How far should a woman go as the agent of her own desires? The received wisdom is that she should not go very far at all-certainly not as far as Lady Mary Wroth's Brittany widow, whose suitor scorned all who 'came not half way at the least to meete his love'. We are all familiar with the chastely passive feminine ideal and its counterpart, the demonized sexual aggressor, but the texts with which we deal here reveal a much more sophisticated awareness of the lengths to which a woman might legitimately go in pursuit of her own desires, and this study focuses on the representation of female desire not simply as a predatory instinct but as an inevitable complication of the interest in female subjectivity and agency in the early modern period. From Gynecia's 'working' mind and 'vehement spirits' in Sidney's Arcadia to Jane Eyre's 'fierce speaking' and 'volcanic vehemence', these fictional heroines demonstrate complex understandings of the risky business of female agency. Under changing social circumstances and cultural practices, they negotiate and renegotiate the terms upon which they can pursue destines of their own making.

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