Book Review

St. Clair, William and Irmgard Maassen, eds. Conduct Literature for Women, 1640-1710. 6 volumes. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2002.

Reviewed by Jessica Murphy | March 23, 2003

In their “General Introduction” to Conduct Literature for Women, 1640-1710, William St. Clair and Irmgard Maassen claim: “Our aim, as with the previous volumes, is to make available to students of gender ideology a representative selection of early modern English printed texts that were instrumental in the formulation and promulgation of notions of women’s nature, their social roles and duties, and the virtues deemed appropriate for the specific spheres of activity assigned to them” (ix). St. Clair and Maassen brilliantly achieve this aim of presenting a “representative selection” of texts; moreover they provide an editorial apparatus that astutely contextualizes the works.

The selection of texts that St. Clair and Maassen have chosen to include in Conduct Literature for Women, 1640-1710 (which is Part II of the series Conduct Literature for Women from Pickering & Chatto) is diverse. The format of the works they have reproduced ranges from broadside ballads, such as “The Virgin’s A.B.C.” and “A Brief Anatomie of Women” in Volume 1, to printed works in small format, such as Halifax’s The Lady’s New-Year’s-Gift in Volume 2. The collection is varied, including translations of French manuals, such as Theophilus Dorrington’s translation of Jacques du Boscq’s The Excellent Woman, Part I in Volume 1 and George Hickes’ translation of Francois Fénelon’s Instructions for the Education of a Daughter in Volume 6; an original composition by a woman in defense of the education of women: Ana Maria van Schurman’s The Learned Maid in Volume 2; works that are the late seventeenth century incarnation of the querelle des femmes in Volume 5; and advices written for the children of the authors, such as Halifax’s The Lady’s New-Year’s-Gift in Volume 2. While a number of alternate editions of the works they include are available on Early English Books Online, for the most part St. Clair and Maassen have compiled a collection of works that would otherwise be very difficult to find.

Not only do St. Clair and Maassen include a selection of rare texts, they surround each selection with an extremely informative apparatus. As with Part I of the series, which covered the period 1500-1640, the editors include a headnote with each facsimile reproduction. These headnotes typically contain information about the author (or the assumed author in “mysterious” cases) and information on the composition and publication of the work. For example, in the headnote to Heydon’s Advice to a Daughter, the editors explain that it “was not meant to offer genuine instruction on women’s conduct but is a polemical refutation of Francis Osborne’s provocative Advice to a Son” (2.49). An excerpt from Osborne’s Advice to a Son precedes the Heydon selection, providing a wider contextual understanding of each of the works.

One problem with Conduct Literature for Women, 1640-1710 is that the facsimiles are not always completely legible. In some cases this may be the result of a text that is blurred, while in others it may be, as St. Clair and Maassen explain in their “Note on Copy Texts,” the consequence of the “inevitable” “bending of the facsimile texts” in an attempt “to preserve the bindings of the originals.”

On the whole, however, this is an excellent resource for scholars interested in conduct literature, as well as for those scholars who wish to gain access to learned information about the literature in order to further their own research in the period.

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