UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

"Keepe in thy skin this testament of me" : reading gender and race in early modern englishwomen's tree-writing Hoelscher, Kira


My thesis investigates how early modern women authors Aemilia Lanyer and Lady Mary Wroth cultivate an alliance with trees to empower themselves as writers entering a heretofore male-dominated literary tradition. Yet it simultaneously explores the shortcomings of an idealized ecofeminist approach to women’s relationships with oaks, ashes, beeches, and willows, for Lanyer’s and Wroth’s representations of arboreal shelter in “The Description of Cooke-ham” and Urania raise concerns about the anthropocentrism and violence underlying the female writer’s intensely affective connection to the natural landscape. Trees also mark a significant intersection of gender and race in Lanyer’s country-house poem and Wroth’s prose romance and an intersectional reading of their work, which recognizes the importance of analyzing gender alongside race, illuminates how women writers enlist trees in the protection and valorization of fair female complexions. Lanyer and Wroth rely on the forest canopy to shelter women from sexual violence, bodily injury, sunburn, and black skin—dangers they perceived as inextricably linked. According to the contemporary humoral understanding of the body, moreover, the woman writer’s own melancholic disposition jeopardizes her paleness, a threat once again neutralized by her strategic use of the woods. In both Lanyer and Wroth, the female poet composes verse on or about trees which ensures that her inner blackness manifests not on her own skin, but on the epidermis of the tree, its bark. The darkened trees stand as proof of the cruelty and destruction inherent in her sympathetic connection to nature and ultimately perpetuate a false assumption that black flesh visually signifies mistreatment of the body—whether human or arboreal. The vilification of black skin as evidence of deformation and damage exalts the figure of the fair female writer to the exclusion of her darker sisters.

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