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Judith H. Anderson, Spenser’s Narrative Figuration of Women in The Faerie Queene
by Melissa E. Sanchez

Judith H. Anderson. Spenser’s Narrative Figuration of Women in The Faerie Queene. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2018. ix +199pp.

Judith H. Anderson is a Spenserian’s Spenserian if there ever was one, having published numerous (and several prize-winning) articles and book-length studies illuminating the relationship between representation and authenticity and demonstrating the interplay between inner life, historical exigency and aesthetic creation. Her extraordinary scholarly energy is on display in her newest contribution to Spenser studies, Spenser’s Narrative Figuration of Women in The Faerie Queene. Here, rather than engage in conventional debates about whether Spenser is a protofeminist or a misogynist, Anderson considers the complex relationship between narrative, figuration and gender. In tracing this relationship, Spenser’s Narrative Figuration of Women demonstrates not only that gender is a narrative and figural construct, but, perhaps more profoundly, that gender itself shapes the stories we tell and the sense that we make of them.

Defining the three terms of Anderson’s title—’narrative’, ‘figuration’, and ‘women’—is a good way to begin summarising the work this book does. ‘Narrative’, the simplest term here, can be understood as the unfolding of a story across time, the organisation of experiences and events over the course of Spenser’s epic romance. Because The Faerie Queene is not only a story but also an allegory, each of these experiences and events has a figural or symbolic, as well as narrative, dimension. Moreover, as Anderson’s title indicates, narrative and figuration are not at odds but mutually enabling. To read The Faerie Queene simply for plot would be to miss the point of that plot, but to treat allegorical figures as one-dimensional and stable would also be to miss the complexity of Spenser’s allegorical thought, which refuses to treat Holiness, Truth, Chastity or Justice as singular or simple. The Faerie Queene is personification allegory, so its characters are its plot, and this makes understanding these entities vital to perceiving Spenser’s larger purpose. Drawing on Alan Sinfield’s work on ‘character effects’—those moments of self-reflection, lying, and indecision that forge the impression of ‘continuous or developing interiority or consciousness’—Anderson shows how the interchange between reflection and action challenges a static symbolism or comfortable knowledge.[1] Rather than treat allegory as the end of narrative, ‘The Faerie Queene is fundamentally committed to process and exploration, and a reading of it should be as well’ (5). Spenser’s narrative figuration, or mutually formative relationship between story and symbol, enacts the process it inscribes. Spenser’s self-conscious reflections on the limitations that narrative imposes on figuration, as well as the violence that figuration might demand of narrative, bespeaks an awareness of the injustices to which The Faerie Queene inevitably subjects the female figures who are at once characters and allegories.

Indeed, the ‘women’ of Anderson’s title reveal how narrative process resists the stable meaning that figuration invites, even as figuration disrupts narrative’s claims to development or teleology. Anderson recounts declining an invitation to write an entry on ‘women’ for The Spenser Encyclopedia on the grounds that she saw no way of treating these topics in the space of such an entry without resorting to essentialist terms. In the present book-length study, she stresses the differences between women even as she remains committed to the conceptual work it does, noting that ‘Within Elizabethan society and culture … women was a functioning term, however much diversity it masked, enabled or suppressed. I use the term in this historical, yet still open, still moving, sense’ (1).

This definition of women as a ‘functioning term’ that identifies and groups across significant difference effectively addresses ongoing debates within feminist theory and politics as to the definition of feminism’s subject. How, scholars have asked, can women develop alliances based on a shared experience of discrimination and oppression when differences of class, race, sexuality and geographic location mean that women have different interests and needs that cannot be reduced to gender alone? Anderson’s book suggests that these are not new questions, for Spenser himself accentuates the complexity of women—along with the injustices to which they are variously subjected. What Anderson argues of Belphoebe as both character and as one of the poem’s many figurations of Elizabeth I is one example of the problematic examined by The Faerie Queene more generally: neither only antique example or only living queen, she registers the uneasy relation between spirit and flesh, symbolic and narrative function. Or, to take another prominent example, Anderson points out that Britomart’s armor means differently at different points in the text. Sometimes it is merely practical, other times it is thematic. And in this instability we also must recognise the inadequacy of a binaristic concept of gender: even as armor allows Britomart to present as male, that presentation is itself an outward expression of ‘the truly Martian, martial, masculine nature of Britomart’s figure’—particularly in the context of Faerie Land, ‘where all figures are feigned and defined by what they do’ (97, 99). 

Parody is a term that does not appear in Anderson’s title but this term is as central to her analysis as the three that do. In fact, Anderson’s attention to the operations of parody in The Faerie Queene deftly and elegantly weaves together her discussions of plot, form, allegory and gender throughout the book. Anderson proposes that parody is as central to The Faerie Queene as it is to works by Rabelais, Shakespeare and Cervantes. Understanding this, moreover, bears considerably on debates about Una (does she represent Truth, the Invisible Church or the Anglican Church? is she innocent or evil?) and, through Una’s relation to other female figures, on Spenser’s representation of women more generally. Anderson argues that Spenser’s consistent use of parody ‘signals a fundamental commitment to play in both the ludic and open sense of the word’ as well as ‘a commitment to process and exploration’ (13). The parodic moments in which Anderson is most interested are those of self-citation and self-reflection: the differences between original moment and parodic (if only because subsequent) copy allow us to track nuance and change in The Faerie Queene. Anderson’s example is the use of the ‘ugly and degrading’ word ‘blubbered”, which applies only to Una, Duessa and Florimell (19). All of these women ‘blubber’ in response to threats of sexual violence, but the differences between Una’s terror, Duessa’s overacting and Florimell’s humiliation demonstrate that affect as well as assault signify differently for different persons and contexts: rape’s symbolic meaning is dependent on its quotidian experience. Or, as Anderson succinctly puts it: ‘relationship is not identity’ (34). 

Spenser’s Narrative Figuration of Women manages to examine an impressive array of female figures and narrative moments in a brief introduction, three chapters and a coda. Anderson devotes a chapter each to Una, Belphoebe and Britomart, but these figures’ relations to Duessa, Amoret, Florimell and Radigund receive ample discussion. The coda discusses minor figures such as Serena, Hellenore, Mirabella and Pastorella—again, with an eye to demonstrating how parodic repetition of events, language and motifs reveal the subtle differences within the category of woman as well as the mutual destabilisation of story and symbol. To take one instance, Anderson points out that Serena’s name comes to suit her less and less as Book VI proceeds: far from peace or serenity, she comes to register the anxiety and wretchedness of a specifically gendered injunction to self-surveillance that can never conclusively vanquish the threat of slander. Though many of the concepts discussed in Anderson’s book are complex and sometimes rather dense, she never loses her readers, for she leads us through her argument with clarity and eloquence. Her prose is always lucid and frequently quite witty as when she describes Artegall as ‘A poor loser who harbors a grudge’ (96) or counters Harry Berger, Jr.’s claim that Una’s rescue of Redcrosse from Despair is emasculating, by noting that ‘Una has just interrupted a suicide, the temptation to which Despair’s coup de grâce—oops, forget grâce—has been to excite the deranged knight’s imagination of damnation’ (34). Anderson’s book is a reminder that literary criticism can itself be an art form.

After at least two decades of much-lamented backlash, feminism has seen a resurgence in recent years, as witnessed by the Women’s March on Washington and the #MeToo movement. At the same time, these movements have also been subjected to the same questions about the politics of identification and representation as earlier feminist theory, criticism and organising. Although the women in Faerie Land are in many ways worlds away from these current concerns, Anderson’s book asks a number of important and timely questions about the relationship between, and production of, stories and symbols. How do particular experiences and events become emblematic of women’s more general situation? Which individual women count as representatives of women as a group? What violences do we as readers (of literature, of politics) enact when we confer or deny symbolic meaning to particular stories? Spenser’s Narrative Figuration of Women does not answer these questions, but it enables us to ask them. I cannot put it better than Anderson herself: ‘Awareness is where still movement starts’ (148).

Melissa E. Sanchez

University of Pennsylvania




[1] Anderson quotes Sinfield, Faultlines: Cultural materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 62.


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Cite as:

Melissa E. Sanchez, "Judith H. Anderson, Spenser’s Narrative Figuration of Women in The Faerie Queene," Spenser Review 49.1.6 (Winter 2019). Accessed August 26th, 2019.
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