Sharpening Her Pen demonstrates how six early modern women authors exploit, or evade, a rhetorical discourse founded upon images, tropes, and dialectics of violence to secure authorization for their work as writers and empowerment for the personal agendas unique to each of them. Rhetorical violence functions both as a literary phenomenon facilitating the polemics of each author, and as an analytical methodology enabling scholars to derive meaning from a particular organic facet of a writer's intellectual structure. The subjects of the study represent a balance between writers who have received considerable scholarly attention (Elizabeth I, Aemilia Lanyer, and Lady Mary Wroth) and those who have received relatively little (Anne Askew, Anne Dowriche, and Lady Anne Southwell). Exercising rhetorical strategies that reflect their idiosyncrasies as intellectuals, they share a canny awareness of the persuasive power of violence in their age as physical reality and as metaphor.
Working from the full range of these of these authors' extant writings, Sondergard identifies and codifies the patterns of rhetorical violence they use, replications in language of the physical experience of pain, its cause and consequences, and their analogues in conflict and suffering, real and imagined. This universally comprehensible system of signification, grounded in cultural attitudes as well as reader experience, is applied to give an immediacy to textual arguments, often as a response to patriarchal values and conditioning. The technique allows women writers to enter the dominantly male sphere of authorial activity through a semiotics of shared experience with readers, constructed from violence associated with sacred and secular history, with interpersonal conflicts, and with masculine culture. While considering the significations of individual tropes of rhetorical violence, this study also examines how they collectively communicate the personalized, idiosyncratic semantics of each author.
Anne Askew's self-signifying accounts of her heresy trials, empowered by citation of biblical authority, expose the coercive tactics of subterfuge and intimidation employed by her ecclesiastical opponents and recode them as brutality antithetical to Christian doctrine. Queen Elizabeth 1 balances her power to harm against her will to protect, composing thereby an image of beneficent majesty that allows her to respond to political threats without seeming impetuous or malicious. Anne Dowriche's verse narrative, The French Histoire, draws on a feminist semiotic and theatrical conventions to stage a revisionist history that warns readers of the dangers of succumbing to sectarian violence. Challenging male social hegemony and traditional gender roles, Amilia Lanyer empowers her readers to become warriors, modeled after the heroes of feminized myth, to combat the cultural ramifications of the murder of Christ. Through her explicitly feminized interpretation of genres previously monopolized by male authors, Lady Mary Wroth challenges the violence explicit in male depictions of love. Responding to thirty-two years of discontented marriage, Lady Anne Southwell uses rhetorical violence to map the variety of domestic, cultural, and intellectual traps awaiting women.
Though relying upon discrete rhetorical strategies, the six subjects of this study all struggle for control of their own bodies and lives, for autonomy as intellectual beings, and for the authorization that will allow them to achieve those objectives.