Virginia Woolf didn’t get a lot wrong when it came to women’s issues, but one of her most famous observations — that a fictional sister of William Shakespeare who longed to write would have been doomed to financial failure and social censure — was actually selling women of the day short.
Woolf knew of a handful of early female writers when she penned that observation in “A Room of One’s Own” in 1929. But she probably would be blown away by the depth and range of early female writers on display in the Folger’s new exhibition, “Shakespeare’s Sisters: Voices of English and European Women Writers, 1500-1700.”
New research has documented that not only were women of the era scribbling away in prim diaries, they were publishing poems, plays and translations of works from across Europe. Long omitted from, or scarcely mentioned in, classical-studies canons, writers such as Christine de Pisan, Gaspara Stampa, Katherine Philips and Georgette de Montenay are brought to light here — and we have yet to mention the fabulous (and outrageous) Mancini sisters.
“Only in the last 30 or 40 years has a lot of this material been dug out of the archives, and some of it is still only in manuscript form,” says Georgianna Ziegler, the exhibit’s curator.
The show incorporates the work of more than 50 female writers from England, France and Italy, “mostly unknown to Woolf.” It also includes a 51-page chapbook of modern writers and poets musing on their predecessors, including works from Jane Smiley, Rita Dove, Elizabeth Nunez and Eavan Boland, among others.
“It happens again / As soon as I take down her book and open it. / I turn the page. / My skies rise higher and hang younger stars,” Boland, an Irish poet, writes in “Becoming Anne Bradstreet,” an ode to the British-born woman who became one of the first poets of the New World.
The literary output of the day was limited to the upper classes — literacy rates were not high, and only the well-to-do would have had the time, or even the paper and ink with which to write — but the show documents the creative expression of European women in a depth that is rarely seen.
What was on their minds?
Love. Religion. Misadventure. Comedy. Heroic romances that would today be called chick lit.
Lady Mary Wroth wrote sonnets. Esther Inglis made bejeweled, decorated copies of the Psalms, penning the intricate calligraphy herself. Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth I) translated works into English, printing them as early as 1545 — before Shakespeare was born. Marguerite de Navarre, sister to Francis I, king of France, wrote religious as well as secular poetry, including “Mirror of the Sinful Soul.” Margaret Cavendish wrote two volumes of plays, and was the first English woman to write dramatic criticism.
And, yes, the Mancinis! Hortense and her sister Marie published their memoirs to great acclaim in the 17th century, as their love affairs with the rich and royal of both England and France were high- octane gossip.
“People followed their adventures, particularly those of Hortense. It was like paparazzi,” says Ziegler.
Italian women were among the first in Europe to perform on the public stage, taking to the boards more than a century before the first recorded English actress did so, in 1660, and were also writing their own works. Some of these were sensual, if not erotic. Veronica Franco — a painting here shows her in a daring, low-cut blouse — was a Venetian courtesan, well-read and thoughtful, a poet and a singer. She objected to being called a whore but was ready to respond. “If you want to use common language, fine, I can work in that style as well,” she retorted in one of her works.
One of the later, English plays by Susanna Centlivre, was about a woman who ran a house with gaming and card tables, called “The Basset Table,” when published in 1705. The Folger is now staging the play, reborn with the 21st-century title “The Gaming Table.”
It wasn’t Shakespeare, but it wasn’t bad. Woolf would have loved it.
Friday through May 20. Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol St. SE. Call 202-675-0342 or visit www.folger.edu.