Writing Their Way In: The Dedicatory Epistles of Early Modern English Women Authors



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This project explores how 17th-century English women writers used dedicatory epistles. The three case studies here represent different modes in which women writers interacted with readers: manuscript, print, and commercial print. By looking at their paratexts, we can see how, by employing common conventions of transmittal like gift exchanges, parental legacies to children, and patronage these women created spaces for themselves from which to speak as authors.

Lucy Hutchinson?s two manuscript dedicatory epistles offer unique insight into the techniques one early modern English women writer utilized to contextualize, to justify, and ultimately to promote her texts to her readers. Hutchinson rewrote the Puritan cause collectively as a failed English utopia, ultimately cast down by the English rabble more concerned with material prosperity than with their souls? condition.

Margaret Cavendish published in print under her own name from 1653 to 1671 when such an activity was contrary to female conduct norms. Cavendish frequently included several dedicatory epistles within a single book, each one using conventional language in an unconventional manner. She used many common social and literary conventions, such as the format of the letter and the language of patronage, in flamboyant ways to highlight her unique status and thus her right to participate in ?properly masculine? fields such as scientific commentary. Her epistles explored the limits of the ?work? introductory paratexts could accomplish.

Because Aphra Behn?s livelihood depended upon her ability to appeal to the literate public generally and the upper classes in particular, her dedications are universally political. Situating her printed dedicatory epistles published between 1673 and 1689 within their original sociopolitical and historical milieu allows us to examine how Behn adapted her rhetoric, use of humor, political commentary, and patron choices throughout this period.

Putting these three women?s works and their writing processes into conversation, I argue, provides an overview of the process early modern English women writers utilized to create and to secure a place for women in the literary marketplace as producers of viable commercial products. More broadly, this project explores of the tactics of early women writers as they began creating for women the possibility of possessing a national literary voice, rather than focusing solely each woman?s individual sociopolitical and literary negotiations.