Pens and Needles

Through an examination of the expressive arts of needlework, painting, and writing, Pens and Needles offers insights into women's lives and, in its final chapters, into literary texts such as Shakespeare's Othello and Cymbeline and Mary Sidney Wroth's Urania.

Pens and Needles
Women's Textualities in Early Modern England

Susan Frye

2010 | 344 pages | Cloth $65.00 | Paper $27.50
Literature | Women's/Gender Studies
View main book page

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Note on Spelling

Preface
Introduction
Chapter 1. Political Designs: Elizabeth Tudor, Mary Stuart, and Bess of Hardwick
Chapter 2. Miniatures and Manuscripts: Levina Teerlinc, Jane Segar, and Esther Inglis as Professional Artisans
Chapter 3. Sewing Connections: Narratives of Agency in Women's Domestic Needlework
Chapter 4. Staging Women's Relations to Textiles in Shakespeare's Othello and Cymbeline
Chapter 5. Mary Sidney Wroth: Clothing Romance

Notes
Selected Bibliography
Index
Acknowledgments


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Preface

Decades of scholarly work on early modern English women have expanded our sense of their lives and of the media that they used to express those lives, media that I call women's textualities. Early modern modes of perception made women's verbal and visual textualities seem closely related, even versions of one another. As a result, this book considers women's writing alongside their paintings and embroidery. Through their multiple textualities, I argue, women from about 1540 to 1700 expressed themselves in several media that also record the ongoing redefinition of the feminine.

Women's textualities took many forms in early modern England. As activities, they may be placed along a continuum, from those that provide very little information about their producers to those that provide a great deal of information. Surviving forms of women's textualities include notes in samplers, alphabets both stitched and penned, initials, ciphers, wise sayings, and embroidery patterns, all of which offer glimpses of women's activities and perceptions. Still other textualities, including calligraphic manuscripts with embroidered covers and needlework pictures, pamphlets, as well as the texts now classified as literature, offer more substantive information about the connections that women saw between themselves and their texts. Whether providing only traces or whole treatises of information, women's textualities materialize their creators' identities as situated within familial, intellectual, religious, and historical traditions, even as they used those traditions to redefine themselves.

To some producers of early modern texts we can attach names, including privileged women like Elizabeth Tudor, Mary Stuart, Bess of Hardwick, Anne Clifford, Margaret Hoby, Mary Sidney Herbert, and Mary Sidney Wroth. Other women who wrote, painted, or worked textiles include those more at the periphery of power, like Levina Teerlinc, Jane Segar, Esther Inglis, and Amelia Lanyer. Still other women's names are largely unknown, their existence registered only by the needlework that they left behind and by their choice of narratives. Both the nameable and the anonymous women who produced a variety of texts led lives that were engaged with economic, political, religious, and material changes within their society—changes that encouraged both literacy and needlework among members of the middling classes. The objects that register their subjectivities—whether the products of educated, literate women or the products of the less privileged—offer the rare opportunity to access lives that might otherwise be lost. At the same time, attending to the products of both pens and needles presents an alternative way to read the canonical literature of the period, including William Shakespeare's Othello and Cymbeline, and Mary Sidney Wroth's Urania.

The Introduction opens with the evidence that early modern people often saw the products of women's pens and needles as interrelated, a way of conceptualizing the combined media present in epitaphs, dedications, diaries, educational treatises, and commonplace books. Although it is widely assumed that women held the needle and men held the pen, early modern people themselves as well as contemporary scholars have worked to dispel this simplistic binary. A painting, Alice Barnham and Her Sons Martin and Steven featuring a woman in the act of writing, together with Anne Bradstreet's "The Prologue" and Margaret Cavendish's dedications to Poems and Fancies, demonstrates the intensity and wit with which women presented themselves in relation to pens and needles. In addition to considering contemporary perceptions of pens and needles and the array of texts produced by them, the Introduction discusses key terms used throughout the book, including early modern, women, identity, and agency. The Introduction closes with a discussion about relations between the subject and the object, including the subject living in the twenty-first century and the object that has survived, however altered, from four hundred years ago. As different as the women in the past were from women of today, interpreting the objects that they used and created offers ways to recover who they thought they were and where they thought they were going.

Following the Introduction, three chapters consider the intersections among historical women's verbal and visual textualities, from those of three titled women in Chapter 1, to the production of professional artisans in Chapter 2, to the needlework of women from many different backgrounds in Chapter 3. The final two chapters continue to examine historical practice while considering the literary use of women's textualities, by William Shakespeare in Chapter 4 and by Mary Sidney Wroth in Chapter 5.

Chapter 1, "Political Designs: Elizabeth Tudor, Mary Stuart, and Bess of Hardwick," considers the relations among three privileged women who combined textualities for their public political advancement. In the process, all three women created objects resembling those that anthropologist Annette Weiner has called "inalienable possessions." These objects were produced as gifts but even more as treasures that assert the political prerogatives of their makers by connecting them to familial pasts and futures. The young Elizabeth Tudor used her needlework-covered translations to assert her familial and political identity to her father, Henry VIII, and her stepmother, Katherine Parr. She also used her portrait to declare her intellect and kinship to her brother, Edward VI. Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, Dauphine, Queen of France, and Dowager Queen of France, lived out the iconography assigned to her until the deaths of her mother, father-in-law, and husband. At that point she seized the self-representation available in her portraits in white mourning through her poetry, her commissioned portraiture, and her needlework. In France, in Scotland, and finally in England, imprisoned at the houses of the Earl and Countess of Shrewsbury, Mary used her pen and needle to address her family, supporters, and detractors, even as she influenced Bess of Hardwick in the creation of her tapestry-sized hangings of the Noble Women of the Ancient World series, which include a heretofore unrecognized portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots.

I begin the book by considering these three well-known women because they had the means and the need to express themselves through writing, portraiture, and needlework to a variety of audiences. The verbal and visual textualities that they practiced were in turn adapted by women from the gentry, merchant, artisan, and middling classes for their own purposes. By the seventeenth century, as more women were learning to write as well as to read, print shops provided access to designs for needlework of the kind that had earlier been available only to queens and aristocrats. Elizabeth Tudor, Mary Stuart, and Bess of Hardwick stood at the forefront of textual practices that would become ever more widely emulated, even as they demonstrate how these elite women combined initials and ciphers, translation and calligraphy, portrait composition and interior design, to assert their intertwined political ambitions.

Chapter 2, "Miniatures and Manuscripts: Levina Teerlinc, Jane Segar, and Esther Inglis as Professional Artisans," focuses on three lesser-known but no less ambitious women than those addressed in Chapter 1. Although Teerlinc, Segar, and Inglis have not been discussed together before, as artisans all three were among England's first professional women; all three practiced their combined verbal and visual skills to recommend themselves to powerful patrons. Levina Teerlinc was a painter, scrivener, miniaturist, and designer who successfully served at the courts of Henry VIII, Mary Tudor, and Elizabeth I. Jane Segar assembled a calligraphic manuscript with painted covers dedicated to Elizabeth that included an original poem as well as ten poems translated from a Latin original and adapted to the queen's iconography. Esther Inglis received the support of kings, queens, and courtiers for the production of her renowned manuscript books. The works of these three artisans demonstrate that a space existed for skilled women to make a career by combining transcriptions of court ritual, translation, dedications, poetry, calligraphy, drawing, painting, self-portraiture, and embroidery.

Chapter 3, "Sewing Connections: Narratives of Agency in Women's Domestic Needlework," discusses how and why girls and women pursued three needlework genres: the spot sampler, a kind of visual commonplace book; the band sampler, a formal genre that nevertheless allowed sometimes inspired variation; and the needlework picture, at that time considered a "sampler" because it featured "exemplars," whether embroidered on book covers, bed valances, cushions, cabinets, hangings, or mirrors. When it came to needleworking pictures, women chose the narratives that they sewed by adapting masculine print traditions. The stories of Bathsheba and Susanna addressed voyeurism, sexual harassment (although that term did not yet exist), rape, and false witness, although in adapting northern European prints needleworkers also engaged the triumphant aspects of these Old Testament stories. Other common subjects for needlework pictures like Sarah and Hagar or the Judgment of Solomon addressed the complex status of wives and children. Choosing to work Esther, Deborah, or Judith meant representing divinely sanctioned women who took bold, even violent political action accompanied by prayers, petition, and psalms. The biblical worthies of needlework pictures appear as well in the printed texts debating the nature of womankind (the querelle des femmes), including Esther Sowernam's Esther Hath Hang'd Haman and Amelia Lanyer's Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, suggesting that at least some of the women who worked these narratives were exploring active, even outspoken definitions of the feminine. As I completed this chapter, I was able to add the words of Elizabeth Isham, whose lifewriting largely confirmed my sense that women were conscious of exercising agency as they performed embroidery. In their biblical pictures, early modern English women, while living the burden imposed by concepts of the virtuous woman, pictured this ideal as beautiful but also active; sexually desirable but also chaste; submissive but also violent; quiet but outspoken to the point of presenting petitions or declaiming psalms in public; and used, even abused, by men and yet triumphant over them.

Overall, the first three chapters of Pens and Needles: Women's Textualities in Early Modern England examine the products of early modern English women's pens and needles, which express their changing political, personal, and professional identities, in the process creating art, literature, and exquisitely crafted objects. The two concluding chapters continue to elucidate women's historical relations to texts and textiles, while demonstrating how an awareness of women's textualities alters the readings of three canonical works of literature: Othello, Cymbeline, and The Countess of Montgomery's Urania.

Chapter 4, "Staging Women's Relations to Textiles in Shakespeare's Othello and Cymbeline," uses the study of women's textualities to reexamine Othello and Cymbeline. This chapter begins with an overview of women's everyday labor that produced textiles, from the most basic carding and spinning to common needlework, where the ubiquitous patterns of the peasecod, the grapevine, and the strawberry situated women within life stories of production and reproduction. Working from such textualities, I argue that while these plays acknowledge women's everyday relations to textiles, they also conflate women's hands in the act of sewing with their sexuality and their bodies with cloth. Such erotic conflations, whether present in Dutch genre paintings of the period or on the English stage, enabled the fantasy that women—or the boys who played them—were accessible and possessable. In Shakespeare's plays, this fantasy produces violence: Othello not only murders Desdemona and Emilia but also explains the handkerchief's origin, revealing his changing view of himself as a racialized, Muslim outsider, a process that culminates in his suicide. Reconfiguring women's relations to textiles by associating the handkerchiefs, sheets, and bedchambers of Desdemona and Innogen with their bodies, leads to the physical threats against them. Shakespeare's manipulation of women's relations to cloth necessarily inflects and is inflected by the genres in which he is working. And genre has consequences for female characters Both tragedy and dramatic romance equate cloth with the female body, but the extension of time in Cymbeline allows cloth to be translated into Innogen's bedroom emblematic of royal feminine agency and Posthumus Leonatus's bloody cloth, as well as into disguises and a lost baby's mantle, with their promise of resurrection and reunion.

Chapter 5, "Mary Sidney Wroth: Clothing Romance," concludes Pens and Needles by considering how textiles are integral to Wroth's authorship of this first-known example of a prose romance written by an English woman. Instead of describing everyday practices associated with needlework, Wroth uses luxurious textiles and rhetorical practices associated with cloth to dilate her narrative. Although the world of Urania is located far from the everyday women's work of carding, spinning, mending, and sewing, its courtly, pastoral, and enchanted settings emphasize early modern women's use of language, including their orality, literacy, and authorship, often positing that language is inseparable from embroidery, clothing, and political textiles of state. In Urania, Wroth creates her leisurely, internested narratives of female desire by drawing on her Sidneyan awareness of rhetoric and aristocratic practice, making women's textual production into a narrative in which textiles enact early modern women's identity and agency. Reading Wroth with the historical relations between women's texts and textiles in mind allows us to see how she generated romance by bringing together rhetoric, anagram and cipher, dilated narrative and familial practice to register the range and reach of women's textualities.

In Pens and Needles, I bring together early modern women's verbal and visual texts, reading them as objects that expand our sense of women's participation in redefining the feminine from within its lived practice. In my earlier study of Queen Elizabeth I, I focused on how she rewrote early modern attempts to define and limit the feminine, using her iconography to articulate the political choices that she made and had then to fight for as her represented body. This study of women named and anonymous, historical and fictional, includes but also moves beyond the court in order to demonstrate that women from a variety of backgrounds possessed related forms of verbal and visual expression that began in royal, aristocratic, and artisanal practice and quickly spread to England's other classes, who altered and developed these textualities to suit their needs. As the recorded textualities of early modern English women became more diverse and more widespread, they resulted in objects that these women used and created, objects that delve the instabilities of gender difference.