Recovering the Reading of Renaissance Englishwomen

Deployments of Autobiography

in Critical Survey
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  • 1 Queen's University Belfast R.Wray@qub.ac.uk
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Locating evidence of early modern women’s reading habits is notoriously difficult. Beyond passing allusions in popular ephemera, brief prefaces and stylised dedications, there is little concrete information about how and why reading by women was conducted in the period. Conventional sources of evidence – such as marginalia (written comments or signatures penned in books and pamphlets) or library inventories – are scanty. Women do not tend to inscribe themselves in the margins, and those who catalogue their books are small in number. Even then, as Heidi Brayman Hackel has argued, because an unstable and uneasy relationship obtains between textual consumption and reading practice, records of book ownership cannot always be closely tied to the reading act. The dictates of conduct literature manuals, and the appeals and addresses contained in ballads and broadsheets, offer clues about assumptions relating to gendered modes of consumption, yet they tell us little about the ‘material reality’ of what women actually read (as opposed to what they were supposed to read). In such circumstances, autobiography (diaries, memoirs, letters and conversion narratives), might seem a privileged place to look for evidence of reading habits.

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