"I've been interested for years in early women writers," says Georgianna Ziegler, curator of Shakespeare's Sisters and head of reference at the Folger Shakespeare Library. "It's been something new and exciting in early modern studies over the past 30 to 40 years, a whole new area to find and develop. In the past, women hadn't received much attention from scholars of the early modern era, but then in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a lot of archival work to find writing by early modern women writers. Now we're into a new generation, where young scholars write secondary works about what has been found. But the digging goes on, too. And scholars come to the Folger to do this research."
"I hope visitors to the exhibition come away excited by the idea of all of these women writers at an early time," she says. "Most people aren't aware of how many there were and how varied their writings were"—and not just in England. "I wanted to include continental writers, too," she says, including Italian, French, and other women authors, playwrights, and poets, whose works are well represented in the Folger's large continental collection.
Among Ziegler's many favorites in the exhibition are the small, stunningly bound books of Psalms by calligrapher Esther Inglis. "I have always liked those calligraphic books," she says. "I've written about Inglis before, and I also wrote the entry about her in the Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women."
The Inglis books are typical of the exhibition in another way. "As I pulled the books for the exhibition, a pattern emerged: many were tiny or small. These are books of poems, Psalms, and plays, which you would expect to be in a small format. Even the Italian women's heroic romance tales are often small. The topics tend to be personal. The rare collection of Marguerites or poems by Queen Marguerite of Navarre, which we have on loan, is beautiful and it fits in your hand. As a queen, she could have afforded a larger book. That's also true of Queen Katherine Parr's book of prayers, which is in the exhibition, too. To me, the size suggests intimacy."
One of the exceptions to the rule is a large volume of plays by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newscastle—a rare book that also produced a surprise. As the Cavendish book was being prepared for the exhibition, a previously hidden inscription was uncovered: "Mary [last name illegible], Her Booke Giuen by her Grace the Duches of Newcastle." As Ziegler explains, "We knew that Cavendish gave her books to friends with her corrections to the text in them." Before finding the inscription, however, "we never thought the notes in this copy were her own. Now we have to check to see if they were. We are trying to identify 'Mary,' too, although an ultraviolet (UV) photograph didn't make her last name readable." And so, in Ziegler's phrase, the "digging" into the rich subject of early modern women writers continues on.