Move over Madonna and other one-name celebrities. Elizabeth Jane Weston, known as Westonia, rocked the male-dominated world of Neo-Latin poetry over four hundred years ago.
At a time when many women weren’t educated, much less able to write in Latin, she faced prejudice from the powers-that-be.
Lipsius, one of The Philosophers in Rubens’ painting, dismissed her as “that English girl” and concluded that “the female sex is not to be trusted, they’re more surface than substance.”
Westonia probably wanted to respond like current rock star, Lily Allen: “You’ll find me in the studio and not in the kitchen.” Except she had to appeal to men’s sense of chivalry to succeed, and that meant playing up her qualities as a woman. She referred to herself as a “wretch” to invoke sympathy and from the men she needed to protect her.
Facing near financial ruin caused by her stepfather, the notorious alchemist Edward Kelley, Westonia used her gift of language to appeal to Emperor Rudolf II:
“What I beg is that you not let a wretched maiden…perish under the weight of an unfair evil.”
Eventually, the authorities recognized her as a great talent, but they made sure to emphasize her womanly virtues.
“Behold Jane…genius, piety, virtue, industry, the Muses and a virgin’s morals…” wrote Nicholas Maius.
And they expressed astonishment that such talent came from a woman.
“You are an illustrious miracle of your sex,” gushed, Matthias Zuber, crowned Poet Laurete of the day. “What did Nature deny you, learned Westonia? Nothing. Aside from your being born a woman.”
And that from her greatest fans.
To her critics who accused her of plagiarism, Westonia asked, “Why do you hack a poor girl more sharply than any sword?” Or, in other words, it’s hard out here…for a wretch.