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Audio Tour Transcript

150: Welcome, with Steve Enniss


Welcome to Shakespeare's Sisters: The Voices of English and European Women Writers, 1500-1700. I am Steve Enniss, Eric Weinmann Librarian here at the Folger. The exhibition you are about to see has been curated by Dr. Georgianna Ziegler, and takes as its focus early modern women's writing during Shakespeare's era, broadly defined. The exhibition recovers the work of more than fifty women writers and examines the genres and forms in which they expressed themselves. On behalf of my library colleagues, welcome. We are delighted to share the insights of this special exhibtion with you, and we hope you will return many times.


151: Case 1, Georgianna Ziegler on Lady Anne Clifford


Hello, this is Georgianna Ziegler, curator of the exhibition and Head of Reference at the Folger Library. I was very excited a couple of years ago when this copy of John Selden’s Titles of Honor came into the Folger collection. We already had two copies, but what made this one so special was the fact that it had been owned by Lady Anne Clifford, one of the greatest women of her age. There on the title page is her inscription saying that she read and “over looked” the book in the winter of 1638. What does she mean by “over looked?” Lady Anne was what we would call a multi-tasker – that is, she frequently had one of her secretaries read to her while she was doing something else. This book is full of underlinings and marginal marks, probably made by her secretaries, but obviously at her command. By “over looking” I think she meant that she went back over the book, perhaps as the chapters were read, and made sure the passages were marked that she wanted. There are even a number of original paper bookmarks stuck in.


  Lady Anne had a major collection of books, as you will see at the end of the hall, but why was she especially interested in this volume? Selden’s topic is lineage and how different titles and property pass in families through the male or female heirs. When she was fifteen, Lady Anne’s father died, leaving his vast Yorkshire estates not to her – his heir – but to his brother. Lady Anne spent most of the rest of her life trying to get back these estates. The lawyer and antiquarian John Selden was a friend of hers, and it’s possible that he was one of the experts whom she called upon over the years to help with the claims to her properties. Certainly, his Titles of Honor was a book that she consumed with much interest because it traced the history and customs of titles from ancient times and as they came to be used in England. The story has a happy ending because in 1643 the last of the Clifford male heirs died, leaving Lady Anne at the age of 53 sole inheritor of the estates. 



152: Case 2, Heather Wolfe on Elizabeth Cary


Hi, this is Heather Wolfe, curator of manuscripts at the Folger, and I’m going to talk about this copy of Elizabeth Cary’s translation of a polemical religious work written by the French Catholic Cardinal Jacques davy du Perron, printed in France in 1630.


Borrowed from the Beinecke Library at Yale, this is one of at least six surviving copies that Elizabeth Cary apparently had prepared as presentation copies—with the manuscript sonnet dedication to Queen Henrietta Maria, shown here, as well as tipped-in engravings of Cardinal Perron, identical fine morocco bindings, and virtually identical corrections to the text.


According to her biography written by her daughters, most copies of The Reply were seized and burned by the archbishop of Canterbury when they arrived in England, but “some few copies came to her hands.” The “some few copies” most likely include the copy before you. Copies were probably burned because the book spoke out against the king and the oath of allegiance.


Elizabeth Cary converted to Catholicism in 1626, only four months after Charles I had married the French Catholic princess Henrietta Maria. Cary was religious, highly educated, and fluent in multiple languages, and after extensive reading and debate, decided that the Church of England’s claims to be a reformed version of the Catholic church were false. This translation was part of a much larger religious debate, conducted in multiple languages over many years.


Today Elizabeth Cary is chiefly remembered for being the first female playwright to have a play published in English, The Tragedy of Mariam in 1613, but in her own lifetime and in the years after her death, she was admired by Roman Catholics in England and abroad for this important translation.



153: Wall Panel between 2 and 3, Margaret Hannay on Mary Sidney


Hi, this is Margaret Hannay, biographer of Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, who was celebrated for her translation of the biblical Psalms into English poems. Her brother Sir Philip Sidney had translated approximately one third of the Psalms, and she completed them after his death. The title in this manuscript calls them “more rare, and excellent, for the method and varietie then ever yet hath been done in English” because the Sidneys used so many different verse forms, including the sonnet. Mary Sidney was also a scholar who consulted virtually every Psalm version and commentary available to her in English, French, and Latin, and she may have even studied a little Hebrew, or at least talked with Hebrew scholars. In her Psalm versions, she adds wordplay and expands metaphors. Such expansions frequently reflect her own experience, like the bride in an arranged marriage, or a woman who has experienced childbirth. The delight she took in writing these poems is evident in her version of Psalm 75:


            And I secure shall spend my happy times

            in my, though lowly, never-dying rhymes,

            singing with praise the God that Jacob loveth. 


Here she combines humility (her own “lowly” rhymes) with confidence in the importance of these “never-dying rhymes” that praise God.



154: Case 3, Georgianna Ziegler on Esther Inglis


Hello, this is Georgianna Ziegler, again. Some of my favorite things in the collection are the little handmaid books by Esther Inglis. Many of these she made by writing out biblical texts from the Psalms, Proverbs, or Ecclesiastes, using a different script on every page. Often she adorned the pages with colorful flowers or with black-and-white decoration which sometimes looks like stitching. It appears that she also made some of the bindings herself, such as the lovely one here for Prince Henry, stitched with silver-gilt thread and seed pearls on red velvet. The other book of Psalms is bound in brown velvet with a silver-gilt embroidered frame on the front cover surrounding a coat-of-arms. This volume she presented to Prince Maurice of Nassau, head of the United Provinces of the Netherlands and a staunch Protestant.


Esther Inglis was born into a family of Huguenots who fled persecution in France around 1569 before settling in Edinburgh. Her father was master of the French School there, and her mother was a talented calligrapher. It was from her mother that Esther likely learned to write the varied and beautiful scripts that form the art of calligraphy. 


Esther saw herself as doing God’s work. She made many of these pocket-sized books for English and French courtiers of the time of James I who supported the Protestant cause, and she often refers to herself as God’s handmaid. In the self-portraits she includes in some of her books, she shows herself standing behind a table, pen in hand, with a book on which is written, ‘De l’Eternel le bien, de Moi le mal ou rien’ – from Eternal God comes all good; from myself comes nothing of value – reiterating the Protestant notion that all good gifts come from God and that we are worthy only through God. Close to 60 of Esther’s handmade books survive today. Most of them are in the National Library of Scotland, but the Folger Library is fortunate to own four of these miniature manuscripts.



155: Case 3, Victoria Kirkham on Laura Battiferri


Hello, this is Victoria Kirkham, Professor Emerita of Romance Languages at the University of Pennsylvania.


Tradition attributed the seven penitential Psalms to King David, remorseful for his adultery with Bathsheba. David’s poetic voice becomes that of every Christian soul who cries out in sorrow over sin, “Have mercy on me, o Lord.”


Battiferri first published her Salmi penitentiali in 1564, just after the final session of the Council of Trent. That council brought church reforms and a new climate of religious piety. On display before you is the second edition, a sign of the book’s popularity. As a translation into Tuscan, it immediately places Battiferri in the family of Italy’s classic writers – Dante, Boccaccio, and above all, Petrarch.   


Countless sixteenth-century imitators, including many women, adopted the Petrarchan mode of writing, called Petrarchismo. A sequence of “spiritual sonnets” rounds out Battiferri’s Psalms. First to receive them, as a gift from her husband, was Michelangelo.



156: Case 4, Mary McKinley on Marguerite de Navarre


Hello, this is Mary McKinley, Professor of French at the University of Virginia. The book you see here holds the poems of Marguerite, Queen of Navarre and sister of the French King Francis I. The title is a play onthe word marguerite in French; in English it becomes Pearls of the Pearl of Princesses. Marguerite was an advocate for religious reform within the Catholic Church. Her poem Mirror of the Sinful Soul appeared in 1531.  Young Elizabeth Tudor, future Queen Elizabeth I of England, later translated that poem into English.


Efforts towards religious reform became increasingly dangerous after 1534, when a group of radicals posted widely throughout France broadsheets attacking the Catholic Mass. The king reacted by ordering persecutions of those perceived to be heretics. John Calvin fled from Paris and sought refuge at Marguerite’s court before escaping to Italy. During those trying times Marguerite wrote prolifically, but it was not until 1547 that she published many of her works in the first edition of the Marguerites. The book on display here appeared two years later, suggesting that there was high demand for Marguerite’s poetry. Notice the decorative frame around the title. Its leafy garlands, masks, and playful winged putti are typical of frames produced by artists in the School of Fontainebleau who flourished under the patronage of King Francis. 



157: Case 5, Jane Tylus on Gaspara Stampa


With prompt 157, we’re off to Venice, gateway to the East, city of gondolas, canals, and gatherings where sophisticated men and women were entertained by talented singers like Gaspara Stampa. I’m Jane Tylus, professor of Italian at NYU, and I’ve recently translated Gaspara’s spectacular poetic corpus into English. 


Brought by her widowed mother to Venice as a young girl, Stampa was well-read in Italian, Latin, and possibly Greek. Her ambitions to be more than just a "virtuosa" – a musician – are clear from the book you see before you, a collection of 310 poems published by her sister, Cassandra, after Gaspara’s sudden death at age 30 in 1554.


Many of these poems Gaspara wrote about the aristocrat Collaltino di Collalto, whom she may have met on an occasion when she sang. We do know that it was "around Christmas" when, she claims, her lord "made himself a nest and refuge in my heart". This unabashed reference to herself as a pregnant Mary and Collaltino as Christ is characteristic of Gaspara’s daring verse, in which she counts herself among the greatest lovers of all time. "Alas that I alone defeat the infinite!" she cries in sonnet 90, and in her first poem, which you have before you, she delights in imagining the envy her poems will inspire in a future woman reader, who will sigh and call Stampa “felicissima,” outrageously happy.


A performer to the end, Gaspara surprises, even shocks with her emotional and lyrical range, as when she calls herself a salamander who lives in flame, a phoenix born from her own ashes, this after Collaltino leaves her and she falls immediately in love with another man. It may be these scandalous sentiments led to the poems' neglect for almost two centuries. In the early twentieth century, Stampa was championed by the German writer Rainer Marie Rilke, and today she is generally acknowledged as Italy’s finest woman poet.



158: Case 5, Deborah Lesko Baker on Louise Labé


Hello, this is Debbie Lesko Baker, Professor of French at Georgetown University. I’d like to introduce you to Louise Labé, one of the most provocative early modern French women writers, whose title page from the original 1555 edition of her works you see here. Labé was born around 1520 into a bourgeois family in Lyon, France’s cultural capital in the mid-sixteenth century. Her father was a ropemaker, who although illiterate himself, saw to it that his daughter’s upbringing went beyond home and hearth, and had her educated in classical and modern languages. Thanks to the active civic role of its bourgeois merchants, Lyon took a flexible stance toward certain class and gender conventions – namely that women had to be confined to the domestic sphere. 


However, paternally arranged marriages remained the norm, and her father’s progressive educational ideas didn’t stop him from giving Louise’s hand in marriage around 1542 to an older Lyonnais ropemaker. Still, Lyon’s progressive social strand allowed Labé to write and publish in its urban literary circles. Her pride in her Lyonnais heritage is clear on the title page, where she is identified as Louise Labé Lyonnaise. Her volume includes a now famous letter advocating women’s education and writing, together with a prose debate on the problems of male-female relations, three Latin-inspired love elegies, and twenty-four love sonnets inspired by Petrarch’s Italian lyric tradition.


Perhaps nowhere is Labé’s original voice more striking than in her love sonnets. The female speaker is no longer the inaccessible object of Petrarchan male desire, but a self-declared subject of desire who extols a vision of mutual physical and spiritual love between a man and a woman in the here and now. For a woman writing in the sixteenth century this is a revolutionary stance indeed.



159: Vitrine After Case 5, Heather Wolfe on Lady Anne Southwell


Hi, this is Heather Wolfe, curator of manuscripts at the Folger. This book is what is known as a manuscript miscellany, and it contains secular and religious verse, receipts, letters, a list of books, and many other things. It was written over a number of years, and includes contributions from various members of the household of Lady Anne Southwell and her second husband, Captain Henry Sibthorpe.


More than one-third of the volume is devoted to Southwell’s verse meditations on the Ten Commandments. Shown here is part of Southwell’s verse on the eighth commandment, Thou shalt not steal. As you can see, the left side and part of the right side are written by one of her copyists, while on the right side, halfway down, you can see a great example of Lady Anne Southwell’s practically indecipherable handwriting—it’s a very distinctive angular italic hand. You can also see her in the act of revising, as she makes corrections to the first line of verse on the right side, altering what the copyist has written, and then further down, revising herself using a much darker ink. Seeing a poet in the act of revision is always a very exciting thing, and seeing multiple layers of revision is even more interesting.


This manuscript has perplexed scholars for many years, especially because the first leaf is headed, “The workes of the Lady Ann Sothwell: December: 2 1626,” but is then followed by a series of songs and poems NOT written by her. None of the explanations for this or other mysteries has proved fully satisfactory.



160: Case 7, Margaret Hannay on Lady Mary Wroth


Hi, this is Margaret Hannay, biographer of Lady Mary Wroth, the first English woman to write an extended work of prose fiction. You see here the title page of The Countess of Montgomerys Urania, named for Wroth’s close friend Susan, Countess of Montgomery. At the lower left you see a lady and a knight who are approaching the allegorical tower of the Throne of Love; the domes are surmounted with the figures of Cupid, Venus, and Constancy. The hundreds of intersecting tales in this complex work are mostly about love. The central tale is about Queen Pamphilia’s love for her cousin, the Emperor Amphilanthus, whose name means ‘lover of two’. Pamphilia takes pride in her constancy to him, even as he repeatedly becomes entangled with other women. This echoes, in fascinating and elusive ways, Wroth’s own love for her cousin William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, even though they both had arranged marriages with others. One of the most exciting things that I discovered was what happened to their twin children. Their daughter Katherine married well, was widowed in her early twenties, remarried and moved to Wales; she evidently took some of her mother’s manuscripts with her. Their son Will fought for the king in the English Civil War. Then he apparently became a pirate in the Caribbean with his commander Prince Maurice. This too echoes Urania, with its tales of wars, international intrigue, rebellions, shipwrecks, and piracy. 



161: Case 9, Elizabeth Goldsmith on Salons and Salon Culture


Hello, this is Elizabeth Goldsmith, professor of French Literature at Boston University. The items that you see here all relate to the literary salons of seventeenth-century Paris. Salons were very different from the world of the court and its rigid hierarchies. These groups focused on maintaining a free-flowing, democratic exchange, without regard to social distinction. Salon conversation was also the way that many writers, philosophers, and scientists introduced their works to a new worldly public centered around prominent women.


The writer Madeleine de Scudéry presided over her salon in the 1650s. The long and leisurely conversations that she incorporated into her novels were drawn from discussions that were held at her Saturday gatherings. Much later, when she was in her eighties and nineties, she republished many of these as collected conversations that were read as models of ideal social interaction and worldly philosophizing. 


In the last decades of Louis XIV’s reign, as salon groups grew more scattered due to new opportunities for travel as well as the increasingly common experience of exile from the royal court, letter writing became a means of sustaining the social networks that salons had helped to create. Letters were viewed as written conversations, and women were thought to be the best at both of these arts. Marie de Rabutin Chantal, the marquise de Sévigné was famous as a letter writer.  Her letters were copied by hand, read aloud, and highly valued for their engaging and informed reporting of events in Paris and at court.  Today, Sévigné is best known for her lively and passionate correspondence with her daughter, who had moved to the south of France when her husband was named Governor of Provence.  In her letters to her daughter, Madame de Sévigné discovered her vocation as a writer.



162: Case 11, Elizabeth Hageman on Katherine Philips


Hello, I’m Elizabeth Hageman from the University of New Hampshire. If you look at the title page of the printed edition of writings by Katherine Philips in this case, you’ll see that Philips translated TWO plays by the French dramatist Pierre Corneille: his Pompey and also his Horace. We don’t know exactly why Philips chose those two plays by Corneille, but in the context of this exhibit of women’s writing, we should note that each of them features not one, but TWO very interesting female characters. 


The manuscript copy of Philips’s works in this case is open to the beginning of Pompey. The Egyptian leader Ptolemy, who speaks first, plots an underhanded way to murder the great Roman warrior Pompey. By the time the play is finished, both Ptolemy and Pompey are dead, but the play’s two women are very much alive. Pompey’s widow Cornelia has shown herself to be a heroic, loyal wife, and Ptolemy’s sister, the ambitious and honorable Cleopatra, is celebrated as the new Queen of Egypt.


Philips’s Pompey was performed at the Theatre Royal in Dublin in 1663, and that spring it was printed in two editions: one in Dublin, that one in March, and one in London in May. When Philips died of smallpox in 1664, she had not quite finished translating Horace, but it was completed by Sir John Denham and performed at the Court of Charles II in February, 1668. In that performance, the king’s mistress Lady Castlemaine played the role of Camilla, and the Duchess of Monmouth was her sister-in-law Sabina. During the theatrical season of 1668-69, Horace was then performed by a professional acting company, the King’s Men, at Bridges Theatre in London.


Although plays by English women had been read in printed copies and also performed at Court and in aristocratic households for years before Philips translated Pompey and Horace, hers were the first plays by an English woman to be performed by commercial acting companies. But the same year that Horace was on stage, the King’s Men also presented Elizabeth Boothby’s Marcelia, and soon plays by Aphra Behn, Mary Pix, Susanna Centlivre and other women were popular with English audiences—both male and female.



163: Case 11, Anna Battigelli on Margaret Cavendish


Hello. I’m Anna Battigelli, Professor of English at SUNY Plattsburgh. The volume before you is one of two folio collections of plays written by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. Cavendish’s folio volumes were lavish self-marketing enterprises, which she forwarded to universities and noblemen. On the title page, she describes herself as a “thrice Noble, Illustrious and Excellent Princess,” aligning herself with the Stuart kings. The frontispiece, based on Abraham van Diepenbeeke’s painting, depicts Cavendish situated between Athena on the left and Apollo on the right.  Both gods gaze on Cavendish.  Her gaze, however, eyes the reader, inviting, and perhaps challenging the reader to open her book.


The plays in the volume document the trauma of the English civil wars, which caused Cavendish to flee into exile with the court of the unpopular Queen Henrietta Maria. Written between 1656 and 1660, these plays depict physical battles and the battles of a divided mind attracted to both the life of action and the life of contemplation. Some of her heroines opt to change the world by defying social conventions: they cross-dress and become soldiers; one is even offered a Cardinal’s hat. Others retreat from the world by entering monastic life. Cavendish typically includes both types of heroines within the same play, reflecting her ambivalence about the proper relation between mind and world. To this day, Cavendish’s plays capture the originality and daring of this unconventional woman—and of the extraordinary time in which she lived.



164: Case 12, Nancy Copeland on Aphra Behn’s The Widow Ranter


Hello, this is Nancy Copeland, professor of Drama at the University of Toronto. Let me call your attention to The Widow Ranter by Aphra Behn. The Widow Ranter was the last play written by Behn, England’s first professional female playwright. This play was probably written in 1688, but was first performed a few months after Behn’s death in 1689. It is the first surviving play to be set in a North American colony; it takes place in and around Jamestown, Virginia in 1676. As a young woman, Behn may have spent some time in another British colony, Surinam, and she may have drawn on that experience in this play.


The Widow Rantercombines a serious plot with a comic one. The serious plot is loosely based on an historical event: the rebellion of a colonist, Nathaniel Bacon, against Virginia’s colonial government. Bacon himself is the protagonist in this plot: he is portrayed as a noble if flawed character, a hero tragically in love with Semernia, the romantic “queen” of the local Indian tribe; their doomed relationship in some respects recalls the Pocahontas story. The comic plot gives a satirical picture of the colony. The colonists include the bumbling lower-class members of the ruling council; fortune-hunting gentlemen newly arrived from England; and the Widow Ranter. Ranter came to Virginia as a servant, but became wealthy by marrying her late master. She swears, smokes, and drinks like a man, and pursues and wins a second husband while disguised as a boy. She is a memorable character, who embodies the colony’s social chaos but also its vitality. Aphra Behn’s play is a critique of both colonial Virginia and the English political situation at the time it was written, but despite its satire, this play provides an unusual early portrait of a distinctive colonial culture.



165: Case 12, Nancy Copeland on Susanna Centlivre’s The Basset Table


This is Nancy Copeland again. Let me call your attention to The Basset Table, by Susanna Centlivre. Centlivre was one of the leading playwrights of her time, who wrote many popular comedies between 1700 and 1723.This comedy is named after a card game, basset, which was popular with gamblers at the time the play was first performed in 1705.


  In The Basset Table, Centlivre deals with two important women’s issues of her day: female gamblers and women’s education. Her leading female characters are Lady Reveller, an aristocratic gambler, and her young cousin, Valeria, an amateur scientist.  Lady Reveller represents many of the contemporary concerns about female gamblers: she disrupts her family by entertaining other gamblers at her house day and night; she mixes with people below her class, like the merchant’s wife, Mrs. Sago, because she can win money from them; and she exposes herself to unwanted sexual advances when she loses.


Valeria is also a topical character. Her interest in biology is an example of the popularization of scientific knowledge in the early eighteenth century, but, like other learned women of the time,  she is satirized for being more interested in pursuing her education than in getting married and having children. Valeria’s scientific aspirations strike a chord with twenty-first-century audiences and have helped make The Basset Table popular today.



166: Vitrine After Case 12, Jennifer Keith on Anne Finch


This is Jennifer Keith, Associate Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, inviting you to look at the opening lines of Anne Finch’s play Aristomenes, or the Royal Shepherd. The volume before you preserves the only manuscript copies of the two plays she is known to have composed.


Earlier in this volume, Finch insists that her plays must be shown only to family and friends and never be performed in public. But more than twenty years after this play was written, she authorized its printing in 1713 as the concluding piece for her book Miscellany Poems, on Several Occasions.


Although Aristomenes uses elements of the pastoral, notably shepherds and their amorous interests, the play is a tragedy focused on a brave soldier’s fight against his country’s usurpers. Climander despises the “vile hook” that disguises him as a shepherd in a rural retreat while he must wait to defend his country. Climander’s retreat parallels that of many English remaining loyal to James II—including Anne and Heneage Finch—after the revolution of 1688.


Of Finch’s work that survives in manuscript one of its unusual aspects is its transcriber: her husband, Heneage. Evidence of their cooperation appears in the example shown on this page. Whereas Heneage copied out his wife’s work, she altered his transcription here and in many other pages. Thanks to this manuscript we have unique evidence of Anne Finch’s revisions and the relation they expose to her husband’s role in her transmitting her work.



167: Case 13, Georgianna Ziegler on Christine de Pisan


Hello, this is Georgianna Ziegler.  I am delighted to introduce you to Christine de Pisan, who is the medieval precursor of all the women writers in this exhibition.  She wrote her most famous work, The Book of the City of Ladies, in 1405, and it circulated widely in manuscript.  Here you see an English translation published in 1521, early in the reign of Henry VIII.  Christine was both Italian and French, having been born in Italy around 1364 and then grown up in France where her physician and astrologer father worked at the court of Charles V. By the time she was 25, both her father and husband had died, leaving her with a mother and three children to support. She embarked on a program of self-education and began writing as a way of supporting her family. She presented her beautifully decorated manuscripts to members of the nobility who rewarded her well. 


The Book of the City of Ladies is Christine’s answer to many anti-feminist tracts that circulated in the Middle Ages.  She writes that she noticed how many male writers “concur in one conclusion: that the behavior of women is inclined to . . . every vice.”  But when she thought about her own character and about “other women whose company I frequently kept, princesses, great ladies, women of the middle and lower classes, who had graciously told me of their most private and intimate thoughts,” she could not see how the arguments of these men against women could be true. So she sets out to build a city of ladies, in which she tells the stories of many famous women, mostly from mythology and classical and religious history, whose lives prove their virtuousness and their intelligence. Included are the first women artists and poets, as well as those adept in early science, women who undertook warfare, and those who saved their husbands and others from death. She also gives examples of many women who were chaste and faithful. At the end she writes: “My most honored ladies, may God be praised, for now our City is entirely finished ... where all of you who love glory, virtue, and praise may be lodged in great honor, ladies from the past as well as from the present and future, for it has been built and established for every honorable lady.”



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