(Stephanie Merritt’s article appeared in the Guardian, 4/8;Photo: Child prodigy Elizabeth Cary, the author of the first published play by a woman in English. Photograph: Magite Historic/Alamy.)

This lively, accessible insight into a quartet of female writers in Elizabethan and Jacobean England explores the complex political, patriarchal and religious backdrop to their lives

Virginia Woolf, in her seminal essay A Room of One’s Own, famously asserted that any hypothetical sister of William Shakespeare would have had her literary gifts thwarted from the outset, thanks to the restrictions on women’s education in the Elizabethan age, not to mention the burdens of motherhood and domestic drudgery.

In the last few decades, the field of feminist literary and historical studies has vastly expanded, holding up to the light those female writers who, despite Woolf’s dismissal, did exist and create in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Ramie Targoff, professor of English at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, sets out to examine the life and work of four of the most prominent in Shakespeare’s Sisters: Four Women Who Wrote the Renaissance. One is the prolific diarist Anne Clifford, who was certainly known to Woolf because her lover, Vita Sackville-West – a direct descendant of Clifford – had published Anne’s early diaries. Where Woolf regarded Anne as “practical and little educated”, “busied with all the cares of wealth and property”, Sackville-West praised her “sharp, vigorous mind”. In Targoff’s account, Anne – who lived to be 86 – emerges as determined and independent minded, her writing offering a vivid account of her personal battle to assert her rights after she was disinherited from her father’s estate.

Most striking is the way the women had to accommodate a world of male expectations and bend their way around it

Targoff’s other three subjects are equally fascinating. There’s Mary Sidney, sister of the poet Sir Philip and later Countess of Pembroke, whose translations of the Psalms were praised by her male contemporaries, including John Donne; Aemilia Lanyer, daughter of an Italian (possibly Jewish) immigrant musician, whose name may be more familiar since Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s 2018 hit play Emilia brought her to a new audience; and Elizabeth Cary, a child prodigy who went on to become the author of the first published play by a woman in English, despite having 11 children. These women and their writings are not unknown, but to see their individual and occasionally interwoven stories set out side by side is to understand with greater clarity that, while Woolf was not wrong about the obstacles faced by female writers, she was mistaken about the quality and reception of their work.

Most striking in Targoff’s account is the way the women had to accommodate a world of male expectations and bend their way around it in order to make their voices heard. Mary Sidney used her famous brother as a foil, slipping her own earliest work into print under cover of his name. When Elizabeth Cary was newly married and her husband, Henry, went abroad to fight in the Netherlands, Elizabeth’s mother had someone else write to Henry on his wife’s behalf, lest the evidence of Elizabeth’s ferocious intelligence put him off; Elizabeth’s play, The Tragedy of Mariam, was published with only her initials on the title page, to conceal her identity.

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