Shannon Miller. Engendering the Fall: John Milton and Seventeenth-Century Women Writers. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. viii + 280 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8122-4086-3.
Reviewed by Rebecca Mills (Hillsborough Community College)
Published on H-Albion (February, 2009)
Commissioned by Brian S. Weiser
No More Anxiety: The Influence on/of Paradise Lost is a "Tapestry"
Engendering the Fall is a must read for scholars of John Milton and seventeenth-century women writers. In this feminist critique of Paradise Lost (1667), Shannon Miller reconsiders this epic in interesting and innovative ways, but her main focus is the dialectic manner in which women and Milton anticipated, influenced, and conversed with each other throughout the seventeenth century. Despite the chronological organization of her text, Miller argues that influence on/of Paradise Lost should not be viewed as a single line, but “instead like a tapestry, many strands of individual thread producing a pattern only observable from a distance” (p. 6).
In “Pretexts,” Miller considers how Rachel Speght, Ester Sowernam, and Aemilia Lanyer influenced Milton’s poetry, particularly Paradise Lost. Because of a shortage of material evidence, she often refers to this influence as a “conversation” and does so mainly in the subjunctive mood (p. 48). In chapter 1, Miller argues that the language of the antifeminist pamphlet wars, sparked by Joseph Swetnam’s The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward, and Unconstant Women (1610), influenced Milton’s dialogues in Paradise Lost, especially the conversations between Adam and Eve. She pays particular attention to Swetnam’s respondents, Speght and Sowernam, and the potential influence they may have had on Milton. Although Miller’s theory would have been more convincing with some material evidence of this alleged influence--Miller herself laments the lack of “irrefutable evidence”--she still makes some connections between the antifeminist debates of the early seventeenth century and Milton’s Paradise Lost (p. 21). The language Milton used in his dialogues between Adam and Eve could have been lifted out of earlier debates. She points out that because Milton dramatized the language of the antifeminist debates, both sides of the debates can be found in Milton’s epic. Milton seemed to borrow the innovations of Speght and Sowernam in his narrative before the Fall and in Eve’s defense, but Milton also seemed to incorporate Swetnam’s language in Adam’s criticism of Eve after the Fall. Miller’s assertions gain strength when she points out textual connections; for instance, Adam’s post-Fall tirade not only matches Swetnam’s text in content but also matches it in cadence. Adam’s complaint is "ugly" and rambling, very similar to the style of antifeminist tracts. The real strength of this chapter is that Miller does not attempt to classify Milton as either a feminist or a misogynist, but rather outlines the “polyvocal” nature of Paradise Lost when it comes to women (p. 23).
According to Millerin her second chapter, Miltonalso seemed to have a “conversation” with his predecessor,Lanyer. Although there is only a tentative material connection between the two poets, Miller asserts that there are linguistic connections between Lanyer and Milton, particularly in their passion poems, as seen in Lanyer’s Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611) and Milton’s unfinished “The Passion” (1630). Milton’s “Passion” is often compared to other passion poems written my male writers, but Miller convincingly argues that “only Milton and Lanyer position themselves through spatial narratives of perspectival locations” (p. 56). Again, when focusing on textual connections, Miller points out significant links between Milton and early seventeenth-century women writers.
In “Contexts,” Miller discusses women writing between 1620and 1670, starting, in chapter 3, with the explosion of women prophets in the 1640s and 1650s. She sees the conventions and tropes of the female prophets incorporated in the invocations of Paradise Lost; although Miller believes that Milton did this subconsciously after his political situation changed in 1660. The textual links that Miller discusses are the strongest part of her argument; however, the material link between Milton and the texts by women prophets is hardly tenuous since he was well positioned to have encountered such writing during the protectorate. Also intriguing is Miller’s discussion late in chapter 3 of pregnancy and monstrous births as motifs that influenced Milton’s construction of Sin and Death in book 2 of Paradise Lost. For Miller, the “voices” of prophets,such as Elizabeth Poole and Anna Trapnel, come alive as they “echo through” Milton’s epic (p. 105).
Miller “reverses the direction of ‘influence’” in chapter 4 when she considers how Lucy Hutchinson reacted to, and in a sense rewrote, Paradise Lost in her poem Order and Disorder (p. 107). Despite the fact that Milton and Hutchinson were parliamentarians, the latter still seemed to take issue with aspects of Milton’s epic. In responding to Paradise Lost, Hutchinson reworked the Genesis story to highlight the significance of maternal events that become more positive in comparison to Sin’s experience in Paradise Lost. In addition, Miller argues that Hutchinson rewrote the narrative of the Genesis to ensure that Adam and Eve shared“dominion” through their marriage and children. As Miller says, “Hutchinson’s treatment of the marriage ceremony in Order and Disorder illustrates her engagement with the complicated question of contractual relationships,” both personal and public (p. 119). In her attempts to counter a genetic theory of government organization found in the likes of Sir Robert Filmer and other patriarchalists, Hutchinson’s poem anticipatedJohn Locke’s Two Treatises.
The focus of chapter 5 is how Margaret Cavendish politicized the acquisition of knowledge in comparison to Milton, although influence is not something that Miller asserts in either direction because Paradise Lost and Blazing World (1666) were written around the same time. Despite their different political views (Cavendish was a Royalist), both of their Garden narratives “interrogate the relationship between scientific knowledge, political stability, and the foundational nature of gender in that relationship” (p. 167).
In “Influences,” Miller turns the reader’s attention to Mary, Lady Chudleigh, Mary Astell, and Aphra Behn, who explored the topic of marriage in the context of the last two decades of the seventeenth century. Miller’s chapter 6 discussion of Chudleigh’s poem the Song of Three Children Paraphras’d (1703) is entirely original, making connections between Chudleigh and Milton that have gone unnoticed by other scholars. Although Miller makes a case for Chudleigh’s “Tory qualifications” not being as solid as Astell’s, it is debatable whether or not Chudleigh shared Milton’s politics (p.175). However, I concur with Miller: Chudleigh is “neither an insignificant echo of Astell nor a dismissible writer of ‘Drydeniana’” (p. 175). Miller’s discussion of Behn and Astell is the content of chapter 7. For Miller, Behn negotiatedand parodiedthe “severability” of marriage in Love-Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister(1684), and ultimately eroticizedthe Garden (p. 207). Astell chastised Milton and rewrote the Garden narrative in A Serious Proposal (1694) so that knowledgewas no longer a temptation, but rather a way in which women were able to focus on internal beauty. As Miller points out, knowledge and intellectual endeavors were for Astell not as dangerous for women as courtship and marriage.
The breadth of Miller’s discussion is impressive in this well-researched and innovative text. Scholars and teachers of seventeenth-century literature will not be disappointed with Miller’s reassessment of Milton, particularly of Paradise Lost, and the women writers who came before and after him.
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