(M)others and selves: Identity formation and/in relationship in early modern women’s self-writings
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) 
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.
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 . 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.
LADY: … Oh, oh, oh!In a movingly detailed way, Sir Oliver fantasises about having a family, giving us a snapshot preview of the modern nuclear family:
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) 
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).
… I have given suck, and knowLady 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 . 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’ . 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.
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)
My mothers undeserved wrath  [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’ , 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. 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)) . 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.
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 . 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.
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.
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 . 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.
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?’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 . 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.
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. 
Butt in the Meane tyme this must be my careGiven the ambiguities that accrued to the status of widows in the early modern period , 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)).
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)
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).
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.
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.
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).
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).