- critical introduction
- Introduction to The Gentlewomans Companion
- Section: Locating the Companion in Seventeenth-Century Women's Education and Literature
- Introduction to The Gentlewomans Companion
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Locating the Companion in Seventeenth-Century Women's Education and Literature
Raftery writes in Women and Learning in English Writing, 1600-1900 that during the Renaissance, "the debate about the education of women inherited a set of arguments, supported by classical and biblical exempla, that promoted the idea that a woman's education should equip her for nothing more than the duties of a virtuous wife and mother" (16). "The education of | | xi women," she continues, "was associated with the private sphere, while the education of men was associated with preparation for public life" (16). Because the Companion is sometimes cited as an important document in the argument for female education yet, in its broader content, is an advice book on domestic duties, it emerges as the embodiment of the conflict Raftery here refers to.
In a later section of her book, Raftery cites Wolley, alongside other women writers like Bathsua Makin and Mary Astell, as a reformer of female education. Raftery, evidently unfamiliar with Elaine Hobby's findings, inaccurately attributes Wolley with The Gentlewomans Companion, but her comments are still applicable here. She states, for example, that the title of the Companion is misleading: it is not a "revolutionary feminist tract" (30). Writers of works like the Companion, Raftery continues, "sought to secure recognition from society that women could and ought to engage in learning, but they did not dispute contemporary beliefs that woman was man's helpmate and that her 'sphere' was the home" (30). Raftery also finds that by becoming learned, Renaissance women "ceased to be women," for education "was seen to compromise a woman's femininity" (17). It is interesting to look from Raftery's statement to the Companion, where the author takes great pains to include sections on both women's education and sections on fashion, cosmetics, recreation, and public behavior. Raftery points out that publications like the Companion are a consequence of this conflict between femininity and learning, but she believes that this "substantial corpus of print culture . . . limited female learning to training for the domestic sphere" (17). Raftery's observation is an important one, but Wolley's work and the compiled Companion of course serve a function that extends past domestic training. Generically, the conventions of advice literature are hinged on the writer's argument for female education and acknowledgment of the "feminine role" in the private sphere (Beilin 266). "But each recognizes that to write," Elaine Beilin points out in Redeeming Eve: Women Writers of the English Renaissance, "brings her public notice, particularly as she assumes the authority of a preacher" (266). The role of the advice writer-and particularly of the "loving mother" woman writer who speaks to parents about the education and conduct of their children-is both a "safe persona" and a persona that "highlights the conflict between the private and public status" (266). The Companion exhibits both of these characteristics, for while it includes sections that give motherly advice, it also fits into a more public role as an argument for female education.
Importantly, the increased provision of education for women encouraged an increase in literacy and, in turn, an increase in the number of women writing for public audiences. It was at this time, between 1670 and 1720, "that a number of important publications written by women appeared, in which arguments for female education were articulated" (31). Wolley, then, stands at the front edge of a surge in female publications, marking her as one of the first professional women writers in English history. The advice books of Hannah Wolley's generation, as a whole, are situated at the beginning of a newly charged debate in early Modern English writing. While earlier books promoted the "synthetic view of woman," mid- to late-seventeenth century writings passionately disputed notions of female intellectual inferiority (Raftery 33). The "pioneer" of women's education, as Raftery identifies her, is Mary Astell, who in the introduction to her A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest (1694) states:
Here, Astell suggests that her female readers place less emphasis on physical beauty and instead turn to the improvement of their intellect. To do this, however, Astell admits that changes must occur in her society's approach to the education of women, and educational institutions must open their doors to those ladies and gentlewomen who, when given the opportunity, will "surpass the Men as much in Vertue and Ingenuity, as you do in Beauty" (1). Until formal education opens its doors to women, however, Astell argues that women must learn the craft of self-education: "One wou'd therefore almost think, that the wise disposer of all things, foreseeing how unjustly Women are denied opportunities of improvement from without, has therefore by way of compensation endow'd them with greater propensions of Vertue and a natural goodness of Temper within" (5).
A second significant name in the reformation of women's education--and a name mentioned in the Companion--is Anna Maria van Schurman of Utrecht.6 Raftery cites Schurman as the first woman to debate female education, and Elaine Hobby also points to the Dutch scholar as one of the first women to make a case for formalized female learning (33, 198). Schurman's Disertatio, de Ingenii Muliebris ad Doctrinam, et Meliores Litteras Aptitudine, published in Holland in 1641, was first translated into English as The Learned Maid, or Whether a Maid may be a Scholar in 1659 (Raftery 33). Schurman's syllogistic argument "proves exhaustively women's need of, and right to, an education in grammar, logic and rhetoric on lines identical to those of the male grammar schools and universities" (Hobby 198). The difficulty of writing about women's education as Schurman approached it, however, was how to promote female worth but still maintain the important traits of modesty, virtue, and femininity. Unlike male defenders of women's rights like Cornelius Agrippa, women like Schurman could not justify their writing by appealing to courtly love conventions of a lady's defense (Hobby 199). Referenced in the Companion, the writings of Cornelius Agrippa are also at the center of seventeenth-century arguments for increased opportunities in female education and influential in the genre of the advice book.7 The citation of well-known advocates of women in the Companion, Hobby remarks, is typical of male defenses of women, and the author-identified by Hobby as a man-"is not unreserved in his promotion of equality" (173).
Beginning in the late seventeenth century and continuing into the eighteenth century, women saw a shift in the English economy of the middle and merchant classes, so that more middle-class women could hire a domestic staff and, therefore, were allowed more time to dedicate to occupation and education (Raftery 43). To address this new demand, printers and publishers began producing a large number of advice books, conduct literature, magazines, miscellanies, mother's manuals, and midwifery information. While many of these publications were designed for entertainment purposes, most were directed to women with more serious interests. Scientific information, Raftery finds, enjoyed immense popularity in the seventeenth century, particularly works like Elizabeth Carter's translation of Sir Isaac Newton's Philosophy explained for the Use of the Ladies (1739) and Priscilla Wakefield's An Introduction to Botany (1760) (44). Female readers, diaries, and almanacs could also be found on women's coffee tables and found increased popularity in the mid-eighteenth century when such publications like the Female Spectator would feature monthly readings on a variety of crucial issues. | | xiii
More than any other genre, mother's manuals and advice books enjoyed enormous success during the seventeenth century. The popularity of this body of literature, Kristen Poole points out in "'The fittest closet for all goodness': Authorial Strategies in Jacobean Mothers' Manuals" "invites us to reconsider the perception and reception of women's writing in Jacobean England" (69). At the root of the genre's popularity, she explains, is its "highly unusual" presentation--it "overtly commands and instructs" (69, 70). Poole here focuses on the meaning behind the candidly authoritative female voice of advice literature, which she feels may challenge our tendencies to see the public and private spheres as inherently separate. To explore the issue of the public and private, Poole looks to the genre's apparent definition of the word "home": "defining 'home' (the private) became a way of defining 'not home' (the public)" (71). Conduct literature, she concludes, thus not only "aimed at defining the proper role of gentlewomen" and "the social place and function of domesticity," but also strove to define what was meant by the word "public" (71). As mothers, Poole also adds, these female writers emphasized the "duality of their private and public roles" (71). Hannah Wolley pushes this duality even further, it seems, by taking on not only the roles of mother and writer, but by also adopting the roles of teacher, tutor, wife, former cook for Charles I, midwife, apothecary, musician, and poet.
It is fitting to begin reading The Gentlewomans Companion with Poole's comments about the thin line between the private and public spheres in the foreground, for they provide a context within which to approach not only the genre of advice writing, but also the text's problematic history. Before entering the text, however, a statement of gratitude is in order for Elaine Hobby, whose research, as this introduction has attempted to capture, has opened up a large discussion of authorship, authority, and literary property in seventeenth-century English women's writing. The Companion also provides an effective model for the advice genre in its double audience, diverse subject matter, and portrayal of the conflicting-yet often compatible-issues of female education reformation and domestic training. Fittingly, the author of the Companion states in a chapter "Of Speech and Complement" that "[t]he Eye entertains it self not with more Objects than the Invention furnisheth the Tongue with Subjects; and as without Speech, no Society can subsist" (14). The Gentlewomans Companion definitely provides the subjects-it is now up to readers to decide what can be done with them.
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