(M)others and selves: Identity formation and/in relationship in early modern women’s self-writings

Ulrike Tancke
Trier University

Tancke, Ulrike. "(M)others and selves: Identity formation and/in relationship in early modern women’s self-writings". Early Modern Literary Studies 10.3 (January, 2005) 2.1-20<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/10-3/tancbodi.htm>.

    All the delight a parent can take in a childe is Hony mingled wth gall.
    (Elizabeth Joscelin, The Mothers Legacy to her Vnborn Childe) [1]
  1. Margaret Cavendish’s closet drama The Convent of Pleasure (1668), a comedy about the fictional Lady Happy’s attempt to create a women-only community, ‘a place for freedom, not to vex the senses but to please them’ (220), contains a short play-within-the-play that disrupts the comical light-heartedness of the preceding scenes. In eight subsequent episodes the audience is presented with brief dialogue sequences dealing with the fates of a battered wife, a woman suffering from sickness in the early stages of pregnancy, a woman who has been impoverished because of her husband’s gambling, a mother mourning the death of her child, a woman in labour, two elderly ladies bemoaning their children’s misfortunes, and a woman dying in childbirth -- a panoramic depiction of early modern women’s lives at their most destitute and vulnerable. In a tone of ironic contempt that oscillates between the matter-of-fact and the polemical, Cavendish’s play-within-the play deconstructs our well-tended assumptions of marriage based on romantic love, the bliss of motherhood and the sanctity of the mother-child bond. The dialogues are at their most poignant in those scenes that deal with the experience of maternity. The despair of the mother who has lost her infant (‘Who can have patience to lose their only Child? who can! Oh I shall run mad, for I have no patience’ (230)) and the pains of the woman in labour (‘Oh my back, my back will break, Oh! Oh! Oh!’ (232)) -- are offset with an ironic counterpoint when the ‘two Ancient Ladies’ complain about the sorrows that having children involves: ‘Who would desire Children, since they come to such misfortunes?’ (232). Far from being comforting and emotionally uplifting, Cavendish seems to suggest, motherhood and interpersonal relationships entail suffering, pain and distress.

  2. In the light of these unsettling dimensions, I would like to study a group of early modern self-writings [2] which all display an authorial stance that is predicated on relationships to (an)other person(s). Psychoanalysis has proclaimed the existence of an other as fundamental to identity formation [3]. In Jacques Lacan’s account of the constitution of the subject, it derives its (imagined) coherence from the unified image that is reflected back to him in the mirror, i.e. from the place of the other. Thus it is in opposition to the other that psychoanalysis has conceptualised the self to emerge. Recent studies of women’s (autobiographical) writings, by contrast, have claimed that women, in defiance of masculine individualism, are inclined towards a ‘relational sense of self’ (Friedman 42). Rather than experiencing themselves as completely self-reliant, they perceive themselves as fundamentally related to others and constitute their identities through interaction. Susan Stanford Friedman interprets this tendency as a result of women’s status under patriarchy. Fully-fledged individualism can be realised only from a vantage-point of power and dominance, because it is predicated on a subject that detaches itself from others and depicts itself as a coherent and self-determined agent in the world: ‘The emphasis on individualism as the necessary precondition for autobiography is thus a reflection of privilege, one that excludes from the canons of autobiography those writers who have been denied by history the illusion of individualism’ (39). Conversely, although she does acknowledge the danger of an ‘autonomy denied’ (45) that identity formation in relationship implies, Friedman presents such a self-definition as a liberating alternative, a moment of female empowerment.

  3. Yet, as I will show, the celebratory stance taken by critics such as Friedman is qualified by the recurrent ambiguities and contradictions that abound in the early modern women’s self-writings I study. They urge the question in how far a constitution of self that is based on relationship can be substantial. If the self is bound up with an other -- instead of setting itself apart from it -- identity can no longer be conceived of as a fixed and stable point of reference that is entirely under the individual’s control:
    This … raises questions concerning the nature of ‘authorship’: a single hand writes, but the self who inscribes, who is, is herself enmeshed with other lives which give hers the meaning it has. And it is not just ‘the author’ who takes on an ontologically shaky character … , for so too do ‘selves’ in general. (Stanley 14)
    The unstable nature of the self is reminiscent of Stephen Greenblatt’s now commonplace assumption that, in the early modern period, ‘there appears to be an increased self-consciousness about the fashioning of human identity as a manipulable, artful process’ (Greenblatt 2). If we subscribe to Greenblatt’s seminal observations, we need to examine the role that the other plays in early modern women’s self-writings: Greenblatt concedes that self-fashioning, far from constituting an autonomous act of unfettered individualism, is always dependent on an other. Yet in the (male) texts Greenblatt studies, this other is ‘something perceived as alien, strange, or hostile’ (9). It embodies forces that are directly, unambiguously and unmistakeably opposed to the integrity of the self -- ‘heretic, savage, witch, adulteress, traitor’ (9) -- and that are therefore easily identified as a threat to selfhood. The constellation is more complex in the female self-writings that I study: here, self-fashioning takes place in relation to an other that the woman is close to -- or so we would expect: sons, daughters, husbands, other family members or future generations in general are typical addressees. On the surface, a constitution of self relying on personal relationships like these suggests a positive sense of identity, based on affection and intimacy. However, if we take positions such as those expressed in Cavendish’s play-within-the-play as contrary evidence, we have to confront the possibility that there might be an element of threat to the self inherent in these very relationships.

  4. My principal focus is on the specifically female genre of the mother’s manual which, as the name implies, is based on the relationship between mother and child. Mothers’ manuals are collections of advice and injunctions that the mothers present as their legacy to their children and to future generations. Significantly, the mother-child bond not only triggers the writing process as a private expression of mutual love. Beyond that, the authors draw on the intimacy of the mother-child bond in order to defend themselves as writers in a culture that reacted to female authorship with apprehension [4]. In short, motherhood is the legitimising precondition of writing and is thus appropriated in the act of writing as a vehicle of self-constitution.

  5. Lady Grace Mildmay, in the opening part of her Autobiography (1617), which is in large parts styled as an advice book, directly addresses her grandchildren, stating that what she is about to outline is ‘the best course to set ourselves in from the beginning unto the end of our lives’ (23). There is a considerable boldness about her laying claim to a position providing guidelines for how her family should live their lives, which is enhanced by the fact that she creates an unquestioned sense of commonality between herself and the succeeding generations (‘ourselves’, ‘our lives’). Her strong awareness of self is expressed even more clearly when she states how much her advice is part of her personal experience and character, which she believes will transcend the restricted period of her own lifespan: ‘All these things coming into my mind, I thought good to set them down unto my daughter and her children, as familiar talk and communication with them, I being dead, as if I were alive’ (24; emphasis added).

  6. A similar claim is made by Elizabeth Grymeston in her address ‘To her loving sonne Bernye Grymeston’, which forms one of the introductory chapters of her manual entitled Miscellanea, Meditations, Memoratives (1604). Similar to Mildmay, but in a more direct and pronounced fashion, she sets out the purpose of her writing:
    My dearest sonne, there is nothing so strong as the force of love; there is no love so forcible as the love of an affectionate mother to hir naturall childe: there is no mother can either more affectionately shew hir nature, or more naturally manifest hir affection, than in advising hir children out of hir owne experience, to eschue evill, and encline them to do that which is good. (A3r)
    Grymeston appears strikingly ‘modern’ in her stress on the mother-child bond -- in texts such as hers we detect expressions of maternal love that conform to our own (idealised) notions of motherlove [5]. Maternal affection appeals to us as the strongest and most enduring form of love, and it is to this day largely perceived as ‘natural’ in a woman.

  7. As I have argued before, however, especially in the light of historical evidence, we have to be wary of subscribing to a sentimentalised rendition of the maternal experience which occludes its material dimensions; be it the very real pain implied in the downsides of motherhood -- the dangers of childbirth, infant mortality etc., or the various power struggles between husbands and wives, mothers and children, mothers and the larger society, being fought beneath the surface. On the other hand, it would be equally inappropriate to accept the prevailing assumption, based on studies such as Lawrence Stone’s The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 and Philippe Aries’ Centuries of Childhood, that family relationships before the 18th century were characterised by emotional coldness and detachment [6]. It appears simplistic in the light of recent studies of early modern diaries, memoirs, letters etc. [7] to argue that early modern parent-child relationships were usually ‘remote’ (Stone 105) and ‘normally extremely formal, while obedience was often enforced with brutality’ (112). Stone’s neat juxtaposition of ‘the kin-oriented anonymity of the past and the affective individualism of the future’ (111) begs to be qualified in the face of such evidence, which paints a somewhat different picture and ‘supports the interpretation that most parents … were acutely aware of and concerned for their children’ (Pollock, Lasting Relationship 13). For even if the female writers’ recourse to the intimate mother-child bond was more a tactics of legitimising publication rather than expressive of an authentic personal relationship, the mothers’ manuals still prove that a discourse of motherhood as a unique interpersonal bond did exist at the time and was widely drawn upon. The discourse of the nuclear family based on emotional attachment and centring around the mother-child bond as its epitome, which in its most elaborate form is so strongly associated with the 19th century, has its roots in the early modern period; it is an ideal that has left its traces in a great variety of early modern cultural contexts.

  8. For example, one of the subplots of Thomas Middleton’s city comedy A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (1613) movingly depicts the suffering of Sir Oliver and Lady Kix, who are still childless after several years of marriage, and for whom their childlessness entails a sense of failure that they react to with genuine despair [8]:
    LADY:                    … Oh, oh, oh!
                                  To be seven years a wife and not a child, oh, not a child!
    SIR OLIVER:       Sweet wife, have patience.
    LADY:                   Can any woman have a greater cut
    SIR OLIVER:       I know ‘tis great, but what of that, wife? ...
                                  I spare for nothing, wife; no, if the price
                                  Were forty marks a spoonful [of medicine],
                                  I’d give a thousand pounds to purchase fruitfulness. (II.1.140) [9]
    In a movingly detailed way, Sir Oliver fantasises about having a family, giving us a snapshot preview of the modern nuclear family:
    I hope to see thee, wench, within these few years,
    Circled with children, pranking up a girl,
    And putting jewels in their little ears. (III.3.106).
  9. At the other end of the emotional spectrum, the famous passage in Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606) in which Lady Macbeth forswears any maternal feelings can be taken as evidence of the cultural presence of the discourse of motherhood ex negativo [10]. Determined to overcome her husband’s reservations against murdering Duncan, the present King of Scotland, Lady Macbeth draws on the ideal of pure and natural motherly love only to deconstruct it in favour of its very opposite, murderous cruelty:
    … I have given suck, and know
    How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me.
    I would, while it was smiling in my face,
    Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
    And dashed the brains out, had I sworn
    As you have done to this. (I.7.54)
    Lady Macbeth’s outburst is all the more virulent if we read it against the centrality of the mother-infant bond in the early modern period as it is expressed by women themselves. Elizabeth Clinton’s treatise against the upper-class practice of hiring a wet-nurse, The Countesse of Lincolnes Nurserie (1622), which she addressed to her daughter-in-law, is proof of the discursive presence of an essentialist view of motherhood. Clinton is at pains to stress that for a mother not to breastfeed her child borders on ‘monstrous unnaturalnesse’ (C1v). The biologically determined activity of breastfeeding presents the mother-child bond as such as both profoundly natural and divinely ordained; just as breastfeeding is a natural activity, motherly love is an inseparable component of being female and having a child [11]. In a similar way, the male advice book writer William Gouge, in his Domesticall Duties (1622), presents breastfeeding as the primary means of transmitting motherlove and establishing the mother-child bond: ‘Together with the milk that passeth some smacks of affection and disposition of the mother, which maketh mothers to love such children best as they have given suck unto; yea, and ofttimes such children as have sucked their mother’s breasts love their mothers best’ [12]. Elizabeth Clinton expresses the same view when, with almost hyperbolic exuberance, she praises breastfeeding as being ‘the part of a true mother, of an honest mother, of a just mother, of a syncere mother, of a mother worthy of love, of a mother deserving good report, of a vertuous mother, of a mother winning praise for it’ (B4r). The implications of breastfeeding, the physically most concrete gesture of passing on a part of the self to an other, channel back to the woman herself: far from diminishing her sense of self, it establishes her as the epitome of exemplary femininity -- in a sense, we may conclude that the self is solidified through interaction with an other. The emphasis on the naturalness of breastfeeding and the mother-child bond mitigates and occludes the unsettling presentation of the mother in accordance with patriarchal demands of female virtue.

  10. In a similar way as Clinton, Elizabeth Grymeston portrays motherlove as fundamentally natural [13]. Presenting it as the most passionate and unconditional form that love can take, she states that the mother’s will has to succumb to the emotional intensity of her love:
    My mothers undeserved wrath [14] [is] so virulent, as that I have neither power to resist it, nor patience to endure it, but must yeeld to this languishing consumption to which it hath brought me: I resolved to breake the barren soile of my fruitlesse braine, to dictate something for thy direction. (A3r)
    Clearly, motherly love sets free unbounded energies and enables Grymeston to access her full intellectual potential and to express herself in writing. Her bold declaration ‘to breake the barren soile of my fruitlesse braine’ is underscored by the impressive rhetoric and use of imagery in the passage. Her presentation of self is in tune with Betty Travitsky’s description of the early modern ‘new mother’ [15], who was encouraged to be learned as well as pious, because she was responsible for her children’s upbringing. The humanist Juan Luis Vives’s seminal conduct book The Instruction of a Christen Woman (1540), dedicated to Henry VIII’s queen Catharine of Aragon, is proof of this new concern for women’s learning: a woman should
    study … if nat for her own sake, at the least wyse for her children, that she maye teache and make them good …. For that age childhood can do nothynge it selfe but counterfayte and folowe others, and … taketh its fyrst conditions and information of mynde [from the] mother. … Therefore it lyeth more in the mother than men wene, to make the conditions of the children. [16]
    However, the passage also reveals the restrictions imposed on female education. A woman is not supposed to learn for the sake of personal development or fulfilment, but her learning is intricately connected to her role as a mother. Betty Travitsky is aware of this ‘integration of natural maternal feeling with the religious and intellectual development of women advanced through the theory of the new mother’ (40); yet, in my view, the positive conclusions she draws from this are far too idealistic: Travitsky claims that the mothers’ manuals ‘represent the essence of the thinking of the new mother, who was the most liberated female developed in the English Renaissance, in what was still a family-centered, religiously oriented time’ (41). For once, her categorisation of the early modern period as ‘still family-centered, religiously oriented’, with its implication of progress with the advent of modernity, seems naïvely clear-cut. What is more important, Travitsky fails to account for the darker shades of the maternal experience suggested in the manuals. Elizabeth Grymeston, in the passage quoted above, feels she is led to act in a manner that transcends the boundaries of reason and virtuous self-restraint (on the immediate textual level, she realises that ‘my love hath carried me beyond the list I resolved on’ (B1r)) [17]. Her son is enabled to gain unmediated access to his mother’s self, to ‘see the true portrature of [his] mothers minde’ (A3v); together with her depiction of her maternal urge as a ‘languishing consumption’ (A3r), this suggests that Grymeston’s self threatens to diffuse into her text and, by extension, her son. The irrationality of motherly love might cause the boundaries of personhood to become fluid, if not to collapse altogether.

  11. Motherhood as a trope for the threat of loss of identity is one of the central themes of psychoanalysis. In its Lacanian strand, breaking out of the dyadic unity with the mother that characterises the pre-Oedipal stage is crucial for identity formation in the mirror phase; without accomplishing this separation successfully, individuation cannot take place (see Donovan 125-127). However, it also inaugurates the subject’s primary split, the destruction of its imaginary wholeness, signified by the phallus. As a result, a fundamental ambiguity accrues to the maternal: on the one hand, the mother remains associated with the perfect symbiosis in the Oedipal stage, which the individuated subject can never fully regain once its split has been effected. On the other hand, because she embodies the very opposite of coherent identity and reminds the subject of its constitutive lack, she is also perceived as the ultimate threat, the monstrous counter-force to subjectivity [18]. Moreover, as Grymeston’s implied fusion of her self with her text and her son suggests, the threat to identity embodied by the mother works both ways, i.e. the mother, too, fears dissolution of self in relation to her child. Having produced her text, Grymeston is reduced to being ‘a dead woman among the living’ (A3r). According to the feminist psychoanalyst Nancy Chodorow, female children in particular strive to uphold the dyadic unity with their mother even after the pre-Oedipal phase. As a result, women’s ego-boundaries are characteristically less well-defined than men’s. Rather than perceiving themselves as clearly distinct from others, women ‘come to define and experience themselves as continuous with others; their experience of self contains more flexible or permeable ego boundaries’ (169). Women strive to repair the lost unity with the mother in their heterosexual relationships, but can never fully realise it. Consequently, they reproduce the same pattern of incomplete separation with their own children [19].

  12. Obviously, we need to concede that Chodorow developed her ideas with reference to mid-twentieth-century, white, middle class US society and in the context of second-wave feminism, so that her insights might not necessarily be directly applicable to other historical and cultural settings [20]. Still, her theory provides a useful cue to the ‘prevalent imagery of fragmented bodies and the anxiety about the borders and boundaries of self’ (Marcus 218) that Laura Marcus has found to be crucial for women’s autobiographies and that can be detected in Grymeston’s text. For just as the child experiences the mother as a threat to its identity, the mother herself is made painfully aware of the precariousness of her own selfhood. This anxiety is certainly present in Grymeston’s celebration of the boundlessness of maternal love, which conceals some more sinister aspects. For once, it is described in terms of illness (‘languishing consumption’ (A3r)) and violence (‘wrath’ (A3r)). Most importantly, Grymeston presents herself as being close to death, or even dead-in-living (‘as I am now a dead woman among the living’ (A3r)). Her maternity is thus predicated on her self-image as powerless (‘I have neither power to resist it’ (A3r)) and intellectual incapacity (‘my fruitless braine’ (A3r)), which of course is in tune with contemporary misogynistic prejudices against women’s alleged inconstancy and intellectual deficiency. If it is only the ambiguous position of motherhood, based on patriarchal assumptions about women, that allows a woman to employ her intellectual faculties and to express herself, the exercise is questionable in the first place.

  13. The threat of self-loss associated with motherhood can also be made out in Dorothy Leigh’s Mothers Blessing (1616), whose dedicatory introduction suggests similar limitations: ‘I could not chuse but seeke (according as I was by duty bound) to fulfill his [her late husband’s] will in all things, desiring no greater comfort in the World, then to see you grow in godlinesse’ (A6v) [21]. The mother’s self is almost submerged by her attachment to her child, whose well-being becomes the prime purpose of her own existence [22]. Giving advice to her children to equip them for life and thus handing over a part of the self is not an option to be either accepted or rejected, but the effect of a double constraint: externally, the structures of personal relationships under patriarchy make the mother the mere executrix of her husband’s will; internally, her own desires are geared exclusively towards her children’s well-being. Still, Leigh presents her maternal role as a vehicle to transcend (self- and outwardly imposed) strictures: ‘Setting aside all feare, I have adventured to shew my imperfections to the view of the World, not regarding what censure shall for this bee laid upon me, so that heerein I may shew my selfe a loving Mother, and a dutifull Wife’ (A7v). I do not wish to completely disclaim the potential sense of self-liberation that Leigh may have experienced in writing her manual; yet it is disturbing to realise that she does not define herself as a human being worthy of note in her own right, but can only claim a contingent subjectivity, derived from her position as a wife and mother; a subjectivity that is radically unstable at the same time as it is self-assured.

  14. According to Adrienne Rich’s influential analysis Of Woman Born, this ambiguity of submission and empowerment inheres in motherhood in the patriarchal context. Although, as with Chodorow, we need to bear in mind that her socio-cultural frame of reference is mid-twentieth-century, white, middle-class America, Rich voices a fundamental insight into the simultaneity of conformism and liberation that motherhood entails:
    To have borne and reared a child is to have done that thing which patriarchy joins with physiology to render into the definition of femaleness. But also, it can mean the experiencing of one’s own body and emotions in a powerful way. … Powerless women have always used mothering as a channel -- narrow but deep -- for their own human will to power, their need to return upon the world what it has visited on them (37-38).
    Essentialising motherhood as women’s natural vocation may backfire; for it allows women to access emotional and physical experiences beyond the rational logic of the socio-symbolic order. Rich adds a further twist by suggesting that mothering as a strategy of empowerment implies turning oppression back on patriarchy itself, this time with women as perpetrators, who claim a position of power towards their own children [23]. In the mothers’ manuals I have studied, the sense of power that accrues to being a mother stems from the opportunities that the role offers to transcend the boundaries of sex, but also from the authors’ presentation of self as being able to direct their children in what they assume to be the right course of life. The writers of mothers’ manuals are adamant to point out that their main aim is, in Dorothy Leigh’s words, for their children ‘[to] find the right way to heaven’ (A2v). In a society preoccupied with the individual need to secure salvation in the hereafter, claiming the knowledge of how to achieve this goal implies considerable power over the very core of another person’s identity.

  15. To give a further example, Elizabeth Joscelin, in her Mothers Legacy to her Vnborn Childe (1624), at first glance derives a similar position of authority from her role as a mother (albeit one that is, as in the texts I have so far referred to, implicated in the patriarchal scheme). Her somewhat apologetic stance is overridden by her clear sense of feeling justified in what she is doing:
    But when I could finde no other means to express my motherly zeale … agayn I considered it was to my own not to the world and my loue to my own might excuse my errors …: thus resolved I writ this ensuringe lr to our little one to whom I could not finde a fitter hand to convey it then thine own [her husband’s]: wch mayst wth authority see the performance of this my little legacy of wch my childe is the executor. (21-34)
    Again, though, the authority and sense of self-worth that come with leaving a legacy to posterity are qualified by several more disturbing features of Joscelin’s dedication: her emphasis that she is writing not to a grown-up person, but to a child (‘I encoraged my selfe wth theas reasons[,] first that I wrote to a childe and though I weare but a woman yet to a childes iugement’ (22-25)), diminishes the validity of her statements. As she will only ever be exposed ‘to a childes iudgement’ (25), we are led to conclude, she allows herself a certain margin of error and is permitted some lapses. Although this apparent reluctance to take herself seriously may very probably be a strategy of indirect self-authorisation, the fact that Joscelin needs to take recourse to this self-denigrating stance should leave us with a sense of unease.

  16. More poignantly, the Legacy reveals the very material basis for the fears and apprehensions associated with motherhood. Joscelin displays a disturbing sense of foreboding (she did in fact die, presumably of puerperal fever, a few days after giving birth) when, in the address to her husband that precedes the actual advice book, she expresses her fear that she might die in childbirth and thus be barred from the natural maternal role of giving advice to her child:
    I no sooner conceyved a hope that I should bee made a mother by thee but wth it entered the consideration of a mothers duty and shortly after followed the apprehension of danger that might preuent me for [from] executinge that care, I so exceedingly desired. I mean in religious trayninge our childe, and in truthe deathe appearinge in this shape was doubly terrible vnto mee. (1-7)
    The reality of physical danger that being a mother entailed for early modern women sheds yet a different light on the strategies of self-presentation in their manuals [24]. For if motherhood, in spite of its empowering dimensions, ultimately threatens the self with extinction, then the value of that empowerment becomes dubious in the first place. While it cannot be denied that the self constituted through interaction with an other is in some ways more authoritative and secure, at the same time it is clearly rendered more precarious.

  17. Also, in a less immediate and perhaps surprising sense, motherhood poses a threat to the self because of the mother’s emotional attachment to the child. At a time when infant mortality was common, constituting the self on the basis of maternal love threatens that self with extinction in yet another way. Martha Moulsworth’s autobiographical poem The Memorandum of Martha Mousworth, Widow (1632) provides an interesting case in point: in connection with her three marriages, she also mentions her children’s death: ‘I by the ffirst, & last [husband] some Issue had / butt roote, & ffruite is dead, whch makes me sad’ (71). It is striking, if not alienating, how briefly and tersely she almost rushes over the subject [25]. As Kevin Bowden observes, at this point ‘her restraint almost seems heartless and cold’ (Bowden 72), and the way she describes her affective reaction (‘makes me sad’ (71)) seems inappropriately casual, given the weightiness of the events she refers to. Historians such as Lawrence Stone have argued that ‘the very high infant and child mortality rates … made it a folly to invest too much emotional capital in such ephemeral beings’ (105). Again, more recent studies have contested this view, since a number of personal writings from the period reveal that parents were usually deeply touched by the death of a child [26]. A plethora of written sources, by both women and men, attest to the emotional impact that losing a child almost invariably had. Alice Thornton, who in 1660 lost her baby son, reports her reaction in very moving terms and depicts her relationship with her living infant daughter as close and intimate:
    After the death of my dear Willy Thornton [her son, who died two weeks after birth], I took the cross very sadly that he died so soon, and had many sad thoughts of God’s afflicting hand on me, and one day was weeping much about it. My dear Naly [her daughter Katherine] came to me, then being about 4 years old, and looked very seriously on me, said, ‘My dear mother, why do you mourn and weep so much for my brother Willy? Do you not think he is gone to heaven?’
    I said, ‘Yes, dear heart, I believe he is gone to heaven, but your father is so afflicted for his loss, …’
    … At which the child’s speech, I did much condemn myself, being instructed by the mouth of one of my own children, and begged that the Lord would give me patience and satisfaction in his gracious goodness, which had put such words into the mouth of so young a child to reprove my immoderate sorrow for him, and begged her life might be spared to me in mercy. [27]
    In the light of such evidence, it would certainly be simplistic to explain away Moulsworth’s apparent detachment with reference to the relative frequency of infants’ deaths in the early modern period. Rather, it makes sense to accept the psychological commonplace that we tend to elaborate the least on matters that involve intense emotions. Moulsworth’s seemingly equitable and unmoved stance could thus be read as a mere façade that masks her true feelings [28]. Given the impression of wholeness and self-sufficiency produced by the poem as a whole, it seems almost as if Moulsworth deliberately refuses to be too strongly dependent emotionally on an other. For the self to be secure, as a strategy of self-protection, it needs to retain a degree of self-reliance. Emotional attachment to a loved one may not transcend the boundaries of virtuous modesty; if it does build up into ‘immoderate sorrow’, as Alice Thornton observes, it can no longer meet with divine approval because it shows a reluctance to accept God’s will. The central female virtue of self-restraint is thereby affirmed, but in a way that digresses from the patriarchal script: self-restraint does not merely serve to mould women into ‘chaste, silent and obedient’ housewives, but is employed by the women themselves as a way of coming to terms with overwhelming emotions in an inward-directed manner that keeps their sense of self intact.

  18. Moulsworth’s depictions of her marriages and her relationships with her husbands support this reading: there are clear indications of the emotional intimacy she enjoyed, in particular with her third husband, Bevill Moulsworth: ‘The third I tooke a louely man, & kind / such comliness in age we seldome ffind’ (57). Their relationship seems to have been based on mutuality and companionship, as is suggested by her remark that ‘third wife I was to him, as he to me / third husband was, in nomber we agree’ (61); and he obviously allowed her a considerable degree of power within the household (‘I had my will in house, in purse in Store / whatt would a women old or yong haue more?’ (67)). Her affectionate portrayal of Bevill Moulsworth opens the only part of the poem that is highly charged with emotion, culminating in the passage quoted above about the death of her children; it thus stands in sharp contrast to the artful constructedness of the poem as a whole. In very moving words, emphasised through inversion and repetition, she voices the emotional distress that her husband’s death caused her: ‘Two years Almost outwearinge since he died / And yett, & yett my tears ffor him nott dried’ (69). However, it seems as though Moulsworth, whenever she allows herself to express emotional involvement, immediately shies away from it again by abruptly taking a stance of self-restraint that comes as an almost shocking surprise to the reader. Her short emotional outburst is followed by an extensive and sober list of connections between the dates of her husbands’ deaths and the church calendar: ‘My husbands all on holly dayes did die / Such day, such waie, they to the Sts did hye’ (73). As if to supplant her emotions with detailed factuality, she goes on to name the relevant saints and their respective achievements and virtues. In the context, her decidedly Christian reading of her husbands’ deaths seems almost contrived in the way she attempts to sublimate the emotional turmoil of her life by placing it into ‘a larger scheme of significance’ (Evans and Wiedemann 15). In spite of the undisputable element of self-restraint that this involves, Moulsworth’s coping strategy is not simply tantamount to repression, but also means that she can derive some meaning from her husbands’ deaths because they could hope -- as can she -- ‘wth the Sts eternally to dwell’ (88) [29]. Ultimately, her firm belief in the reality of a blissful afterlife is the reason why she is capable of presenting herself as a well-balanced person, who does not complain about, let alone challenge, the conditions and events of her life on earth [30]. In that sense, Moulsworth’s constitution of self in relation to others is again qualified: the outstanding importance of her husbands for her sense of self is not an instance of self-assertion in its own right, but only in an indirect way, safely embedded in an overarching religious framework. Taken on its own, founding the self on its relation to an other would be self-destructive.

  19. The poem ends on Moulsworth’s fierce defence of her status as a widow at the time of writing, which, at first glance, appears somewhat subdued and contradictory in the light of her earlier enthusiasm for the joys of married life (‘Three husbands me, and I have them enjoyed’ (44)):
    Butt in the Meane tyme this must be my care
    of knittinge here a fourth knott to beware …
    … Whie should I
    then putt my Widowehood in Jeopardy?
    The Virgins life is gold, as Clarks vs tell
    The Widowes siluar, I loue siluer well. (103-110)
    Given the ambiguities that accrued to the status of widows in the early modern period [31], Moulsworth’s deliberate option for widowhood cannot simply be explained with reference to the benefits she might have gained. For to remain a widow also means not to be exposed to emotions as intense as those experienced through love and the death of a loved one. Since an assertion of self that depends on an other has been revealed as inherently precarious, Moulsworth constructs a self-reliant identity, even if this strategy entails renouncing emotional extremes and being satisfied with ‘second best’ (‘I loue siluer well’ (110)).

  20. As my analysis of early modern women’s self-writings has shown, relations between self and other cannot be as neatly categorised as Stephen Greenblatt suggests, but, in the case of women, are somewhat more twisted. Female writers of autobiographies and mothers’ manuals do not primarily conceive of an ‘alien, strange or hostile’ other (9), but take as their starting point an other that is very close to, if not part of, the self. Identity formation can therefore only take place by acknowledging the other through the categories of affection and love, but simultaneously circumventing its destructive potential. Women's self-writings are thus not simply and reassuringly preoccupied with ‘finding an identity through empathy and relation’ (Friedman 45), but also with warding off, or at least negotiating, the dangers that such an identity formation entails. Early modern women’s self-writings prompt us to conclude that constituting the self through interaction with an other is therefore a highly ambivalent strategy. It does create a connectedness that can be empowering; interacting with others and regarding the self as something that is worth being passed on clearly is a prime example of female agency and self-assertion. At the same time, however, this strategy does not automatically create an alternative female sphere of peaceful and non-competitive relationality. Its very dependence on an other that backs and legitimises the self also makes it more contingent and therefore insecure and threatened. The key to convincing selfhood seems to be to rely neither completely on the self nor completely on an other, but to tease out options in-between the two extremes.


1. Elizabeth Joscelin, The Mothers Legacy to her Vnborn Childe (1624). Ed. Jean LeDrew Metcalfe (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2000), 15-16.

2. The term ‘self-writings’ designates texts that can be loosely grouped together because they share a fundamental concern with the constitution of self, either explicitly (as in autobiographies) or in a more implicit way (as in diaries, letters, mothers’ advice books, etc.). Working with not too narrow designations of genre is necessary if one wishes to cover the broad variety of texts that match these criteria; it is of particular importance in the context of early modern texts, which often do not squarely fall within the generic conventions commonly employed by modern literary criticism. For, as David Booy observes with reference to early modern practices of literary self-expression, ‘a substantial amount of personal disclosure occurs in texts that are primarily concerned with matters other than the writer’s self, and where autobiographical information appears only intermittently or unintentionally’ (David Booy, ed., Personal Disclosures. An Anthology of Self-Writings from the Seventeenth Century (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002), 1).

3. See David Macey, The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory (London: Penguin, 2001), 285-286. It is beyond the scope of this paper to elaborate on the differences that exist between the various psychoanalytical theorist; I am here drawing on a Lacanian framework.

4. See Martha J. Craig, ‘”Write it upon the walles of your houses“: Dorothy Leigh’s The Mothers Blessing’, in Linda S. Coleman, ed., Women’s Life-Writing. Finding Voice/Building Community (Bowling Green/OH: Bowling Green State U Popular P, 1997), 191-208; Catharine Gray, ‘Feeding on the Seed of the Woman: Dorothy Leigh and the Figure of Maternal Dissent’, English Literary History 68.3 (2001): 563-592; Kristen Poole, ‘”The fittest closet for all goodness”: Authorial Strategies of Jacobean Mothers’ Manuals’, Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 35.1 (1995): 69-88.

5. The idealisation of full-time motherhood is essentially an eighteenth century phenomenon; i.e. it is not a universal, but historically contingent attitude towards maternity (See Susan C. Greenfield and Carol Barash, Inventing Maternity. Politics, Science, and Literature 1650-1865 (Lexington: The UP of Kentucky, 1999), 20).

6. Linda Pollock summarises this view as follows: ‘It is claimed that before the eighteenth century parents subjected their children to a strict, often severe, disciplinary regime; relations between parents and children were formal and distant, and parents were purportedly unmoved at the death of any of their children. Instead of childhood being regarded as a special time of life, children were considered to be merely adults in miniature’ (Linda Pollock, A Lasting Relationship. Parents and Children Over Three Centuries (Hanover and London: UP of New England, 1987), 11).

7. According to Anne Laurence, Stone’s misconceptions are a result of ‘the kinds of sources consulted. Conduct books, necessarily counsels of perfection, tend to emphasise discipline and, as many of them have a religious bent, the natural sinfulness of children. Evidence of parents’ own feelings, from diaries, letters and personal papers, suggests that the emotional content of family relationships changes little’ (Anne Laurence, Women in England 1500-1760. A Social History (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1994), 90). According to David Booy, it is mistaken to assume that the seeming formality in family relations implies a lack of love and affection; to the contrary, he observes that ‘the concern with subordination and obedience in the conduct books has to be offset by their strong emphasis on the naturalness and importance of parental love’ (Booy 93).

8. The fact that the Kixes are presented as comic characters in the play does not, in my view, diminish the seriousness of the points that are made through them. Even if their behaviour, superficially, makes them the laughing stock of the other characters and the audience alike, their seeming sentimentalism has a much more serious dimension and identificatory potential, namely the very real suffering of a couple who are unable to start a longed-for family. See Rick Bowers’s account of their distress -- whilst it acknowledges its ironic elements and comic effect, it also reads recognisably like the description of a modern-day couple: ‘Lord and Lady Kix have everything: wealth, power, good looks, even a curiously co-dependent relationship. But they do not have a child, and Lady Kix’s grief is unrestrained … . She is in obvious distress. They are in desperate straits. And Kix spares no expense in trying the most recent and most costly reproductive technologies. … And yet they wail together with all the emotional longing of the unfulfilled infertile couple. Their emotional highs, lows, and irrational blame-laying spices each scene in which they appear’ (13).

9. Note also Sir Oliver Kix’s strangely materialistic attitude suggesting to ‘purchase fruitfulness’ (II.1.149) -- the discourse of the nuclear family is thus revealed to be intrinsically connected to the bourgeois economic ethic.

10. I agree with Janet Adelman, who reads Lady Macbeth as a figure of ‘murderously disrupted nurturance’ (97) whose monstrosity is indicative of (male) ‘fears of female coercion, female definition of the male’ (101).

11. This explains why Lady Macbeth equates her murderous energy with a reversal of her gender identity. The unnaturalness of a woman who does not hesitate to kill to satisfy her craving for power is epitomised in her unnatural rejection of her maternal role:

… Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty. …
… Come to my woman’s breast,
And take my milk for gall (I.5.38).           

12. William Gouge, Domesticall Duties. Eight Treatises (London: for William Bladen, 1622), VI.12 (quoted in N.H. Keeble, The Cultural Identity of Seventeenth-Century Woman. A Reader (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), 214).

13. The conduct books of the time attest to the discourse of natural motherly love: In The Ladies Calling (1673), Richard Allestree states that ‘a mother is a title of so much tenderness … that nature seems to have secured the love of mothers to their children’ (quoted in Robert B. Shoemaker, Gender in English Society 1650-1850. The Emergence of Separate Spheres? (London and New York: Longman, 1998), 123).

14. Whilst Grymeston’s use of the word ‘wrath’ might at first glance seem misleading, the Oxford English Dictionary gives the following meanings, which seem to me to come close to what Grymeston is trying to express: ‘wrath’ can denote ‘impetuous ardour, rage, or fury’, or ‘the ardour of passion, love, etc.’ (Oxford English Dictionary, vol. XX. Eds. J.A. Simpson and E.S.C. Weiner (Oxford: Clarendon, 1989), 607).

15. According to Travitsky, the early modern period saw the emergence of a ‘new mother’ in the context of the humanist emphasis on education and erudition.

16. Juan Luis Vives, A very frutefull and pleasant boke called the instruction of a Christen woman made fyrst in Laten and dedicated unto the quenes good grace by the right famous clerke mayster Lewes Vives and turned out of Laten into Englysshe by Rycharde Hyrd (London: Thomas Berthelet, 1529), II, 105 (quoted in Travitsky 34).

17. Mary Luecke argues that ‘[m]aternal affection was especially feared as intemperate and potentially overwhelming. Many women internalized this anxiety about unbounded maternal affection’ (Luecke 246).

18. Elisabeth Bronfen summarises this ambiguity as follows: ‘The maternal body functions as a duplicitously pivotal site, … . At first a symbiotic organiser, the mother offers the fantasy of fusion or intact union. She seems to double the primordial mother by collapsing all distinctions between self and Other. She “heals” the fragmented body, “heals” the first loss marked by the navel and as such is the source of hope for ego stability and wholeness. As midwife of individuation, however, she is the source of disillusionment, forces upon the child a recognition of differentiation, loss, lack and so reaffirms the split she initially meant to deny. She wounds anew any sense of perfect and constant identity’ (Bronfen 33).

19. According to Chodorow, this pattern of incomplete separation is particularly pronounced in the case of girl children, but can be made out in the mother’s attempts to uphold the pre-Oedipal bond with sons, too, albeit to a lesser extent.

20. Chodorow has also been criticised for ‘limit[ing] the concept of gender to family and household experience and, for the historian, leav[ing] no way to connect the concept (or the individual) to other social systems of economy, politics, or power’ (Scott 38).

21. I therefore disagree with Valerie Wayne, who, referring to Leigh’s reference to Mary as redeemer of Eve, notes that ‘Mary’s achievement makes it possible for Dorothy Leigh to write a book with the help of God but not man’ (Wayne 60).

22. Whilst this interpretation might appear exaggerated, I think it is justified if one considers Leigh’s emphasis on the neglect of the self that parenthood entails: ‘… the great care, labour, travaile, and continuall study, which Parents take to inrich their children, some wearing their bodies with labour, some breaking their sleepes with care, some sparing from their owne bellies, and many hazarding their soules, some by bribery, some by simony, others by perjurie, and a multitude by usurie, some stealing on the Sea, others begging by Land portions from every poore man, not caring if the whole Commonwealth be impoverished, so their children be inriched: for themselves can bee content with meate, drinke, and cloth, so that their children by their meanes may bee made rich’ (A10r f.). The care for the child supersedes anything -- even deeply-held moral principles -- on which the mother’s original self was founded, i.e. her attachment to her child is the strongest motivating force for her actions, to the point of self-betrayal.

23. For Rich, this is a consequence of the oppressive structures that characterise motherhood under patriarchy: ‘The mother-child relationship is the essential human relationship. In the creation of the patriarchal family, violence is done to this fundamental human unit. It is not simply that woman in her full meaning and capacity is domesticated and confined within strictly defined limits. Even safely caged in a single aspect of her being -- the maternal -- she remains an object of mistrust, suspicion, misogyny in both overt and insidious forms’ (127).

24. Pregnancy and childbirth posed considerable risks for women; they ‘would run a cumulative risk of dying in childbirth of 6 to 7 per cent during their procreative careers’ (Pollock, ‘Embarking’ 47). What is more, the female subculture seems to have exaggerated these risks, creating an aura of fear around childbearing (See Wendy Wall, The Imprint of Gender. Authorship and Publication in the English Renaissance (Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1993), 285).

25. David Booy notes a similar apparent coldness in Katherine Philips’s poem ‘Orinda upon little Hector Philips’ (1669), composed on the death of her baby son: The artfulness of the poem may raise ‘interesting questions about the “truth” of what has been written’ (Booy 128) -- yet relying on an apparently artificial structure might have provided a means of coming to terms with the emotional turmoil of the experience.

26. See, for example, Patricia Crawford and Laura Gowing, Women’s Worlds in Seventeenth-Century England. A Sourcebook (London and New York: Routledge, 2000).

27. Alice Thornton (1627-1707), The Autobiography of Mrs Alice Thornton, ed. by C. Jackson (Durham, London and Edinburgh: Surtees Society, 1875) (quoted in Booy 278-281 (281)).

28. See Sheila Ottway, ‘Autobiography’, in A Companion to Early Modern Women’s Writing, ed. by Anita Pacheco (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), 231-247 (245).

29. I find it crucial not to approach Moulsworth’s Christian/biblical references from a present-day, secular perspective, but to concede that people in the early modern period regarded their lives as part of a divinely ordained cosmological order and as structured as a journey towards salvation.

30. ‘She does not need so much to impose an order on her biography as to discover and elucidate the order it already implies’ (Evans and Wiedemann 15).

31. These ambiguities are epitomised in ‘the paradox that widows mourn their husbands when in reality widowhood is the gateway to freedom’ (T.E., The Lawes Resolutions of Women’s Rights (1632), 231-232 (quoted in Belsey 153).

Works cited

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

© 2005-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).