The (No Longer) Forgotten Women of Art and Literature

by Chris Dobson, GOTH PhD Student

From left to right: Saffron Coomber, Clare Perkins and Adelle Leonce in the Vaudeville Theatre production of the play in 2019.

Earlier this year, I wrote about how reading helped to get me through the first national lockdown caused by the COVID-19 outbreak in the UK and around the world. Since then, I have started my PhD in English Literature at the Open University (OU), generously funded by the Gender and Otherness in the Humanities (GOTH) research centre. It’s been a strange time to embark on a research project in a new city: The pandemic has necessitated that all my interactions with OU staff and students have so far been conducted remotely over Microsoft Teams which, although convenient for a late riser such as myself, is not quite the same as the real thing. (The absence of the free drinks and snacks that are usually the staple of academic conferences is particularly lamentable!)

The introduction of a second English lockdown in November meant that the bookshops, museums and theatres that cultureholics like me depend on were closed. Still, this being the 21st century, I was able to enjoy a virtual trip to the West End – from the comfort of my home – to see the Olivier Award-winning play Emilia, written by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and directed by Nicole Charles. The production inverts the male-only tradition of early modern English theatre by employing an all-female cast to tell the life story of Emilia Lanyer (née Bassano), who is portrayed by three actresses: Saffron Coomber, Adelle Leonce and Clare Perkins, each depicting the ground-breaking English poet at a different point in her life.

Some believe that Lanyer (whose first name was alternately spelled as ‘Aemilia’) was the lover of William Shakespeare, and the play supports this theory, but really what matters is not the men in her life, but rather the fact that Lanyer succeeded in publishing a volume of poetry at a time when the sexist gatekeepers of culture thought that ‘female poet’ was an oxymoron. Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum – meaning ‘Hail, God, King of the Jews’ – was first published in 1611 and there is no doubt that, had Lanyer been a man, her work would not have fallen into its current state of obscurity. The purpose of Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s play is to shine a spotlight on the achievements of this incredible woman and indirectly celebrate all the (hitherto) forgotten women of history. Although its online run has now come to an end, it is to be hoped that Emilia will one day grace the stage again, so that more people can learn about this trailblazer of English literature.

‘Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria’ by Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – 1654 or later).

In that brief, blissful interlude between the end of the second lockdown and the imposition of tier 4 restrictions on much of the south-east of England, I was able to sneak a trip to London’s National Gallery to see its exhibition of paintings by Artemisia Gentileschi (pictured). It is the first time that a solo exhibition of the Italian artist has been put on in the UK and it almost didn’t happen, thanks to the first lockdown. Postponed until October, the exhibition has now tragically had its run cut short again. But don’t despair if you missed it: A virtual tour of the highlights is available for a couple more weeks on BBC iPlayer, so do check it out whilst you can!

Like Emilia Lanyer, Artemisia Gentileschi suffered many hardships in her life; as just a teenager, she was raped by an older male artist and in the ensuing trial had to endure torture to prove the validity of her evidence. Nevertheless, Gentileschi persisted with her artistic career, soon outshining her father Orazio with her intense, beautiful and sometimes furious paintings, such as Susanna and the Elders and Judith Beheading Holofernes. The exhibition includes some of Gentileschi’s letters to her lover, providing an intimate insight into the passion that characterised her life.

The National Gallery, by its own admission, contains a paucity of works by female artists. Hopefully this exhibition will be the first of many to redress this imbalance. In the meantime, let me know what you’ve been doing to cope with life in the pandemic. If you’re a postgraduate researcher and would like to know more about GOTH’s monthly postgraduate forums, you can email me at

This entry was posted in Uncategorised and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *