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Walking with Margaret

Compiled by Susanne Woods,
Provost and Professor of English Emerita, Wheaton College (MA)

Of the many years during which Margaret and I overlapped at Kalamazoo, I remember little about the (often excellent) papers, but I do remember the walks, especially escaping off campus for lunch. Several of us, sated by both the cafeteria food and the endless sitting in Valley venues, would flee the campus and hike to the Subway or pizza place up by Michigan Avenue. These vivid companionships often included Anne Prescott’s witty take on some silly question, Anne Shaver’s history of K’zoo misbehaviors, and, notably, the saintly Margaret’s annoyance with some half-baked theoretical excess that had been too-liberally applied to her beloved Sidneys. Yes! Margaret could be annoyed! This was refreshing to those of us who acknowledged grudgingly that she was so smart and nice that she gave Christians a good name.

I am grateful for my walks with Margaret. We did a portion of the Cliff Walk in Newport not long after her brother died, and I was privileged to hear her reminisce about her family. I think that’s where I learned her mother’s credo: if people are talking meanly about others, just smile. And we all remember that Margaret smile. She cared about others, she did not join in the common trashing of others, but she was never anything but gracious among those of us with less restraint.

My last walk with Margaret was a little over ten years ago, when she, Elaine Beilin, Anne Shaver and I toured the historic Plimouth Plantation in advance of the Margaret Cavendish Conference at Wheaton College. We were checking it out as a possible field trip for Cavendishers who would be visiting New England from far away, but really we just had a great time testing the pilgrim re-enactors and commenting (mostly positively) on their faithfulness to the early seventeenth century. From that trip came the essay the four of us wrote collaboratively for Patrick Cheney’s volume on European Literary Careers.[1]

Walking with Margaret was always a collaborative event, whether it was two of us or a group. It was an act of social contemplation, whether the topic was personal or literary, serious or frolicsome. In her books, in our memories, and in the good will that she always encouraged, she continues to walk with us still, and it is my privilege to record tributes from five other of her friends and colleagues (there could have been a hundred), describing some of the ways Margaret walked with us.


From Barbara K. Lewalski, William R. Kenan Professor of History and Literature and of English, Emerita, Harvard University, on Margaret as a pioneering scholar:

It would be impossible to exaggerate the contribution of Margaret Hannay to founding and grounding the now burgeoning field of scholarship on Early Modern Women Writers. Her early edited collection on Tudor women, Silent But for the Word: Tudor Women as Patrons, Translators, and Writers of Religious Tracts (1988) opened the door to investigations of the multiple ways in which Tudor women were involved with producing literary works.[2] Her important editions of the Letters of Rowland Whyte, Robert Sidney, and Dorothy Percy Sidney, Countess of Leicester made available primary sources that illuminate the social and cultural  world of the Sidney women writers.[3] But her crowning achievements are her major edition of the Works of Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke (1998) and two impressive biographies: of that author, Philips Phoenix: Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke (1990) and of the most prolific and most important woman author of the Tudor-early Stuart period, the niece of Sir Philip Sidney and the Countess of Pembroke, Mary Sidney, Lady Wroth (2010).[4]

This edition and these biographies have provided a firm foundation for subsequent scholarly and critical work on women writers of the period. All scholars in this and related fields owe Margaret Hannay a large debt of gratitude and admiration.


From Georgianna Ziegler, Louis B. Thalheimer Associate Librarian and Head of Reference, Emerita, The Folger Shakespeare Library, from her remarks at Margaret’s memorial service, on her point of view, and her influence:

My own relationship with Margaret began almost 30 years ago over shared scholarly interests, but blossomed into a deep friendship as she stayed at my home on visits to the Folger Library, and as we explored the world together in conferences held in Florence, Cambridge, Venice, and Montreal. I miss her deeply and will always be grateful for the times we shared.

I see two personal strands informing Margaret’s scholarly work. First, her deep Christian faith drew her towards early women and men for whom the new Protestant religion was central in their lives. Second, her roles as wife and mother made her sensitive to similar expressions in Early Modern women. Let me offer two brief examples. When editing the Sidney Psalms, Margaret noted that the passage in Psalm 139 describing God’s knowledge of an individual in the darkness of the womb, was translated by Mary Sidney using imagery of architecture and of women’s embroidery: “Thou … Know’st ev’ry point / Of bone and joynt, / How to this whole these partes did grow, / In brave embrodry faire araid” (CW 2: 235, lines 50, 52-55). The body is seen as a great hall, decked out in tapestries. Secondly, in her biography of Mary Wroth, Margaret writes sympathetically about the difficulties of Mary’s pregnant mother, Barbara Sidney, trying to travel with five children under the age of eight to be with her husband in the Netherlands. Perhaps only a female scholar tramping to archives all over England and Wales with the ever-supportive David and two small daughters in tow would understand.

In addition to her many other activities with scholarly organizations such as the Conference on Christianity and Literature, the Sidney Society, the Renaissance Society of America, and the Renaissance English Text Society, Margaret was one of the founding mothers and eventually President of the Society for the Study of Early Modern Women. When her death was announced on their Listserv, there was a major outpouring from many scholars who had known her personally, or whose lives had been briefly touched by hers. What set Margaret apart among most scholars was her generosity and her caring support for younger scholars. One typical example from the Listserv outpourings: “Margaret was truly special, though she would be the first one to say that everyone is special. I loved working with her, talking with her, walking with her … and will miss her deeply… . May her joyous vision of heaven be the one that holds her now.”


From Elaine Beilin, Professor of English, Framingham State University, on Margaret’s generosity of spirit, and her skill as a story teller:

So many of us feel such gratitude for Margaret’s generous spirit, her kindness, her wonderful sense of humor, and of course, her pioneering work in the field of Early Modern women writers. 

Looking through our emails, I see how often Margaret praised others, such as scholars who “have changed the presentation of Early Modern women writers from nearly nothing into an automatic part of even Survey classes, as well as advanced study.” She also expresses her delight in the “active young group of scholars” who were carrying on the work of SSEMW. Of course, Margaret herself was instrumental in creating our field of study and the organization that promotes it, but she was always modest about her own accomplishments and generous in her admiration of others’ work. 

So accomplished as an archival scholar, Margaret also knew how to tell a good story, and she told the stories of Mary Sidney and Mary Wroth with clear delight and appreciation for her subjects. Both biographies show vividly how Sidney and Wroth lived their lives close to family and friends—surely a theme of Margaret’s own life. Margaret’s work on Wroth was a major contribution in this regard, because she effectively challenged earlier claims for a banished or abandoned Wroth, but also showed how Wroth’s art and imagination transformed everything that might at first seem simply autobiographical. These biographies will be the gold standard for years to come, modeling the importance of positioning women writers in the contexts of intellectual, political, and local history, legal documents, and family papers.


From Anne Lake Prescott, Helen Goodhart Altschul Professor of English Emerita, Barnard College, on Margaret’s courage:

Margaret Hannay personified bravery, adding to it a wise humor that balanced the resignation with which she described her condition to friends. For some years she and I had hoped to work together on a book exploring the role of David in Renaissance England. The letter she wrote explaining the impossibility of the project, granted her health, is one of the most moving documents I have ever read, perfectly balancing the courage radiating from her, quietly, during her last couple of visits to conferences. The smiling modesty with which she sat absorbing the love and praise at Kalamazoo, to which her husband Dave had driven her now that she could no longer fly, would have made any queen of England proud. As I mentioned in another tribute, in 1986 we both attended a conference on Philip Sidney at Leiden. Margaret had suggested that she and I explore Amsterdam, take a boat ride on the canals, and visit the art museum, where we saw a sign saying “no photographs.” Margaret, normally law-abiding yet charmed by several allegorical paintings, waited until the guard had stepped away and firmly snapped her camera. She was a good woman, but not easily intimidated. With Betty Travitsky, it was Margaret who sparked my interest in Early Modern women, silent or otherwise, and Margaret who gave us all a model of unshaken grace as death approached and stole her from us, at least in this world.


From Susan M. Felch, Professor of English and Director, Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship, Calvin College, on Margaret’s character and faith:

The afternoon of 27 October 2012, a group of faculty gathered at the Sixteenth Century Studies Conference in Cincinnati, Ohio. What drew us together was Margaret’s absence: this was the first conference she had missed since her unexpected cancer diagnosis. It felt strange to be talking about the Sidneys and material culture and women’s writing without Margaret’s wise and calm presence. As we sat in a large, empty ballroom, we read aloud Mary Sidney’s versification of Psalm 139. Against the promise that “Thou walkest with me when I walk, / when to my bed for rest I go” was laid the reminder that we, with Sidney, detested “the canckred knott” that now plagued Margaret, the palpable, physical enemy arrayed against our friend and colleague (CW 2: 234, lines 8-9, 81). Yet, in the months and years that followed, Margaret walked as she always had, with grace, confidence, and faith. She continued to live with deliberateness and care.

It is almost impossible to talk about Margaret without mentioning her generosity and kindness, traits that radiated her brilliance away from her own ego and out toward students, colleagues, and the Academy at large. Perhaps a word that comes close to expressing her character is an old one used in the Psalms to describe God: loving kindness. “O let me hear thy loving-kindness betimes in the morning,” says the Psalmist (143.8); “lett mercies morrow / soone chase my night of sorrow,” sings Mary Sidney (CW 2: 241, lines 37-38).

Many of us grew accustomed over the years to hearing loving kindness in Margaret’s voice, to seeing it in her smile, to experiencing it in her careful attention to the words we wrote and spoke. We miss that loving kindness. Our lives lie in the shadow, even as Margaret now walks brightly in mercy’s morrow. 

[1] Patrick Cheney, European Literary Careers, U of Toronto P, 2002.

[2] Silent But for the Word: Tudor Women as Patrons, Translators, and Writers of Religious Tracts, Kent State UP, 1985.

[3] Rowland Whyte, The Letters (1595-1608) of Rowland Whyte, edited by Michael G. Brennan, Noel J. Kinnamon, and Margaret P. Hannay, American Philosophical Society, 2013.

[4] Mary Sidney Herbert Pembroke, The Collected Works of Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, edited by Margaret P. Hannay, Noel J. Kinnamon, and Michael G. Brennan, Clarendon P, 1998, 2 vols, (hereafter, CW), Philips Phoenix: Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, Oxford UP, 1990, and Mary Sidney, Lady Wroth, Ashgate 2010.


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Cite as:

"Walking with Margaret," Spenser Review 47.1.1 (Winter 2017). Accessed October 17th, 2017.
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