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Helen Smith, ‘Grossly Material Things’: Women and Book Production in Early Modern England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0-19-965158-0. 254 pp. Hbk £60

Reviewed by Alice Eardley

[1]  The title of Smith’s book, with its reference to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, signals its place in an established history of feminist interest in the material circumstances of literary production. For Woolf, ‘Fiction is like a spider’s web … attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in’ (Smith, 2). Feminist scholars, taking their cue from Woolf’s now infamous proclamation, made elsewhere in A Room of One’s Own, that material circumstances meant it was almost impossible for Renaissance women to write, have spent the last few decades recovering evidence of women’s participation in literary culture. The outcome of this process is the conclusion that, while women may have been largely excluded from print publication (a fact accounting for Woolf’s inability to locate the women writers she sought), manuscripts offered a viable and legitimate means of literary engagement. In this book, Smith adopts many of the insights afforded by the process of archival retrieval, particularly the emphasis now placed on the significant roles women played as literary agents and not simply as named authors, and uses them to provide a much-needed reappraisal of the relationship between women and the printed book.

[2]  The book is structured around Robert Darnton’s influential ‘communications circuit’, tracing the various roles of authors, publishers, printers, agents of distribution and sale, and readers (6). Serving as a corrective to the andro-centrism of Darnton’s model, Grossly Material Things traces the participation of women in every step in the process of book production. Chapters 1 and 2 consider women as collaborative authors, contributing to the authorship of books as sources of inspiration, partners in conversation, copyists, translators, dedicatees, editors, and also as patrons of writers and stationers. While feminists have often despaired at the traces of male-influence to be found in texts by early modern women, it is refreshing to be reminded that women also had a role in shaping the writing produced by men. Smith painstakingly sifts through the traces of authorship to found in printed texts in the form of dedications, prefaces, and title pages, but she is also particularly good at bringing alive the material and social contexts, such as the home, within which textual production occurred; it is hard to resist quoting her suggestion that ‘women’s role in the processes of mourning, and in the estate management and accounting of their deceased husbands’ affairs, created a close link between the hands that tidied the corpse and the hands that tidied the corpus’ (43). These reconstructions remind us that only the most determined misanthropic writer would have been able to evade all influence of women on his work. While not all of the observations here are entirely new (it will come as no surprise to many that the process of translation is creative rather than mechanical) they are presented with a wealth of original textual evidence and contextual detail and put forward with a degree of confidence that serves to undercut modern notions concerning the value of different kinds of textual engagement.

[3]  Chapters 3 and 4 progress to the second stage in Darnton’s model, providing exciting insights into the role of women in the sixteenth and seventeenth century book trade. Smith builds on work by Bell (1989, 1994, 1996a, 1996b) and McDowell (1998), stepping backwards in time to consider the period between 1550 and 1650, and revealing women’s participation as printers, stationers, business partners, employers of apprentices, participants in the mechanical processes of book production (including binding), overseers, and as patrons of the Stationers’ Company, specifically as contributors to the development of the Stationers’ Hall, and as charitable donors of money, goods, and property. Outside London, women acted as important, and often well-known, distributors and sellers of material both in the British Isles and in Northern Europe. Smith’s exhaustive survey of the Stationers’ Register and of numerous other documents pertaining to the company, including woodcuts, letters, wills, court records, and Star Chamber decrees highlights the pervasive presence of women and their activity at every level of the printing business. We are again insistently reminded that, even where they have not left material traces, women were not absent from the spaces in which book production and distribution took place, not least because commercial premises often coincided with domestic arenas. This knowledge is significant for literary scholars in particular because it demonstrates that ‘women’s labour is one of the material subtexts of the books we have inherited, and should be read alongside those books as a provocation and a challenge to the work of interpretation’ (134). Smith’s insights are important, not simply because of what they reveal about women in the book trade but because they provide further evidence to contradict lazy modern assumptions about women’s complete exclusion, purely because of their gender, from commercial and civic life during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As such, it sits comfortably alongside studies such as those by Erickson (1993) and Capp (2003), in part because of the way it layers up archival evidence as a riposte to scholarly commonplaces concerning the place of women’s in early modern society. While they were not, admittedly, a dominant presence in the early modern book trade, women were evidently not a negligible one and their contemporaries, the evidence implies, were not surprised to find them there.

[4]  The broader theoretical issues at stake in this book are brought to the fore in chapter 5, which uses early modern ideas about the physiology of reading to explore the relationship between books and female bodies. The gendered bodies involved in the early modern book trade matter because they constitute very different engagements with, and contributions to, the material they were involved in creating (and through which they were themselves created). In Darnton’s circuit these are the readers that complete the cycle, influencing or becoming the author at the ‘beginning’ of the publication process. This concluding chapter showcases the methodological strands, including detailed contextual research, history of the book, and theoretical observations (from Marxism and feminism to name just two) that inform the book as a whole. Ostensibly a study of women’s engagement with the printed book, this volume employs an original angle of enquiry to tease out generally neglected aspects of the book trade in general (the relationship between patronage and the printed book, and the role of ideological rather than mercantile motivations in decisions made about material to print and disseminate, for example) and in doing so brings a wealth of new insights to the field of book history. More generally, it asserts confidently and on the basis of a wealth of evidence the often-forgotten fact that the lives and worlds of early modern men and women were not hermetically sealed off from one another and that literary production, like many other endeavours, was almost always the product of some form of cross-gendered collaboration.

University of Reading, August 2012



Works Cited


Bell, Maureen. 1989. ‘Hannah Allen and the Development of a Puritan Publishing Business, 1646-51’, Publishing History 26: 5-66

—— 1994. ‘Elizabeth Calvert and the “Confederates”, 1664-75, Publishing History 32: 5-49

—— 1992. ‘”Her Usual Practices”: The Later Career of Elizabeth Calvert, 1664-75, Publishing History 35: 5-64

—— 1996a. ‘Women in the English Book Trade 1557-1700’, Leipziger Jahrbuch zur Buchgeshichte 6: 13-45

—— 1996b. ‘Seditious Sisterhood: Women Publishers of Opposition Literature at the Restoration’ in Kate Chedgzoy et al. (eds.) Voicing Women: Gender and Sexuality in Early Modern Writing (Keele University Press, 1996), 185-95

Capp, Bernard. 2003. When Gossips Meet: Women, Family and Neighbourhood in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Erickson, Amy Louise. 1993. Women and Property in Early Modern England (London: Routledge)

McDowell, Paula. 1998. The Women of Grub Street: Press, Politics, and Gender in the London Literary Marketplace, 1678-1730 (Oxford: Clarendon Press)