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Shakespeare's Sister

ENGL 290.601
Thursdays 5-8:00 pm


In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf famously invented ‘Judith Shakespeare’ – a figure of the woman writer whose attempt to pursue the career of her brother William led her only to ruin and suicide. To Woolf, writing in 1928, women’s writing before the modern period was an impossibility. But as it turns out, she need not have invented Judith – Shakespeare had many ‘sisters,’ women who wrote and published in several genres, whose work has been recovered into the English canon over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Only a few years after the publication of A Room, Hope Emily Allen identified the manuscript of The Book of Margery Kempe –

and event uncannily anticipated by the young Woolf’s 1906 short story, ‘The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn,’ in which a spinster scholar discovers the fifteenth-century diary of the eponymous young woman. Taking our lead from Woolf’s own framing of the frustrations of an apparently empty archive of women’s literary history, we will consider the surfacing of premodernity in Woolf’s own work, including essays, short stories, and novels including Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, and Between the Acts. We will then also read those women writers whose history Woolf was not aware of – Margery Kempe, Aemilia Lanyer, Mary Wroth, and Katherine Philips, among others – in order to ask what it means, in Woolf’s terms, to ‘read back through our mothers.’

fulfills requirements
Elective Seminar of the Standard Major
Sector 3: Early Literature to 1660 of the Standard Major