philipsezell Reading pseudonyms in seventeenth-century English coterie literature.; Ezell, Margaret J.M.
Essays in Literature   03-22-1994

The study of pseudonyms is one of the oldest activities of literary historians. In its first stages, "pseudepigrapha" was an important arena of scholarly endeavor because of its goal of establishing the canon of the New Testament through the correct identification and authentication of authors and texts. During the Renaissance, the primary interest in this field, whether theological or classical, was attribution and the unmasking of fraud, involving, as Taylor and Mosher characterize it, critical methodologies "standing between higher criticism and investigations in plagiarism and forgery" (vii).

Such techniques of investigation lie behind such seventeenth-century texts as Vincent Placcius's Theatrum Anonynorum et Pseudonymoron (1674) and Adrien Baillet's Auteurs deguisez (1690), whose contents consist of long lists revealing the "true" identities of a wide variety of authors. In these early studies, as well as such later ones as Halkett and Laing (the standard reference work) and Alice Kahler Marshall, the goal is to establish literary ownership of a particular work or to validate the credentials of the author by discovering the identity masked by the pseudonym. The historical questions raised by the use of pseudonyms in the period to be discussed in this essay, English literature in the seventeenth century, would thus appear to be quite simple: who was Urania? Was there really a Poliarchus? Traditionally, pseudonyms are read as fiddles to be solved; the theoretical issue to be resolved in this mode of reading is "who," not "why."

The politics of using pseudonyms, however, are more complex than this one methodology of literary detection suggests, and they are largely unexplored. This type of analysis of pseudonyms implies that all pseudonyms are meant to be read in the same way, regardless of historical context. A closer consideration of the practices of coterie literary production during the seventeenth century, however, both reveals and discredits the unstated assumption found in these accounts that the nature of authorship and of writers' relationships with their readers have remained unchanged throughout history, regardless of the mode of literary production. The issues raised about the relationship between author, audience, and subsequent generations of critical readers are, in fact, so large and so varied that this essay will focus only on late seventeenth-century English coterie circles and pastoral pseudonyms in particular. By examining this specific phenomenon and the ways in which we have conventionally analyzed its presence in the literary environment of the seventeenth century, I hope to provide suggestions for reconsidering the ways in which we discuss authorship in early periods in general.

References to pseudonyms in general literary histories of the seventeenth century are grounded on two key assumptions which concern the nature of authorship and the author's relationship with his or her readers. These assumptions are that pseudonyms are a form of deliberate, intentional disguise and that they function either to perpetrate fraud or to protect the writer. In either use, the relationship between author and reader is thus presumed to be antagonistic.

The early studies of pseudonyms illustrate these premises not only in their methodologies but also in the very format of their presentations. Baillet's title Auteurs deguisez itself declares the relationship between Baillet and the writers he studies. Implicit in the approach suggested in Baillet's title and found in the volume is the belief that pseudonyms signal an author's desire to distance him- or herself from the audience, with the suggestion that the writer does so deliberately to deceive the reader, either to disguise the identity of the author or the nature of the work.

"Deguiser" also contains the notion of putting on a costume or fancy dress, a way of reading of pseudonyms which the frontispiece of Vincent Placcius's Theatrum Anonymorum represents. This engraving offers the image of a library represented on a raised stage; a banner draped across a bench in front declares Placcius's name and the name of the scene being enacted, "Scriptores Anonymi & Pseudonymi Detecti." On stage, Placcius, who is clearly the hero in this literary drama, is removing the masks from two men, while overhead, a series of costume masks like hunting tropics dangles from a string, some bearded to represent sages, some more resembling masks of comedy. The motto to which the string is attached supplies the ironic moral to the scene: "Suum Cuique," "To Each His Own."

The literary historian in this dramatic scene enacts the role of literary detective, to foil literary criminals or, perhaps more good-humoredly, to unmask clever deceptions. The critical reader unmasks the author to create an orderly sense of the real in authorship, so that, indeed, each author does get credit for his or her own work. In the process, the acts of the literary critic, not the text or the author in question, take center stage. In this mode of reading, the study of pseudonyms in many ways is the ideal vehicle for the self-presentation and dramatization of literary historians and their task, to uncover and validate an objective truth about the text.

Our other sense of reading pseudonyms (this time from the author's point of view rather than the literary historian's) is that they are protective measures against hostile readers. We are, of course, conditioned to read in this fashion by a host of celebrated nineteenth- and twentieth-century examples: we think first, for example, of inflammatory political texts that appear under the name of "A Patriot" to avoid arrest or persecution. This reading is reinforced by the ways in which post-1800 writers used them: we read seventeenth-century pseudonyms while simultaneously being conscious of a host of celebrated nineteenth- and twentieth-century examples. In particular, since most of the familiar examples of literary pseudonyms which come to mind--Orinda, George Eliot, Acton, Currer, and Ellis Bell, George Sand, Isak Dinesen--are those adopted by women, a gender-based explanation of this phenomenon has been offered. This reading, to which I shall return shortly in reference to particular seventeenth-century writers, stresses the politics of social intimidation, where pseudonyms serve as a protective device permitting women to venture into the competitive, combative arena of authorship while shielded from social censure.

When we read eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literary historians' accounts of Renaissance and Restoration pseudonyms, we find yet another assumption about the practice of authorship embedded in the discussion. In representing the literature of the 1650s through the 1690s, commentators frequently make passing references to the prevalence of what they variously call "poetic" names or "fanciful" titles which authors bestowed upon each other. When discussing Katherine Philips, "the matchless Orinda," for example, or the still contested "Ephelia," critics also have read such names as signs of a frivolous dilettantism, characteristic of lightweight literary ideals.

This particular analysis of the politics of pseudonyms is most frequently found in nineteenth-century accounts, although it is sometimes carried over into more recent texts. For example, Louisa Costello, writing in 1844 about Philips, observed that "the affected adoption of romantic names, as well as an over-estimation of genius, particularly in females, was a fault of the times"(257). Edmund Gosse likewise smiled indulgently at Philips in 1883, noting about Anne Owen, Lucasia, that it was "absolutely necessary that each member should be known by a fancy name" (232-33). Alfred Upham characterizes Philips and her circle in 1908 rather more sarcastically, noting that Philips, "rejoicing in her assumed title of The Matchless Orinda," threw open her doors to a "circle of second-rate brilliancy which gathered at Cardigan to assume new and romantic names, to prate of ideal friendship, and to dabble with their hostess in literature" (353).

We find a more supportive tone, but a similar interpretation of the phenomenon, in this century. Louise Bernikow celebrates Katherine Philips as "the first stand on her own," but laments Philips's adoption of what Bernikow sees as "the accepted feminine lifestyle of she-poets: a comfortable country house, a literary circle with herself at the center, a set of pastoral names, old-fashioned and 'literary' in that self-conscious sense--a precieuse"(22). Angeline Goreau describes Katherine Philips's reaction to the pirated edition of her poems as typical of early women writers' feeling that publication "symbolically violated feminine modesty," even though, Goreau notes, Philips's poems had "hardly anything shocking" in them and "the people that the poems were addressed to were disguised under names like 'Lucasia' and 'Silvander'" (15). Speaking more generally about women writing in the seventeenth century, Jacqueline Pearson notes that "various tactics were open to women writers trying to cope with this kind of prejudice," one of which was the use of "fanciful pseudonyms which, even if they did not conceal identity, seem to have mitigated the sense of guilt of some women writers," citing in her footnote Philips, Aphra Behn (Astraea), Ephelia, Ariadne, Anne Finch (Ardelia), and Elizabeth Singer Rowe (Philomena) (7, 259). Finally, we find such names referred to as a woman writer's "nom de guerre," literally a "war name," and figuratively emphasizing again the supposed estrangement between writer and reader (Courtney 43).

Alice Kahler Marshall's compendium of women's pseudonyms offers one example among many texts which explain the estrangement in terms of the historical evolution of women's status in society. "Women writers who use pseudonyms nowadays usually do so for the same reasons male writers do," she begins, but historically, she continues, women used pseudonyms as protective devices.

...until well into the 19th Century, a woman had a special reason for wrapping herself in a nomme de plume: to escape the stigma of being branded a "blue-stocking," "she-writer," "female quill-driver," "half-man," "petticoat-author," "scribbling dame" or other epithet for a woman who ventured into an overwhelmingly patriarchal literary culture. (i)

In addition to acting as a protective shield for a woman writer's reputation, women's pseudonyms, Marshall asserts, signal an economic concern. Citing Gilbert and Gubar, Marshall argues that women who adopted male or neutral pseudonyms did so because "it was easier to find a publisher if you were a man; equally important, your work might be taken seriously" (ii). Marshall does note that relatively few women writing in the seventeenth century used male names, an occurrence she finds surprising.

What such accounts assume is that all authors--that is, all good authors--wish to publish their works to the widest possible commercial audience and that women writers were intimidated by their readers from doing so under their own names. Because many of the examples of literary pseudonyms from the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries belonged to women, a gender-based explanation carries a good deal of authority. Pseudonyms, in this reading, thus reveal the dynamics of social repression on the one hand and literary dilettantism on the other, with the implication that the first condition created the socioliterary environment resulting in the second.

Such readings, however, derive authors' supposed intentions concerning readership for their texts from a particular type of literary production--commercial publication. Such interpretations of pseudonyms operate as if the chosen mode of literary production for those seventeenth-century writers--coterie manuscript circulation--were irrelevant. In short, the majority of critical assumptions about all pseudonyms are based on commercial print practices. Such generalizations, however, obscure the particular nature of coterie literary production.

To begin with, any consideration of the dynamics of coterie circles demands that we discard the notion that the primary function of seventeenth-century pseudonyms was to conceal the anthor's identity from the reader, or at least to disguise the gender of the writer. Everyone in Katherine Philips's circle, for example, knew who Orinda, Poliarchus, and Palaemon were, even if later generations have not. It is also important to note that, unlike later nineteenth-century pseudonyms such as George Eliot, names such as Orinda, Ephelia, and Urania do not conceal the writer's sex.

The second adjustment to our notion of authorship and audience which a study of coterie circles suggests is of our image of isolated authors, hiding behind pseudonyms to watch the response to their work while safely concealed. So intent have we been to read as literary detectives, bent on tracking down individuals to remove their masks, that the literary circle that often was embodied in a supposedly single-authored, printed collection of poems is overlooked. We know, for example, that the Restoration poet "Marinda" was in fact Mary Monck, because her father published the papers "found in her Scrittore after her Death, written with her own Hand" (Marinda, Dedication). We don't know, however, who Thirsis or Sylvia or "A Friend" were, whose eleven poems written in response to Marinda's are indiscriminately included in the volume.

We tend to assume, guided by patterns established by later commercial conventions governed by modern copyright laws, that the contents of a volume published under a pseudonym during the seventeenth century, particularly when that pseudonym provides the title, will be the "property" of one single individual. We furthermore assume that the individual is still primarily concerned with establishing ownership, since the mask of a pseudonym still constitutes a distinct, coherent identity for the author, unlike publishing anonymously. However, such assumptions do not work in a coterie literary environment, where usually unsigned pieces are circulated in manuscript, endlessly copied, "improved," and corrected, often generating more verse in response.(1) Thus, in Marinda's case, for example, the pseudonym has been misread to indicate isolation and concealment, a view reinforced by her father's determination to demonstrate that his daughter "died not only like a Christian but a Roman lady," with no interest in worldly matters, "little desiring the public should have any opportunity either of applauding or condemning [her verses]" (Marinda, Dedication). As the contents of the volume make clear, however, the actual literary environment which created the contents was a coterie one, a literary environment based on the exchange and circulation of texts for comment and response.

This brings us to a consideration of the possible functions of pseudonyms other than as a protective device. As far as I have been able to establish at this point, this practice of assuming names in literary circles appears to have firmly established itself as a convention in England during the Commonwealth, to have continued in the Restoration, and to have become itself a convention of commercial literature by the early eighteenth century. The most well-known coterie circles during the Renaissance do not appear to have adopted this practice. For example, "the Sons of Ben" were members of a literary fellowship, but I have been unable to detect that they assumed different names when communicating with each other, either in verse letters, or in prose. Donne wrote verse letters to his friends in which he addressed them by their initials, but not as Strephon.(2)

Likewise, the function of pastoral names in verse such as Jonson's is not exactly the same as that found in the coterie circle of Philips or Monck, or that of later Restoration writers' use of them. We typically encounter a "generic" Celia or Strephon; the names typically occur in a series or set of verses about Celia's eyes or Strephon's fickleness. One could argue that Waller's series of poems invoking Sacharissa or Sidney's sonnet sequence Astrophel to Stella also are engaged in a different type of pseudonymical play, which does engage real individuals and particular situations. The difference, however, between the names in Sidney's sonnet sequence and in coterie practice is that Stella was not expected to reply in kind, to be an interactive participant in the literary enterprise. Her role was to be written about, not to engage in an exchange of verse.

In the later coterie use of such types of names, on the other hand, we have an active, on-going exchange between two or more individuals constituting a dynamic literary system rather than a static literary artifact. For example, the epistolary exchange between Katherine Philips and Sir Charles Cotterell was published in 1705 as Letters from Orinda to Poliarchus with the declared purpose of providing "an admirable Pattern for the pleasing Correspondence of a virtuous Friendship...[and to] instruct us how an intercourse of writing, between Persons of different Sexes, ought to be managed, with Delight and Innocence" (A4r). In this series of epistles, we have prose accounts of the actions and emotions of the figures who populate Philips's verses: we have Poliarchus, Sir Charles Cotterell, exchanging letters with Orinda, Katherine Philips, about Lucasia, Anne Owens, and then we see how these same names are carried over for specific individuals in literary works. The names are used both as direct forms of address in epistolary communications and as literary motifs.

A brief scan of the titles included in Mary Monck's Marinda gives the first indication of the interactive nature of the pseudonyms used. At the beginning of the book, we have a series of verses which begins with "A Tale, Sent by a Friend," which is followed by an "Eclogue. In return to the foregoing Tale," which is in turn continued by an "Answer to the Foregoing Eclogue." A later poem's title likewise announces the path of its creation: "Upon an Impromptu of Marinda's, in Answer to a Copy of Verses."

In terms of the specific content of such verse, this playful interaction extends through several pieces, shaping the ongoing narrative. For example, when one reads the "Eclogue in return to the foregoing Tale," one finds a small drama being played out in pastoral terms among the members of the literary coterie. "Thirsis" opens with an account of the poet's boredom with conventional pastoral:

So much is said and sung of Plains, Of Fields, of Grove, of Nymphs and Swains, Of purling Streams, and Myrtle Shades, Of listning Ecchoes and deaf Maids,

That vext at hearing the same Tune, From Noon to Night, from Night to Noon, Thirsis had long his Pipe laid by, Quite tir'd with rustick Harmony. But when you to the woods repair, He thinks them worthy of his Care, He thrusts into the list'ning Throng, Charm'd with the Musick of your Song.... (Marinda 19-20)

Marinda's response to her friend's challenge that began the series has resulted in a poem so delightful that "Paleamon needs must wrong decide, / Had he adjudg'd for either side." This in turns generates verses from Thirsis: "Inspir'd by you, th'inchanted Swain, / Resolves to try a rural Strain":

His Pipes refits, invokes the Nine, And on a shady Bank recline, He tells the Crowd, that round him wait, That he'll Marinda Emulate. But all in vain, his Oaten Reed Breaths the Old Sounds[;] he then with Speed Snatches his Harp, which does alike Succeed. Th'impatient Shepherd full of Ire, Rises, and breaks both Pipe and Lyre. (Marinda 20)

Thirsis may have been unsuccessful in his attempt to write a fresh example of pastoral in response to Marinda's, but he has created a graceful commentary on her writing, while at the same time demonstrating the use of pseudonyms not to disguise identity but to participate in a dynamic literary process.

As we can see in examples from Katherine Philips's and Mary Monck's circles, the use of these names is interactive and ongoing, not a generic label assigned to a distant figure for a single occasion. Also, the names cross freely back and forth over the boundaries we traditionally use to delineate different types of writing; some we label "literature," some "letters." Clearly, some other mode of reading these names than as a protective disguise needs to be devised.

Let us return to those seemingly unfair accusations of dilettantism leveled at Philips and her circle. Clearly the charge is not directed at the moral behavior of the group (Jeremy Taylor, after all, was Palaemon); it was, instead, directed at the type of authorship practiced and literature produced. While some recent critics such as Patrick Thomas suggest that the giving of names was an affectation held over from Philips's girlhood at school (21), most commentators who do not like this "dabbling" in literature attribute the "fanciful" names to Philips's attachment to French literary fashions. As Douglas Bush, who sees Philips as a disciple of William Cartwright, comments dismissively, Philips absorbed just enough of the fashionable "Frenchified" Platonism to transform "good friends like Mary Aubrey and Mrs. Owen into Rosania and Lucasia, and enveloped Mr. Philips and other men in similar celestial hues" (125-26).

Those who see a more direct link between French and English literary practices single out in particular the practices at the salon bleu of Mme Rambouillet established in 1608, which included the romance writer La Calprenede, whose work was translated by Philips's close friend, Cotterell. This group of writers and intellectuals, often referred to as "les precieuses," are routinely chastised for their affected attempts at purifying the French language. As part of this refinement of language and manners, they assumed new names.

This selection of new and refined names was considered to be such a characteristic practice of the movement that Moliere picks up on this practice in Les Precieuses Ridicules where two pretentious young girls from the country make a strange request.

Magdalen: Ah! pray Father, leave off those strange Names, and call us by some other.

Gorgibus: How! Strange names! Are they not your Christian names?

Mad: Lard! how vulgar you are.... Did ever any Body in a beautiful style talk of Cathos or Magdalen? And must you not acknowledge, that either of these Names would be enough to disgrace the finest Romance in the World.

Cathos: Really, Uncle, an Ear that's a little delicate suffers extremely at hearing these words pronounced; and the Name of Polixena, which my Cousin has chosen, and that of Amintha which I give myself, have an Agreeableness that you must acknowledge. (29)

In this example of naming oneself, clearly the new name, the pseudonym, acts not as a cloak or mask, but as a password to signal membership in an exclusive and much desired group.

One early commentator, Eric Robertson, stating that Philips "completely adopts the Rambouillet system of nomenclature," argues that Philips, like the targets of Moliere's play, is attempting to escape the commonplace but succeeds only in being silly. He does not, however, see the assumption of such pseudonyms as a defensive disguise against a hostile reading public, but a barrier against a dissolute Restoration court society in general, the formation of a separate group within a larger society. The "fancy" names acted to distance the individuals from less refined or cultured groups: "they fenced their personalities round with these fantastic names, pretty much as they were fencing their bodies round with those swelling hoops that robbed them of any semblance to the commonplace appearance of Eve" (5). In Robertson's reading of these pseudonyms, we still find them interpreted as a protective disguise, with the author in an antagonistic relationship with the general reader and the critic, but here we also have the notion that they could function to protect the identity of a group rather than only an individual.

There remains still another possibility for the function of pseudonyms in this literary environment which is raised by this consideration of the nature of the coterie as a self-selecting society within a larger literary world. Granted that Philips was adopting a French literary fashion, the precieuse movement may have provided more than a list of names for Philips and her group. Les Precieuese are closely identified with the literary world of the romance, in particular Honore D'Urfe's Astree, which one critic notes has as a central tendency the practice of presenting "contemporary people as characters in the story. Familiar situations and incidents would meet the reader at every turn" (Upham 310-11).(3) In the Rambouillet circle, therefore, not only did life provide text for romance, but when members assumed romance names, fiction gave shape to the life of the group. This use of pseudonyms in a literary circle made permeable the seemingly solid line between the acts of fictional characters and those of real people.

Apart from this important French model, there is another English tradition worth considering in this mode of reading pseudonyms. Let us briefly return to the metaphor of the pseudonym as a "mask." Masks, of course, can be used to hide identity or mislead the viewer, and this is how we have defined the literary practice. Masks also, of course, are part of the costume of a "masque." In Renaissance masques, where courtiers joined with professionals to stage the spectacle, the function of the "mask" was not to hide the identity of the performer; even though they appeared "disguised" as the "Prince of Faery" or "Fame," the audience was intensely aware of the individual's identity. Stephen Orgel's study of the Jonsonian masque suggests that the form

attempted from the beginning to breach the barrier between spectators and actors, so that in effect the viewer became part of the spectacle. The end toward which the masque moved was to destroy any sense of theatre and to include the whole court in the mimesis--in a sense, what the spectator watched he ultimately became. (6-7)

Like the romance, where real writers assumed fictional names and fictional characters acted out the accomplishments of real readers, the masque offers a literary environment where there is a permeable barrier between audience and performer, between reader and writer.

Significantly, in the context of this discussion of coterie literary practices versus commercial print ones, Orgel's argument about the nature of masques stresses the different function of the mask for the amateur participant and the professional performer. He notes that "a masquer's disguise is a representation of the courtier beneath. He retains his personality and hence his position in the social hierarchy. His audience affirms his equality with them by consenting to join the dance" (117). Thus, in Orgel's model, instead of a disguise or distancing device, the courtly amateur's masked participation in this literary spectacle is a statement of identity with and commitment to the audience, a model of participation which I believe fits the characteristics of coterie literary practices much better than those derived from commercial publication.

In both these examples--the romance salon and the courtly masque--the mask, the pseudonym, or the physical costume served not to estrange performer from audience but to give coherence to a specific social and literary environment. In each instance, the assumption of another identity was not to disguise the true nature or intent of the person, but to enhance and to announce the values and characteristics upheld by the group.(4) Rather than a false nature or a false assertion of authority such as Placcius was so concerned to detect and to reveal, such pseudonyms announce and amplify identity in the same fashion that stage symbolic costumes, like the white hat, signal a moral and ethical position.

To return to the dynamics of manuscript circulation in coterie circles, the use of the device of a mask or pseudonym also permitted the happy interplay of the worlds of fiction and reality. As in the masque, the coterie literary environment encourages easy and continual open exchange between performer and audience, in which the audience would join with the masquer to dance and the coterie readers wrote their responses to the texts of others in a continual literary flow. As demonstrated in Monck's circle, whose dynamics are frozen in print, the pseudonym served as the occasion for elaboration of identity, not only the suppression of it; the writer existed both as reader and recipient of verses involving her, but also the creation of an on-going fictional scenario involving several "masqued" writers. These pseudonyms should be read not as creating barriers between reader and author, but instead as breaking them down.

Finally, such examples as Monck and Philips also suggest why a consideration of the politics of pseudonyms in coterie literature could repay our attention when addressing gender as a part of literary history. Although the reading of women's pseudonyms as defensive mechanisms is grounded in a view of historical progress--the changing status of women in society--this reading gives no recognition to the historical nature of literary production. We have too easily assumed that women writers in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries wrote for the same type of readership and faced similar responses from it. We have, in short, read pseudonyms as though we believed that for women, the nature and practice of authorship remained static, transhistorical, even while the mode of literary production was changing profoundly.

Pseudepigrapha began as the detection of literary fraud; to read Baillet, Placcius, or Halkett and Laing is to enter a world in which reading pseudonyms is a con game played between author and critic. In contrast, gender-based theories of pseudonyms place the modern reader and the early woman writer on the same side; here, we read the pseudonym sympathetically as the emblem of the victimization of the author by hostile readers of her own generation. There is, however, still a third mode of reading them which involves a consideration of pseudonyms as forming part of the dynamics of a coterie literary environment. Reading pseudonyms in the context of the process of literary production not only would reduce the tendency to recast an earlier historical literary phenomenon to conform to nineteenth- and twentieth-century ones, but it could illuminate new areas for study, including the changing nature of authorship in the early modern period and the premises on which our own critical response to the literature of that period are based.


1 Very little attention has been given to the mechanics of coterie literary production in general except from a bibliographical point of view. For discussions of participation in coterie circles by specific poets, see for example Marotti, John Donne, Coterie Poet; Buxton; Love, "Scribal Publication" and Love, "Scribal Texts"; Vieth; and Wilson.

2 See Marotti's John Donne, Coterie Poet for an account of the members of Donne's coterie; see also Marotti's "John Donne, Author" for an analysis of the transformation of Donne's literary career from that of a coterie poet to a "modern" author by subsequent generations of literary critics.

3 See also Veevers and Adam for discussions of the nature of the salon and the introduction of its ideals into the English court.

4 For an interesting discussion of "the rhetoricized character of courtly life," see Whigham.


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Margaret J.M. Ezell, Professor of English at Texas A&M University, has authored several critical books, including The Patriarch's Wife (1987) and Writing Women's Literary History (1992). She has published numerous essays in a wide range of journals, including New Literary History and ELH. Most recently she edited The Poems and Prose of Mary, Lady Chudleigh (1993), the first published volume in the new series "Women Writers in English, 1350-1850" by Oxford University Press.

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