Unraveling the tales of the past
Ros Smith examines the contribution of female writers to the culture of the early modern era.
From the hallowed halls of Oxford University came the inspiration to study early modern women's writing. Surrounded by the world's top renaissance scholars, University of Newcastle Associate Professor Ros Smith felt the calling to delve into the world of women's writing from the 16th and17th centuries.
"It's a strange world with lots of recognisable elements but at the same time very different elements - that's what encapsulates the oddness of studying the past. I find that tension very interesting. You think you understand something but then you dig deeper and find there's lots more to explore," Associate Professor Smith said.
At that time, research into early modern women's writing was in its infancy. Now it's a burgeoning field with over 100 scholars working in it.
"It was exciting and cutting-edge work because there was hardly anyone doing it. I wanted to understand, from a feminist perspective, what early modern women's writing can tell us about gender and culture in the Renaissance and across the ages."
"Women have always been half the population, but their contribution to the literature of the past was once thought to be negligible. My work, alongside that of others in the field, has discovered that women did write an enormous amount in the early modern period, in a variety of forms from private letters to major published romances."
"Through their writing, they also contributed to literary, religious and political cultural life in important ways. Understanding the active literary roles that women had in the past changes the way we think about women's literary agency and ability in the present. It also reconfigures the way we think about the early modern period – it is not just a period dominated by men but one in which women had vital roles in shaping the culture. This helps us fully appreciate women's path to the modern world of today," Associate Professor Smith said.
Since co-founding the Early Modern Women's Research Network (EMWRN) in 2008 at the University of Newcastle with her colleague Dr Patricia Pender, Associate Professor Ros Smith has experienced a career-changing few years.
"Prior to the establishment of the network, scholars working in the field of early modern women's writing in Australia were quite isolated and disconnected," Associate Professor Smith said.
"But what we've been able to do is bring together a broad range of well-known scholars from across Australia, as well as international scholars who are at the top of their field and run similar networks internationally. These include Sarah Ross from New Zealand, Michelle O'Callaghan from the Early Modern Research Centre at the University of Reading, and Sue Wiseman from the London Renaissance Seminar at the University of London."
"This joining of the minds has allowed us to become a really effective network. We've held a lot of activities including national and international conferences and symposia and have really built our reputation in the field," Associate Professor Smith said.
Associate Professor Smith and Dr Pender played a central role in the Early Modern Studies Conference at the University of Reading, UK, in July 2013, when EMWRN sponsored a three-day stream of panels on the material cultures of early modern women's writing.
The group hosted an Early Modern Studies Symposium in Newcastle in September 2013, featuring international keynote speakers Professor Stephen Orgel and Dr Michael Wyatt from Stanford University.
Scholars from ANU, the University of Sydney, Macquarie University, La Trobe and the Victoria University of Wellington attended the event, which also drew together Newcastle scholars in the field, such as early modern historian Dr Camilla Russell.
The one-day symposium was crowned by a celebration of the special issue of the journal Parergon, on Early Modern Women and the Apparatus of Authorship, edited by Associate Professor Smith, Dr Pender and New Zealand EMWRN counterpart Sarah Ross. Visiting luminary Stephen Orgel did the honours of launching the issue.
In 2012 the pair received a $210,000 ARC Discovery Projects grant to fund research around The Material Cultures of Early Modern Women's Writing: Editing, Reception and Mediation.
"There's been an amazing momentum around the network and our track record of winning small grants and regular publications meant that we won the ARC discovery grant," Dr Smith said. "We are very excited by our success and aim to secure even larger funding through national and international schemes in the future. We are extending our collaborations to Europe and the US in 2014 and will partner in applications for US and European Union funding."