Book Review

Sondergard, Sidney L. Sharpening Her Pen: Strategies of Rhetorical Violence by Early Modern English Women Writers. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 2002.

Reviewed by Kris McAbee | March 22, 2003

Sondergard’s book offers an insightful yet eminently approachable investigation of the ways in which early modern English women writers appropriate rhetorical violence. It includes a chapter each on Anne Askew, Queen Elizabeth, Anne Dowriche, Aemilia Lanyer, Lady Mary Wroth, and Lady Anne Southwell. The very helpful introduction sets up the fundamental premise from which Sondergard works, namely that “all language and images selected by an author to enact the fiction of violence are encoded as vehicles of persuasion.” He quite rightly sets up this similarity among all the writers in his study while insisting upon the distinct uses of a discourse of violence employed by each writer. Sondergard’s methodology, which can be described as a synthesis of semiotics and structuralism, lends itself well to close discussion of the texts at hand as well as informative discussion of the role of these works in relation to the body of work surrounding them; for example, his study of Wroth deals with the degree to which Wroth appropriates male violence (specifically the violence of the masculine romance) in order to provide the sort of agency, authority, and authorship to women that the very violence of the masculine romance attacks. Obviously, in as much as Sondergard deals with the language of women writers, issues of gendered voices serve as a pivotal point of examination, but so do the bodies connected to these voices; violence, after all, is insistently corporeal. However, while his structuralist approach tends to throw the writers into relief against their works, it does not entirely resist poststructuralism. Unfortunately, the moments which do explore the experience of readership, tend to be the weakest points in his study. Focusing on the problem of the gendered reading experience, only brings Sondergard to the fore as a gendered reader himself. Yet, the concentration on the texts of these women provides valuable insight into the women writers themselves. And although Sondergard occasionally exhibits a tendency not to take his readings to their farthest conclusions (for example, when, in his section on Wroth, he fails to articulate the implicit connection between a rhetorical act of violence concerning a dismembered bear and the rhetorical violence inherent in the blazon), the result is a very applicable and amenable analysis which encourages further thought.

Sharpening Her Pen focuses first on the Examinations of Anne Askew and the way in which the texts of the trials of this Henrician heretic reveal Askew’s refusal to be a victim or to relinquish discursive control. This chapter, “’On these men that wyll fall’: Reforming Voices in Anne Askew’s Examinations,” empowers Askew by uncovering her moral superiority through her “strategy of self-signifying” which exposes the deceptive artifices of her prosecutors’ language. Chapter 2, “Shooting Strong but Never Straight: Queen Elizabeth’s Rhetoric of Altruism and Intimidation” discusses Elizabeth Tudor’s “strategy of constructing a self-image of endangered majesty to foster her subjects’ care for her, while exercising techniques of rhetorical violence to empower her as monarch.” The next chapter, “Tragic Past and Present Danger: Anne Dowriche’s The French Historie,” concerns Dowriche’s strategies for amplifying her historical examinations through the use of rhetorical violence which serves her feminist purposes by provoking the reader in specific ways. Next, in his shortest chapter, Sondergard deals with Aemilia Lanyer’s self-assertion in Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. Here, in “‘When this sweet of-spring of thy body dies’: Aemilia Lanyer’s Polemical Passion,” Sondergard defines Lanyer’s empowerment in terms of her equation of the violence against Christ and violence against women; he argues that Lanyer redeems her female readers by assuring them that “the female believer may be compensated through reputation and empowerment for her self-sacrifice made in the name of devotion to Christ.” The following chapter, “’Violence and falsehood rules’: Subverting Masculine Romance in Lady Mary Wroth,” explains the ways in which Wroth uses the language of masculine romance in order to essentially deal in a male dominated trade, while simultaneously subverting the tropes of these romances to both empower her female characters and herself as the author, and, thus, women’s writing as a whole. Finally, “’Tears woundes & blood’: Lady Anne Southwell’s Caustic Mediation on Domestic Survival,” concentrates on Southwell’s employment of rhetorical violence “to map the variety of domestic, cultural, and intellectual traps awaiting women generally, though most particularly awaiting those women unfortunate enough to marry unhappily.”

Each chapter is extraordinarily well-structured, organized along thematic lines or critical constructs rather than plot; this organization generates a more comprehensive and useful study. Overall, Sharpening Her Pen presents an often stimulating and consistently empowering reading of early modern women writers, many of whom suffer from a dearth of scholarly attention, and who gain much from Sondergard’s approach.

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