A Feminist Success Story

by

Sara Read

 

Back when the study of early modern women’s writing was in its infancy, four academics near the start of their careers decided to produce an anthology of women’s writing to help make rare works more accessible and teachable. Elspeth Graham, Hilary Hinds, Elaine Hobby and Helen Wilcox all chose 3 women each to include. Authors chosen included the poetry of An Collins whose Divine Songs and Meditacions survives in a single copy. The book was produced before modern technology made these texts available online and the editors would meet at one another’s homes to assess progress and compile their anthology.

The book was published by Routledge in 1989 as Elspeth Graham, Hilary Hinds, Elaine Hobby, and Helen Wilcox, eds, Her Own Life: Autobiographical Writing by Seventeenth-century English Women (London: Routledge, 1989). Five years later the publisher decided to discontinue the title. When the editors heard this, they surveyed those teaching seventeenth-century women’s writing at institutions all around the country to see if they felt the book worth keeping in print. The result was a flood of letters to the publisher asking them to reconsider the decision. The campaign was successful and the book has remained in print for the whole 25 years since its publication and continues to sell to this day. The anthology forms the basis of the reading for several modules up and down the country.

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[some of the letters in support of Her Own Life were displayed at the wine reception following the plenary talk by the editors]

The four editors were reunited for a plenary panel at the ‘Early Modern Women, Religion, and the Body’ conference at Loughborough University on July 23 2014. The panel made a perfect close to a conference whose which saw almost 60 scholars from all over the world meet in the School of Arts, English and Drama for a conference exploring aspects of women’ s health and wellbeing in early modern England (c. 1500-1780). The conference provided a space where scholars from various academic disciplines could meet to explore the complex interrelationship between psychological, corporeal, spiritual, and emotional aspects of early modern women’s lives.  As well as questioning the relationship between body, mind, soul, and gender, exploring the history of medicine and health helps us examine our own cultural assumptions about what constitutes ‘good’ healthcare, and to think critically about what we mean when talking about issues such as medicine, health, and wellbeing in relation to individual subjective experience.

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[From the left: Helen Wilcox (Bangor), Hilary Hinds (Lancaster), Elaine Hobby (Loughborough) and Elspeth Graham (Liverpool John Moores)]

 

The conference was organised by lecturers in English, Drs Rachel Adcock, Sara Read and Anna Ziomek to coincide with the release of their anthology based on the conference themes, and called Flesh and Spirit: An Anthology of Seventeenth-century Women’s Writing (Manchester University Press, 2014).

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The editors of Flesh and Spirit were all taught from Her Own Life by Professor Elaine Hobby at Loughborough University as either undergraduate or post-graduate students and all three went on to complete PhDs in early modern women’s writing. They are now publishing on the topic in their own right and Rachel Adcock and Sara Read now work as lecturers in English.  The publication of their anthology on the 25th anniversary of Her Own Life shows the success of this volume in inspiring the next generation of scholars.

 

Sara is a lecturer in English in the School of Arts, English and Drama at Loughborough University and has published Menstruation and the Female Body in Early Modern England (Palgrave, 2013).