The two works under review are on broadly the same subject - writing by women in later medieval England - but could not be more different and are therefore difficult to compare directly. One author is an historian, the other a literary scholar.
It is a truth universally acknowledged and documented many years ago by David Cressy, that women in early modern England had far lower rates of literacy than men.
The history of the Enlightenment can sometimes appear as a male narrative, dominated by canonical male writers, with women appearing only as subjects denied an equality of rationality and relegated to a feminine domesticity.
This important work is long overdue. It identifies two gaps in the existing historiography.
Once upon a time, as every schoolboy knew, the history of the British Empire was the history of great men.
Rachel Beer first caught my attention some 20 years ago when I was trawling through Who Was Who looking for journalists. She was unusual because she was the editor of The Sunday Times in the 1890s, when no other national newspaper had a woman editor. She was also deeply conscious of her background, proud of being a member of the wealthy and important Jewish family of Sassoon.
In recent years, historians have begun to explore the political experiences of Victorian women outside the well-trodden suffrage narrative. As a consequence, we have a far greater understanding of how certain women were able to negotiate, exploit and overcome the legal and ideological constraints society placed upon them.
Lady Grisell Baillie (1665–1746) graces the front cover of this volume, her poise and thoughtful, questioning expression a fitting overture for a book that is peppered with images of 18th-century Scottish women, literally making them more visible.
Over years of supervising student dissertations I have been petitioned by many with a wish to undertake a study of gender (or more particularly women) and the Scottish Enlightenment. I usually caution against this. Gender relative to the Enlightenment is so very difficult to pin down. The Enlightenment, after all, wasn’t something that anyone knew they were doing or experiencing.
In Mediatrix Julie Crawford seeks to expand our understanding of women’s contributions to early modern literary and political culture. Crawford seeks to look beyond the concept of the woman writer to instead focus on the ‘startling range of women’s literary practices’ and the ‘collaborative nature of literary production’ in pre-modern England (p. 3, p. 4).