this period. This collection was written apparently without an actual effort to publish or circulate in manuscript, but Eardley rightly notes that Pulter had “an imaginary audience for whom she crafted her thoughts and feelings into literary works.” These very allusive, literarily self-conscious works which comment equally on personal and political affairs beg for discussions about publicity and politics in “domestic” writing, and I hope that Eardley will follow up on her extensive archival and editorial work with more critical studies of Pulter.

6> The textual editing of this volume seems to follow the series standards in being skewed toward popularizing the work: spelling is silently modernized, a glossary is provided, and prose sentences are silently shortened. Modernized spelling is not uncommon in early modern editions, but I have myself some difficulty with the decision to silently shorten sentences. As a scholar who works extensively on prose rhetoric, I would not be able to use this edition of The Unfortunate Florinda for my own research. Given that this is the first complete edition of Pulter’s work, I do wish that the volume had been edited with more of an eye to being the edition of record for this writer. It seems to me that shortening the sentences is unlikely to move Pulter into the ‘greatest hits’ column for undergraduates, and it is likely to make this volume less trustworthy for research.

7> Along these same lines, I do find the somewhat unusual decision to provide asterisks and a glossary at the back rather than footnotes or even marginal glosses quite distracting and less useful than the alternatives. There are two different minor but persistent issues here. First is the mechanism for annotation; I think terms could be glossed in footnotes the first time they are used if their meanings are really imagined to be unclear, and then readers can manage from there. We are used to this convention in heavily annotated texts like Shakespeare or Chaucer.  Having to read a poem with a finger in the back of the book is less than comfortable and potentially less than effective, if the reader gives up and ignores all of the asterisks.  The second issue here is the density of the glossary notations. Even an undergraduate has been reading Shakespeare since high school, and I think fewer of these terms need explanation than the editing suggests, many fewer if I am right about the volume’s likely readership. The very interesting glossary definitions of terms which might seem obvious (like “atom” or “dust”) are invaluable editorial interventions; I would just prefer them on the page with the text itself. I should contextualize these minor complaints by saying that the actual footnotes are rich and helpful, which is a real help with Pulter’s often quite allusive texts. We can all be grateful for the impeccable care Eardley has taken with the sources and allusions, contexts and concepts, referred to in Pulter’s work.

8> I am pleased to have this edition out in the world. Hester Pulter is going to be an interesting addition to our developing canon of “other voices” in early modern English writers. Every editor of a new text has to make her own way to a first printed edition, and Eardley has clearly invested her considerable talents and research in making this a welcome introduction to Pulter’s work.

Elizabeth Hodgson is an Associate Professor in English at the University of British Columbia. She has published on Donne, Milton, Lanyer, Philips, Wroth, and Shakespeare. Her most recent monograph is Grief and Women Writers in the English Renaissance (Cambridge UP, 2015).

Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature and Culture,
Volume Eight (2015): Dialogues & Exchanges

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