In 1998, Josephine Roberts surveyed a set of examples of prosopopoeia in early modern England, texts written by men but circulated under feminine signatures, and argued that they served both as an emphatic warning against making simplistic attributions to historical women writers and as valuable sources for understanding ‘the emergent role of the early woman writer’.1 This study enlarges upon both these suggestions through the examination of a single genre, the sonnet sequence, in order to illuminate the ways in which texts of uncertain attribution contributed to the construction of early modern women’s secular writing in England. Not only did these texts alter the shape and availability of the genre for women writers, changing a scene of relative lyric agency and possibility existing in the 1560s and early 1570s to one of absence at the male-authored genre’s height in the later Elizabethan period, they also impacted on the wider field of early modern women’s writing in England, in part producing a bias towards the devotional compared to other European writing traditions. Despite the period of hiatus examined in this literary history, this set of texts shows some of the ways in which specific generic traditions operated for early modern women writers, providing precedents that might hinder as much as enable the assumption of certain subject positions or generic examples. They also display, however, a high level of innovation and ingenuity, particularly in generic combination of the sonnet with meditation and complaint, in order to negotiate some of the problems attendant upon female authorship, imagined or real, operating at particular points and in specific configurations within this literary history.


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© Rosalind Smith 2005

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  • Rosalind Smith

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