Author of Prodigies: Representing the Female Letter-Writer in English Renaissance Literature
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This dissertation seeks to show that the figure of the female letter-writer in English Renaissance literature, rather than reflecting the culture’s desire to contain, undermine, or destroy the notion of women’s textual production, in fact represents the culture’s desire to imagine and see women as writers. The image of the female letter-writer was sufficiently pervasive both to normalize the idea that real women might properly engage in textual production, and to function as a literary trope which was used to investigate issues beyond gender ideology. “Author of Prodigies” explores representations of women’s epistolary creation in a broad selection of fictional texts, primarily drama. Based on these representations, I argue that the figure of the female letter-writer functioned as a means through which the fragile and epistemologically fraught relationship between the subject and the writing in which she engages was explored. In Chapter One, I focus primarily on the history of early feminist criticism, issues of how letters are related to non-epistolary texts, Renaissance notions of subjectivity and its relationship to gender, and how subjectivity was understood to adhere in epistolary writing. In Chapter Two, I examine texts in which female characters pen letters in their own blood. Blood letters figure the fragility, marginality, and vulnerability associated with self revelation in a context in which female subjectivity was not comfortably acknowledged. Chapter Three features texts that contemplate the fantasy of female characters wooing their beaux by merging epistolary production and metadramatic performances of femininity. These characters use gendered social constraints to their advantage, revealing themselves to be sufficiently skillful to manipulate social and material signs of their marginalized position in order to achieve their personal desires. Chapter Four focuses on male fetishization of women’s intellectual labour through letter-writing, and the ways in which women writers anticipate and manipulate this response. These depictions of women’s mental work are infused with mystery, which is integral to the pleasure of imagining women engaged in letter-writing. However, as the terms of the fetish are being established in these texts they are also in the process of being normalized.