What perfect timing for the first installment of my 2017 reading project! In case you’ve missed it my overall reading project focuses on influential women writers. Starting with a focus on the Brits, then branching out into the rootin’ tootin’ authoresses of the new world (very probably next year.) Kicking off my reading project with the first lady on my list, the notable poet and early feminist, Aemilia Lanyer.
Aemilia Lanyer was the daughter of an Italian family of court musicians and is noted for being the first Englishwoman to publish a substantial volume of original poems. She was also the first female author to make an overt bid for patronage, so that she may live comfortably while producing her works.
As a child Lanyer was fortunate enough to be educated in the aristocratic household of the Countess of Kent.
However, when she reached her late teens and early twenties, Lanyer became the mistress of Queen Elizabeth’s lord chamberlain, Henry Carey, Lord Hundson. Lord Hundson was a notable patron of the arts, and was also 45 years her senior. Yet, he was a notable patron of Shakespeare’s company in the 1590’s and had the means to maintain his mistress in the utmost luxury. Unfortunately for Lanyer, she became pregnant by Hunsdon at the age of twenty-three, and was promptly married off to Alfonso Lanyer. Her new husband was a member of another family of gentleman musicians affiliated with the courts of Elizabeth I and James I, and after her marriage her fortunes quickly declined.
Scholars believe that through reading Lanyer’s poetry, we can glean some information about her life following her wedding and leading up to her publication. They claim that her poetry indicates she resided for a considerable length of time in the household of the highly refined and intellectual Margaret Clifford, the Countess of Cumberland. Lanyer notes that during her time with Margaret and her young daughter Anne, she received encouragement in learning, piety, and poetry, as well as support in the decidedly un-ladylike venture of seeking publication.
Lanyer’s single volume of poems, Salve Deus Rex Judaeoum, published in 1611 has a marked feminist thrust. Most notable in the collection is a poem entitled Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women and the prose epistle “To the Virtuous Reader.” Both are credited for being spirited contributions to what was then termed the querelle des femmes, or “debate about women.” This refers to a massive body writings spanning multiple genres and languages: with notable examples including Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s prologue and Tale and Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.
In “To the Virtuous Reader,” she directly addresses any women who were in favor of the oppression of their own gender. “Often have I heard, that it is the property of some women, not only to emulate the virtues and perfections of the rest, but also by all their powers of ill speaking, to eclipse the brightness of their deserved fame,” (1315). She boldly calls them out, and seeks to promote solidarity amongst our sex. Something that perhaps resonates in the political climate of today, and honestly was more than a little bit bad ass. “And this have I done, to make known to the world, that all women deserve not to be blamed though some forgetting they are women themselves, and in danger to be condemned by the words of their own mouths, fall into so great an error as to speak unadvisedly against the rest of their sex,” (1316).
In the poem Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women, Lanyer petitions directly for equality between the genders. Her address is humble, and frankly confusing at times. Shrouded as it is with heavy religious overtones, she seems to be groveling to her male readers and counterparts. However, when confronted with these passages it’s important to remember the time in which she was writing. She was after all, the first woman to publish a volume of poetry. Too overt a bid for equality could greatly impede the distribution of her works and further damage her reputation, that as a writer, was already significantly tarnished. Even so, there can be no mistaking her monumental message;
Then let us have our liberty again,
And challenge to yourselves no sovereignty.
You came not in the world without our pain,
Make that a bar against your cruelty…