In this episode, we discuss Professor Naomi Miller's novel, Imperfect Alchemist, which revolves around Mary Sidney Herbert and her bond with a maidservant and artist Rose. You can find the paperback here: https://amzn.to/3x4AdKX
For a complete episode transcript, check out http://www.womenandshakespeare.com
Interviewer: Dr Varsha Panjwani
Guest: Professor Naomi Miller
Producer: Mr Zeke Tweedie
Artwork: Mr Wenqi Wan
Hello and welcome to Women & Shakespeare. I'm your host, Dr. Varsha Panjwani and today I'm thinking about the image of the Renaissance woman. In our imagination, the Renaissance man is an accomplished artist, a scientist, everything, but what about the Renaissance woman? What image do we have of her? There were of course Renaissance women who were similarly adept at science and literature and yet we don't talk about the Renaissance woman in this way, or at least this image is not embedded in popular consciousness. So I'm very pleased that my guest for this episode is Naomi Miller, who is professor of English language and literature at Smith College and who has recently written a novel, 'Imperfect Alchemist' about one such Renaissance woman, Mary Sidney Herbert.
I love the web of women that Miller spins in her book and this is no surprise because although this is her debut novel, she has authored and co-edited multiple academic books about Renaissance women and we'll be talking about some of them too. I spoke to her when her novel had just been published in hardback, but it has arrived in paperback and our podcast listeners will be pleased to hear that it is out as an audio book too. So use this episode as a primer to reading or hearing her book or pause now and come back after you have read or heard it and can't wait to discuss it. Naomi, I'm so thrilled that you are on this podcast. I've just finished reading your novel and it's such a pleasure to be able to talk to you.
Thank you. I've been looking forward to having this conversation with you. I'm quite excited.
Great. So let's dive straight into it and I'll ask you the question I ask everyone on this podcast. When did you first encounter Shakespeare and what was the nature of that encounter?
I remember very clearly that my first experience with Shakespeare was a live production on stage in the summer of 1976 when I was 15 at the Royal Shakespeare Theater production of 'The Winter's Tale' in Stratford with Ian McKellen in the title role. But what really captivated me because I had no idea of the story of the play was the magical rebirth of Hermione from a statute for living mother. And that has always remained my favorite Shakespeare play now because you can only have that experience once where you don't know the statute is going to turn into a live person and it does. And so that was just magical so I'll never forget.
That's beautiful. Winter's Tale is one of my favorite as well. It's also very fitting because just as Hermione's statue comes to life, you've given voice to many women writers who were undiscovered. So before we go on to discuss your novel 'Imperfect Alchemist', I do want to acknowledge your significant and sustained focus on women writers in Shakespeare's time. And I adored the title of one of your early academic books, 'Changing The Subject: Mary Wroth and Figurations of Gender in Early Modern England'. And we will return to the title, but what drew you to Mary Wroth, who you have written about so extensively?
Yes. I was very excited to learn that Wroth published the first sonnet sequence and the first prose romance authored by a woman in England and even more remarkably, I remember very clearly that I went to the Newberry Library in Chicago to read the only copy of her unpublished continuation of the romance. I realized she overturned all the prose romance traditions of happily ever after endings for young lovers by having her families grow up, so there were mothers and grandmothers, and when the men were unfaithful, as they inevitably were, the women were supported by their bonds with their women friends. This is something that you do not see in the male authored prose romances that were the sources say for Shakespeare's comedies and I thought Mary Wroth is an exceptional, extraordinary woman author.
I remember sitting there turning over the handwritten pages of her romance because it was continuation in her handwriting and reading and thinking, wow, this is amazing not just because she is a woman, but because what she's done has changed the entire genre. And she paid for it too, because she was ejected from the court for daring to write a prose romance, "lascivious tales and toys" were what she was attacked for writing. And she was told you should do like your aunt, the Countess of Pembroke and write religious poems if you must write at all. Sonnet sequenced by a woman completely inappropriate because love sonnets, women were not supposed to write about that and so she was attacked for it. And there are actually long-term consequences if you consider, she was basically ejected from the court for having dared to do this. One of the male courtiers attacked her, called her hermaphrodite and a monster because he said you are maliciously slandering my family stories.
And she wrote back to him and she said, well, I'm writing fiction so if you see that, that says more about you than about me. And I just thought, well, listen to those bold words by a woman author in 1621. She wasn't stopped and even more remarkably, as she continued, she was now living in the country under the protection of her family, the Sidney family. And she continued to write hundreds more pages in her hand, in his manuscript. And that's where the story really starts to become unique and original and not be about young lovers, but be about mothers, grandmothers, grandchildren and women's friendships. So I just felt that it was extraordinary that I hadn't learned about her when I was an undergraduate in the 1970s and this was someone that other people needed to know about. This was an author worth understanding and recognizing.
Fascinating, especially how you described she challenges genres. And I suppose that's what makes men so angry because she's enriching on territory and changing it and basically pointing out the fault in their genre, right? It stops at the very moment at which women want to know more.
Right. And what women's lives are, bearing children, having grandchildren, being in relationships with each other as well as the men. And she just really shifts the frames that women become the central part of her narrative, not men and how they treat women not. And so that's why I really thought this is an author that I want to write about that I want other people to know about.
How smart of her as well, to turn the tables back. I love her letter. That's so great. [crosstalk 00:06:34] If you have a problem with it, its your problem.
Really I didn't intend any offense, I'm just writing fiction. And he's saying, how dare you slender my [inaudible 00:06:43] because he had done horrible things, treated his own daughter very badly on all of that. And she may very well have been slandering him but she knew better than to admit to that. She just said, well, the fact that you see it says something about you.
Woman after our own hearts-
And I think it's all very well researching and rediscovering women and that is key because as Virginia Wolf has also said very famously, the importance of having role models cannot be overstated. But what is sometimes overlooked, as you have been saying that we don't introduce these writers early on to students. Our undergraduates need to know about these and bond with these writers, but you do teach courses on Shakespeare's women. Your courses, I believe are titled Shakespeare's Women, Women's Shakespeare or Shakespeare Sisters. Could you tell us a little bit more about these courses please?
Yes, I would love to but those are two of my favorite courses that I developed for the department. So my class on Women Shakespeares is we consider the significance of women's voices in different Shakespeare plays: Othello, King Lear, The Tempest viewed in conjunction with re-imaginings of those plays by women directors, playwrights, poets and novelists. And the course explores how women artists have engaged with and transformed Shakespeare's women at different cultural moments. For example, Toni Morrison's play 'Desdemona', but I've had students in my seminar on Women Shakespeare to say, why don't we read these authors in the regular Shakespeare class? And I said, that's a really good point and now I'm going to start, we're going to start reading it in the regular Shakespeare class as well.
So in the other class on Shakespeare Sisters, that again, as you mentioned, Virginia Wolf, that's named for Virginia Woolf's discussion of Jude Shakespeare, the hypothetical sister of Shakespeare, who would have gone mad and committed suicide because she wouldn't have been recognized. In fact, one of the reasons that Virginia Wolf didn't know about writers like Mary Wroth was because they were suppressed for decades so that when Mary Wroth's 'Urania' was published in 1621 in the court and then withdrawn from publication over the controversy, the next published edition was 1999. That's the first modern edition. So that's about 400 years of suppression of a woman's voice just because she was a woman.
And so of course, Virginia Wolf didn't know about her. So in Shakespeare sisters, in that course, we read the women authors who were published in Shakespeare's day, who I am confident that Shakespeare was aware of as he was a magpie and took from everything. And these were published works. So I tell my Shakespeare students, Shakespeare didn't invent these amazing female characters, whole cloth out of his brain. He had access to the published writings of women at the time. And we can see ways in which he was influenced by and engaging with them. And that's what those women that we look at and the cost of what they were trying to achieve, how they encountered so many obstacles from their society when they were trying to publish, so much criticism.
You know that thing you said about why don't we read these in a regular Shakespeare course? And that was my problem with 'Women & Shakespeare' podcast as well. It seems like it's such an exception to have women's contributions, acknowledged that we almost have to make a separate space for them right before they are regularly allowed to be read. So I certainly do want to see a world where we don't have to make separate spaces where we are just included.
Yes. I completely agree. Yes.
And I absolutely love your idea of charting the influence as well, because usually it's very one-sided. We think about how Shakespeare has influenced women writers and that's fine, but you are shifting the narrative, changing the subject.
Changing the subject. Yes.
Well, in that case, how much resistance have you met with when you started changing the subject in this way so that it centers women writers, I mean both in academia and in your novel publications?
Yes, I encountered it and both quite strongly in both areas. And the fact that I was surprised by this should just show that hope springs eternal. You think, well, look, I found this amazing woman author, wouldn't everyone want to know about her? Actually, apparently not. When I wrote a grant proposal for the book changing the subject about Wroth and one of the reviewers said, oh, Wroth is widely read, taught and written about. And then Wroth studies is an overworked field, which simply wasn't true. At that time of that grant application, there was no single book like study of Wroth's complete works, which is why I was writing my book. There was no modern edition of her major work, the prose romance of Urania, which is like explained, came out like 10 years after I wrote my book.
The first collection of essays about her was not even published yet. I was working on it with my co-editor Gary Waller, and none of the five major collections of essays about early modern women authors included a single essay on Wroth. And so what I discovered was any small attention paid to this quote non-canonical woman author was judged to have already quote overworked the field. And that was very disturbing. And that's when I started realizing I needed to get the word out in a larger way. That was the seed for a desire to write fiction about these women authors so that people out there would just know there were women authors published in Shakespeare's day because clearly the word wasn't getting out.
So let us talk about your novel, Imperfect Alchemist. And what I loved about your novel is that Mary Sidney, one of the leading characters in the novel is based on an actual historical figure. And she's given her due both as a writer and as an alchemist in your novel. But I have to ask, given that you are a literary scholar, what drew you to focus on the alchemy side of things?
It was when I realized that she was an alchemist that I thought now I have an arc for her development as a character because she was, as an author, I knew that she was a real experiment, a real innovator. One of the things that excited me that I couldn't use in pitching the novel to trade publishers was she created 147 different verse forms for the 107 songs that she wrote adaptive paraphrases of. That's extraordinary. She was always trying out new things and I realized that's exactly what she was doing as an alchemist, in the still room. She was experimenting. And she knew it wouldn't always work, but she was so bold and so courageous in being willing to innovate. So I thought, well, I definitely want to tell both stories, both sides of her.
She was a scientist and an author, but because as you say, I was the literary scholar, that required an enormous amount of additional research into alchemy and I discovered there are many books about male alchemists. There are far fewer books about female alchemists. Thank goodness for the amazing feminist historians who have published books about the female alchemists of the period. They have published collections of their recipes, of their alchemy recipes because Mary Sidney Herbert's alchemy recipes did not survive. Many of the women's writings weren't saved, right? But I could then go to actual recipes created by lady alchemists of the period and these were people that Mary Sidney knew and interacted with. She would likely have developed similar recipes. So I didn't have to make up recipes. I mean, there are multiple copies of Walter Raleigh's amazing break cordial recipe. Not so many if you're just looking at an unknown, unknown to the larger public woman alchemist. But without those women historians, I could never have had the research that brought to life the dimensionality of her alchemy.
How exciting. A new field to explore as well, but you're right. You find those gaps everywhere you look, right? Writing is not preserved and so we think they didn't exist. So thank God for excavations such as theirs and yours for making this very popular. But you also include Rose. I know a classmate who is an artist in your book and she draws herbs that her herbalist mother uses for making remedies and there was this whole culture of women making cures and cooking cosmetics along with food, wasn't there? I mean, were lower class women part of this?
Yes, they very much for and that was very exciting to me because when I created the character of Rose, because I wanted there to be another character in a different social class that could interact with Mary, who their interaction would teach them something about each other's worlds and help them to move forward. And I thought, well, who is Rose? And so I thought, what if she grew up in the country and her mother was an herbalist and created cures. So she started learning from her mother that there are ways to heal.
The lower class women were constantly creating verbal concoctions and often the upper-class women would call on their knowledge and expertise, ask them to come to the great house and share their knowledge. But when they did not have the protection of a patron or a great lady, they were very feared oftentimes in the village as possibly witches. That's the accusation that gets made against Rose's mother because of their skills and their knowledge created fear in the society. But they were extraordinary their knowledge and what they were able to create in many ways paralleled the cures developed by the great ladies, except that the great ladies were using expensive ingredients imported from India and from all sorts of places abroad. And the local alchemists, the women were gathering herbs from the hedge sides and from their gardens.
That's exciting. And even when we are recovering histories, we sometimes tend to look at women at the top of the hierarchy because obviously it's easier to find out about them, sometimes their records are much more preserved. But I actually really liked that you included these lower class men and so we don't forget that it's not women at the top, but it is all women who are working in very different ways and their knowledge was important to all these great ladies who were then collaborating it seems with this-
Yes. And in fact, part of what my vision, both for my book about Wroth, Changing The Subject and for my novel Imperfect Alchemist was to create a world in which women's bonds with one another were very important as Mary Roth did in her prose romance because I had experienced what I've called the Noah's Ark approach to legitimating an unknown woman author by pairing her with a patriarch. So Mary Sidney Herbert and Phillip Sidney, or Mary Wroth and Phillip Sidney. And that was my dissertation, Mary Wroth and Phillip Sidney. So I was just as guilty of it, but it's not so much guilt as you have to find a way to say, oh, look, Mary Wroth was a niece to Phillip Sidney. He would have influenced her and now we discover she quite likely influenced him from work of biography, but I wanted the women's bonds with each other to be very important in the novel as well as in my scholarly book.
You're right there. We need a shifting of frames where we see bonds between women and women's networks and so on. But let's go back a bit. Rose is an entirely fictional character, right?
Yes, yes, yes.
And Mary Sidney is based on a historical figure as we have been discussing, but both these narrative are so central to your book and you describe why. How was the creation of one different from the other?
It was very different. And I found it was in fact very liberating because I knew Mary Sidney's voice very well from her writings. So that both gave me an in to for character, but also kept me using in this novel a third person voice in describing her own thoughts for her perspective because I felt as if, well, I knew her own voice. With rose as an invented character, I could use the first person. And so I liked being able to switch back and forth between third person point of view with Mary Sidney Herbert and first person for Rose. I felt able much more easily to slip into Rose's perspective because Rose was an invented character so I got to meet her in her own right and I discovered so to speak that Rose was an artist, which I didn't know when she was a child arriving at the great house and really scared and she drops her sack of belongings in front of her new mistress, who is Lady Catherine Herbert, the previous wife of Henry Herbert.
And all these things spill out, her brothers mitten, her cat spell, some little sheets of paper. And I'm looking at what spilled out of her, I'm writing and I'm looking at what stilled out of her bag and Lady Catherine says, "Rose, might you show me those papers?" and holds out her hand. And I'm watching and I see when rose hands the papers to Lady Catherine, Lady Catherine, turns them over and discovers that Rose has been sketching herbs on the back of her father's account papers, herbs from her mother's garden. I had no idea Rose was an artist until that moment. So I met her as a character and Lady Catherine says "This is marvelous Rose. I would like someone to be illustrating the herbs that I am trying to put together a collection of recipes."
And so what I found in the interaction between the characters was what I had hoped was that I would learn about each character through their interaction with each other. And Mary Sidney Herbert was brilliant, verbally eloquent. She could articulate ideas like no one else, right? But in some ways, emotionally, she would miss things right in front of her eyes. She wouldn't see bonds between people. Rose was shy, quiet, introverted, an artist, observed everything. And so Rose could see what Mary missed and likewise Rose could learn from Mary's vision. And so when they spoke to each other, they could grow to a greater dimensionality than if I was just trying to do it from one of their points of view alone. I learned so much. And I wasn't always thinking about what did I know about her.
Mary Sidney Herbert, there's a brilliant biography by Margaret Hannay. And so I knew all the basic facts. What I didn't know was we don't have some of her letters or her thoughts. We don't have a diary of her. So I could imagine her reactions to different events in her life. And there are many things that are not recorded, right? So it gave me a lot of room for fictional invention. But I would say that it was liberating to be able to invent the character of Rose, get to know that character, get to see how Rose looked at Mary and learn about Mary from Rose's point of view, not just from my point of view, because my point of view on Mary is a scholar and a teacher.
What you're describing is obviously a journey of discovery, but also I feel that we can adapt it so well to a teaching context or a [crosstalk 00:21:10] context where we tell our students that can you imagine looking at this particular character from another point of view? Can you look at Shakespeare from a woman's point of view, a woman who has not been allowed to put her works on stage? Or can you imagine looking at this woman writer from her daughter's point of view? I think would open up such a great way of researching and discovery.
Yes. I think that that humility is key and we learned that as teachers, right, in the classroom. As scholars, when we go to academic conferences and settings, we don't. And then we encounter reaction like I encountered to my scholarly book where you're being told, well, we don't need an expert in this field. And so you have to defend yourself so often if you're working on a non-canonical author or in a non-traditional field that you get used to trying to project the authority that you see all the time, male scholars around you are used to projecting about the male authors. So you have to let go of all of that when you decide to enter a new field, which was what I did by starting to write novels.
It's such a tricky balance and I hear you very much that for so long as women scholars as well, you're fighting so hard to assert your expertise on the subject. It's like Virginia Wolf actually talks about in her essay, right, that you're trying so hard to defend your position as a woman writer or a woman author or a woman presenter that it doesn't actually free you sometimes to just do the work the way you have to do it.
That's right. And all the time they're kind of subtle insults that you encounter. I remember when a graduate student, when I used to teach at the University of Arizona, said to me, well, such and such of your colleagues said, "Naomi Miller used to study Shakespeare now she studies Shakespeare for children" because I had published a book called Re-imagining Shakespeare for Children and Young Adults. As if the fact that I was looking at Shakespeare at a patience for children meant that I was no longer a Shakespeare scholar. I had four children. Of course, I was going to think about Shakespeare from children's points of view.
But you realize that the scholars who are there in their towers are holding on so tightly to their power that they don't want to allow for the possibility that you can be more expansive and say, yes, I look at Shakespeare, I look at Shakespeare's sisters, I look at women's Shakespeares and I understand Shakespeare even better now because I do that. Not, I understand Shakespeare less because I'm less of an expert because I'm at something else as well.
This is a very good moment to show the benefits of this approach because Shakespeare does enter your novel. In a scene in the novel, Mary Sidney and Shakespeare have a conversation and this is at a historical moment where Mary Sidney has finished writing a play, Antonius, which, well, she has transmuted this play in the process of translating this play. And Shakespeare is yet to write Antony and Cleopatra and they have a conversation. So is there evidence for the fact that Shakespeare's tragedy was influenced by Mary Sidney's play?
Yes, actually many Shakespeare scholars believe that Mary Sidney's play, which was the first, right, first play in English about the story of Anthony and Cleopatra and it was published 10 years before Shakespeare wrote his play was quite likely one of the sources that Shakespeare drew on or was inspired by in writing his play Antony and Cleopatra. And when we see the kind of constellation that she did of the French original, she was working from, Garnier's play, we realized she created Cleopatra as a much more three-dimensional character who is a mother as well as a lover, who was a queen and who was a coward. There were very negative use of Cleopatra out there. And many of the classical sources that Shakespeare might also have been aware of, Cleopatra was pretty much a kind of a slut. She was believed to be just sexually voracious and she kind of enticed Antony and he fell because of her and all of that.
But Mary Sidney in writing a different kind of queen character for Cleopatra was quite likely an inspiration for Shakespeare's queen. And you see that he had not done major queens before then. So I imagine a conversation she has with him after he's written his comedies with those wonderful youthful women and she says, well, I'm interested in characters, women who grow up and who kind of learned. Remember that the women writers were interested in a bigger frame, not just the young lovers. And so she kind of challenged Shakespeare in my imagination, right? In the novel to say, are you willing to consider that as well? And he thinks, oh yes, that would be something very good to consider. And I think Shakespeare was very adaptable and he heard a good idea he could go with it.
He did and you're right that we've realized how important it is to study Shakespeare from these points of view because it tells us about Shakespeare's inspirations, how good an adapter Shakespeare is, right?
Yes, he really is. Yes.
Yes. So it plays a Shakespeare in the continuum of people who continue to adapt his word because he does the same, but not all the men in your novel are as receptive. So much fun reading about those scenes in your novel there. Emilia Lanier, who has now actually achieved cultural currency in the UK. She's quite popular because Morgan Lloyd Malcolm wrote a play Emilia-
Yes, and I've seen a recording of it. It's marvelous.
It is. And sometimes they're hearing her and sometimes they are hearing Mary Wroth's sonnets in your novel. And you write their comfortable assumptions are rattled when they hear these women and these women are writing from these subject positions. What was the general attitude towards women writers and alchemists in the period?
It was in fact not accepted. And that's why when Mary Wroth published her prose romance's sonnets, she was so ostracized for daring to do that. If women wrote religious poetry, then that was kind of okay. And if they translated a man's work, all right. So women had some learning, they could do something with it. So there were certain boundaries that don't go farther than that. And what was interesting to me was that only a few men, such as Ben Johnson for example, who dedicated his play The Alchemist is to Mary Wroth. And he wrote a sonnet to Mary Wroth where he said, since reading your sonnets I have become a much better lover and much better poet. Now that is a wonderful jewel of a comment. Ben Johnson's tribute to Mary Wroth's poetry, not her beauty as a woman, the way of describing the beauty of the women in the sonnets, but the fact that she was a poet and he became a better poet.
And so you'll discover that in the Mary Wroth novel, there's a certain interesting interaction between Ben Johnson and Mary Wroth, but there were many negative attitudes towards women writers and women alchemists were simply not taken seriously necessarily by the men, but the women alchemists took each other very seriously. And in fact, what I found fascinating in studying about the alchemists was that their goal was often to develop remedies and cures, not to turn base metals into gold, which was satirized by Ben Johnson and his play the Alchemist, the traditional goal of the male alchemist was to turn base metals into gold. And the women, some of whom, admittedly, they were already in an upper-class society, they didn't need the gold as much, but they were trying to create remedies. They had a different orientation towards the science in the lab or in the still room, what their goals were different from the men and that set them up apart.
So we've come back to these communities of women and as feminists insist, and as you and I both know firsthand, having a community is so important for our work. So you are going to tap into the lives of more women rights in your forthcoming novels. So tell us a little bit more about the series that you have embarked upon.
So my series I have named Shakespeare Sisters, like the name of my course, and I have an article about how my teaching has influenced my novel writing that's coming out in the Smith College Alumni Quarterly next week because inspired by teaching my students about Shakespeare Sisters or the women authors, I thought I would like to have an entire series of novels about these women authors. So the next novel is going to be about Mary Wroth. And I see a novel about Emilia Lanier, about Elizabeth Carey. I would like to write about Anne Clifford whose extraordinary diary documents women's lives and experiences in the court of King James. And Anne Clifford was an Alchemist herself, her mother was an Alchemist, she and Mary Sidney, Anne Clifford's mother and Mary Sidney Herbert exchanged recipes.
So there are many connections but I realize that the women's community of the time of the great ladies they knew each other. So the characters that I want to write about in my series all appear in the first novel and they will continue to appear in each novel dedicated to them. And I hope that the final novel might be about Queen Anne of Denmark, whom no one's written a novel about because she's not well-known.
King James was the king, but she created an extraordinary alternative court of women around her and she encouraged women to the such an extent that when Anne Clifford was trying to defend her own lands and went to the king, the queen said to Anne Clifford, according to Anne Clifford's diary, don't trust your business to the king because he is not going to support you. So she was behind the scenes, behind the scenes of her own husband, the king on the throne of England. She was encouraging these women to stand up for themselves and to stand up for their own rights. And so the community of women that I've encountered by writing about all the women authors who influenced each other are now the community of women in my series called Shakespeare Sisters.
That's fantastic. The fact that women continue to be in each other's stories. Then, and for us, we continue to build on each other's research as well. So I think that's a beautiful note at which we should close this, but also it was so wonderful talking to you today Naomi.
Thank you Varsha. I enjoyed our conversation as I knew I would.
That was Naomi Miller talking about Mary Wroth, Mary Sidney, women writers, women alchemists and women researchers. I'm putting a link to her novel in the show notes to this episode so be sure to check it out. Next month our guest is the academic and romance writer, Professor Mary Bly, also known in romance writing circles as Eloisa James and we will be discussing Lizzie and Dante, her poignant reworking of Romeo and Juliet, which has to be my absolute favorite Shakespeare play. So to find that more, remember to tune into Women and Shakespeare streaming at Apple Podcasts and Spotify. If you want to listen with a full transcript, head over to our website www.womenandshakespeare.com. Until then, you know what to do, keep smashing the patriarchy.