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23.03.06 Verini, English Women’s Spiritual Utopias, 1400-1700

23.03.06 Verini, English Women’s Spiritual Utopias, 1400-1700

English Women’s Spiritual Utopias, 1400-1700: New Kingdoms of Womanhood is a fascinating and elegant study that promises to significantly expand the category of utopian writing. Alexandra Verini makes a compelling case for moving beyond received notions of literary utopia; thanks to Thomas More’s long-held position as the genre’s founder and to its association with exploration and imperialism, the standard canon of literary utopias implicitly privileges male writers and masculine tropes. Her insistence that medieval and early modern women’s spiritual writings are utopian in that they, too, express “the desire for a different future” (6) challenges the assumption that religion’s purported “preoccup[ation] with the next world” precludes its interest in this one (8). Instead, Verini contends, English women’s religious writing from this period uses the idea of female monasticism not only to work towards a better life in the next world, but also to find ways of leading lives of greater agency, learning, and self-governance (9). The idea of monastic enclosure, she argues, thus suggests new ways for women to imagine both their futures and the present.

Central to Verini’s argument is the concept of bricolage, which she draws from Lévi-Strauss and Derrida. Here, bricolage refers to the use of elements drawn both from history and from various discourses to construct a new vision of community. These elements are often in conflict with each other; thus, the authors under consideration adapt and reframe contradictory ideas in order to generate novel ways of envisioning the future. Temporality plays a crucial role in this work of bricolage, as fragments of the past are reworked into a vision of the future that is also enacted, at least partially, in the present. Because medieval women’s spirituality necessarily relied on a long tradition of texts and practices that were written by men, often to women’s disadvantage, their incorporation of these texts into utopian visions of female community are not only creative, but at times revolutionary.

New Kingdoms of Womanhood is divided into five chapters that proceed roughly chronologically and divide the later “secular” from the “religious” literature. Chapter 1 serves as an introduction, laying out Verini’s terminology and situating her argument within traditional genealogies of utopian writing. This introduction covers many of the broader strokes of Verini’s argument and helps to create a sense of the subsequent chapters’ cohesion; given the wide range of texts that Verini analyzes, from medieval guides for anchorites to seventeenth-century poetry, this integrative chapter usefully sets up the reader to see the links among these seemingly disparate works. In addition to the points summarized in the preceding paragraph--revising our notion of what constitutes utopian writing, the importance of bricolage, and the multiple temporalities of utopian thinking--one of this chapter’s primary themes is how monastic enclosure, ideally a utopian concept in its own right, serves as the basis for the writings under consideration, including those that have little or nothing to do with religion. The chapter also hints at further arguments to come: of female friendship as utopian; of the role of intersubjective desire; and, finally, of the presence--indeed necessity--of failure. “Utopia’s failure,” Verini writes, “is what imbues it with generative possibility” (16). That the utopias did not reach their idealized fruition does not undercut their effect. As she demonstrates, this sense of failure as generative goes back to the bricolage work of medieval women’s spiritual writing and utopian writing in general. Because bricolage “juxtapos[es] ideas that undo each other,” the texts that it produces “were thus not only bound to fail but actively courted the means of their failure” in a way that ultimately “enhances their utopian potential” (17): unable to exist in the world, they become utopian in the literal sense of “no-place,” and spur their writers, readers, and inhabitants to continually rethink what is possible.

Chapter 2, “Mirrors of Our Lady: Utopia in the Medieval Convent,” is (as its title suggests) the most thoroughly given to medieval texts. It is here that Verini argues for convents as, if not necessarily utopian spaces in their own right, nonetheless “establish[ing] a utopianism that was both spatial and temporal as they framed women’s religious communities as counter-spaces to the present and as sites of women’s future agency” (34); convents are “alternative spaces” that envision “alternative futures” (35). After discussing Rules for female monastic enclosure, including the thirteenth-century Ancrene Wisse, the chapter turns to the rules and liturgy of Syon, Barking, and Wilton abbeys. Although many of these texts were written by male clerics, Verini makes the case for their inclusion in her study because of the openings that the “bricolage process of creating” them left open “for women’s agency” (37)--for instance, in the simultaneous emergence of autonomy and obedience in rules regarding nuns’ prayers (39). Moreover, the insistently female lineages articulated in, for example, the Bridgettine literature of Syon imagines a woman-centric spiritual world that, perhaps unintentionally, leaves space for women’s spiritual authority (45); likewise, the performance of the liturgy in convents gestures towards the future spiritual power of its female practitioners (52). The chapter as a whole, then, not only lays important groundwork for the remainder of the book, but suggests that there is feminist potential within medieval Christian women’s devotional practices, even when those practices are scripted by male clergy and arise out of a misogynistic tradition.

The next chapter, “These Most Afflicted Sisters: Old and New Futures in Early Modern English Convents,” concerns Continental convents of English nuns following the closure of monasteries in England. Verini’s textual focus in this chapter includes various letters from English nuns in exile, the Arundel manuscript (c. 1620), and the Life of Mary Champney, a Syon nun who fled England to join the Bridgettine convent in Flanders in 1569. Her analysis centers on two different ideas of futurity that, she argues, come together in this set of literature in a way that allows English nuns in exile to “ensure their positions within the political present by framing themselves as vehicles of English Catholic utopia” (70). The first conception of the future reflects a strong sense of predestination and is figured by typology: establishing typological connections between themselves (or their patrons) and Biblical figures in exile, the nuns assert the inevitability of the return of Catholicism to England. The second sense of futurity involves risk and unpredictability; this future requires human intervention and thus creates the space for the nuns to plead for aid from their patrons and sympathizers. The bricolage work of weaving together these two contradictory understandings of the future allows the women to “position themselves as unique purveyors of a once and future English Catholicism” (75), even as it “unwittingly predicted their own failure” (71).

One of the strengths of this volume is the continual interweaving and development of related themes including temporality, failure, and bricolage. Chapter 4 continues this work, particularly with regard to ideas of contingent futurity and female community. “Not Yet: Aspirational Women’s Communities Beyond the Convent” turns to extra-conventual women’s spiritual spaces to argue that they reworked ideas of female monasticism “to imagine a way of life...between heaven and earth” (117). This intermediary space, likened to the saeculum that joins heaven and earth in Augustine’s City of God, represents a joining of opposites that was a prominent feature of male-authored literary utopias and which is also aligned with the bricolage practices of female utopian writers. The chapter brings together the medieval allegory The Abbey of the Holy Ghost, the women inhabiting the spiritual community of Little Gidding, and the writings of the recusant Catholic Mary Ward. The inclusion of the Story Books of Little Gidding is Verini’s first incorporation of Protestant spiritual utopias alongside Catholic utopianism, a move that is more fully developed in the largely secular texts discussed in chapter 5.

The final chapter, “Convents of Pleasure: English Women’s Literary Utopias,” takes on the texts that are most like traditional utopian literature, such as Margaret Cavendish’s Blazing World (with a nod to Christine de Pizan’s City of Ladies, a book that is otherwise excluded by New Kingdom’s limitation to English literature). Specifically, Verini focuses on female friendships and their role within utopian writing, a topic that, I believe, could be very generative for scholars working on women’s art and writing of any period. Friendship among women--framed as an impossibility by writers such as Michel de Montaigne--was utopian in the true sense of the word, as seeming to exist in no place. The possibilities opened up by the recognition of bonds among women, which created new sites of agency and fulfillment, are explored in the works of Cavendish, Amelia Lanyer, Katherine Philips, and Mary Astell, even as conflict and difference (in social class or point of view, or arising from sexual jealousy) hint at the inevitable--yet productive--failure of these utopian bonds’ full realization.

New Kingdoms of Womanhood is immensely interesting and a pleasure to read. It will be of interest to scholars of women’s writing and of utopianism; moreover, its wide reach contributes to a growing body of scholarship that bridges the medieval/early modern “divide.” It also bridges perceived gaps between genres and forms of literature: ranging across liturgical texts, monastic rules, letters, secular poetry, and Anglican concordances, Verini tacitly encourages us to embrace a variety of genres in considerations of women’s writing. At the same time, it inspires us--or it inspired me, at any rate--to be on the watch for the utopian in our own lives: for the bonds that help us reimagine our present and our futures; for the bricolage work of adapting restrictive discourses into a pastiche of new possibilities. And, finally, to see the promise in failure, as the foundation of future imaginings.