Deborah Aldrich Larson. The Verse Miscellany of Constance Aston Fowler: A Diplomatic Edition. Tempe: Renaissance English Text Society, 2000. 206pp. ISBN 0 86698 252 3.

Marie-Louise Coolahan
National University of Ireland, Galway

Coolahan, Marie-Louise. "Review of Deborah Aldrich Larson, The Verse Miscellany of Constance Aston Fowler." Early Modern Literary Studies 7.2 (September, 2001): 10.1-5 <URL:

  1. Constance Aston Fowler's verse miscellany, compiled primarily during the 1630s, is one of only two extant literary manuscripts surviving from the recusant, royalist coterie centred around the Aston family of Tixall, Staffordshire. (The other is a compilation of popular love lyrics and topical poems compiled by Fowler's brother, Herbert Aston, from the late 1620s to 1656, held at Yale University.) That this vibrant literary coterie produced a great quantity of verse is most apparent from their descendant Arthur Clifford's edition, culled from three other manuscript compilations and miscellaneous separate sheets, all now lost. The family patriarch, Walter, first Lord Aston, provided an encouraging literary environment for his children, and extended their literary horizons through his embassies to Spain from 1620 to 1625, and again from 1635 to 1638 (where he was accompanied by his second son, Herbert). The poetry of this Staffordshire circle embraces the non-court, recusant and social milieu of the first Lord Aston, his children, their spouses and friends. The manuscript practices of these generations are a rich vein for the exploration of seventeenth-century manuscript culture, exhibiting its dynamism within the familial coterie, its social and religious contexts, and the role played by gender in contemporary literary culture. Larson's edition of the miscellany compiled by the first Lord Aston's youngest daughter is, therefore, an important and valuable addition to the corpus of manuscripts, especially those compiled by women, which are currently being edited and published.

  2. The social and devotional verse collected and transcribed in Fowler's manuscript offers us a way into this exciting coterie and its key concerns. Larson, in her introduction, divides its contents into three categories: religious, familial, and miscellaneous. The connections between these poems, their subjects, authors and compiler are well researched and Larson's work discovers new items of interest. The interweaved connections between the family, the Duke of Buckingham and his various elegists, for example, are particularly persuasively presented.

  3. The religious verse included in the manuscript-17 of the total 65 poems-reveals the strongly Catholic character of the miscellany, and of the coterie. Yet, only three of these poems are in Fowler's hand; and the identification of the hand which transcribes the others is a key question with regard to the transmission of these poems and the use of such verse as socio-religious glue. Larson intriguingly identifies Gertrude Aston Thimelby, Fowler's older sister, as Hand B. Twelve of these poems also occur in a recusant manuscript dating from the 1650s entirely transcribed by Hand B, which is associated with the Fairfax family of Wootton Wawen, Warwickshire. Some corroboration for the identification of Gertrude's hand would, therefore, be extremely useful. Larson argues that Gertrude Aston Thimelby is not only the scribe of the majority of religious poems collected in Fowler's miscellany, but also the scribe of the Bodleian manuscript. Thimelby moved to Louvain following the deaths of her husband and son in the 1650s, taking her vows in 1658; the dating, therefore, fits. However, the identification of the Bodleian scribe is debated: F.M. McKay attributes this latter hand to Thomas Fairfax, on the basis of the scribe's statement of an undefined relation to Fairfax's godson: "John Ingram is my." Recent research by Cedric Brown has revealed that Thomas Fairfax, a substantial yeoman farmer, was in fact illiterate, signing his will with a cross. Brown has argued that the Bodleian miscellany was copied for the Fairfaxes under the auspices of the Smith Carringtons of Wootton Hall, a great house of the vicinity which supported a Jesuit cell, and rivalled the neighbouring Protestant church as a recusant centre for worship. At the very least, then, Fowler and her family were actively involved in a Midlands network of recusants. Whether this activity extended to Gertrude Aston Thimelby's compilation of an additional, entirely religious, miscellany for the Fairfax family remains, in the absence of any corroborating witnesses to her hand, open to question.

  4. Fowler's impulses as a compiler tend towards comprehensive attribution: the poems she transcribes are most often ascribed to their authors. None are attributed to Constance herself, either in this manuscript or in any of the other Tixall papers, suggesting that her role was that of curator rather than composer. Larson is convinced, however, of Fowler's abilities as a poet. She constructs an interesting, if not entirely convincing, argument for her authorship of one and a half religious poems based upon Fowler's "characteristic sense of drama" (xxxvii) and a female speaker who refers to curling her hair. In the context of such marked attributive practice, however, and given the relative sophistication of these poems, we must ask whether they really are likely to be the product of one of the less productive writers of the family.

  5. Larson's edition of the manuscript itself, barring the inconsistent use of nomenclature (Constance Fowler/Constance Aston Fowler and Gertrude Thimelby/Gertrude Aston Thimelby are interchangeably used), is exemplary. Her scholarship discovers new and interesting connections, and raises scribal and authorial issues which are of pertinence to any student of the period's manuscripts. Most significantly, her edition gives us access to a crucial example of women's enthusiastic participation in literary coteries of the seventeenth century.
  6. Notes

    1. Beinecke Library, Yale University, Osborn MS b. 4.

    2. Arthur Clifford (ed.), Tixall Poetry, (Edinburgh: James Ballantyne, 1813).

    3. Bodleian MS Eng. poet. b. 5, p. 17. This statement is upside-down on the page, with the name John written above it in the same hand. There is no evidence of any additional words inscribed to conclude the sentence. F. M. McKay, "A Seventeenth-Century Collection of Religious Poetry: Bodleian Manuscript Eng. poet. b. 5", Bodleian Library Record, 8 (1970), 186, 189-90.

    4. Cedric C. Brown, "Two Yeoman Miscellanies: Distribution, Travel, and Communal Use", unpublished paper presented at "Manuscripts and their Makers in the English Renaissance", University of Reading, 24 June 2000.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2001-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).