Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Elizabeth Mazzola: "Educating English Daughters"

Elizabeth Mazzola

Book Review

Frances Teague and Margaret J. M. Ezell, eds.; associate ed., Jessica Walker, Educating English Daughters: Late Seventeenth-Century Debates. Bathsua Makin and Mary More with a reply to More by Robert Whitehall. Volume 44 in The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe: The Toronto Series. Volume 491 in the Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies Series. Iter Academic Press (Toronto, 2016), 201 pp. ISBN: 978-0-86698-546-8

1> It is difficult to read Robert Whitehall’s The Woman’s Right Proved False (ca. 1674) after first seeing what his contemporaries Bathsua Makin and Mary More propose about the equality of early modern women’s minds and rights in seventeenth-century English society. A year before, in the first defense of female education published by a woman in England entitled The Ancient Education of Gentlewomen, Makin not only advertises a new school for gentlewomen near London with a capable governess at its helm, but also unveils an illustrious history of learned women stretching all the way back to Diotima and Cassandra, Portia and Hroswitha, and including such biblical figures as Debora and Lois and the Queen of Sheba. Elizabeth Tudor and Anna Maria van Schurman are offered as more recent examples of women’s extraordinary learning in this account, which also demonstrates how many ideas and practices treasured by English humanists are at work in the thinking, teaching, and writing of early women. More draws on some of the same history to argue for women’s property rights, suggesting that “cruel laws” now allow men “to make it their business to raise themselves by estates with wives” (137). Although Makin and More, in The Woman’s Right, uncover an intellectual tradition not merely marked by remarkable women but profoundly shaped by it, their writings share another goal. Both of them draw on earlier precedents of female learning to advance the case for a modern counterpart in the figure of the middle class wife and mother whose learning enriches her household. These writings make clear the importance of a new urban mercantile audience, with readers who can be reasonably expected to appreciate the virtues of “an honest, wellbred, ingenious, industrious Dutchwoman” (89). Whitehall may have aimed to reach this larger audience, too, hoping to attract readers beyond Oxford’s narrow precincts.

2> Neither Makin’s nor More’s work carries much weight in Whitehall’s discussion, however. He prefers to refute More’s argument on the basis of her alleged misreadings and misconstructions, along with the “danger” of “remov[ing] Ancient Landmarks (150). Whitehall also pushes aside the extensive picture of female thinkers, scholars, and saints More assembles, instead concentrating on the sad case of Eve, and reducing the history of female accomplishment which Makin and More so carefully describe to a story of sin, folly, and ruin.

3> A new edition of the writings of Makin, More, and Whitehall, edited by Frances Teague and Margaret Ezell, gives us access to these authors’ works and interplay of their ideas in a highly accessible form. The three texts are lightly annotated, accompanied by generous introductions that provide biographies of the writers, view them in terms of the cultural landscape of the period, and tell us about the place of these works in their authors’ lives. Makin’s work is the best known of the three. Formerly the tutor of Princess Elizabeth, daughter of Charles I, Makin was now embarking on a new enterprise, a school near Tottenham High Cross. Makin’s Essay shows her to be a canny businesswoman, talented linguist, expert pedagogue, and dedicated historian. “It doth appear out of sacred writ that women were employed in most of the great transactions that happened in the world, “she asserts at the outset of the work, “Miriam seems to be next to Moses and Aaron“ (57). The rest of her arguments are often pungent and practical: “Had God intended women only as a finer sort of cattle, he would not have made them reasonable” (76), she tells us. If the ostensible purpose of Makin’s argument is to urge well-to-do parents to exchange their daughters’ training in dancing and music for a more rigorous program in languages and natural history, a larger consequence is the unearthing of a shining early world in which what women thought and wrote also shaped men’s minds. Makin doesn’t press for a return to this earlier time; indeed, in her preface she describes the Essay’s author as a man (54). Makin’s goals are more modest, mainly centered upon promoting an education designed to help stop women’s ears against seducers and protect them from heresy (79), outfitting them as wives and mothers rather than as linguists or philosophers, or even as teachers of other women.

4> Although Ezell and Teague supply a richly detailed account of the provenance of these works as well as their authors’ careers and educations, affiliations and associations, a reader can still wonder about the larger literary context: the degree to which Milton’s picture of Eve’s feelings of inferiority (or the poet’s rooting of gender inequality in Satan’s faulty perspective) can be associated, for instance, with Makin’s history or More’s challenge to the law. And, how shall we regard the fact that the Empress in Margaret Cavendish’s Blazing World can only find herself in a contemporary double named Margaret Cavendish rather than in the one of the many other talented women More and Makin array before us? (Makin points to the Duchess of Newcastle in the Essay [60]; why doesn’t the Duchess respond in kind?) This history of female thought gives us a very different image of the pious mothers of the Christian Church as well as of the porousness of Europe’s borders, where learned women might know and cite each other. The volume also reminds us that European humanism flourished because of the lively involvement of learned women, creating a world in which writers like “the four daughters of Sir Anthony Cook,” Isotta Nogarola, Katherine Philips and a “Mrs. Broadstreet [...] (now in America)”could signal each other. These women weren’t invisible, even if sometimes we have difficulty seeing them now. Some of our troubles are explained by the “barbarous custom” Makin describes (52), what More calls “men’s pretending” (130)—the efforts marshalled by the project to eradicate women’s voices and their rights. This is the project to which Whitehall lends his intellectual gifts, and the reason why he so proudly flashes his scholarly credentials in his reply to More.

5> Educating English Daughters helps us better grasp the widened contours and consequences of early modern humanism and also makes it possible to share this knowledge with our students. Publishing these three texts together puts into relief the variety of goals, audiences, motives, and pedigrees operating behind these debates, and how teachers, scholars, parents, and merchants all had skin in the game, money to earn (or, as More claims, to be awarded by the courts). Makin, we learn, may not have been able to open the school she advertises at the end of the Essay; only two years after its publication she writes a letter making no mention of the school or its pupils, telling us she has left Tottenham High Cross. As the editors suggest, we are left to wonder whether a celebrated tutor to a King’s daughter had been forced to change tactics and look for students in the daughters of merchants and tradesmen. One such daughter is Mary More, however, and her claims are fierce enough to force Robert Whitehall to look beyond Oxford and see a world of women unshaped by (or unafraid of) his vast and learned prejudices.


Elizabeth Mazzola is Professor of English at The City College of New York, and has written four books, the most recent of which, Learning and Literacy in Female Hands, 1520-1698, was published by Ashgate in 2013. She has also written essays on Milton, Shakespeare, Sidney, and Spenser, and is currently working on a project exploring the links between female agency and mobility on Shakespeare’s stage.


Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature and Culture,
Volume Nine (2016): Texts & Contexts


No comments: