Seraphic Companions: The Friendship between Elizabeth Gauden and Simon Patrick

Cornelia Wilde


This essay explores the friendship between Simon Patrick, future bishop of Ely, and Elizabeth Gauden, one of his parishioners, as an example of Neo-Platonic, chaste, yet impassioned friendship, between the sexes: Based on a combination of Neo-Platonic metaphysics of love, Aristotelian notions of philia, and legitimised by the ideal of Christian charity, the friendship’s spiritual aim is the two ‘soul mates’’ mutual intellectual and emotional refinement in order to be united with the heavenly community and the divine. The ideal of their seraphic companionship is to be achieved through the every-day practice of their friendship, that is, in their actual meetings and through their correspondence (Cambridge University Library Add. MS 19). Patrick and Gauden act as friends by discussing questions of theological and philosophical import, by advising each other on matters spiritual and mundane, and by sharing in social and devotional practices.

Through Simon Patrick, the two friends are connected to a ‘this-worldly’ intellectual and religious community the philosophical and theological origins of which can be located within the most important school of seventeenth-century Platonic philosophy, Cambridge Platonism. Patrick, too, counts as a Cambridge Platonists, whose theological views and emphasis on matters of practical divinity characterise him as a prominent figure of post-Restoration liberal Anglicanism. Simon Patrick and Elizabeth Gauden are a virtually unknown example of the seventeenth century trend for intellectual friendships between men and women as Ruth Perry has identified it (1985). The friendship between Patrick and Gauden is presented as a form of sociability that offered women a dynamic role within the learned community and furthered their active religious participation.

With a close focus on the literary performance of friendship, my discussion explores how the two companions conformed to the protocols of private correspondence, but also shows how far they transformed these rules to suit their own spiritualising ends. The letter was a genre available to early modern men and women alike, and its particular communicative structure, its dialogic nature and its status as disembodied communication are presented as ideally suited for the practice of an idealised friendship between the sexes, since these features allow for intellectual intimacy, spiritual union, and affectionate excess on the letter’s page. The essay analyses the dynamics of Patrick and Gauden’s correspondence as the performance of their friendship and as the textualisation of central Neo-Platonic notions of the loving relations between the human and the divine. The focus is on Patrick’s rhetoric of unlimited and unconfined affection that questions contemporaneous norms of passionate involvement, and on Patrick’s epistolary idealisations of himself and his friend as philosophical companions. Both discursive strategies are meant to transport the seraphic friends beyond the earthly and into the heavenly community.

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