Ambiguities of female authorship and the accessible archive

Authored by: Marcy L. North

Routledge Companion to Women, Sex, and Gender in the Early British Colonial World

Print publication date:  October  2018
Online publication date:  October  2018

Print ISBN: 9781472479945
eBook ISBN: 9781315613772
Adobe ISBN:


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This chapter looks at four sets of sixteenth-century poems for which female authorship has been proposed but also questioned or disputed. Mary Sidney Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke, is identified by Spenser as the author of an elegy on Sir Philip Sidney, the “Doleful Lay of Clorinda,” but some scholars believe the lay is actually Spenser’s work. Two poems attributed to Anne Vavasour in sixteenth-century manuscripts might indeed be hers, but the scandals in which she was involved have led some scholars to suspect the she is the poems’ subject, not the author. Despite Mary Ellen Lamb’s provocative suggestion that three holograph poems in the Bright Manuscript belong to a Sidney family woman, Lamb’s paleographical evidence has been rejected, leaving the poems caught in between categories. Recent scholars seeking to attribute a new poem to Isabella Whitney have struggled to get feedback in a field saturated with new women’s texts. In all four cases, accessible digital archives and searchable indices and bibliographies are changing the way critics discuss these poems, and both proponents and doubters of their female authorship are beginning to anticipate their readers’ relatively easy access to primary evidence. The result is that very recent critics on both sides of these authorship debates are much more likely to leave the authorship questions open, inviting readers to decide for themselves if a poem is by a woman or not. Although the fates of these four sets of poems differ, and some are getting more critical attention than others, there is no doubt that disputed or ambiguous poems by women are finding a visible place in the accessible archives, a place that they might not have had in textbooks or author editions.

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