February 20, 2018

"Ephelia," the Restoration, Women

On this day in 1678, "Ephelia" had her first public writing licensed by the King's censor, thereby marking her official entry into the world of Restoration literature. The writing in question is a poem on the "Popish Plot" hysteria that was rocking the Court and all of England, but more interesting than poem or occasion is Ephelia herself. Once "a reputedly intractable case in the annals of English pseudonyma," she has now been almost conclusively identified, thanks to some recent, intrepid literary sleuthing. Ephelia now takes her clear place in the Age and the canon, and remains a symbol for all those contemporary women writers -- "Early Modern," as the scholars put it -- who would not be bullied into silence by a patriarchal literary establishment.

Some clawed their way to an equal footing, of course. Aphra Behn was perhaps the most successful female writer of the day, and was later championed by Virginia Woolf as the one who earned all women "the right to speak their minds." But there were many others who raised a voice, if an anonymous, pseudonymous or tentative one. Many of these women, unknown or ignored until the feminist literary criticism of the last quarter-century called attention, are represented in such recent compendiums as Reading Early Modern Women (Routledge, 2004). This fascinating anthology teems with real women and a provoking array of "texts" -- legal documents, medical manuals, decorative arts, etc., as well as the conventional genres. Here, for example, we may read a pamphlet by Rachel Speght, who in 1617 was the first to attach her real name to a defense of women's rights -- interestingly, her argument was in response to a pseudonymous pamphlet written by a man, and given the catch-all title, The Araignment of Lewde, idle, froward and unconstant women: Or the vanitie of them, choose you whether.

Some Ephelia scholars have wondered if she was a man, or a group of men and women, hiding behind not just a pseudonym but a skirt. One of the few who did not give up on the mystery is Maureen E. Mulvihill of the Princeton Research Forum, who has identified Ephelia as Lady Mary Villiers, Duchess of Richmond and Lennox (1622-1685). Mary "Mall" Villiers grew up virtually as a foster-child of King Charles I, and later became "arguably the most highly placed woman writer at the Court of Charles II." She sometimes wrote as such -- the poem on the Popish Plot is in the tradition of royalist propaganda -- but in her Female Poems on Several Occasions we see a wider range. We also get a taste of the personality which not only crossed words with the King's mistress and Oliver Cromwell but, as tradition has it, crossed swords with a rival. More than one poem begins with this sort of slap:
    Conceited Coxcomb! tho I was so kind
    To wish to see you, think not I designed
    To force my self to your unwilling Arms,
    Your Conversation has no such Charms....
Still, Lady Villiers was nicknamed "The Butterfly" -- this was one of the important clues by which Mulvihill found her woman -- and when she wanted to, Ephelia could beat her wings gently before the men, as in this prologue to her play, The Pair-Royal of Coxcombs:
    ...When you with women in discourse do sit,
    Before their Faces you'll commend their wit,
    Pray flatter now, the Poet heareth it....
Mulvihill shows from contemporary sources that Ephelia had "talents in trickery, masquerade, dueling, and high intrigue." She also shows that Ephelia was "an important voice in the history of English literary feminism." The two statements are not incompatible, masquerade being a necessary strategy for those who spoke out. For the most part, Ephelia seems to have enjoyed the games and two-steps of Court life -- though often she must have wished for more than a choice between biting her tongue and putting it in her cheek. The literary establishment sometimes wanted it cut right out: her play, The Pair-Royal of Coxcombs was "damn'd" by the King's censor, evidently for its ridicule of the King and his brother. A recent find, as Mulvihill alerted us, is the presence of an Ephelia in John Tutchin's play in five acts: The Unfortunate Shepherd (Tutchin, Poems [London: J.L. for Jon. Greenwood, 1685], Part II:75-125; online text, EEBO), where she is presented as a cynical "Lady of the City ... from the Royal-Line", who enters the narrative's pastoral world "in disguise". Other contemporaries present an Ephelia as red-haired and as a writer (John Dunton, The Female War [1697], Letter XXXIV; Delariviere Manley, New Atalantis II [1709], 247). These references, which offer contemporary 'buzz' about the identity of this intriguing writer, do align with the present Ephelia candidate: ' Mall' Villiers. Had the Ephelia poetess been a Grub Street jobber or a scrambling woman of the town, her published work (vetted by Charles II's censor, in 1678) would not have carried the credit line "By a Gentlewoman" (1678) and "By a Lady of Quality" (1679).

Much of Mulvihill's work on Ephelia is listed at the English Short Title Calalogue, available online, and her Villiers attribution is now listed in the British Library catalogue and in the full-text database, Early English Books Online. As a de facto member of the royal Stuart family and also the wife of a Stuart, Mary (Villiers) Stuart, Duchess of Richmond, is the most highly placed publishing woman writer in the canon of 17thC English verse: "The importance of the Villiers attribution cannot be exaggerated" (TLS, 2 January 2004:15). Mall Villiers was also to finally get her due in the third edition of the New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature, which was to publish an extended bibliography on the Ephelia poetess, as well as updated bibliographies on many early women writers featured on this website. In March 2008, the 'CBEL3' was canceled by the publisher after a serious 20-year investment by a large team of distinguished scholars and editors. The publisher hopes to 'repurpose' the valuable submissions it has received these many years. We wish them success! [Here is a 2012 update: Web postings of (authenticated) portraits of Mary Villiers include two recent images: (1) A family memorial group portrait by John Michael Wright (Christie's, Sale 5965, Lot 213, 5 Dec 2012. catalogue p89, estimate 30,000-50,000 pounds); and (2) the Syon House portrait of Duchess Mary, West London, studio of Van Dyck (jaded-mandarin blog; see also, Van Dyck, ed Oliver Millar et al., Yale UP, 2004, p641). For centuries, Mary Villiers was misidentified in both portraits as other noblewomen of her century. Owing to strong recent attention to her and the Villiers circle, the Duchess's profile has been considerably raised and these errors are now rectified, at last.]

On this day a quarter-century earlier, John Milton published Areopagitica, his famous (and unsuccessful) attack on such censorship -- in which we are told "almost as bad kill a man as kill a good book." And two-and-a-half centuries later, Virginia Woolf would wonder about the plays that might have been written by a "Judith Shakespeare" who was encouraged, rather than baited or banned or forced behind a mask. Ephelia was Early Modern indeed -- too early.

For a detailed summary of the 'Ephelia' project, with commentary on Mulvihill's Villiers attribution (Women's Writing, vol 2, no 3, 1995-), see a major new online resource in feminist scholarship: The Orlando Project: A History of Women's Writing from the Beginnings to the Present, compiled by Susan Brown, Patricia Clements, Isobel Grundy (see Team link, on the site homepage, url below), Cambridge UP, 2006; with regular updates. (Note that this is a subscription database; you or your institution must be subscribers, with login data, to enter the database. However, all viewers can access the homepage (, and for a preview, click on the homepage link Email contact:

Image details: Mary (Villiers) Stuart, Duchess of Richmond & Lennox ("Ephelia"), by Van Dyck, c1630s (Wilton House; original, Blenheim Palace). The famous dwarf-&-gloves portrait: The glove disguises the hand just as the pseudonym disguises the face.

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