Review: “Exploring the Lives of Women, 1558-1837”, edited by Louise Duckling, Sara Reid, Felicity Roberts & Carolyn D. Williams

It seems rather fitting on World Book Day, during Women’s History Month, to post my review of Exploring the Lives of Women, 1558-1837, which was published to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837 (WSG). I’d like to thank Pen & Sword Books for gifting me a copy of this wonderful book for review – and it fits perfectly with my theme for Women’s History Month, Reading Women!

This book is a great insight into the breadth and depth of the research undertaken by members of the WSG, covering the early modern period and the long eighteenth century. WSG’s agenda covers wider histories of gender and sexuality, and effectively anything that has affected or been affected by women. There are thirteen essays covering queens to female athletes, literary women to opera singers, fallen women to actresses, and many others in between. Alongside this, which was a really pleasant surprise when I began reading, there are two pieces of creative writing based on research undertaken in this period. I really liked the fresh approach of this and felt it really did celebrate a variety of female stories.

Before the introduction is a brief section touching upon the history of the WSG, founded in 1987 by Yvonne Noble during a gathering of the British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies (BSECS). I’ve been a member of BSECS and a regular participant at their conference for the past few years, so was pleased to read this: even more so as I’ve attended the panels run specifically by the WSG there. Carolyn D. Williams’ introduction that follows summarises the women covered within the book, and in wider research undertaken by WSG members, perfectly:

“To focus on women in this period is to be concerned with victims of sexual discrimination, sometimes deliberately resisted, sometimes internalized (with various degrees of intellectual and psychic discomfort), but often stimulating some attempt at negotiation or compromise.”

The book highlights, as pinpointed by Yvonne Noble in her essay on Anne Finch, how difficult it can be to research an early modern woman’s life compared to a man. In Gillian Williamson’s chapter on obituaries, she notes that one woman, Lady Catherine Smith, was not even given a first name in her obituary, but merely summarised as one man’s wife and widow, and another man’s sister.

It is difficult to cover every chapter here, but I can truly say I enjoyed each one of them. Each new essay raised different stories and experiences, but all managed to work in harmony with each other. I wanted to talk about a couple of my favourites here, just to whet your appetite for the book itself and the other fantastic research inside.

Valerie Schutte’s essay on Michelangelo Florio and his book dedication to Lady Jane Grey was really interesting for its discussion of elite education, the position of Lady Jane Grey in preparation for succession and the composition of book dedications. Schutte pointed out that, despite it being a highly controlled educational environment for women, high-ranking parents did place a lot of importance upon learning, due mainly to the fact that intellectual prowess might attract powerful and important husbands. Because of the family control over female learning, Florio addressed his dedication to both Jane and the learning environment set up by her father: this put him in favour with his tutee, but also the men in her life. It was a really fascinating read about the dualities present in early modern female education.

Similarly, I was particularly drawn to Julie Peakman’s chapter on female friendship, which explores in particular the life of Peg Plunkett, a brothel madam who relied on the support of her female friends her whole life. This might have been when she was successful or struggling, but it was the women in her life she could rely on. Peakman uses Plunkett’s friendship networks and experiences to make wider comments about eighteenth-century female friendship, but also draws parallels with the WSG itself and what the friendships between scholars has meant for its members and its research.

I really enjoyed Peter Radford’s chapter on athletic women, mainly because I’d never read anything on this subject before and had no idea there were running races for women during the eighteenth century. But in actual fact, Radford has found in his research that there were 68 running races for women and girls at 53 locations across 22 English counties between 1700 and 1749.

I think the subject of this essay really demonstrates the breadth of research on show in this book – of course, no compendium can cover everything, but this book does a fantastic job of presenting accessible windows into a variety of women’s stories, as well as the myriad research journeys taken to bring these to life.

Thank you to Pen & Sword for gifting me a copy of Exploring the Lives of Women, 1558-1837.

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