An Interview with Elaine V. Beilin

  • By Janet A. Martin
  • June 19, 2018

The scholar talks research, Anne Askew, and her vow to make early women writers heard.

An Interview with Elaine V. Beilin

Professor Elaine V. Beilin, author of Redeeming Eve, Women Writers of the English Renaissance, began her professional life in 1976 with a seemingly idle question. Traveling by bus from Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts, she had just attended a presentation on the topic of women and literature. Sitting next to her, Beilin's companion asked, "Were there any the women writers in the 16th and 17th century? If so, who were they?"

"I don't know," Beilin answered. But she privately made a note to find out. A young woman in her 20s, Beilin had just finished four years pursuing a graduate degree on the 16th century; she had written a dissertation; and she was certain there were women in the 16th and 17th centuries who had written in English.

She couldn't prove it; she just knew it. After all, this was the age of the printing press. By 1500, printing presses in operation throughout Western Europe had already produced more than 20 million volumes.

But where were the women authors? Beilin promised herself she’d find out.

Her search began with a grant from Mount Holyoke and led to Oxford, England, where she called up 16th-century texts from the Bodleian archives. The works covered many prominent political characters: Henry VIII; his wives, including suspected Reformed Church secret believer Katherine Parr, Henry's sixth and final queen; and Thomas More, the king's counselor.

Beilin was familiar with these historical players and soon hit on an idea: "Most people would agree you have to look at religious texts to understand any culture. Politics and religion were so entwined in those days, you have to look at religious texts."

She remembers the startling moment that changed her life: "I'll never forget the afternoon in 1976 when I read Anne Askew's words for the first time at the Bodleian Library. That experience helped to change everything in my thinking about the 16th century and contributed to what turned out to be my life's work on early modern women writers."

Beilin came across the words of Askew, the notorious "heretic" made famous during the last six months of Henry VIII's life, when Protestants and Catholics were warring with one another, punishing deviants who refused to acquiesce to traditionalist Catholic doctrines. Some of these heretics were burned at the stake for not believing that the bread and wine in Communion were physically transformed into the body and blood of Christ but were merely symbolically changed.

Askew was one of them.

Beilin wore gloves to protect the yellowed, centuries-old pages of The Examinations of Anne Askew, an ancient, first-person account of what had happened during that dark time. The scholar’s attraction to the doomed believer was instant. A woman of 25 at the time of her death, Askew (1521-1546) was three years younger than Beilin.

Askew graphically records her imprisonment in the Tower of London and torture on the rack. Despite being a knowledgeable, educated gentlewoman who could convincingly and forcefully quote scripture, Askew’s unwillingness to renounce her spiritual beliefs sealed her fate. On July 16, 1546, she was carried — torture had left her unable to walk — to Smithfield, one of the most notorious locations for public executions in London, where she was killed.

She went to her grave having never divulged the names of other Protestants, including the politically powerful Parr, Henry VIII's wife, who was a secret believer within the Reformed movement and targeted by the conservative Catholic faction in her husband’s court.

Today, Beilin is a respected professor of English and director of the Center for Excellence in Learning, Teaching, Scholarship and Service at Framingham State University in Massachusetts. She has spent her life devoted to the study of Askew, teaching her students the old texts. They find Askew's resolve amazing and debate the moral imperative of speaking up against wrongdoing in contemporary society.

Beilin is also editor of the updated The Examinations of Anne Askew, part of the “Women Writers in English 1350-1850” series which evolved from Brown University’s Women Writers Project. This unique series is confirmation of Beilin's search to answer the provocative question asked by her friend decades before, who wondered if there were any 16th- and 17th-century women writers.

The answer is yes. And Beilin was among the first to find concrete evidence of them. Thanks to scholars like Beilin and the team behind the Women Writers Project, Askew's voice, along with the voices of many of her contemporary female authors, has outlasted her persecutors. The Tudor period — narrated by men and women — lives on.

Janet A. Martin is an award-winning freelance journalist and author living in Virginia who assists individuals in writing their memoirs. She is five centuries removed from the time of Anne Askew's examinations, torture, and execution. Her maiden name is Askew.

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