NUI Galway Research Challenges Historic Assumptions about Gender and Literary Taste

Dr Erin A McCarthy, Postdoctoral Researcher, Moore Institute, NUI Galway.
May 03 2018 Posted: 14:33 IST

Newly published essay challenges the critical assumptions that have led to the historical erasure of many of poet, John Donne’s women readers

A new essay by Dr Erin A McCarthy from NUI Galway published in The Review of English Studies, challenges assumptions about the relationship between gender and taste and restores less well-known women to the history of reading who were previously erased from history.

The influential poet John Dryden (1631-1700) famously complained that John Donne’s (1572-1631) poetry, best known for his metaphysical and deeply erotic poems, “perplexes the minds of the fair sex”, but Dr McCarthy’s essay examined 69 seventeenth-century manuscripts that show women read and collected the same poems as their male contemporaries. The diverse women drawn together in this essay played varied roles in early modern manuscript networks. They not only read poems but sought out, collected, and adapted them to include in their own manuscripts.

Witty, rhetorical, and often challenging, John Donne’s poems have tended to be associated with all-male ‘coteries’ at the universities and the Inns of Court (professional associations for barristers in England and Wales). Some of the poems, particularly among the Songs and Sonnets and Elegies, even border on the misogynist. But their appeal extended beyond these relatively restricted circles of educated young men to reach a diverse range of early modern English readers, including women.

Speaking about her research, Dr Erin A McCarthy from the Moore Institute at NUI Galway, said: “Donne’s relationships with his wealthy female patrons are well-known, but his works also appealed to women other than the familiar rich and famous ones. This essay restores these less well-known women to the history of reading and challenges assumptions about the relationship between gender and taste. Early modern women’s preferences were, in fact, broadly consistent with men’s, and it is almost impossible to know a reader’s gender without explicit evidence.

“One thing about this essay that is particularly interesting to me is the list of 69 seventeenth-century books that can be directly linked to one or more named women. Most of these are ordinary women who were going about their business, they certainly wouldn’t have expected to be included in written histories of their time yet their influence on literature can still be seen today. It also strikes me that a lot of scholarship reading has been influenced by later, and even contemporary, norms and values.”

“Sir Walter Scott thought that ‘the ladies’ would have preferred ‘strains more musical, if not more intelligible’, but actually, they were interested in the same things as their male contemporaries, and women both had access to and made efforts to acquire Donne’s poems. Just as women today might enjoy movies that seem to be marketed to men, and as men might enjoy romantic comedies marketed to women, this work shows that seventeenth-century women read widely among the texts that were available to them”, Dr McCarthy adds.

Professor Daniel Carey, Director of the Moore Institute at NUI Galway, said: “The study of literary manuscripts and their circulation is among the most established scholarly approaches but it also one of the freshest. Erin McCarthy’s work, with its careful and meticulous attention to describing manuscripts in the seventeenth century, gives us a way to understand their diversity and complexity, as well as giving an insight into how people read and repurposed them. John Donne’s poetry is a key case in point, prized by women’s readers who copied his verses into manuscript collections that survive in libraries and record offices.”

Dr McCarthy’s work is supported by a European Research Council-funded project.

To read the full article in The Review of English Studies, visit:


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