Hidden voices

What happens to our sense of the past if we pay attention to different voices?

Sarah Ross reads at a table in a contemporary space.

This is just one question being asked by Associate Professor Sarah Ross from the School of English, Film, Theatre, and Media Studies as she nears the end of her three-year Marsden-funded project, Woe is Me: Women and Complaint in the English Renaissance.

The research explores what Sarah describes as ‘the literature of complaint’—the voices of woe, loss, and protest that make up one of the most powerful and ubiquitous modes in the English Renaissance. Although ‘female complaint’ is usually thought of as the voice of a lamenting woman, it has been largely understood as male-authored—an act of literary ventriloquism.

A key part of the project was the discovery by Sarah and her research team of a comprehensive body of previously unknown complaint poems written by Renaissance women. Sarah’s research explores, for the first time, these newly discovered complaint poems and seeks to produce a new account of how the voices of the disempowered, railing against their circumstances, helped to shape the literary and social cultures of the English Renaissance.

“I am curious about where ‘real’ women are in our cultural histories,” says Sarah. “The dominant view of literary history is predominantly a white male view, so in a broad sense my work is about finding and understanding the missing female voices of the past.”

A useful device for male writers during the period was to use women as figures of loss. “Poetry is populated by nymphs sitting and weeping on the banks of rivers, or singing like nightingales in gloomy forests,” says Sarah. “The great male writers often use women in their poetry as figures of vulnerability and heightened emotion, a way of expressing loss or disenfranchisement.

Hamlet’s Ophelia gives us one kind of female voice from literature that is very dominant—violated, lamenting, going mad, and dying. She and Gertrude are there as Hamlet’s collateral—their woes show how badly things have gone wrong, not just for them, but for all of Denmark. And literature gives us endless versions of these women, lamenting their own losses, or lamenting the losses of their nation.”

But how do women writers pick up on this figure of the lamenting woman? What use is she to them? Do they use her; and if so, how do they (re)write her to find a place from which to speak?

“These are our guiding questions,” says Sarah. “Now that we’ve discovered this large body of writing by women, we’re in a phase of finding out how these women’s voices can change our view of our cultural and intellectual history. We must complicate and diversify the stories we tell about our past.”