McManus, Caroline. Spenser’s Faerie Queene and the Reading of Women. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2002.
Reviewed by Jeen Yu | March 24, 2003
Was Spenser a “ladies’ man”? The answer is “yes,” according to Caroline McManus, whose new book addresses compelling questions about the connections between Spenser’s courtship of aristocratic female readers and his depictions of women in The Faerie Queene. McManus argues that Spenser’s contemporaries clearly acknowledged his awareness of a female audience and that The Faerie Queene’s allegory refers “not only to the experiences of male courtiers but also to those of female courtiers.” She thus broadens the scope of Spenserian scholarship by positing a “ladies’” Spenser, in addition to the “Irish,” “Protestant,” and “laureate” Spenser (among others), taking seriously the interplay between The Faerie Queene and this early female community of readers.
McManus contextualizes her study by noting that Spenser is one of many 16th-century authors who recognized and courted a female readership, among them Sir Thomas Elyot, John Lyly, and especially Robert Greene (“whom Thomas Nashe seems to refer to scathingly as the ‘Homer of Women’”). The Faerie Queene, McManus observes, “explicitly acknowledges the presence of both royal and nonroyal women within the literary and political culture the poem reflects and sought to transform.” Her point is a crucial one: While most critics are “willing to acknowledge that Spenser does not limit his shadows of the queen to Gloriana and Belphoebe,” the “attendant women who serve as markers of that royalty have often been overlooked.” In other words, Spenser’s female audience was not limited to Queen Elizabeth, the poem’s official dedicatee, but included nonroyal women as well.
McManus’s attention to the complex interplay between gender and genre makes her argument more compelling. She suggests, astutely, that Spenser’s decision to “write his national epic in the mode of chivalric romance may have been an intentional strategy on [his] part to invite a female readership.” Spenser’s text, moreover, in many ways “resembles popular didactic literature in its advocacy of modesty, chastity, and piety,” but, as she goes on to argue, “the rhetoric of feminine virtue he presents is rendered ambiguous by his conflation of courtesy literature with the genre of romance, which effectually undermines any reading that is narrowly prescriptive in nature and provides a broader spectrum of female exemplars for women readers to appropriate.”
Thus, as the intentional ambiguity of her title suggests, this study explores the ways in which The Faerie Queene “attempts to ‘read’ women at the same time that it anticipates the ways women may have read it” and, further, raises questions about “the ways in which women readers might have been moved by Spenser’s romance to exercise their own gendered versions of [what Sidney refers to as] ‘courtesy, liberality, and especially courage’.” McManus speaks eloquently to Spenser’s engagement in the ongoing querelle des femmes and illustrates the necessity of constructing “a history of early modern women readers to complement the recent progress made in constructing a history of early modern women writers.”