Melanie Kelter, a grad student from Münster, Germany, studies English and German philology and the odd behaviour of adult city dwellers during mating season, alternating between detail-obsessed field work and fearless self-experiments.
“My spouse, my sister”, said he …
“thou with me on my high throne mayst sit …
(so) that thou mightst reign with me.
Henceforth no longer two but one we are.
Thou dost my merit, life, grace, glory share.”
(Order and Disorder, Lucy Hutchinson)
… was she made thy guide
Superior, or but equal, that to her
Thou didst resign thy manhood and the place
Wherein God set thee ‘bove her, made of thee
And for thee, whose perfection far excelled
Hers in all real dignity?
(Paradise Lost, John Milton)
While most of you probably know or at least have heard of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, I am convinced that hardly anyone is familiar with Lucy Hutchinson or her 1679 work Order and Disorder which, among other things, displays Hutchinson’s remarkably feminist ideas about the equality of men and women at a time when there was no talk of a women’s movement. While the parallels between Hutchinson and Milton are striking – both of them were writers in the Early Modern period in Great Britain, both were Puritans and anti-monarchic supporters of the Parliament, both Order and Disorder and Paradise Lost re-tell the biblical Genesis story in verse – Hutchinson’s proto-feminism is what sets her apart. In opposition to the conventional and arguably misogynistic depiction of Eve by the “arch-masculinist Milton,” Hutchinson redeems the primeval female ancestor as well as other female figures of the Bible by strategically omitting, rearranging or rewriting parts of her original material, as well as adding to it creatively herself. In so doing, she postulates the mutuality of man and woman.
I want to explore the reasons why Milton’s poem was inducted to the literary canon as a classic of the Early Modern period while a comparable and perhaps even considerably more remarkable work by a female author faded into obscurity.
First of all, how does canonisation happen? The literary canon is a selection of works and authors that have come to be widely recognised and, by a cumulative consensus of critics and scholars, are therefore considered indispensable. The selection process by which pieces of literature are included in the canon remains linked to political beliefs and power structures, e.g. racism, imperialism or patriarchy, although cultural and gender studies have begun to pressure the canon to open up to non-mainstream literature to some degree.
The problematic nature of the Woman Question within the canon becomes apparent when you take a look at the list of authors who were awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize. There are just 12 female authors out of 107 laureates, and in case you’re wondering why you’re unfamiliar with most of them, none of these already few female authors have made it to the canon. Since the process of canonisation not only considers the relevance of a literary work in terms of being momentous and typical of its time, but is also attended with the ascription of authority, acknowledging it as a benchmark and guideline, the exclusion of female authors from the canon indicates the kind of misogyny that Hutchinson was subject to centuries ago.
Hutchinson’s autobiography as well as other sources show that – in contrast to her fellow females’ traditional accomplishments like needlework and music – she focused on attaining knowledge of foreign languages and writing and, as a young woman, she refused to conform to female stereotypes and instead led the life of a femme savante who was so dedicated to her studies that she did not show an interest in getting married. Even as a wife and mother of eight children, she adhered to the “insubordinate, immodest and unfeminine” writing activity, and, as a widow – the life stage in which the Early Modern woman forfeits her right to exist due to the lack of control and protection by a patriarchal framework – she not only existed publicly by writing but also staged herself as a potentially sexually active elder woman, as well as the self-confident and sole owner of her hereditary estate. (See Anne Clifford and Lucy Hutchinson for biographic information and for many of the essays referenced in this post.)
However, the majority of critics receive her as a pious Puritan who advocated the God-given inferiority of women and defined herself merely in terms of her status as the wife of a historical personality, Colonel John Hutchinson, which calls into question the thoroughness with which Hutchinson is being researched.
Her rather exceptional biography shows distinct parallels to the reception of her impressively diversified body of works. Among other works, she submitted the very first complete English translation of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, which makes her pious reputation puzzling, since the ancient poem blasphemously depicts the existence of the world as a random build-up of atoms (see “Adventurous Song” or “Presumptous Folly”). Even more notably, her biography of her husband has become a standard work for scholars of 17th century history, “making her probably the best-known and most highly-praised early modern woman writer,” according to professor David Norbrook in “’But a copie’: textual authority and gender in editions of The Life of John Hutchinson.” Yet, her works are neither being researched thoroughly nor have they been inducted into the literary canon.
In the context of this scholarly oblivion, Hutchinson’s Order and Disorder emerges as a particularly extreme case. Although the poem obviously offers resistance to gender-related and societal ideology, academia hardly takes note of it. On the contrary, the sparse secondary literature refers to it rather unfavourably as a document of Hutchinson’s approval of misogyny as well as a cheap copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Here, one reason for Hutchinson’s exclusion from the canon comes into the picture, namely the significance of biography: there is a correlation between the decency of the woman writer and the reception of her publications (see Kanonisierung als patriarchalischer Selektionszwang? by Orturn Niethammer). While the canon is based on consensus, it is at the same time based on the viewpoint of man, in which the intellectual performance of woman is not allowed. The contradiction that a woman, who, according to her “silent nature” should not speak out in public, is raising her voice, is approached by questioning her female respectability. As a consequence, works by women were integrated in literary histories but were at the same time trivialised and simplified by focusing on the virtue of the woman writers.
In the case of Order and Disorder, the prejudiced reception was based on Hutchinson’s gender, as well as on her neglectfully researched biography. Needless to say, Paradise Lost, one of the epitomes of Early Modern English literature, receives the privilege of being judged according to its textual and stylistic merits without the question of whether Milton himself behaved well. Essentially, literary works by men and women were judged based upon a set of utterly different parameters, which perhaps explains the dearth of women writers from this period who have been canonized today.
Additionally, the induction to the canon is closely related to the self-portrayal of the author, a form of “self-canonisation,” which began to accelerate significantly in the Early Modern period. Through this method of image cultivation the author had to display a great deal of self-confidence by placing himself in a long and meaningful literary tradition. Milton staged himself as a major national poet and historian who was entitled to rank among the elite of English literary men, according to professor Robert Mayer in “Lucy Hutchinson: a life of writing.” Juxtaposing this male self-conception with the attributes that the Early Modern woman was supposed to display – humility, silence, obedience – shows a substantial reason for the obscurity of the works of many female writers. During the Early Modern period, women had neither the opportunity to engage in this process without stepping across the line of gender decorum, nor the opportunity to position themselves within an existing female tradition.
Critics like Joseph Wittreich – one of the very few critics who have compared Order and Disorder to Paradise Lost – defend the “bruisingly misogynistic Milton” against feminist criticism by considerately stating that “the misogyny, indigenous of his times, was a mark of this poem’s authenticity.” On the other hand, he – like most other critics – does not take into account that Hutchinson’s gender-specific caution was equally indigenous to her times, let alone acknowledge that Order and Disorder insistently documents the oppressed situation of the Early Modern woman and woman writer.
Here, another reason for the exclusion of Order and Disorder from the canon becomes apparent, namely the mannishly connoted practices of reception. The formation of the canon is determined by the gender question, not only in terms of recension but also in in view of publishing editions. Niethammer holds that the canonisation of authors is immediately dependent on their occurrences in literary histories, educational collections of texts and other scholastic editions. Thus, female writers become obscure because their work was initially unexamined and therefore continues to go unexamined. The thesis that the canon consists of traditional works with a long history of reception reinforces the dilemma of the canon debate in terms of gender questions: You will hardly become a classic when you do not get a mention in professional journals, lexicons, etc. – in short, when you are not being supported by the literary scene which has been predominantly male up to today.
Thus, the most outspoken paragraph of Hutchinson’s otherwise rather cryptic work, in which she comments on women’s obligation to marriage, hence to their submission to patriarchal society, can also be applied to woman writers’ dependence on men within the literary scene:
Yet golden fetters, … curbs of liberty,
As well as the harsh tyrant´s iron yoke;
More sorely galling them whom they provoke
To loathe their bondage, and despise the rule
Of an unmanly, fickle, froward fool.