In A Room of One’s Own (1929), Virginia Woolf imagined a sister for Shakespeare called Judith, who wanted to be a playwright like her brother, but careers as professional writers were not open to women at the time. Woolf was aware of a few early women writers, but she had no idea how many women actually were writing, because many of their works circulated in manuscript and were never published. Those that were published often lay neglected. We now know a lot more about these early writers, and this exhibition highlights the works of over fifty women from England, France, and Italy, mostly unknown to Woolf.
One woman Woolf admired was Lady Anne Clifford, who grew up in a seventeenth-century household with literary connections; her mother was a friend of Mary Sidney, countess of Pembroke and a patron of poet Aemilia Lanyer. Lady Anne herself knew the future novelist Lady Mary Wroth from the time they were girls. Over her lifetime, Lady Anne collected a large number of books and made notes about her reading in her extensive diary. She turned to books for support in untangling the legal claims to her inheritance, and for consolation: I “made good books and virtuous thoughts my companions,” she wrote in her diary.
Both Lady Anne and Virginia Woolf lived rich literary lives. Using these two women as a framework, this exhibition explores a variety of “conversations,” among early women writers, and across the centuries between their time and ours. It looks at how early women engaged with each other, and with male writers. It looks at the literary circles around families and in literary salons. It examines responses of women to the Psalms, to secular love, and to notions about women. It also showcases a number of English and Italian women who wrote for the theater. Finally, it returns to Woolf and her friend, Vita Sackville-West, who no doubt would have been surprised and pleased by the recovery of so many earlier women’s voices.
From Mary Sidney to Laura Battiferri, and Louise Labe to Aphra Behn, these early authors consistently challenge Woolf’s notion that women were unable to rise above their gender to create lasting works.
Explore selections from the exhibition, case by case, by clicking the links below:
Case 1: The Clifford Women: Patrons, Readers, and Writers
Case 2: English Translations of French Religious Works
Case 3: Versifying the Psalms
Case 4: Varieties of Religious Writing
Case 5: Continental Women Writing About Love
Case 6: Italian Heroic Romance
Case 7: Sidney Family Ties
Case 8: Writings by Mothers, Daughters, & Sisters
Case 9: Women of the French Salons
Case 10: Italian Women Playwrights
Case 11: Literary Ladies as Playwrights
Case 12: English Women as Professional Playwrights
Case 13: Learned Women
Case 14: Virginia and Vita Looking Back