Yes, Virginia, Shakespeare did have writing sisters.
Virginia Woolf, in “A Room of One’s Own”, imagined that Shakespeare had a “highly gifted” sister who could not become a professional writer because of her gender.
Miss Shakespeare “would have been so thwarted and hindered,” Woolf wrote, “that she would have lost her health and sanity.”
However, in the 83 years since “A Room of One’s Own” was published, scholars have uncovered previously unknown works by women writers.
Washington’s Folger Shakespeare Library is celebrating them with:
- A free exhibition “Shakespeare’s Sisters: Voices of English and European Women Writers, 1500-1700”, February 3-May 20.
- A play by one of the women, Susanna Centlivre’s “The Gaming Table”, now through March 4 in the Folger Elizabethan Theatre. “P’sha, a Man, that’s nothing,” wrote Centlivre in her 1705 hit. Lady Reveller, an independent widow with a penchant for gambling, leads a nightly card game, which bankrupts some and entertains all. Director Eleanor Holdridge leads an all-female design team — sets, costumes, lighting, and sound.
- A limited edition anthology, “Shakespeare’s Sisters”. The Folger commissioned poems and essays from acclaimed writers including Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Jane Smiley and former US Poets Laureate Rita Dove and Maxine Kumin, about the influences of these predecessors. Smiley, Dove, and four others among the 13 contributors will read from these works on Thursday, February 16, 7 PM in the Folger’s Old Reading Room. The exquisite book was designed by a woman, as well as printed and bound by women.
Here are a few highlights among the exhibit’s 75 items from more than 50 women writers and literary patrons from England, France, and Italy:
- A first edition of Virginia Woolf’s classic 1929 text, “A Room of One’s Own”.
- Lady Anne Clifford’s 1923 printed edition of her diary — edited by her descendent, Vita Sackville-West, who had a love affair with Woolf.
- The first memoirs ever published by women, Hortense and Marie Mancini, who abandoned their noblemen husbands and traveled Europe, causing international sensations. Hortense, Charles II’s mistress, eventually established a gambling salon in London. The Folger Theatre’s “The Gaming Table” and its lead character Lady Reveller, are based on Hortense.
- Marguerite, Queen of Navarre’s controversial allegorical poem “Mirror of the Sinful Soul”, and her story collection “The Heptameron”.
- Poetry of Italian courtesan Veronica Franco, whose life inspired the film “Dangerous Beauty”.
- One of several books by Queen Catharine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth and final wife.
- Works by Aphra Behn (1640-1689), England’s first female professional playwright; Centlivre (1669?-1723), one of 18th century London’s most popular dramatists; and other Englishwomen pioneer professional playwrights.
“All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn…for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds,” Woolf wrote in “A Room of One’s Own”.
“The dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister,” Woolf concluded “…Drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners…she will be born.”
The Folger’s “Shakespeare’s Sisters” is bringing them to light and to life.
For more info: Folger Shakespeare Library, www.folger.edu, 201 East Capitol Street, SE, Washington, DC, 202-544-4600, Box Office, 202 544 7077. For more on memoirists Marie and Hortense Mancini, read “The Kings’ Mistresses: The Liberated Lives of Marie Mancini, Princess Colonna, and Her Sister, Hortense, Duchess Mazarin” by Elizabeth C. Goldsmith (PublicAffairs, due in April)