Saturday, September 10, 2011

Aemilia Lanyer: A Woman of Words, Part 5

Miniature portrait from
1593 that may depict
Aemilia Lanyer

Aemilia Lanyer: A Woman of Words, Part 4

Ultimately, Aemilia calls out for equality between men and women, a world in which both sexes may realize personal autonomy.

     Then let us have our Libertie againe,
     And challendge to your selves no Sov'raigntie;
     You came not in the world without our paine,
     Make that a barre against your crueltie;
     Your fault beeing greater, why should you disdaine
     Our beeing your equals, free from tyranny?
                If one weake woman simply did offend,
                This sinne of yours, hath no excuse, nor end.

(Lanyer 1993, 87)

Boldly, she challenges the assume superiority of men over women. She is ahead of her time, as the saying goes, not for the thoughts but for their expression.

To this, Rowse glibly responds:

     Really, she might be a precursor of Women's Lib! ... this was what the
     menfolk -- the Lord Chamberlain who had discarded her, Alfonso who
     had taken her on unhappily, his actor-dramatist who had fallen for her,
     Forman who came to detest her -- had all had to put up with. We may
     legitimately, if modestly, conclude that men found her a bit much.
(Rowse, 28)

I suppose that is a fair enough comment, because I find Rowse a bit much as well. Sadly, his misogyny saw print as recently as 1978. For some people, very little has changed in 400 years.

Aemilia's book apparently failed to find an audience, and her life began a steady decline. Alphonso died in 1613, at which point she signed over the hay and straw monopoly to his brother, Innocent. The irony of her brother-in-law's name cannot be ignored. He apparently agreed to split the income with Aemilia, but he paid her only a pittance. Even when he passed the monopoly on to another brother, Clement -- also ironically named -- the latter reneged, too, despite repeated court orders.

Aemilia's attempt to run a school for children in the upper echelons only succeeded in leading her back to the courts. She sued her landlord for compensation for repairs she made to the building; he countersued for the rent she refused to pay. Somehow, she managed to achieve the status of pensioner -- one in receipt of a regular income -- by the time she died in 1645. Either her legal wrangling with Clement succeeded or she found other means of supporting herself. In any case, she was apparently never able to achieve her lifelong goal of re-entering high society.

As stated earlier, Aemilia's turbulent life may have helped form her "radical" opinions on the status of women. Her views permeate her poetry and prose. More than a theological curiosity, Aemilia is a prime example of the literary value of female writers of the Renaissance or any other period. There were only nine copies of Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum known to exist as of 1996, and her book received minimal attention from scholars until relatively few years before that. Rowse gets the credit, although he demeaned her character, for finally bringing her work to the public eye in 1973.

All that matters now is that others are willing either to stand in her defence or present the unadorned facts and that her work is studied in context with Spenser, Marlowe and -- Heaven help us -- Shakespeare.


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