18th Century Autobiographies: 1700-1750


In this chapter and the next, I shall look at autobiographies written by women during the eighteenth century. For the sake of convenience and precision in isolating new trends in autobiography, I have divided the century into two halves. Before proceeding with works written before 1750, however, I think it would be helpful to discuss some considerations and problems involved in the study of eighteenth century autobiography in general.

The eighteenth century was the era in which autobiography as a genre came into its own. To be sure, the classic age of autobiography still lay in the future; it was not until the nineteenth century that the enormous influence of Rousseau made itself felt and that authors such as Mill engaged in the kind of intricate and exquisitely conscious self-analysis that seems so lifelike and sophisticated to modern tastes--the very stuff of autobiography. But the groundwork for this development was firmly established in the eighteenth century. No longer were extravagant justifications of autobiographical activity required; the importance of the accumulation of data to the ultimate understanding of man, as of any other phenomenon, was by now generally accepted. The form was sufficiently common and conventionalized that an autobiographer need no longer be a pioneer or innovator. The public appetite for personal glimpses, and for scandal, seemed insatiable; and in the expanding economy of eighteenth-century England, a demand was bound to produce a supply. The genre had matured sufficiently to produce some specimens, such as Gibbon’s autobiography, which we can without a blush label great.

For women, as for men, secular autobiography became the order of the day--although works by men still outnumbered those of women. But nothing resembling Gibbon’s work was written by a woman; the circumstances which made possible such a work were distinctly male. As we shall see in this chapter and the next, the forces which impinged in women’s lives caused women’s autobiography to take a very different tack.

The popularity of autobiography in the eighteenth century raises a number of problems of classification. Self-revelation was endlessly fascinating and highly marketable. A sense of the propriety of reserve and reticence, which had been deeply ingrained in the culture, was being displaced by a more confessional habit of thought. As a result, autobiographical passages turn up in various more or less unlikely places, ranging from Sophia Hume’s Exhortation to the Inhabitants of North Carolina, a religious tract, to Mrs. Ann Cook’s Professed Cookery, a cookbook run amok. Most such productions yielded, if somewhat reluctantly, before the definition developed in chapter I.

A more difficult problem, however, is posed by the prevalence of fictional autobiography during this period. In some cases it is necessary to rely on guesswork and intuition to sort fiction from fact. Some examples are clearly romances which happen to be cast in first-person form; productions such as The Memoirs of Lady Harriot Butler and Memoirs of a Young Lady of Quality, a Platonist are full of deathbed marriages, deathbed confessions, interfering priests, lengthy retirements from society, and unlikely love intrigues related by characters who probably never existed. Other works reveal the influence of Defoe, whose striking successes were frequently imitated and adapted throughout the century. The Life and Adventures of Mrs. Christian Davies, for example, chronicles the career of a male impersonator who spent several years in the army searching for her husband, who awoke one morning to find that he had enlisted the night before in a burst of drunken enthusiasm. As John Campbell Major notes,

There seems to be no reason to doubt that Mother Ross [Mrs. Davies] was a real individual who served as a soldier, but that she dictated her own autobiography is more doubtful.1

Indeed, the narrative has been attributed, and not implausibly, to Defoe himself. It is full of accounts of duels and battles, and such titillating scenes as the following:

I was in Gorkham, where my grief for my husband being drowned in the hopes of finding him, I indulged to the natural gaiety of my temper, and lived very merrily. In my frolics, to kill time, I made my addresses to a burgher’s daughter, who was young and pretty. As I had formerly had a great many fine things said to myself, I was at no loss in the amorous dialect; I ran over all the tender nonsense (which I look upon as the lover’s heavy cannon, as it does the greatest execution with the raw girls) employed on such attacks; I squeezed her hand whenever I could get an opportunity; sighed often when in her company, looked foolishly, and practised upon her all the ridiculous airs which I had often laughed at, when they were used as snares against myself.2

A later attempt to capitalize on Defoe’s popularity is The Life, Voyages, and Surprising Adventures of Mary Jane Meadows, the full title of which goes on to describe the heroine as "a Woman of uncommon Talents, Spirit and Resolution, who, after experiencing a Series of extraordinary Changes in Life, from the highest Splendour and Affluence, to the most abject Distress and Poverty; at last shipped herself to India, in the unfortunate Grosvenor, and was cast away on the dreary Coast of Africa; where, after travelling through vast Deserts and the Kingdom of Caffraria in the most imminent Danger, arrived on the Borders of the South Sea, where she was again cast away upon an uninhabited Island, and lived intirely by herself for several Years." If the plot sounds familiar it is undoubtedly less than a coincidence. The frontispiece shows a fantastic picture of "Mary attacked by a Baboon at the door of her hut, on the uninhabited Island."3 Still another type of ersatz autobiography is represented by the Memoirs of Mrs. Laetitia Boothby, which used to be catalogued as a pseudonymous work but is now taken to be a fictional production of its nineteenth century "editor," William Clark Russell. Its narrator is a servant girl who mingles with the illustrious company that gathers at her master’s house and who is constantly overhearing choice remarks of Garrick, Johnson, the Thrales, Soame Jenyns, and the like. Her picture of Johnson accords suspiciously with the nineteenth century view of him.

I have tried to weed out the fictional works, but there is sometimes cause for hesitation. Lady Vane’s memoirs, inserted in Peregrine Pickle, are generally taken to be her own; but it is hard to resist speculating about the possibility that Smollett himself had a hand in them. On the other hand, I have included fictionalized autobiography such as that of Mrs. Delany, who uses romance names for her characters, and the more extreme case of Mrs. Manley, who actually brings in a (possibly fictional) third person narrator to tell the story; for in both cases the motivating force is obviously a desire to record the author’s life with some degree of faithfulness, if not impartiality. These can be distinguished, I think, from the autobiographical novel, where the intent is basically fictional and the events in the author’s life serve as a source of material rather than as the primary subject of the work.4

One further problem, largely a technical one, is that of determining whether a given work was written within the limits of our arbitrarily chosen time period. It arises particularly in the case of certain Quaker writings. Many Quakers regularly made detailed memoranda of the past day, month, or year, and then at some point decided to combine these notes into a more coherent structure; thus, a summary of the author’s life preceding the period covered by the journal or memoranda is added to the work, and although the work as a whole proceeds into the nineteenth century, it is not always clear whether the autobiographical portion was added before or after 1800. Alternatively a pious editor or compiler may have drawn together many assorted papers, including autobiographical writings, journal entries, and letters, into a "memoir," and it is not evident which portions antedate 1800, or whether, indeed, there was ever any strictly autobiographical intention on the part of the author. My policy has been to exclude such works, except in the instance of Mary Alexander, where the date of writing is clearly stated.5 This uncertainty makes if possible that the Quakers are slightly underrepresented in chapter V.

As in chapter II, works are discussed, insofar as possible, in the order in which they were written.


1. The Authors

a. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu


Lady Mary Pierrepont Wortley Montagu (1689-1762), one of the most formidable and fascinating women of the eighteenth century--friend and later bitter enemy of Pope, traveler, superb letter-writer, crusader for smallpox vaccination--has left an untitled autobiographical fragment.6 According to Robert Halsband, her biographer, it was probably written in 1711, when she was twenty-two and on the verge of marriage to Mr. Edward Wortley Montagu.

Despite its brevity and incompleteness, this document anticipates in many ways Rivella, the first full-length secular autobiography of the century; like Rivella, it is very different from anything we have encountered to date. It is consciously written in the style of the French romances which Lady Mary read so avidly:

I am going to write a history so uncommon, that in how plain a manner so ever I relate it, it will have the air of a romance, though there shall not be a syllable feigned in it except that of the names, which I cannot resolve to set down at length.7

Of her heroine, Laetitia, she writes:

I need say nothing of the Pedegree of the unfortunate Lady, whose Life I have undertaken to write. ’Tis enough to say she was daughter of the Duke of Regiavilla, to inform my reader there is no nobler descent in Portugal. (p. 4)8

She give the following account of her education:

Laetitia had naturally the strongest inclination for reading, and finding in her Father’s house a well-furnished Library, instead of the usual diversions of children, made that the seat of her pleasures, and had very soon run through the English part of it. Her appetite for knowledge increasing with her years, without considering the toilsome task she undertook, she began to learn herself the Latin grammar, and with the help of an uncommon memory and indefatigable labour, made herself so far mistress of that language as to be able to understand almost any author. This extraordinary attachment to study became the theme of public discourse. Her Father, though no scholar himself, was flattered with a pleasure in the progress she made, and this reputation which she did not seek (having no end in view but her own amusement) gave her enviers and consequently enemies among the girls of her own age. (pp. 4-5)

She then proceeds to her courtship by that by all evidence rather chilly and ungenerous soul, Mr. Wortley Montagu, otherwise Sebastian. An acquaintance of Laetitia boasts of being courted by Sebastian, and arranges for Laetitia to attend a party where she can be "a witness both of his agreeableness and passion" (p. 7). Laetitia has barely entered her teens:

Sebastian, who seriously designed upon the fortune of Mlle. ---, who was three years older, proposed nothing by coming there but an occasion of obliging her, and being at that time near thirty, did not expect much conversation among a set of romps. Tea came in before cards, and a new play being then acted, it was the first thing mentioned, on which Laetitia took occasion to criticize in a manner so just and knowing, he was as much amazed as if he had heard a piece of waxwork talk on that subject. This led them into a discourse of Poetry, and he was still more astonished to find her not only well read in the moderns, but that there was hardly any beautiful passage in the classics she did not remember; this was striking him in the most sensible manner. He was a thorough scholar, and rather an adorer than an admirer of learning. The conversation grew so eager on both sides neither cards nor Mlle. were thought upon, and she was forced to call on him several times before she could prevail on him to go towards the table. When he did, it was only to continue his discourse with Laetitia, and she had the full pleasure of triumphing over Mlle., who was forced to be silent while they talked about what she could not understand. (pp. 7-8)

The two enter into a correspondence, but Laetitia does not make any emotional commitment:

Laetitia easily saw the conquest she had made of his heart; but that merit which was so powerful with Mlle. made very small impression on her. She had a way of thinking very different from other girls, and instead of looking on a husband as the ultimate aim of her wishes, she never thought of marriage but as a bond that was to subject her to a master, and she dreaded an engagement of that sort. The little plan she had formed to herself was retirement and study, and if she found any pleasure in Sebastian’s company, it was only when he directed her in the choice of her books, or explained some passage to her in Vergil or Horace. (p. 21)

He too maintains a reserved tone in his letters. But finally, deceived into thinking she has made a declaration of love, he writes her an impassioned love letter; this missive is discovered by her father, who is suitably enraged. Laetitia, mortified, appeals to Sebastian to clarify matters with her father, but the egotistical young man again misinterprets her response:

Sebastian had so far flattered himself with her love he did not doubt she had herself carried this letter to her father, and it was an artifice to bring this affair to a proper conclusion. He was delighted with the wit of this contrivance, which was very far from her thoughts, and full of the most charming hopes went the next morning to her Father with a formal proposal of marriage, accompanied by the particulars of his estate, which was too considerable to be refused. The Duke gave him as favourable an answer as he could expect, and the lawyers were appointed to meet on both sides according to custom. (p. 30)

Here the narrative breaks off. It is a slight production, and, as Paston remarks, "its accuracy must not be taken too much for granted."9 But it is very valuable as an index to the temper of the young Lady Mary. And in its use of the romance for establishing both the frame and tone of the narrative, it marks a fresh direction for English autobiography by women and hints at practices which will be more extensively developed in the decades to follow.

b. Elizabeth Webb


Elizabeth Webb, a Quaker preacher, has left behind an account of her spiritual life in a letter written in 1712 to Anthony William Boehm, chaplain to Prince George of Denmark, consort to Queen Anne of England.10 Though fairly brief, it contains most of the characteristic features of Quaker autobiography.

Elizabeth Webb had contracted an acquaintance with the eminent divine during a stay in London. She seems to have had a few reservations about the way her narrative would be received, but there is a note of underlying confidence in the suitability of her life as subject matter for a letter:

And now, my dear friend, I will give thee a short account of the dealings of the Lord with me in my young years; how he brought my soul through fire and water. For what end this has lived in my mind I know not, except it be for our spiritual communion; but when my soul is lowest and nearest to the Lord in the simplicity of truth, then is my heart opened and my mind filled with divine love respecting this matter. I desire thee to peruse it inwardly, when thou art retired, and not to judge of it before thou hast gone through it; and then judge as freely as thou pleasest:--- (p. 165)

Her sense of the propriety of such a procedure testifies to the extent to which spiritual autobiography had become an integral part of the Quaker tradition by the beginning of the eighteenth century.

She goes on to describe her youth. She was raised, she tells us, in the Church of England, but fails to find it adequate to her needs. At the age of twelve she becomes convinced that Quakerism is the true religion, but she has a series of lapses before she finally commits herself:

. . . I did not join with them; for by that time flesh and blood began to be very uneasy under the yoke of retirement, and to groan for liberty. I was about sixteen years old; and the subtle enemy lay near, and did not want instruments: so I was persuaded by reasoning with flesh and blood, that I was young, and might take a little more pleasure, and might serve God when I was older. I let go my exercise of watching and praying, left off retirement, and let out my love to visible objects. Pride and vanity grew up again; the divine, sweet, meek, loving Spirit withdrew, and I could not find it again when I pleased, although I did seek it sometimes: for I could have been pleased with the sweet comforts of his love, yet I did not like to bear the daily cross. And being convinced that was [required by] the Quakers’ principles, and believing they did enjoy the sweetness of divine love in their meetings, I went sometimes a great way to a meeting to seek for divine refreshment there: but to no purpose; for I was like some dry stick that had no sap nor virtue, unto which rain and sunshine, summer and winter are all alike.--Thus it was with me for about three years. (pp. 166-67)

Her outward integrity is not enough to secure her salvation:

For I had been preserved in moral honesty in all respects, to that degree, that I durst not tell a lie, or speak an evil word, and could be trusted in any place, and in any thing; for this would be in my mind many times, that if I was not faithful in the unrighteous mammon I should not be trusted with heavenly treasure. But notwithstanding my righteousness, He whose eye penetrates all hearts, found me so guilty, that I thought there was no mercy for me.

Even after her conversion, she continues to be plagued by doubt:

Oh! the days of sorrow and nights of anguish that I went through, no tongue can utter, nor heart conceive which hath not gone through the like. I could have wished I had been some other creature, that I might not have known such anguish and sorrow; for I thought all other creatures were in their proper places. But my troubles were aggravated by the strong oppression and temptation of Satan, who was very unwilling to lose his subject: so he raised all his forces, and made use of all his armour which he had in the house: and I found him to be like a strong man armed indeed; for he would not suffer me to enter into resignation, but would have me look into mysteries that appertain to salvation, with an eye of carnal reason. And because I could not so comprehend, he caused me to question the truth of all things that are left upon record in the Holy Scriptures, and would have persuaded me into the Jews’ opinion concerning Christ; and many other baits and resting places he laid before me. But my soul hungered after the true bread, the bread of life, which came from God out of heaven . . . which I had felt near, and my soul had tasted of. And although the devil prompted me with his temptations, my soul could not feed on them. . . . (p. 167)

This passage emphasizes the anti-intellectual strain of Quakerism; reason is of the devil, and religion is a sensual experience. In another place, Satan is referred to simply as "the reasoner" (p. 168).

As frequently occurs with Quaker converts, the use of "plain language" precipitates a crisis for Elizabeth Webb:

. . . I was afraid of displeasing my superiors, being then a servent to great persons. It was shown me, that I should not give flattering titles to man; and I was threatened inwardly, that if I would not be obedient to the Lord’s requirings, he would take away his good Spirit from me again. So I was in a strait; I was afraid of displeasing God, and afraid of displeasing man; till at last I was charged by the Spirit, with honouring man more than God: for in my address to God I did use the plain language, but when I spoke to man or woman I must speak otherwise, or else they would be offended. Some would argue, that God Almighty being the only One, therefore the singular language was proper to him alone: and man being made up of compound matter, the plural language was more proper to him, &c. Oh! the subtle twistings of proud Lucifer that I have seen, would be too large to insert; but although God Almighty is the only One, yet is he the Being of all beings, for in him we live, move, and have our being. But let the cover be what it would, I had Scripture on my side, which they called their rule; and I knew proud man disdained to receive that language from an inferior, which he gave to the Almighty. So it became a great cross to me: but it was certainly a letting thing in the way of the progress of my soul, and, I gave up to the Lord’s requirings in this small thing. (pp. 168-69)

It is such struggles and doubts, as well as her religious satisfactions, which she considers to be her "qualification and call to the service of the ministry" (p. 170). She eventually comes to feel that God requires her to go to America as a missionary (a well-traveled route for eighteenth century Quakers), and we learn in passing that she has acquired a husband:

. . . I then told my husband that I had a concern to go to America; and asked him if he could give me up. He said he hoped it would not be required of me: but I told him it was; and that I should not go without his free consent, which seemed a little hard to him at first. (p. 172)

Yet another common feature of Quaker autobiography is the spiritual dream. Elizabeth Webb claims to have had "certain manifestations of many things in dreams, which did come to pass according to their significations" (p. 171). Her fascination with the black slaves is reflected in a dream which answers her question about their souls:

As I travelled along the country from one meeting to another, I observed a great numbers of black people that were in slavery. They were a strange people to me; I wanted to know whether the visitation of God was to their souls or not; and I observed their conversation, to see if I could discern any good in them. After I had travelled about four weeks, as I was in bed one morning in a house in Maryland, after the sun was up I fell into a slumber, and dreamed I was a servant in a great man’s house, and that I was drawing water at a well to wash the uppermost rooms of the house. When I was at the well, a voice came to me, which bid me go and call other servants to help me, and I went presently. But as I was going along in a very pleasant green meadow, a great light shined about me, which exceeded the light of the sun, and I walked in the midst. As I went on in the way, I saw a chariot drawn with horses coming to meet me, and I was in care lest the light that shone about me should frighten the horses, and cause them to throw down the people whom I saw in the chariot. When I came to them, I looked on them, and I knew they were the servants I was sent to call: I saw they were both white and black people, and I said unto them, "Why have you staid so long?" They said, "The buckets were frozed, we could come no sooner:"--So I was satisfied the call of the Lord was unto the black people as well as the white. . . . (p. 172)

The doubts, the dreams, the anti-intellectualism, the crisis over the use of "plain language," the ecstasies, the abstractions, the call to preach--all are elements which will crop up again and again in eighteenth century Quaker autobiography. Though quite conventional by this time, such an account was found to be very inspiring, as the following passage from Anthony William Boehm’s reply reveals:

Your letter hath been read with great satisfaction by myself and many of my friends; but I have not been able to recover it yet, out of their hands. Some have even desired to transcribe it for their edification, and this is the reason I did not send you presently an answer; though it hath been all along upon my mind to express the satisfaction I had at the reading thereof. . . . (p. 173)

c. Delariviere Manley


Delariviere Manley’s fictionalized autobiography Rivella11, which was published in 1714, marks a complete departure from seventeenth century women’s autobiography. The character of its author, the circumstances under which it was written, the fact that it was written for publication, and the actual content of the work all testify to the changes that society in general and the condition of women in particular have undergone since Margaret Cavendish and Lucy Hutchinson composed their touching memoirs of domestic devotion. Although autobiographies written by women in the eighteenth century are more varied and harder to generalize about than those written previously, Rivella is in every way a fitting introduction to secular autobiography in the eighteenth century, since it exhibits many of the qualities which come to characterize the works which follow it.

Mrs. Manley is primarily remembered as a novelist and, to a lesser extent, as a playwright. She was the daughter of Sir Roger Manley, a professional soldier and amateur belle-letterist. Not a great deal is known about her. Even her name is rather a mystery: it is commonly listed in bibliographies as Mary de la Riviere Manley, but there is little evidence for the "Mary." More likely her name was simply Delariviere Manley (probably after Lady Delariviere Morgan, the wife of her father’s superior officer12), which is how it appears on her signed works, her letters, her will, and her tombstone. The year of her birth is also difficult to ascertain, since she tended to obfuscate this date; probably it was sometime between 1667 and 1672.13 Until recently she was little more than a footnote in the history of the novel, although she was tremendously popular in her own day. Scholars sneered at such productions as The Secret History of Queen Zarah (which may, however, not be Mrs. Manley’s work at all14) and The New Atalantis, although even people such as Lady Mary Wortley Montagu read them avidly and eagerly awaited subsequent installments. These books were romans à clef, scandalous collections of anecdotes about aristocratic men and women and the English court, thinly disguised by romance names and an exotic locale. The New Atalantis was also intended as a piece of Tory political propaganda, for which its author was briefly jailed and for which Swift attempted to use his influence to secure her a "pension or a reward for her service to the cause, by writing her Atalantis, and prosecution, &c, upon it."15 Only within the past few years, as an outgrowth of the burgeoning interest in popular culture, have scholars such as Patricia Köster and John Richetti come to reject the condescension of earlier critics and to recognize the legitimate contribution which authors like Mrs. Manley made to fantasy and to the establishment and definition of popular myths about social organization and male/female relationships.16

Rivella is the first autobiography of a woman who wrote in order to support herself--in other words, of a professional writer. Indeed, in The New Atalantis, she makes Astrea, the Goddess of Justice who acts as moderator throughout the book, say of the poet Anne Finch, Lady Winchilsea:

I presume she’s one of the happy few, that write out of Pleasure, and not Necessity: By that means its her own fault, if she publish any thing but what’s good; for it’s next to impossible to write much and write well.17

For Rivella there was another motive besides financial need: in the fourth edition, published after Mrs. Manley’s death, the publisher Curll tells us that the book was written to prevent publication of Charles Gildon’s "A severe Invective upon some Part of her Conduct," which was apparently commissioned by the "unspeakable" Curll himself.18 The book is in effect an apology and an attempt to show its author and her conduct in the best possible light. It was evidently written in some haste; nevertheless, the facts, insofar as they can be checked, seem to be accurate, except for the business about the date of her birth.19

The book takes the form of a conversation between Sir Charles Lovemore (usually but perhaps erroneously identified as General John Tidcombe) and the Chevalier D’Aumont, in which the former relates at the request of the latter at great length the history of Rivella. Sir Charles’ opening words give us what is probably the key to Mrs. Manley’s vision of herself and the world:

There are so many Things Praise, and yet Blame-worthy, in Rivella’s Conduct, that as Her Friend, I know not well how with a good Grace, to repeat, or as yours, to conceal, because you seem to expect from me an Impartial History. Her Vertures are her own, her Vices occasion’d by her Misfortunes; and yet as I have often heard her say, If she had been a Man, she had been without Fault: But the Charter of that Sex being much more confin’d than ours, what is not a Crime in Men is scandalous and unpardonable in Woman, as she herself has very well observ’d in divers Places, throughout her own Writings. (pp. 743-44)

According to Richetti, sexual antagonism was the basis for much of the content and popularity of the scandal novel:

Scandal novels owed a significant part of their popularity, that is, to their ability to evoke an essentially fictional world whose inhabitants were not so much real persons as they were embodiments of popular concepts, capable of provoking personal fantasy and projection precisely because they appealed to an immediately available and more or less communal mythology. That myth, the destruction of female innocence by a representative of an aristocratic world of male corruption, is a well-known eighteenth-century preoccupation, from its prominence in the drama to the prose fiction which begins with Richardson and expands all over Europe.20

This "myth," which Richetti concedes has "some basis in reality,"21 had for Mrs. Manley a personal as well as a general social application. What Sir Charles refers to as "Rivella’s real Misfortunes" are not actually recounted in this volume; the reader is referred to a passage of about ten pages in The New Atalantis, in which her story is recounted under the name of "Delia."22 This passage describes, in more or less the same style as Rivella, the story of how the young heroine is tricked into marriage with her cousin and guardian (John Manley), who reveals upon learning of her pregnancy that his first wife is still living. Though we have no way of knowing to what extent Mrs. Manley was complicit in her own deception, this incident set the tone for the remainder of her life and made it impossible for her to re-enter society on a completely respectable basis. It was indeed, as Sir Charles calls it, her "Ruin." The double standard which dictated the loss of her reputation was evidently a great source of pain and irritation to her:

RIVELLA is certainly much indebted, continu’d Lovemore, to a Liberal Education, and those early Precepts of Vertue taught her and practised in her Father’s House. There was then such a Foundation laid, that tho’ Youth, Misfortunes, and Love, for several Years have interrupted so fair a Building, yet some Time since, she is returned with the greatest Application to repair that Loss and Defect; if not with relation to this World (where Women have found it impossible to be reinstated) yet of the next, which has mercifully told us, Mankind can commit no Crimes but what upon Conversion may be forgiven. (p. 748)

Perhaps for the first time in women’s autobiography since Anne Clifford, Rivella gives us an extended physical description of its subject:

HER Person is neither tall nor short; from her Youth she was inclin’d to Fat; whence I have often hear her Flatterers liken her to the Grecian Venus. It is certain, considering that Disadvantage, she has the most easy Air that one can have; her Hair is of a pale Ash-colour, fine, and in a large Quantity. I have heard her Friends lament the Disaster of her having had the Small-pox in such an injurious manner, being a beautiful Child before that Distemper; but as that Disease has now left her Face, she has scarce any Pretence to it. Few, who have only beheld her in Publick, could be brought to like her; whereas none that became acquainted with her, could refrain from loving her. I have heard several Wives and Mistresses accuse her of Fascination: They would neither trust their Husbands, Lovers, Sons, nor Brothers with her Acquaintance upon Terms of the greatest Advantage. Speak to me of her Eyes, interrupted the Chevalier, you seem to have forgot that Index of the Mind; Is there to be found in them, Store of those animating Fires with which her Writings are fill’d? Do her Eyes love as well as Her Pen? You reprove me very justly, answer’d the Baronet, Rivella would have a good deal of Reason to complain of me, if I should silently pass over the best Feature in her Face. In a Word, you have your self described them: Nothing can be more tender, ingenious and brillant with a Mixture so languishing and sweet, when Love is the Subject of the Discourse, that without being severe, we may very well conclude, the softer Passions have their Predominancy in Her Soul. (pp. 744-45)

The Chevalier interrupts again, rather comically to the modern reader, to inquire after her lips and teeth, and the description continues downward in the same vein, ending with her feet which are "small and pretty" (p. 746). The passage is interesting in several respects: it calls attention to the extent to which a woman who was not supported by a husband and lived by her wits was forced by contemporary society to rely on her physical attractiveness; it suggests that physical appearance is coming more and more to be bound up with the actual identity or self-image of a person; and it demonstrates the influence of prose fiction upon autobiography, since novel and romance frequently treat us to lavish descriptions of the heroine’s beauty. That Mrs. Manley stretched the truth slightly to fit this ideal is suggested by Swift’s description of her, to Stella in 1711-12, as "about forty, very homely and very fat."23

Following the description of her appearance, we are given a briefer evaluation of her education (p. 748, quoted above) and of her character:

RIVELLA’S natural Temper is haughty, impatient of Contradiction: She is nicely tenacious of the Privilege of Her own Sex, in Point of what Respect ought to be paid by ours to the Ladies; and as she understands good Breeding to a Punctuality, tho’ the Freedom of her Humour often dispenses with Forms, She will not easily forgive what Person soever shall be wanting in that which Custom has made her Due: Her Soul is soft and tender to the Afflicted, her Tears wait upon their Misfortunes, and there is nothing she does not do to asswage them. You need but tell her a Person is in Misery to engage her Concern, her Purse, and her Interest in their Behalf. . . .

NOW I have done with her Person, I fear you will think me too particular in my Description of her Mind: But Chevalier there lies the intrinsick Value; ’tis that which either accomplishes or deforms a Person. I will in a few Words conclude her Character; she has lov’d Expence, even to being extravagant, which in a Woman of Fortune might more justly have been term’d Generosity: She is Grateful, unalterable in those Principles of Loyalty, derived from her Family: A little too vain-glorious of those Perfections which have been ascribed to her; she does not however boast of what Praise, or Favours, Persons of Rank may have conferr’d upon her: She loves Truth, and has too often given her self the Liberty to speak, as well as write it. (pp. 749-50)

The book then launches into a series of liaisons, honorable in varying degrees, and most of the second half is devoted to a rather tedious and confusing account of a lawsuit by which she and her lover (John Tilly) attempted unsuccessfully to turn a profit.

Rivella is not in itself a highly distinguished production, and the necessity for the author to write in her own defense lends the book a pathetic quality. But it is significant in that it represents a new direction for autobiography; perhaps the only earlier document in English which remotely resembles it is Sir Kenelm Digby’s Loose Fantasies, and even here the similarities are superficial. Certainly there is nothing like it among the works which we considered in chapter II. Yet the independent, self-supporting woman, who takes as her theme love and intrigue and the social inequities surrounding them, will become an increasingly common figure in the annals of eighteenth century autobiography.

d. Elizabeth Thomas


Like a number of the women autobiographers of the period, Elizabeth Thomas (1675-1731) is chiefly remembered today for being preserved in the amber of Pope’s Dunciad. Her role is particularly disgraceful:

Full in the middle way there stood a lake,

Which Curl’s Corinna chanc’d that morn to make:

(Such was her wont, at early dawn to drop

Her evening cates before his neighbour’s shop.)

Here fortun’d Curl to slide. . . .24

She earned this compliment in 1726, when, impoverished and sorely pressed by creditors, she gained possession of twenty-five letters written to Mr. Henry Cromwell by the youthful Pope and sold them to Curll, who of course published them illicitly. Yet the same Elizabeth Thomas began her career in 1799 when she sent two poems to Dryden for his critical appraisal; he bestowed the nom-de-plume Corinna upon her and said of her poems:

They were, I thought, too good to be a Woman’s. . . . It is not over Gallant, I must confess, to say this of the Fair Sex; but, most certain it is, that they generally write with more Softness than Strength. On the contrary, you want neither Vigour in your Thoughts, nor Force in your Expressions, nor Harmony in your Numbers. . . .25

What has caused this metamorphosis? The autobiographical writings of Elizabeth Thomas give little direct information, but clues are to be found, perhaps, in the personality which emerges from them.

In 1731, the year of the author’s death, Pylades and Corinna: or, Memoirs of the Lives, Amours, and Writings of Richard Gwinnett, Esq. . . .; and Mrs. Elizabeth Thomas, junior. . . . To which is prefixed, the Life of Corinna, Written by Her Self was published. It is this Life of Corinna, plus a letter to Dr. Talbot, Bishop of Durham (also printed in this volume), in which she describes her life from a somewhat different angle, which constitute her autobiographical writings. The first of these documents runs on for some sixty pages; told in the third person, it open thus:

Having been long importuned to give some Account to the Publick of this Unfortunate Author; (whose worst Enemies could never Brand either with real Crime or real Misconduct: and yet, if one may dare use so bold a Phrase, seemed created only to suffer; her whole Life being only one continued Scene, of the utmost Variety of Human Misery) I the more readily comply with this Office, being well assured it cannot be performed by any more capable of it than myself; who have lived in the strictest Amity with her, from the earliest Remembrance. (p. iii)

The narrator goes on to allege herself:

. . . a (Female) Friend. . . resolved however to be so faithful a Register, that she will no more conceal her Failings, than she lessen her Deserts; and laying aside the FRIEND, is now only an impartial HISTORIAN. (p. iv)

She then launches into her story:

Her Family . . . was just beneath Envy, and above Contempt: was the Child of an Ancient and Infirm Parent, who gave her Life when he was Dying himself; and to whose unhappy Constitution, she was Sole Heiress: and always afflicted with Fevers and Defluxions . . .; which rendered her so Tender, that had she been of a gay Disposition, must have made her more unhappy than she really was. (p. iv)

Her mother, who figures prominently in this account, is widowed at eighteen; she thinks herself financially secure, but is soon disabused:

But, when the first Sallies of the Widow’s Grief were over, and she took an Estimate of her Substance, how mistaken! how shocked must this young Creature be? to find herself instead of many Thousands scarcely worth One. (p. v)

Corinna, Elizabeth Thomas tells us of herself, is a person of exquisitely refined tastes and sensibility. Even as an infant, there is nothing trivial about her interests:

I cannot omit one Circumstance in our Author’s Infancy, which however trifling it may seem, has something in it very odd, she could never be brought to lye in a Cradle, nor ever be diverted with such Play-things as usually please Children, but always flung them away with a Contempt uncommon to so tender an Age; but give her a Book, and she would sit poring over it from Noon to Night, without knowing one Letter. (pp. vii-viii)

Her description of her physical appearance, too, underlines her serious nature--belied to some extent by her evident concern with her own attractiveness:

As for her Stature, it was, in Youth, a tall middling, but in her later Years, through the depression of her Spirits, or the turn of Fortune, and a long habitude of Reading, and Writing, she had contracted a droop of her Head; which, as it abated something of her height, did very much of her Presence. She was neither Fat, nor Lean, her Hair Auborne, her Eyes a darkfull Hazel, her Visage Oval, her Complexion and Teeth tolerable, her Shape neither excellent nor deformed, all together she was well enough; and had she studied the Adornment of her Body, as much as she did that of her Mind, she would have made a more agreeable Appearance; but that was not her Aim. . . . The Body she would say, was only a Case for the Soul, like the woodenwork of a Clock, which, if kept but whole, and clean-dusted, was sufficient. (pp. x-xi)

She then describes her personality:

Her Temper was much too warm, and apt to retain Resentment (but never malicious) nor was she ever known to disclose that in Anger, which was entrusted to her in Friendship. Towards her middle Age, when Troubles came thick, and nothing but Oppression, and Injustice surrounded her, the most intimate of her Acquaintance, feared the Accumulation of her Sorrows, with her own high Spirit, would drive her desperate; but to their great surprize, she armed herself with a strong Resolution, and by the divine Assistance, subdued all her Passions at once.

She had but little, if any, of the Amorous in her Constitution; but then she had a Soul wonderfully turned for FRIENDSHIP, in its most exalted Sense. . . . (pp. xi-xii)

She proceeds to elaborate upon this favorite theme, with highly italicized fervor:

FRIENDSHIP was the darling Passion of her Soul; and if at any Time she seemed inspired beyond her natural Capacity, it was when she touched on the Subject. But all those fine Ideas, shall I call them, or rather Cobwebs of the Brain, so natural to THEORY, and so remote from PRACTICE, served only to give her too great a Delicacy of Taste, to be pleased with the Discourse of those who talk much, but say nothing. She was blest with several Friendships to her own Heart’s content; but, as they were Ladies of the last Age (when Thought and Sense were more in Fashion) the Course of Nature too soon deprived her of that Happiness, and after their Decease, she found but few susceptible of their refined Notions . . . as made her resolve to commence no more friendships. (pp. xiii-xiv)

She then gives over several pages to documenting her religious speculations, at the conclusion of which she settles upon the Church of England, into which she was originally born, and finally turns to her "history."

A good portion of that history is devoted to a fantastic and fascinating account of her mother’s experiences with an alchemist called Quibus; reputed to be:

. . . a parlous Learned Man, he lives in a little Cottage by himself, and does wonderful Cures among the poor People, but the Rich will not make use of him, because he is a Conjurer, and can raise the Devil. (p. xxxii)

He gains her confidence by performing magic tricks and then revealing how he does them. He then intimates that he is completing a great work, about which she inquires:

He replied, His Life was at Stake if it took Air, but he found her a Lady of such uncommon Candor and good Sense, that he should make no Difficulty of committing his Life and Hope to her keeping (all Women are naturally fond of being intrusted with Secrets, and she much more than many others;) he hit her Foible unknown, and she paid dear for the Trust, as will appear by the Sequel.

I have been, adds he, many Years in search of the Philosopher’s-Stone, and long Master of the Smaragdine-Table of HERMES TRISMEGISTUS, the Green and Red Dragons of RAYMOND LULLY, have also been obedient to me, and the Illustrious Sages themselves deign to visit me; yet is it but since I had the Honour of being known to your Ladyship, that I have been so fortunate as to obtain the Grand Secret of Projection. See here, Madam, with this little Powder, inconsiderable as it appears to be, I transmuted some Lead I pulled off my window last Night into this bit of Gold. (pp. xxxv-xxxvi)

She believes him and finances a most amazing operation, in which "Stills and Furnaces worked merrily" (p. xxxix), and which culminates in an explosion. Quibus, upon reviving, "fell to stamping, tearing his Hair, and raving like a Madman, crying out, Undone, undone, undone, lost and undone forever" (p. xliii). Her mother at this point wisely declines to throw good money after bad.

We next find the mother taking a house in which the Earl of Montagu takes lodgings, saying "I love a little Freedom more than my Dowager allows at home, and I may come sometimes and eat a bit of Mutton with four or five honest Fellows, whose Company I delight in" (p. lvi). These "fellows," introduced as Jack, Tom, Will, and Ned, "good honest Country Fellows, who loved a Fox-Chase, and a Bottle, as they loved their Lives" (p. lvi), turn out to be a group of noblemen plotting the revolution of 1688. The mother becomes involved in the conspiracy, and after the revolution is accomplished Lord Montagu offers to reward her for her services on the condition that her daughter, Elizabeth Thomas, should ask him for it personally. To her mother’s astonishment, she refuses, asserting that "when you know the Cause, you will not only forgive, but justify my Conduct, having done no more than practice what your own Prudence and Virtue had early taught me" (p. lx). She goes on to describe how Lord Montagu had once accosted her in her chamber:

. . . But I was extremely shocked when I found he began a new Discourse, telling me I was very pretty, how much he loved me, and if I would give my Self to him, he would settle an Estate, should render me happy all my Life. I heard him without answer, when he perceiving I was putting up my Work to be gone, caught me suddenly in his Arms, and attempted to throw me on the Couch, but frighted as I was, I scratched and bruised his Face, at the same time tearing off his fine Wig which cost sixty Guineas, flung it on the Floor; this indeed moved him to let me go, and with a scornful Sneer, asked, if I did not know what was due to his Quality? I replied, Yes, my Lord, I know what is owing to your Title, but at the same time I must not forget what is due to my own Honour. Merry enough, in Faith, cried he, I pray Miss, what Title do you bear in the World? That of a Modest Girl, said I, and I hope to maintain it." (pp. lxi-lxii)

Now the mother becomes angry that her daughter has concealed this incident, and her daughter justifies herself thus:

I was very sure, Madam, said the Girl, you would have reproached him for it; and I had read, that a Woman who boasts of her Chastity, does but hang out a Flag of Defiance for a new adventure. (p. lxii)

Such subtlety is lost upon her mother:

Get out of my Sight, said her Mother (who loved Money, and had not all the fine Taste her Daughter afterwards discovered) it makes me sick to hear a Girl of Thirteen talk of Womanhood. . . . (pp. lxii-lxiii)

However embroidered, this little scene illustrates beautifully not only the underlying brutality of contemporary relationships between men and women, but also the levels of complexity added by social and economic factors.

The Life of Corinna then draws to a close. The letter to the Bishop of Durham, after giving more genealogical information, turns to the sixteen-year courtship of Elizabeth Thomas by Richard Gwinnett, which occasioned the letters printed in Pylades and Corinna. The two meet when they are young, and "by Degrees contracted a mutual Esteem, which terminated in a sincere Friendship and Affection" (p. lxxi). For sixteen years he courts her, but he is not wealthy enough to encourage her to permit him to seek her relations’ consent to their marriage. Finally he comes into an estate, but now a new obstacle is presented in the form of her mother’s illness; the doctor, she avers:

. . . had declared my Mother could not live six Months. I told him I could not leave her in that weak Condition to die among Strangers, and as I had not thought sixteen Years long in waiting for him, he could not in Justice refuse me six Months to pay my last Duty to a dying Parent. He replied, with a deep Sigh, Six Months, at this Time, is more than sixteen Years has been; you put it off now, and God will do it for ever.--It proved as he too truly divined, he went down the next Day: made his Will, sickened and died, April 16, 1717, left me the Bequest of six hundred Pounds . . . , and Sorrow has been my Food ever since. Had I married him then, I had been secured from the Insults of Poverty, but I am better contented as it is. . . . (pp. lxxiii-lxxiv)

The reader can hardly help suspecting that she enjoyed being betrothed infinitely more than she would ever have enjoyed being married.

As can be seen from these excerpts, the narrator does not appear in a particularly attractive light. She is so fastidious as to miss the point of the situations she is involved in, yet she has an almost prurient interest in the shortcomings of others. Her refinement is clearly more significant to her than her integrity. Still it is difficult not to sympathize with her disastrous transformation from Dryden’s Corinna to "Curll’s Corinna," and with the poverty which underlay this transformation.

e. Elizabeth Elstob


Elizabeth Elstob (1683-1756) was one of the few genuine female scholars of the eighteenth century. Against formidable odds she managed to learn not only several foreign languages but also Anglo-Saxon; she published a parallel text translation, with notes and comments, of the Homily on the Birthday of St. Gregory, and later produced an Anglo-Saxon Grammar which has been described as "remarkable for being the first effort to present the study of Old English through the medium of modern English."26

In 1738 she supplied George Ballard, who was compiling a work entitled Memoirs of Several Ladies of Great Britain, who have been Celebrated for their Writings or Skill in the Learned Languages Arts and Sciences, with a brief memoir of her life.27 It is a modest document of a few hundred words, written straight-forwardly and in the third person; to discuss it at great length would be to produce a critique more massive than its subject. But it is interesting as an exposition of the kind of encouragements and (mostly) discouragements which faced a young girl of a true scholarly bent:

From her childhood she was a great lover of books, which being observed by her mother, who was also a great admirer of learning, especially in her own sex, there was nothing wanting for her improvement, so long as her mother lived. But being so unfortunate as to lose her when she was about eight years old, and when she had but just gone thro’ her accidence and grammar, there was a stop put to her progress in learning for some years. For her brother being under age when her mother died, she was under the guardianship of a relation, who was no friend to women’s learning, so that she was not suffered to proceed, notwithstanding her repeated requests that she might, being always put off with the common and vulgar saying that one tongue is enough for a woman. However, this discouragement did not prevent her earnest endeavours to improve her mind, in the best manner she was able, not only because she had a natural inclination to books herself, but in obedience to her excellent mother’s desire. She therefore employed most of her time in reading such English and French books (which last language she with much difficulty obtained leave to learn) as she could meet with till she went to live with her brother, who very joyfully and readily assisted and encouraged her, in her studies, with whom she laboured very hard as long as she lived. (pp. 170-71)

The brother she mentions was William Elstob, a linguist and antiquarian who became a fellow of University College in Oxford. She lived with him for twenty years, during which time he encouraged and assisted her greatly in her studies; this happy combination of circumstances gave her far greater access to the academic community and its resources than most women of the period enjoyed. After the death of her brother she was reduced to penury. Twenty years later, through the efforts of George Ballard, she was relieved by charity, and eventually a place as instructor in the household of the Duchess of Portland was procured for her. There she spent the remaining years of her life, comfortably but unproductively.

Elizabeth Elstob is surely one of the glories and tragedies of the literary history of women. Her scholarly output is a tribute to her intelligence and determination; her subsequent lapse of creative scholarship a sad example of how even the brightest and most highly cultivated intellect can be stifled by a lack of stimulation. As an explicit proponent of education for women (in her memoir and elsewhere), she must be taken with great seriousness, for she cannot be dismissed as a scholar manquée chewing on sour grapes. Little is known of her life; she is an extremely eligible candidate for a modern biography.

f. Mary Delany


Mary Granville Pendarves Delany (1700-1788) is remembered today primarily as one of the Bluestockings, that circle of intellectual and well-born women who held court for each other and for such luminaries as Dr. Johnson and his friends in the middle of the eighteenth century. She was apparently a woman of great personal charm. Her paintings--copies of old masters and portraits of friends--were highly prized in their day but have not withstood the test of time. Her main contributions to posterity are her delightful letters and her exquisite handwork; at seventy-four she started a collection of cut-paper flowers--not simply decorative art, but a serious and extremely accurate botanical study. She was well-educated and widely read, but should probably be described as accomplished rather than learned. She was married at seventeen, under family pressure, to Alexander Pendarves, a jealous old man afflicted with gout and a drinking problem, and left a widow at twenty-four. She was assiduously courted by a number of men, but the only one she loved, Lord Baltimore, eventually chose to make a more advantageous marriage. So she remained unmarried until 1743, when she surprised her friends by marrying the Rev. Patrick Delany, a commoner. But this marriage was made by a mature woman on personal rather than social or family considerations, and it was a good one. Dr. Delany was a friend of Swift’s and a member of Dublin’s most distinguished literary circle, and by all accounts a man of genuine merit. She was widowed again in 1768; she lived out the remainder of her long life happily and productively.

"At different periods," according to her editor and grand-niece, Lady Llanover, "Mary Granville had commenced a history of her own recollections, of which two unfinished MSS. still exist."28 The first of these is a brief fragment, apparently written during the latter part of her life, which deals with her birth and childhood; it is attractively written and closes with the following anecdote:

In the year 10 I first saw Mr. Handel, who was introduced to my uncle Stanley by Mr. Heidegger, the famous manager of the opera, and the most ugly man that ever was formed. We had no better instrument in the house than a little spinnet of mine, on which that great musician performed wonders. I was much struck with his playing, but struck as a child, not a judge, for the moment he was gone, I seated myself to my instrument, and played the best lesson I had then learnt; my uncle archly asked me whether I thought I should ever play as well as Mr. Handel. ‘If I did not think I should’ cried I, ‘I would burn my instrument!’ Such was the innocent presumption of childish ignorance. (pp. 5-6)

The other autobiographical piece which has come down to us is a much more remarkable document. It is actually an epistolary autobiography, written at the request of her intimate friend Margaret Cavendish Harley, Duchess of Portland, in a series of fifteen letters (there may have been more: the last of these letters clearly indicates the author’s intention of continuing the account in subsequent letters) begun in the year 1740. Its unusual format accounts for some of the interesting aspects of this work: it is to some extent motivated, shaped, and altered by the responses of the recipient, making it read like a peculiar but effective amalgamation of autobiography, letter, and epistolary fiction. She maintains a pose of reluctance to write and actually assumes a certain amount of knowledge in the reader:

The task you have set me, my dearest Maria, is a very hard one, and nothing but the complying with the earnest request from so tender a friend, could prevail with me to undertake it. You are so well acquainted with my family, that it is unnecessary for me to inform you of the ebbs and flows that have attended it for many years; in the most prosperous time of our fortune you were not born. (p. 7)

Sometimes she will anticipate the reader’s response and offer a defense or apology:

I shall not disguise my thoughts, or soften any part of my behaviour, which I fear was not altogether justifiable, and which, though your judgment may condemn, your indulgence and partiality I hope will find some excuse for. (p. 28)

Occasionally she will go back to supply further information which was evidently requested by the recipient: "You say I have omitted giving you his character, ’tis true I have not been very particular in it" (p. 34; she goes on to satisfy the request). The illusion of fiction, if such it can be called, is supported by the use of romance names (the author is "Aspasia," the recipient "Maria," Alexander Pendarves "Gromio," and so forth), then a fashionable custom among correspondents; a key was provided by the writer. The subject matter, too, is reminiscent of the romances Mrs. Delany liked to read; we get no account of her intellectual development, as we might expect in one of her attainments, but rather a series of stories about young men who attempted, in various ways (ranging from persuasion to virtual imprisonment), to seduce her into an intrigue.

We have perhaps no more moving account of the way in which a young woman, a girl actually, could be bartered into a marriage for social and financial reasons without regard to her own preference or personal happiness. Gromio was an old friend of her uncle, in whose household she was living at the time. She found him comic and contemptible, and her reaction when she learned of his designs upon her was, like Clarissa’s toward Mr. Soames, one of extreme repugnance. She acquiesces in her relations’ wishes, however, out of a sense of duty:

I thought that if I could convince Gromio of the great dislike I had to him, that he would not persist, but I was disappointed in that view. I had nobody to advise with; every one of the family had persuaded themselves that this would be an advantageous match for me--no one considered the sentiments of my heart; to be settled in the world, and ease my friends of an expense and care, they urged that it was my duty to submit, and that I ought to sacrifice everything to that one point. I acted as they wished me to do, and for fear of their reproaches, made myself miserable: my chief motive, I may say, was the fear of my father and mother suffering if I disobliged Alcander [her uncle]. I then recollected the conversation I had with my father in the gallery the day before he left us. I considered my being provided for would be a great satisfaction and relief to him, and might be a means of establishing a good understanding between the brothers; that if I showed the least reluctance, my father and mother would never consent to the match, and that would inevitably expose them, as well as myself, to Alcander’s resentment. These considerations gave me courage, and kept up my resolution. (pp. 28-29)

Her wedding she portrays as a ritual sacrifice:

I had now nothing to do but to submit to my unhappy fortune, and to endeavour to reconcile myself to it. I pass over the courtship, it was awkward to Gromio (who saw too well my unsurmountable dislike), and too painful to me to raise any entertainment to you from the relation. I was married with great pomp. Never was woe drest out in gayer colours, and when I was led to the altar, I wished from my soul I had been led, as Iphigenia was, to be sacrificed. I was sacrificed, I lost, not life indeed, but I lost all that makes life desirable--joy and peace of mind. . . . (pp. 20-30)

And indeed, her married life is not a happy one; she describes it as seven years of misery in "a remote country, with a man I looked upon as my tyrant--my jailor" (p. 31), during which time she is spied upon by servants and even provided with a duenna in the form of her husband’s foolish and intrusive sister. It is terminated by her husband’s death as he lies beside her in bed, a shocking experience to a young woman not yet twenty-four. Regrettably, the account breaks off shortly after this period.

Mrs. Delany’s autobiography is a fascinating work consummately that of an eighteenth century woman. Though there is nothing else quite like it, it seems perfectly representative of its author and period, in its use of the leisurely and conversational letter as a medium for expression, in its quasi-fictive techniques, and in its recourse to affairs of the heart as a main source of subject matter.

g. Elizabeth Cairns


Elizabeth Cairns (1685-1741) was a deeply religious Scots Calvinist with mystical and visionary learnings. She can be compared most aptly, perhaps, to Anna Trapnel, in the intensity of her religious experiences; but her account is much longer and less concentrated, and shot through with a kind of practicality and sense of the real world (we watch her struggle through the trials of doing her farm chores, leaving home, entering service and later running a school, and ministering successively to her old and dying parents) which exist in a kind of tension with her desire for total absorption in her spiritual experiences. And unlike Anna Trapnel, her devotions and mystical experiences are strictly private; indeed, if we are to believe her protests, it is only by an accident that this autobiography has come down to us at all:

There fell out a Providence that was a great Trial and exercising to me: I left some Passages of my Life, that I had write in my young Days, together with my Clothes, in a Christian Friend’s House, and while they lay there, it fell out in Providence, that a Fire broke out in a neighbouring House, which occasioned the carrying out of all that was in my Friend’s House, and what belonged to me among the Rest, at which Time these Experiences of mine, so many as were then write, were copied, and so went abroad unknown to me, and were hid from me for the Space of Twelve Years, I having gotten my own Copy with my Clothes, never thought any had known of it, until some Strangers whom I never knew before, came, and told me: Upon this I was surprized with Amazement and Confusion, so that I could not get it born, and these Reasons were weighty on my Mind; 1. That what was recorded there, I never told Mortal of, and was fully of the Mind to have kept these Secrets between God and my own Soul. 2. I having lived so long among the bruit Creatures without either christian Converse, or hearing of the Gospel, as also the Want of Education: I had so ordered Things that others could not understand them, according to my own Meaning, and some Expressions would seem at least unguarded, on which Account I was persuaded Religion would be exposed to Ridicule and Reproach. 3. Those Copies, in many Expressions, differed from mine, for my Writ being so bad, none could copy it according to my Meaning. This hath exceedingly wronged both Truth and me.

This will oblige me to let my original Copy stand as a Witness against those incorrect Copies that are gone abroad. This I am constrained to do, although I was fully resolved to have buried this Original in my own Day, not that I think that some of those more uncommon Experiences were Delusions, so as to be ashamed of them; but, all along, I never had Freedom to discover the Secrets of Religion to the World: The Lord knows I never loved to make Appearance this Way. (pp. 216-17)29

The heavy influence of the language of the Bible is clear from her opening word:

As I was informed by my Parents, I was born in the Year 1685 when the Persecution was very sharp; and through the bloody Cruelty which was then exercised, my Parents were deprived of all they had in the World, and cast out of House and Hold, because of their joining with, and adhering and cleaving to the then persecuted Gospel, and Remnant. In this Extremity, my Mother, by the Providence of God, got into a little Cottage, where she brought me forth a living Child, to the Hazard of her own Life. And three Quarters of a Year thereafter, my Parents got an Opportunity of a persecuted Minister by whom I was baptized in the Night time. (pp. 1-2)

She feels that this beginning has conferred upon her a great obligation to her parents and to God. When very young, she becomes convinced that she is one of the Elect; yet she is always very conscious of being tainted by original sin, by her "wicked Nature" (p. 8).

At one point she summarizes her perception of life thus:

I see this life made up of these three; 1. Wrestling and pursuing. 2. Enjoying. 3. Stripping out of those Enjoyments again, which makes me long to have the wrestling Life ended, that I may win away to full Enjoyment and Possession, never to be stript any more. (pp. 106-107)

and this passage describes fairly accurately the process of her spiritual experiences. In her early years she basks in the assurance of salvation but never again quite recaptures the serenity of her childhood, for though she is informed that the mature Christian must live the "life of Faith," she longs for the "life of Sense," the feeling of God’s presence within her which she describes in terms of marital intimacy:

. . . If a rich Man would marry a poor Woman, and so infest her in all that he had, yet if he should deny her himself, she would not be satisfied, if she had true Love to his Person, This I applyed, and said, Although God would interest me in all that Heaven and Earth could afford, and though he would deliver me from the Wrath to come, and give me Pardon of all my Sins, and all Pleasures imaginable, yet I could never be satisfied, if he with-held from me himself, and the Sense of his Love; for I am persuaded, that, as there is a real difference between a Man and his Benefits, so is there between God and his Benefits.

Donald A. Stauffer calls Elizabeth Cairns "a servant and a schoolmistress with the soul of a poet."30 She gives us frequent glimpses of the Scottish countryside from which she draws metaphors for her spiritual experiences:

. . . one day . . . I was going by a Corn-field; I stood up by a Stalk of Corn, and it was higher than I, at which I fell a weeping, when I considered, how short a Time it had been in the Earth, yet had come so great a Length, and I had made so little Progress, in my Way to Heaven. (p. 10)

. . . sometimes, I remarked in a cloudy Day, that the Sun would have given a Blink, and immediately the Cloud would have covered it again: O! thought I this did represent to me my Condition in this World; and then I would have longed for the Day, when the Sun of Righteousness would shine to all Eternity on my Soul, and never be covered with a Cloud any more. (p. 11)

These "Blinks"--momentary visions of light, moments of comfort and security--become the object of her spiritual searches, and she refers to them repeatedly. They are so ineffable that she often refrains from attempts to articulate them: "what I here both felt and saw, I will neither word nor write, and so the Vail returned. . . ." (p. 106). Her absorption in these experiences sometimes interferes with her ability to function in society: "Sometimes in Meditation, on spiritual Mysteries, I was carried so far above my self, that I would have forgotten where I was, and whither I was going" (p. 11). When her parents chastise her for her failure to carry out her tasks, she prays for divine aid:

. . . as I asked, he answered me, so that immediately after he endued me with a Strength of Mind, by which I could accomplish my Business, and yet keep up my Intercourse with Heaven; so that even in Time of Harvest, when there was no absenting from Company, nor yet Time for Prayer, yet when I lifted up my Head with my Handful to lay it in the Sheaf, I would have sent up a short Prayer, in which Time there shined Rays of divine Light that filled my Soul with sensible Manifestations of divine Love: And when I was thus engaged in Company, and could not win out of hearing their idle, and vain Talking, I would have been as one deaf, while my Meditation was taken up in maintaining my Intercourse with God. . . . (pp. 32-33)

Later, when she is in service, she finds that

. . . my Spirits were so wrapped up in the views of unexpressible Mysteries that I could think on no other at these Times; my Mistress would have been obliged to say, I was either deaf or stupid, for sometimes when she spoke to me, I either did not hear, or when I spoke to her it was not suitable to what she asked, my Mind not being present when I spoke. (pp. 117-118)

Her most dramatic moments occur during her various encounters with Satan:

. . . now I was not only deprived of the Blinks of divine Light, and of the sensible Smiles of my Beloved; but also of the sensible Exercise of all Grace, and all Duties, I had been exercised in: And this was not all, but the Chain of the Devil was let out, and all the Troops of infernal Spirits, and Swarms of Lusts, Members of the Body of Death, did gather themselves together against me. This did holy Sovereignty see meet to permit for Ends known to himself. Here I stood stript naked of all my Armour, as to my Sense, and exposed to the open Field of Temptation, where I endured the Thunderbolts, and fiery Darts of the Devil. . . . (p. 57)

She is tempted to atheism and even to suicide:

One Day I was praying alone in a secret Place, and he set violently upon me, and presented to me, both Conveniency and Instruments to murder myself; upon this I was forced to fly out of the Place. Another Day, I was going some Space of Way alone, and in the Way there was a Ditch of Water, where he set violently on me, to drown myself, busking his Temptation with this, Thou need’st not fear, thou wilt immediately go to Heaven, and the World will never know what is become of thee.

O! now I was like to go distracted. . . . (p. 59)

Though she weathers this crisis, Satan continues to plague her. One night "there came something that chopped three Times at my Bed" (p. 116); another night "I heard the Chairs drawing through the Room, when I knew there was no Mortal to do it" (p. 117).

The autobiography of this humble fanatical Scotswoman differs from the autobiographies of Quaker women in that her religious energies are not channeled into dramatic actions (traveling, preaching) but are turned almost entirely inward. It is in her own feelings, the "life of Sense," that she finds her refuge from the humdrum activities open to her, and perhaps a safer outlet for her passions than normal human interactions would provide.

h. Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough


The Memoirs of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough31 is the first and perhaps the only truly political autobiography ever written by a woman in English. Sarah Jennings Churchill (1660-1744) was a childhood friend of Princess Anne, and her intimate companion and advisor until their final falling-out in 1710; according to some, she was virtually the ruler of England until she was maneuvered out of favor. She was also the wife of John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, the brilliant Whig general and diplomat--evidently a love match on both sides.

Her Memoirs were written around 1740, and published in 1742, to explain and justify her actions during the various scandals and crises that occurred in the critical period of party factionalism and struggle in the reigns of William and Mary and of Anne. The Memoirs were dictated to the historian Nathaniel Hooke, who may have assisted in the actual composition. The author was then an octogenarian and almost bedridden, but her acerbity and combativeness have by no means mellowed.

The book-length autobiography cannot be read intelligently without some understanding of the politics of the "Glorious Revolution" and of the War of Spanish Succession. Most people are familiar with the history of the former: when the second wife of the Catholic monarch James II unexpectedly gave birth to a son, who displaced James’ Protestant daughters Mary and Anne as heir to the throne, Mary and her husband William of Orange were invited to send an army from Holland to restore an Anglican monarchy. James had managed to antagonize almost all factions, and William and Mary received such strong and decisive support that they were quickly proclaimed king and queen in a bloodless coup. Anne and Mary were not on good terms with one another, and eventually Mary’s demand that Anne dismiss the Duchess of Marlborough, whose husband was out of royal favor, caused a complete rupture. Sarah Churchill urged Anne to secure an income from Parliament so that she would not have to depend upon the conditional largess of her sister and brother-in-law; on the other hand, she advised Anne to support William’s appointment as king for life, even after the death of Mary. After the death of Mary in 1694, Anne and William were reconciled, and four years later Marlborough was restored to favor; when William died in 1702, Anne ascended the throne, bringing her favorite with her. Her husband was already vigorously employed in the service of the crown. The War of Spanish Succession had broken out in Europe in 1701, the immediate issue being whether the Spanish throne should go to the grandson of Louis XIV of France, who was one of the closest in line to inherit. A contributing factor to the outbreak of war was Louis’ recognition, upon the death of James II (in exile in France) in 1701, of James’ son as King James III. The underlying concern was, as usual, the maintenance of a balance of power in Europe, for France was threatening to achieve control over Spain and its extensive empire, as well as undue influence in British affairs. The Whigs, especially, were determined to thwart French hegemony, and the Duke of Marlborough implemented this policy by leading the British in a series of stunning victories on the continent. The number of casualties in these battles was enormous, however; to quote Donald Greene in his splendid little book, The Age of Exuberance, "in its scope and ferocity, the War of Spanish Succession might be termed the first of the modern world wars."32

By 1708, the English were deeply divided over the question of continuing the war. The Whigs favored pursuing and consolidating their victories and argued that to withdraw from the war would be to betray their allies. The Tories felt that the war had already achieved its purpose and that enough blood had been shed; they accused Marlborough of wishing to acquire personal power and glory at the expense of the good of England. Much talent was arrayed on either side--Addison and Steele staunchly supporting the Whigs, Swift by then an ardent advocate of the Tories; Swift, indeed, had the following to say about the Duchess of Marlborough: "three Furies reigned in her breast, the most mortal enemies of all the softer passions, which were sordid Avarice, disdainful Pride and ungovernable Rage."33 In 1710 the Tories triumphed, the Whig ministry was ousted, and the Duchess of Marlborough was disgraced--displaced as favorite by her own cousin, Abigail Hill Masham, whose place the Duchess had originally obtained for her but who supported the Tory cause. The peace, an ignominious one in the Whigs’ eyes, was settled by the Treaty of Utrecht, which was negotiated by the poet-diplomat Matthew Prior.

Both the strength and weakness of Sarah Churchill lay in her incredible persistence and strong-mindedness. As a child the friendless Princess Anne was greatly attracted to the slightly-older Sarah Jennings, who was everything she was not: attractive, extroverted, highly intelligent. The Duchess’ account opens with the beginnings of this attachment:

The beginning of the Princess’s kindness for me had a much earlier date than my entrance into her service. My promotion to this honour was wholly owing to impressions she had before received to my advantage; we had used to play together when she was a child, and she even then expressed a particular fondness for me. This inclination increased with our years. I was often at Court, and the Princess always distinguished me by the pleasure she took to honour me, preferably to others, with her conversation and confidence. In all her parties for amusement I was sure by her choice to be one, and so desirous she became of having me always near her, that upon her marriage with the Prince of Denmark in 1683 it was at her own earnest request to her father I was made one of the Ladies of her Bedchamber.

What conduced to render me the more agreeable to her in the station was doubtless the dislike she had conceived to most of the other persons about her, and particularly to her first Lady of the Bedchamber, the Countess of Clarendon, a lady, whose discourse and manner, though the Princess thought they agreed very well together, could not possibly recommend her to so young a mistress, for she looked like a madwoman, and talked like a scholar. Indeed her Highness’s Court was throughout so oddly composed, that I think it would be making myself no great compliment if I should say her choosing to spend more of her time with me than with any of her other servants did no discredit to her taste. (pp. 7-8)

The tenor of that friendship is revealed in the following passage:

Kings and Princes for the most part imagine they have a dignity peculiar to their birth and station, which ought to raise them above all connection of friendship with an inferior. Their passion is to be admired and feared, to have subjects awefully obedient, and servants blindly obsequious to their pleasure. Friendship is an offensive word; it imports a kind of equality between the parties; it suffests nothing to the mind of crowns or thrones, high titles, or immense revenues, fountains of honour or fountains of riches, prerogatives which the possessors would have always uppermost in the thoughts of those who are permitted to approach them.

The Princess had a different taste. A friend was what she most coveted, and for the sake of friendship, a relation which she did not disdain to have with me, she was fond even of that equality which she thought belonged to it. She grew uneasy to be treated by me with the form and ceremony due to her rank, nor could she bear from me the sound of words which implied in them distance and superiority. It was this turn of mind which made her one day propose to me, that whenever I should happen to absent from her, we might in all our letters write ourselves by feigned names, such as would import nothing of distinction of rank between us. Morley and Freeman were the names her fancy hit upon, and she left me to choose by which of them I would be called. My frank, open temper naturally led me to pitch upon Freeman, and so the Princess took the other, and from this time Mrs. Morley and Mrs. Freeman began to converse as equals, made so by affection and friendship. (pp. 10-11)

Sarah Churchill was by her own account a faithful friend, and there is no reason to doubt her assertion that she was guided always by her concern for the queen’s best interests. She was, however, a forceful advocate of her own beliefs, and there is little question that for several years she exerted a strong influence over the queen and hence over government policy. But that influence depended upon the queen’s fundamental sympathies with her friend’s position rather than upon trickery or seduction; for diplomacy was not her forte, and her methods of persuasion seem to have resembled a blunderbuss. When the queen came to draw closer to the Tory position, symbolized by her acquiescence and participation in the secret marriage of Abigail Hill to the Tory Mr. Masham, the duchess protested so vehemently that a complete in the friendship occurred despite the more tactful duke’s urgent requests that "Mrs. Freeman would see what she so frequently obsarves that 42 [the Queen] is not capable of being chang’d by reason, so that you shou’d be quiet til the time comes in which she must change."34 Sarah Churchill never seemed to know when to leave well enough alone. What, for example, can the queen, after writing the duchess a letter accusing her of "inveteracy," have made of this reply:

Upon receipt of this letter I immediately set myself to draw up a long narrative of a series of faithful services for about twenty-six years past; of the great sense the Queen formerly had of my services; of the great favour I had been honoured with on account of them; of the use I had made of that favour; and of my losing it now by the artifice of my enemies, and particularly of one whom I had raised out of the dust. And knowing how great a respect her Majesty had for the writings of certain eminent divines, I added to my narrative the directions given by the author of "The Whole Duty of Man" with relation to friendship; the directions in the Common Prayer Book before the Communion with regard to reconciliation; together with the rules laid down by Bishop Taylor upon the same head; and I concluded with giving my word to her Majesty that if after reading these she was still of the same opinion as when she wrote that harsh letter, which occasioned her this trouble, I would never more give her the least trouble upon any subject but the business of my office, as long as I should have the honour to continue her servant; assuring her, that however she might be changed towards me, and how much soever we might still differ in opinion, I should ever remember that she was my mistress and my Queen, and should always pay her the respect due from a faithful servant and dutiful subject.

The final interview between the duchess and the queen is worth quoting at length for the light it sheds upon the characters of both:

. . . when I began to speak, she interrupted me four or five times with these repeated words: "Whatever you have to say, you may put it in writing." I said her Majesty never did so hard a thing to any as to refuse to hear them speak, and assured her that I was not going to trouble her upon the subject which I knew to be so ungrateful to her, but that I could not possibly rest, till I had cleared myself from some particular calumnies with which I had been loaded. I then went on to speak (though the Queen turned away her face from me) and to represent my hard case; that there were those about her Majesty who had made her believe that I had said things of her, which I was no more capable of saying than of killing my own children; that I seldom named her Majesty in company, and never without respect, and the like. The Queen said, without doubt there were many lies told. I then begged, in order to make this trouble the shorter and my own innocence the plainer, that I might know the particulars of which I had been accused. Because if I were guilty, that would quickly appear; and if I were innocent, this method only would clear me. The Queen replied that she would give me no answer, laying hold on a word in my letter, that what I had to say in my own vindication would have no consequence in obliging her Majesty to answer, etc., which surely did not at all imply that I did not desire to know the particular things laid to my charge, without which it was impossible to me to clear myself. This I assured her majesty was all I desired, and that I did not ask the names of the authors or relators of those calumnies, saying all that I could think reasonable to enforce my just request. But the Queen repeated again and again the words she had used without ever receding. And it is probable that this conversation had never been consented to, but that her Majesty had been carefully provided with those words, as a shield to defend her against every reason I could offer. I protested to her Majesty that I had no design, in giving her this trouble, to solicit the return of her favour, but that my sole view was to clear myself; which was too just a design to be wholly disappointed by her Majesty. Upon this the Queen offered to go out of the room, I following her and begging leave to clear myself, and the Queen repeating over and over again:--"You desired no answer, and shall have none." When she came to the door, I fell into great disorder; streams of tears flowed down against my will and prevented my speaking for some time. At length I recovered myself and appealed to the Queen, in the vehemence of my concern, whether I might not still have been happy in her Majesty’s favour, if I could have contradicted or dissemble my real opinion of men or things: Whether I had ever, during our long friendship, told her one lie or played the hypocrite once? Whether I had offended in anything, unless in a very zealous pressing upon her that which I thought necessary for her service and security? I then said I was informed by a very reasonable and credible person about the Court that things were laid to my charge of which I was wholly incapable; that this person knew that such stories were perpetually told to her Majesty to incense her, and had begged of me to come and vindicate myself; that the same person had thought me of late guilty of some omissions towards her Majesty, being entirely ignorant how uneasy to her my frequent attendance must be after what had happened between us. I explained some things which I had heard her Majesty had taken amiss of me, and then with a fresh flood of tears, and a concern sufficient to move compassion even where all love was absent, I begged to know what other particulars she had heard of me, that I might not be denied all power of justifying myself. But still the only return was:--"You desired no answer, and you shall have none." I then begged to know if her Majesty would tell me some other time. "You desired no answer, and you shall have none." I then appealed to her Majesty again, if she did not herself know that I had often despised interest in comparison of serving her faithfully and doing right? And whether she did not know me to be of a temper incapable of disowning anything which I knew to be true? "You desired no answer, and you shall have none." This usage was so severe, and these words so often repeated were so shocking (being an utter denial of common justice to one who had been a most faithful servant and now asked nothing more), that I could not conquer myself, but said the most disrespectful thing I ever spoke to the Queen in my life, and yet what such an occasion and such circumstances might well excuse, if not justify. And that was that I was confident her Majesty would suffer for such an instance of inhumanity. The Queen answered:--"That will be to myself." Thus ended this remarkable conversation, the last I ever had with her Majesty. I shall make no comment upon it. The Queen always meant well, how much soever she might be blinded or misguided. (pp. 170-173)

As I suggested above, it is the political orientation of this work which sets it apart from all other autobiographical works by women. A large portion of this narrative consists of letters to and from various people, which the duchess adduces in support of her veracity or of the correctness of her interpretation of events. Sarah Churchill’s personal life is largely incidental. The account begins not with her birth or parentage but with her acquaintance with the queen. Personal events ware revealed, if at all, only in passing; the queen writes, "I am very sensible touched with the misfortune that my dear Mrs. Freeman has had of losing her son, knowing very well what it is to lose a child" (p. 56)--and that is all we know of her son. Such an orientation would not surprise us in a man; but Sarah Churchill was perhaps in a unique position, for a woman, to produce such a document, and produce it she did. Its very existence provides an interesting (though hardly conclusive) clue to the extent to which environment affects the central focus of an autobiographer.

i.. Sarah Osborn


Sarah Osborn (1714-1796) was born in England but came at the age of nine to America, where she spent the rest of her eighty-two years. Her autobiography, some fifty pages of chill piety relieved by impassioned bursts of religious fervor, was written in 1743, when the author was in her thirtieth year.35

In her opening lines she states her reasons for writing, stressing her own unworthiness:

Having been for some years strongly inclined to write something of what I can remember of the dealings of God with my soul from a child, I now, being about thirty years old, attempt to do it; hoping it may consist with the glory of God, at which I trust, through grace, I sincerely aim: And the good of my own soul, as a mean to stir up gratitude in the most ungrateful of all hearts, even mine, to a glorious and compassionate Savior, for all his benefits towards so vile a monster in sin as I am: And for the encouragement of any who may providentially light on these lines after my decease, to trust in the Lord, and never despair of mercy, since one so stubborn and rebellious as I have been, has obtained it, through the sovereign riches of free grace. (p. 6)

She proceeds to mourn her misspent youth, again describing herself as

. . . the most ignorant and vile of all creatures: Whose deep rooted enmity against thee and thy laws broke out into action, as soon as I was capable of any. The first that I can remember of actual sins, of which I was guilty, was telling a lie. And then that text of scripture often rang in my ears. "All liars shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone." (pp. 6-7)

She achieves a measure of devoutness, but then falters:

So I continued for a while, as I thought, to delight in the ways of holiness. But alas! alas! how soon was it over! My goodness was like the morning cloud and the early dew, which soon passeth away; for when I was in my ninth year my father sent for my mother and me to come to New England to him. And on board the ship I lost my good impressions, and grew vile, so that I could then play upon the Sabbath. But was convinced of that sin by an accident which befel me; or rather what was ordered by infinite wisdom for that end. For as I was busy in boiling something for my amusement, I fell into the fire with my right hand, and burnt it all over; which I presently thought came justly upon me for playing on the Sabbath day: and I was ashamed and sorry I had done so. (pp. 8-9)

She continues to yearn after goodness, however, and almost seems to feel that she can absorb it through physical contact; she tells, with a touch of the comic which is probably unintentional, how she would sneak up behind those she took to be good people to touch their garments. But she falls repeatedly into misadventures such as this:

Sometime after this, contrary to my parents’ commands, I got into a canoe to paddle about in the river, and could not get on shore again. It being in the night, though the moon shined bright, I expected no other but to be drowned. Once I thought to get out, and pull the canoe to the shore; but tried first if I could reach the bottome with my paddle: And finding I could not, durst not venture. Then I could see no probability of escaping death. So I kneeled down and prayed. . . . (p. 11)

Her first marriage is a subject she treats with evident ambivalence, for the young man did not meet with the wholehearted approval of her parents; and although she feels an almost reflex guilt about displeasing them, she continues to feel that their objections were not justified. Her conflicting emotions are transformed into a kind of paranoia:

After I came home, I met with much affliction in many respects. It seemed to me that the whole world were in arms against me, I thought I was the most despised creature living upon earth. . . . I was then with child, and often lamented that I was like to bring a child into such a world of sorrow. . . . (p. 17)

Shortly after the birth of her child her husband dies. She becomes a schoolmistress to support herself, and experiences an extended period of doubt and despair; the following passage is a graphic example of the spiritual sophistry she engages in:

When Satan, and my wicked heart, had prevailed so far as to make me despair of the mercy of God, and verily to believe hell would be my portion, I was tempted to try to get the easiest room there: and to that end to keep myself as ignorant as I could; it being suggested to my mind, that the servant who knew not his Lord’s will would be beaten with few stripes; while he who knew it, and did it not, would be beaten with many stripes: And as my time was over for doing his will, I had better leave off reading, praying, or hearing the word preached any more. (p. 23)

Finally, however, her distress is relieved; thereupon follow several pages of rapture, in the course of which she joins the church and has various mystical experiences at communion--experiences of which she states "it is impossible for me to describe the thousandth part of what I then felt" (p. 37). Then she has yet another lapse of faith, in which she is tempted to believe that "singing and dancing now and then, with a particular friend, was an innocent diversion. Who did I see, besides myself, so precise and strict?" (p. 42).

By the time her second husband proposes, she has become older and wiser, and more attentive to practical considerations:

About this time I had the offer of a second marriage, with one who appeared to be a real christian (and I could not think of being unequally yoked with one who was not such.) I took the matter into serious consideration. I foresaw there were difficulties which I must unavoidably encounter; and many duties would be incumbent on me, to which I had been a strangers: Particularly, in my being a mother in law to three sons, which my proposed husband had by a first wife. But after weighing all circumstances, as well as I could, in my mind, and earnest prayer, which God enabled me to continue in for some time, I concluded it was the will of God, that I should accept of the offer, and accordingly was married to Mr. Henry Osborn, on the fifth day of may 1742. (pp. 51-52)

She and her husband are plunged into debt, which she sees as a trial of faith, a device of God to humble her:

I have often thought God has so ordered it throughout my days hitherto, that I should be in an afflicted, low condition, as to worldly circumstances, and inclined the hearts of others to relieve me in all my distresses, on purpose to suppress that pride of my nature, which doubtless would have been acted out greatly to his dishonor, had I enjoyed health, and had prosperity, so as to live independent of others.

It is on this note that her narrative closes.

The autobiography of Sarah Osborn can only be described as pedestrian. Its main interest lies in its depiction of the continual and almost schizophrenic swings between faith and doubt which sometimes attend the religious life and which must be a source of considerable torment.

j. Elizabeth Ashbridge


The autobiography of Elizabeth Sampson Ashbridge (1713-1755) is one of the most fascinating of the autobiographies of Quaker women which have come down to us. Some Account of the Early Part of the Life of Elizabeth Ashbridge36 is highly atypical--not as the work of Mary Penington, with her relatively unstereotyped and fresh responses, is atypical, but in its peculiar fusion of the usual fare of Quaker autobiography with elements seemingly more characteristic of contemporary secular autobiography. Her interest in the subtleties of human interaction, her ability to portray character and depict incident in a lively, colorful fashion, and what might be called her sense of melodrama all serve to separate her from the reductive attitude towards things of this world that we have come to expect in Quaker writings and link her with the novelistic tendencies which are beginning to be more and more evident in secular autobiography; yet enough of the accoutrements of Quaker journalizing are present (e.g., the clichéd phraseology) to save from the imputation of being simply a fictionalized tale of titillating adventure with a little religion thrown in as a moral sop. The overall impression of the narrative is one of tension between a deeply religious woman who is willing to suffer and sacrifice much for her faith and a good storyteller with an irrepressible interest in the human drama and her own participation in it.

This book was probably written sometime before 1746, when she marries her third (not second, as Matthews and Stauffer both state) husband, since it ends with her widowhood after the death of her second husband. The opening words hint at the rhetorical tension underlying this work:

My life having been attended with many uncommon occurrences, I have thought proper to make some remarks on the dealings of divine goodness with me. I have often had cause, with David, to say, "It is good for me that I have been afflicted;" and most earnestly I desire that they who read the following lines may take warning, and shun the evils into which I have been drawn. (p. 7)

The "uncommon occurrences," the "dealings of divine goodness with me," all have the authentic ring of Quaker confessional writing, but by the end of the paragraph we cannot help suspecting that we are to hear a rather different species of confession, and that the "evils into which I have been drawn" are not going to be simply a youthful display of high spirits and a love of singing and dancing.

Her description of her childhood begins with the usual recounting of thoughtlessness and unperceptiveness; but instead of going on to describe spiritual doubts and searchings, it is transformed into something quite different as she plunges into a genuine human adventure;

I was sometimes guilty of the faults common among children, but was always sorry for what I had done amiss; and, till I was fourteen years of age, I was as innocent as most children. About this time, my sorrows (which have continued, for the greatest part of my life, ever since) began, by my giving way to a foolish passion, in setting my affections on a young man, who, without the leave of my parents, courted me till I consented to marry him; and, with sorrow of heart, I relate, that I suffered myself to be carried off in the night. We were married. My parents made all possible search for me, as soon as I was missing, but it was in vain. This precipitate act plunged me into much sorrow. I was soon smitten with remorse for thus leaving my parents, whose right it was to have disposed of me to their content, or who, at least, ought to have been consulted. But I was soon chastised for my disobedience, and convinced of my error. In five months, I was stripped of the darling of my heart, and left a young and disconsolate widow. I was now without a home; my husband had derived his livelihood only from his trade, which was that of a stocking weaver; and my father was so displeased that he would do nothing for me. My dear mother had some compassion for me, and kept me among the neighbours. Afterwards, by her advice, I went to a relation of hers, at Dublin. We hoped that my absence would soften my father’s rigour; but he continued inflexible; he would not send for me back, and I dared not return unless he did. (pp. 9-11)

Her first contact with the Quakers is not charged with symbolic significance or portentous intuitions; she simply reports her negative reactions, allowing the reader to infer the ironic import of the encounter (ironic in view of her subsequent conversion):

The relation I went to reside with was one of the people called Quakers. His habits were so very different to what I had been accustomed to, that the visit proved disagreeable to me. I had been brought up in the way of the Church of England, and though, as I have said, I had a religious education, yet I was allowed to sing and dance, which my cousin would not permit. The great vivacity of my natural disposition would not, in this instance, suffer me to give way to the gloomy sense of sorrow and conviction; and therefore my present restraints had a wrong effect. I became more wild and airy than ever; my cousin often reproved me, but I then thought his conduct was the result of singularity, and would not bear it, or be controlled. (p. 11)

Later she is tempted to convert to Catholicism; she goes to speak with a priest, who hears her confession:

When I had done, he took a book, which he read, and told me, I was to swear I believed, if I joined them. I shall not trouble my reader with the recital of its ridiculous contents. What principally made me sick of my new intention was, that I was to swear I considered the Pretender to be king James’s son, and the true heir to the crown of England; and that all who died out of the pale of the popish church, would be damned. (p. 12)

Finally, she meets a woman who encourages her, under false pretenses, to accompany her to Pennsylvania:

I was ignorant of the nature of an indenture, and suffered myself to be bound. This was done privately, that it might not be found out. As soon as it was over, she invited me to see the vessel in which I was to sail. I readily consented, and we went on board, where there was another young woman, who, as I afterwards found, was of a respectable family, and had been brought there in the same way as myself. I was pleased with the thought that I should have such an agreeable companion in my voyage. While we were busy conversing, my conductor went on shore, and, when I wished to go, I was not permitted. I now saw I was kidnapped. I was kept a prisoner in the ship three weeks, at the end of which time my companion was found out by her friends, who fetched her away; and, by her information, my friends sent the water-bailiff, who took me on shore. I was kept close for two weeks, but at length found means to get away. I was so filled with the thoughts of going to America that I could not give up the design; and, meeting with the captain, I inquired when he sailed; he told me, and I went on board. (pp. 14-15)

Her dramatic pronouncement that she has been kidnapped is the key to her interpretation of the events. A sea voyage is often a symbolic undertaking, but the usual Quaker metaphor is that of a spiritual voyage or a pilgrimage; Elizabeth Ashbridge recognizes on some level and exploits the romance rather than the religious connotations of her embarkation.

During her passage, she thwarts an attempted mutiny and assassination, but despite this service she is betrayed by the captain into the indenture she thought she had escaped. Her master is cruel and evidently attempts to seduce her; she tells a friend, and when the tale returns to her master, he threatens to have her whipped:

. . . he sent for the town’s whipper to correct me. I was called in. He never asked me whether I had told any such thing, but ordered me to strip. My heart was ready to burst. I would as freely have given up my life as have suffered such ignominy. "If," said I, "there be a God, be graciously pleased to look down on one of the most unhappy creatures, and plead my cause; for thou knowest that, what I have related, is the truth; and, had it not been for a principle more noble than he is capable of, I would have told it to his wife." Then fixing my eyes on the barbarous man, I said, "Sir, if you have no pity on me, yet, for my father’s sake, spare me from this shame . . . and, if you think I deserve such a punishment, do it yourself." He took a turn over the room, and bade the whipper go about his business. Thus I came off without a blow; but my character seemed to be lost. Many reports of me were spread, which I bless God were not true. I suffered so much cruelty that I could not bear it; and was tempted to put an end to my miserable life. I listened to the temptation, and, for that purpose, went into a garret to hang myself. Now it was I felt convinced that there was God. As I entered the place, horror and trembling seized me, and, while I stood as one in amazement, I seemed to hear a voice saying, "There is a hell beyond the grave." (pp. 20-21)

Here we have a vividly depicted scene, complete with snappy dialogue and stage directions; yet annexed to it is the temptation to suicide and accompanying spiritual revelation, which is practically de rigueur in religious autobiography (a device which fictional autobiographers such as Defoe adapted to their own purpose).

Subsequently she remarries:

. . . when I had served about three years, I bought out the remainder of my time, and worked at my needle, by which I could maintain myself handsomely. But alas! I was not sufficiently punished. I released myself from one cruel servitude, and, in the course of a few months, entered into another for life; by marrying a young man who fell in love with me for my dancing; a poor motive for a man to chuse a wife, or a woman a husband. For my part, I was in love with nothing I saw in him; and it seems unaccountable to me, that, after refusing several offers, both in this country and Ireland, I should at last marry one I did not esteem. (pp. 22-23)

Despite her deep ambivalence, however, her marriage seems to plod along serviceably enough at first. Gradually, however, her interest in Quakerism increases, to the great distaste of her husband. Again, there is an ironic twist to her original aversion to aspects of Quaker religious practice:

While we were in Boston, I went, one day, to the Quaker’s meeting, where I heard a woman friend speak, at which I was a little surprised. I had been told of women’s preaching, but had never heard it before; and I looked upon her with pity for her ignorance, and contempt for her practice; saying to myself, "I’m sure you’re a fool, and, if ever I turn Quaker, (which will never be,) I will never be a preacher." Thus was my mind occupied while she was speaking. When she was done, a man stood up, who I could better bear. (p. 26)

In a contemporary novel, such a passage would be an unmistakable hint that the narrator will eventually become a preacher; and so it is in this account.

She still has many trials to suffer, however, before she is finally converted and publicly declares her commitment to Quakerism. At one point, for example, she gives an extremely realistic and vividly realized account of a temptation to theft which she barely resists:

Having been abroad one day, I perceived that the people, in whose house we had a room, had left some flax in an apartment through which I was to pass; at the sight of it, I was tempted to steal some to make thread. I went to it, and took a small bunch in my hand, upon which I was smitten with such remorse that I laid it down again, saying, "Lord keep me from so vile an action." But the temptation to steal became stronger than before; and I took the bunch of flax into my room; when I came there, horror seized me, and, with tears, I cried out, "O, thou God of mercy, enable me to abstain from this vile action." I then took the flax back, and felt that pleasure which is only known to those who have resisted temptation. (p. 27)

Eventually, however, she is overcome with the despair which often precedes conversion:

I thought myself sitting by a fire, in company with several others, among whom was my husband; when there arose a thunder gust, and a noise, loud as from a mighty trumpet, pierced my ears with these words; "OH ETERNITY! ETERNITY, THE ENDLESS TERM OF LONG ETERNITY!" I was exceedingly astonished, and, while I was sitting as in a trance, I beheld a long roll, written in black characters, hearing, at the same time, a voice saying, "These are thy sins," and afterwards adding, "And the blood of Christ is not sufficient to wash them out. This is shown thee that thou mayst confess thy damnation to be just, and not in order that thou shouldst be forgiven." I sat speechless; at last I got up trembling, and threw myself on the bed. The company thought my indisposition proceeded from a fright occasioned by the thunder; but it was of another kind. (p. 28)

She withdraws into a state of profound melancholy, refusing to sing and dance, and fearing to go out alone. During a visit to relatives she is converted. Reunited with her husband, she is subjected to his violent disapproval:

Before he reached me, he heard I was turned Quaker; at which he stamped, and said, "I had rather have heard she was dead, well as I love her; for, if it be so, all my comfort is gone." He then came to me; it was after an absence of four months; I got up and said to him, "My dear, I am glad to see thee." At this, he flew into a great rage, exclaiming, "The devil thee thee, don’t thee me." (pp. 39-40)

Her husband tries every means he can devise to turn her away from her faith. He takes lodgings in the home of a man who is violently anti-Quaker. He forces her to walk eight miles to meeting, though he has a horse; when her shoes wear out she has to bind them to her feet with strings. He beats her and threatens to stab her. Finally, however, he relents, though he cannot bring himself to accompany her to church, saying "I would go to meeting, only I’m afraid I shall hear your clack, which I cannot bear" (p. 57). But by now he has become an alcoholic, and there is little domestic peace. One day, when he is beating her, she cannot forbear protesting:

. . . I broke out into these expressions: "Lord, look down on my afflictions, and deliver me by some means or other." My prayer was granted, but in such a manner that I thought it would have killed me. He went to Burlington, where he got drunk, and inlisted to go as a common soldier to Cuba, in the year 1740. I had drunk many bitter cups, but this seemed bitterest of them all. A thousand times I blamed myself for making such a request, which I was afraid had displeased God, who had, in displeasure, granted it for my punishment. (p. 61)

And so she is, in a manner of speaking, freed. She is later informed that her husband finally "suffered for the testimony of truth" (p. 61)--by refusing, as a Quaker, to engage in battle. A few months later he is dead. Her final comment upon him is a tribute to her perception of the complexity of human relationships:

Having been obliged to say much of his ill usage to me, I have thought it my duty to say what I could in his favour. Although he was so bad, I never thought him the worst of men. If he had suffered religion to have had its perfect work, I should have been happy in the lowest situation of life. I have had cause to bless God, for enabling me, in the station of wife, to do my duty, and now that I am a widow, I submit to his will. (p. 62)

Perhaps it is not surprising that commentators have paid practically no attention to this little book, despite its many interesting qualities; for it is a true mongrel, difficult to categorize and tending to confute generalizations about various types of autobiography. But as a detailed portrait of social interaction and as a curious literary hybrid, I believe it deserves notice. For if Laetitia Pilkington is, as Virginia Woolf would have it, "a . . . cross between Moll Flanders and Lady Ritchie,"37 Elizabeth Ashbridge is a cross between Moll Flanders and any one of a half dozen female Quaker autobiographers; she invokes the conventions of Quaker autobiography only--probably unintentionally--to subvert them.

k. Laetitia Pilkington


Laetitia Pilkington (1712-1750) gained her small permanent niche in literary history because she was in her salad days a peripheral member of Swift’s Dublin circle and because she includes in her Memoirs38 a number of homely, and sometimes brutal, anecdotes about Swift. Scholars, after rifling her work for Swiftiana, generally discard the rest or perhaps retail a few racy incidents and then dismiss her as a minor poetaster and adventuress. Even Virginia Woolf, who treats her with great sympathy, describes her, as we have just seen, as "a very extraordinary cross between Moll Flanders and Lady Ritchie, between a rolling and rollicking woman of the town and a lady of breeding and refinement."39 Yet considered from her own point of view--as a victim of circumstances to whom few options were open, Laetitia Pilkington is a fascinating and touching figure, and her Memoirs have a tragic quality underlying the jests and (often rather forced) merriment, as we watch her gradual slide down the social scale and her increasing desperation. And perhaps no eighteenth century autobiographer is more sensitive to the implications of being female and in need of living by her wits in an era when such a combination of circumstances guaranteed notoriety and virtually forced a woman into compromises of one sort of another. As she herself sums up her situation:

But I have been a lady of adventure, and almost every day of my life produces some new one: I am sure, I ought to thank my loving husband for the opportunity he has afforded me of seeing the world from the palace to the prison; for, had he but permitted me to be what nature certainly intended me for, a harmless household dove, in all human probability I should have rested contented with my humble situation, and, instead of using a pen, been employed with a needle, to work for the little ones we might by this time have had. (p. 289)40

Like Mrs. Manley, Mrs. Pilkington began life most respectably. Her father, Dr. Van Lewen, was a highly-regarded Dublin man-midwife; her mother was a descendant of the Earl of Kilmallock. By her own account she was a highly intelligent child, whit a prodigious memory, who taught herself to read before she was five. Her precocity and diminutiveness secured her many admirers, and at the age of eighteen she was cajoled into marrying an impoverished clergyman, Matthew Pilkington, in the face of what was either ambivalence or indifference on the part of her parents. Because both the Pilkingtons, but especially Laetitia, were facile versifiers, they were cultivated by Dr. Delany (whose wife’s autobiography we have already discussed) and introduced by him to the aging Swift, who patronized the pair and was evidently charmed and amused by them.

But the happiness and security of these early years were not to last. Matthew Pilkington was a mean-minded man, lacking in humanity and envious of his wife’s abilities. One night, when Swift posed a question to each of the Pilkingtons and was better pleased with the wife’s answer, he turned to the husband and said, "‘P_x on you for a dunce . . . were your wife and you to sit for a fellowship, I would give her one sooner than admit you a sizar’" (p. 80); Pilkington, instead of taking his defeat with good grace, became very irritated. On another occasion, the pair were each writing Horatian odes; when Laetitia finished hers and showed it to Matthew, who instead of bestowing the expected approval, "was very angry, and told me the Dean had made me mad; that the lines were nonsense, and that a needle became a woman’s hand better than a pen. So to bring him into temper I praised his ode highly, and threw my own into the fire" (pp. 81-82)--which led her to the following reflections on the reasons that men do not like their wives to write:

. . . it seems to set them too much upon a level with their lords and masters; and this I take to be the true reason why even men of sense discountenance learning in women, and commonly choose for mates the most illiterate and stupid of the sex; and then bless their stars that their wife is not a wit. (p. 82)

Their life together became one of "subtle cruelty" (p. 81) and psychological torture:

Mr. Pilkington viewed me with scornful, yet with jealous, eyes. And though I never presumed to vie with him for pre-eminence, well-knowing he not only surpassed me in natural talents but also had the advantage of having those talents improved by learning, and was sensible the compliments I received were rather paid to me as a woman, in whom any thing a degree above ignorance appears surprising, than to any merit I really possessed, he thought proper to insult me every moment. Indeed, he did not beat me, which some of the good-natured ladies have brought as an argument that he was an excellent husband. . . . (p. 80)

Eventually Swift obtains for Matthew Pilkington a one-year post as chaplain to the Lord Mayor of London:

Mr. Pilkington, contrary to everybody’s advice who had any regard for him, went to England. I was very desirous of going with him; but he told me plainly he did not want such an encumbrance as a wife, and that he did not intend to pass there for a married man; and that, in short, he could not taste any pleasure where I was. As this was a secret I did not know before, I received it with astonishment; for amidst all his wayward moods, I ever imagined, till then, that he loved me, and that the many ill-natured speeches he made me were rather the effect of a bad temper than any settled aversion he had taken against me; especially as I observed he treated everybody with contempt, even persons every way superior to him (the Dean alone excepted, to whom he paid even a servile complaisance). And, though he now fairly plucked off the mask and let me see my mistake, I could hardly give him credit--so unwilling are we to believe truth when it runs counter to our wishes. (pp. 82-83)

When she follows him to London at the end of his year to accompany him home, she finds him involved in an intrigue which her presence does not seem to interfere with; on the contrary, he attempts to place her in compromising situations to justify his own laxity. She is finally led to conclude that "I could scarcely after regard Mr. Pilkington as a husband, but rather as a man whose property I was, and who would gladly dispose of me to the best bidder. Shocking thought!" (p. 103). He refuses to return to Dublin with her, and when he does he becomes chaplain to Widow W_rr_n (who Donald Stauffer speculates may be the prototype for Widow Wadman in Tristram Shandy41), with whom he enters into a questionable relationship. He finally maneuvers his wife into a divorce:

I own myself very indiscreet in permitting any man to be at an unseasonable hour in my bed-chamber; but lovers of learning will, I am sure, pardon me, as I solemnly declare it was the attractive charms of a new book which the gentleman would not lend me but consented to stay till I read it through--that was the sole motive of my detaining him. But the servants, being bribed by their master, let in twelve watchmen at the kitchen-window, who, though they might have opened the chamber-door, chose rather to break it to pieces, and took the gentleman and myself prisoners.

For my own part, I thought they had been house-breakers, and would willingly have compounded for life, when entered Mr. Pilkington, with a cambric handkerchief tied about his neck after the fashion of Mr. Fribble, and with the temper of a Stoic, bid the authorized ruffians not to hurt me. But his Christian care came too late; for one of them had given me a violent blow on the temple, and another had dragged two of my fingers out of joint. The gentleman, at the sight of Mr Pilkington, threw down his sword, which he observing, made two of the watchmen hold him, while he most courageously broke his head.

After this heroic action, he told me, who stood quite stupified between surprize and pain, that I must turn out of doors; but, observing that I was fainting, he brought up a bottle of wine, and kindly drank both our healths. He would fain have prevailed on us to pledge him; be we were not in a temper to return civility. Upon which he took my hand, and very generously made a present of me to the gentleman, who could not in honour refuse to take me, especially as his own liberty was not to be procured on any other terms. Mr Pilkington kindly dismissed our guards, and assured us, as soon as ever he had obtained a divorce, he would with great pleasure join us together in holy matrimony. At the door the gentleman’s sword was delivered to him. Mr. Pilkington offered to kiss me at parting, which mean piece of dissimulation, so much in the style of Jack Ketch, gave me the utmost contempt for the villian. (pp. 133-134)

Even allowing for what Stauffer calls her "novelizing her own life,"42 Pilkington must have been an unusually brutal man, and the bitterness towards him which pervades her book is eminently understandable.

So Laetitia Pilkington goes off to London in the hopes that she will find there more opportunities to support herself. The difficulties are enormous. She enters into a number of relationships, the nature of which remains ambiguous, though Stauffer seems to infer that she was little more than a prostitute. But it is evident that much of her income comes from writing verse, which she does competently (many examples are inserted in her Memoirs); a little she publishes directly, some she ghost-writes for Lord Worsdale who passes it off as his own, and much is panegyric which she addresses to wealthy people with the hope of being rewarded. At one point she opens a shop where she sells pamphlets and writes letters for a fee. But she is seldom far from hunger and hardship; she spends some time in prison, and she even considers suicide:

. . . having been three days and three nights without food of any kind, Heaven pardon me! a melancholy thought came into my head that it was better to die at once than die daily; and that, as I could not fardles bear, it was best to make my own quietus, and no longer strive to keep up a frail and feverish being. . . . (p. 267)

She makes plans to drown herself in St. James’s Park, but she is deterred by two women who engage her in conversation and later insist that she accompany them to supper:

We were let in at the back-door, by a servant in livery, to genteel house, where, on a sofa, sat a very handsome man in a gold brocade nightgown, to whom the young lady presented me, and said he was her spouse; the cloth was ready laid, and a cold supper on the table: I would very fain have prevailed on the lady to permit me to go through her house home, for I could easily perceive the gentleman’s civility was quite forced, and that he was impatient to revenge on his wife the liberty she had taken of inviting a stranger in; which, indeed, I believe she did on no other account but that she thought decency would prevent him from giving her a beating, of which, it seems, he was very liberal, though he was but a footman when the lady married him, and threw herself and twenty thousand pounds away upon him, as I afterwards learned. (pp. 268-69)

The Memoirs actually take on a kind of life of their own. They were written in three volumes and were intended to provide her with a source of income. As she states repeatedly, words are her stock in trade, her only negotiable commodity. When Samuel Richardson gives her some money, she praises him lavishly and adds:

When he reads these lines as I read them I am certain he will--even for the writer’s sake, let him reflect that at least his bread was not scattered on the water; but that, though I have no other way of shewing my gratitude for his boundless and repeated acts of humanity to me and my children but words, mere words yet, if every word of mine could charm down blessings on him:

Then Never should misfortune cross his foot;

But peace whould be within his walls, and plenty,

Health and happiness his constant Attendants.

(p. 283)

She refuses a drink because "having no other estate but my head, on which were hourly demands, it was by not other means my interest to destroy it" (p. 391). She is a conscious stylist and aware of the connection between her personality and her writing style:

. . . I am no Methodist either in writing or religion. Sometimes irregularities please; shapeless rock, or hanging precipice, present to the poetic imagination more inspiring dreams than could the finest garden. . . .

I am, in short, an heteroclite, or irregular verb, which can never be declined or conjugated. (p. 359)

But the book also interacts with her life on another level--by serving as a kind of literary blackmail; she warns that "if every married man who has ever attacked me does not subscribe to my Memoirs, I will without the least ceremony, insert their names, be their rank ever so high or their profession ever so holy" (p. 141). At the end of the volume I, she promises that "if this volume meets with a favorable reception, I can assure my readers the next will be infinitely more entertaining" (p. 169). When she runs short of material from her own life, she dips into other people’s lives as a source of stories. As her situation becomes more and more desperate, so does her writing. Towards the end of volume II her writing practically degenerates into gibberish. By the time she reaches volume III, she is frantically stringing anecdotes and stories together, by a process which as she describes it is almost stream of consciousness:

I have observed that the scent of a flower, or the tune of a song, always conveys to remembrance the exact image of the place in which they were first noticed. Well, therefore, in the relation of a story, where one circumstance insensibly brings on another, may a writer who scorns to deal in romance be led like me to digress. (p. 373)

She even confesses to padding:

If the reader thinks this little narrative is not quite in point--which now it is related I begin to find out myself--he may blot it out of his book if he pleases, but he shall not blot it out of my manuscript, for that would be to deprive me of a page, that is worth a crown to me. . . . (p. 377)

But it is important that she complete this volume, which indeed was published posthumously; for, as she says, "It is the only legacy I have to leave my poor boy . . ." (p. 445).

When in the end she tells us that "poor Laetitia is become the football of fortune" (p. 424), we must concede the justice of this remark. Though her suffering, perhaps, does not entirely excuse her occasionally questionable morality, it certainly gives it a context. I believe that her Memoirs would profit from a scholarly rereading, for they are by no means simply a mine from which we can extract a few choice Swiftian nuggets; for those interested in the situation of women in the eighteenth century and the forces that shaped the emergent class of women writers who depended upon the pen for their livelihood, there is no better source book than these Memoirs.

l. Teresia Constantia Phillips


Donald Stauffer, who permits himself the pleasure of an occasional scholarly sneer, tends in general to be rather hard on female autobiographers; but it is Teresia Constantia Phillips (1717- ) who elicits his most envenomed attack. Comparing her with Laetitia Pilkington, whose autobiography appeared in the same year (1748), he writes:

. . . as writers they both had Mrs. Manley for a mother and Colley Cibber for a father. But if Laetitia Pilkington has some agreeable traits, Con Phillips has none. The reader is inclined to agree with the Gentleman of the Inner Temple, who, in A familiar epistle to the celebrated Mrs. Con. Phillips, on her Apology (n.d., p. 5), speaks of "making the People accessary to your Faults after the commission," and believes it possible that her subscribers give her "a larger Encouragement for a Detail of your Gallantries, than,--perhaps they originally afforded: Which must be very dangerous Precedent, and terminate in the Ruin of numbers of your Sex, who will need no great Persuasions, to give up their Virtue, when convinc’d the History of its loss will yield a Profit, after the Sweets are gone." He suggests only one practical use for her Apology.43

Stauffer goes on to accuse her of foaming at the mouth, airing her dirty linen, and the like. He remarks in closing his discussion of her that "in this one instance, perhaps, the argument of the usefulness of biography in furnishing warning examples may hold true, for the figure of Con Phillips is indeed direful."44 Such a harsh judgment of Con Phillips’ character is nothing new. Fielding in Amelia classes her with such legendary figures as "Dalila, Jezebel, Medea, Semiramis, Parysatis, Tanaquil, Livilla, Messalina, Agrippina, Brunichilde, Elfrida, Lady Macbeth, Joan of Naples, Christina of Sweden, Katharine Hays, Sarah Malcolm. . . ."45

Whence all this fierce condemnation? There is no question that Con Phillips is capable of considerable viciousness. She will treat secretly with a new lover while still under the "protection" (eighteenth century euphemism for sharing bed and purse) of an old. Before its compilation into three volumes, her Apology46 was brought out as a series of short pieces, which, as Stauffer gleefully notes, "offered magnificent opportunities for extortion."47 And yet, when she offers to suspend publication of an incident in which she is raped if her noble ravisher will give her money, is not her crime extenuated by her needs at least as much as his is by his "needs?" As she notes (writing in the third person), "as the Necessity of her Circumstances forces her to this Publication, it is absolutely incumbent upon her, in telling her Misfortunes, to set forth the Means by which they came upon her" (I, p. 69). Clearly Con Phillips was no saint; but then, neither were any one of a number of other autobiographers who stood ready to capitalize on the public taste for scandalous reminiscences. Why was Con Phillips singled out for such unmitigated denunciation?

It is hard to resist wondering whether her contempt for the male sex had anything to do with it. Surely no writer of the period is more sensitive to the double standard of morality and behavior and more bitter about its effect on the lives of women. Examples abound:

But here let us pause for a Moment, to remark the Baseness and Sensuality of the Perfidious Sex, and wonder at your strange Infatuation, ye credulous Fair! Though every Day presents ye some new Instance of their Baseness and Cruelty, still ye believe; and what will certainly follow is--you are deceived; for let the Beginning be ever so flattering, sooner or later, Thus will it end!--If ye escape the Censure of the World, which seldom happens, they themselves will be at last the Instruments of your Misery; and he, the perfidious he, who has ruined and betrayed you! will be the first to upbraid you for your Loss of Virtue. (II, p. 112)

And again:

How bad is the Fate of a Woman, who has had the Misfortune to make any false Step in her Conduct! She may prostrate herself at the Feet of the Public; she may, with the utmost Humility and Contrition, confess her Offences; she may implore Forgiveness of an offended World; and, with the deepest affliction, take Shame to herself for any Scandal she has given them; but in vain! that Penitence which we are taught to believe the Wrath of an offended God, is not Atonement sufficient in the Opinion of our much severer Judges, the World. (III, pp. 3-4)

Her concluding letter to Lord Chesterfield, who "jocosely recommended to me the Writing of the Whole Duty of Woman" (p. 259), is given over almost entirely to imprecations against such unfairness. She contends that condemning a woman for one false step "has ruined innumerable Women"--"this very tyrannic, unchristian Custom . . . was the Reason I became careless of my Conduct; because I found all my Efforts to retrieve my Loss were vain" (III, p. 266). Her statement of her case is telling and succinct:

. . . if in the first Outsetting of a young Girl’s Life, she makes a Slip from Honour, how quick soever her Return be, though her Life and Conduct should ever after escape even the Rancour of Envy, yet she shall be branded to her last Moments with that Misfortune; and if she is beautiful, every Man thinks he has a Right to demand the Possession of her Person, upon the same base Terms with the first: And really, my Lord, considering you are the Law-makers, and always seduce us to offend them, I think, in Honour and Justice, there should be some lesser Punishment than that of eternal Infamy affixed to a Crime in which you are the principal Aiders and Abetters, or else that the Crime should be equally odious in both; for at present the Thief is exempted from Punishment, and it is only the Party despoiled who suffers Death. (III, p. 271)

At one point an abbess "of a most philosophical Temper, and masculine Understanding" (II, p. 5) tells her:

. . . no Ties, no Obligations, can bring that perfidious Sex to think a Woman is made for any thing but their Prey; they solve all the tender Proofs of Affection we lavish upon them into the Word Gallantry: It was an Affair of Gallantry, he grew weary and left her; no Matter what Sacrifice she has made to indulge him. (II, p. 6)

A man to whom she complains of another man’s despicable behavior replies, "I do not see . . . you have more Reason to complain than any other Woman, who grants Favours to Men upon such Terms; we always leave a Woman, when we are tired of her" (II, p. 163). In her letter to Lord Chesterfield she complains of being treated like a child by men, even when she is forty (III, p. 267). It is hardly surprising that she concludes:

. . . these are the Disadvantages we labour under from being born Women; and they are such that, for my own Part, were Beauty as lasting as our Date of Life, to change my Sex I would be contented to be as deformed and ugly as Aesop. . . . (III, p. 267)

To learn what engendered this bitterness, it is necessary to turn to the story of her life. It is written in the third person, by a male narrator who claims to have known her for twenty years but only recently become intimate with her; but since the narrator knows a great deal about his subject, and since his writing is delayed when she becomes sick, it is easy enough to detect the author. Aside from the statement that she was "the Daughter of a Gentleman of a good Family, Son of a younger Brother of the Phillips’s of Picton Castle in Wales" (I, p. 45), we learn little of her early history. When her father marries a cruel stepmother, she leaves home at the age of thirteen and applies herself to her needle as a means of support. She quickly attracts the attention of a young gentleman "whose Reason (as all who have the Honour of knowing him will admit) was absolutely subordinate to his Passions in Matters of Amour; and whose peculiar Taste was for girls of that Age" (I, p. 55). She attempts to resist his superior wiles, but at last he inveigles her into his lodgings and proceeds to rape her:

. . . One Day, that the King returned from Hanover, there were great Rejoicings and Fireworks, which Miss was invited, by her Lover, to see from his Window that fronted the Street: She accordingly went, though (as I have heard her say) not without inconceivable Reluctance and Horror. At her coming in, he received her with all possible Marks of Respect, Tenderness, and Affection. . . . When the illuminations were over, there was set on the Table some Sweetmeats, Wine, &c. He prevailed on her to sit down. . . . He Press’d her extremely to drink a Glass or two of Wine, and when she consented he deceived her, by giving her Barbados Water. She had been so little accustomed to Wine that it was easy to put such an Imposition upon her; and, no Doubt, the Liquor had the desired Effect upon her tender Head. However, when she express’d a Desire to go Home, he began, by little and little, to discover his Design. What Effect soever the Liquor had upon her, it was not sufficient to lull her into a quiet Submission to such a Proposal; and, upon his absolutely refusing to let her go, it put her in the most terrible Agonies: Tears and Prayers were all in vain; she was then in his Power, and he resolved to make Use of it. However, he tried first what could be done by fair Means, protesting to her, that, though no Ceremony had pass’d between them, he should always look upon her as his Wife, and would instantly make such a Provision for her, as should put her out of the Power of Fortune: but, at last, finding nothing, that he could invent or say, could reconcile her to the Thoughts of staying there, as he walk’d backwards and forwards in the Room, he took an Opportunity of coming behind her, while she sat upon an old-fashion’d high-back’d Cane Chair, and, catching hold of her Arms, drew her Hands behind the Chair, which he held fast with his Feet. In this Position, it was an easy Matter for him with one Hand to secure both of her’s and take the Advantage, he had previously meditate, of ripping up the Lacing of her Coat with a Penknife; which he performed with such Precipitation, as even to cut her. When her Coat was off, he tore away, with little Difficulty, what else she had on. (I, pp. 58-60)

"I believe the Reader will not be offended," she adds, "if I pass over in Silence what followed from this base Procedure" (I, p. 60). Not knowing what to do, she continues as his lover; but within two months he tires of her and leaves her without support.

Before long she has run into debt, and finally she consents to a scheme whereby she is "married," in the presence of witnesses, to a man who already has a legal wife, "and by that means screen her from her Debts" (I, p. 76). Later Mr. Muilman, a Dutch merchant, becomes infatuated with her and wants to marry her; she tells him, she insists, her past history, which he assures her is not obstacle. When, after the marriage, his father threatens to disinherit him, his ardor cools somewhat; he proposes that they annul the marriage--she will be his mistress until his father’s death. She refuses, and a good deal of the remaining work is taken up with the resulting litigation. The descriptions of her legal battles are so complicated and confusing that they were later to induce Jeremy Bentham to advocate reform of the English legal system. Her husband comes to appear Satanic--"being an exact Copier of his Original, [he] could not avoid his Defects, and, like him, disclosing the cloven Foot" (I, p. 176). At first his behavior is "Proteus-like" (p. 182), one moment besetting her with ruffians, the next passionately loving. But eventually he becomes her implacable adversary and at length remarries. At one point, he even agrees to pension her off if she will only retire permanently to Jamaica.

"Is it then wonderful," she asks,

if, deserted by him, and under Circumstances that of Necessity made the Nature of their Separation public, a young Creature of Mrs. M____n’s extraordinary Beauty, and other Accomplishments, should draw the Attention and Admiration of Mankind upon her? left to herself, without any Protection, or Friends to counsel or advise her, and in the Midst of these destructive Allurements, though she stray’d from that Path the descreet and amiable Part of her Sex make the most shining Figure in, if the Just, the Generous, and the Good, will but for a Moment turn their Thoughts inward, how will they lament! how pity her! for there they will see human Nature in its primitive Dress; and every Man and Woman of the least Discernment knows, when left to themselves, how little we are capable of, let the natural Bent of our own Inclinations be what they will. (p. 216)

In other words, it is not long before she has taken a lover--and a lover who is so jealous that her life is made utterly miserable. She proceeds, understandably, to justify his suspicions and flee to another man. From this point on, the stories of her numerous love affairs are interpolated in the long saga of her lawsuit. Her pièce de résistance is the extended tale of her five-year relationship with Tartufe:

Tartufe was too much a Master of every ruinous Art necessary to engage the Affections of the Fair, to fail of Success in any Enterprise of the amorous kind: There was no Shape or Form but he could with Ease assume, that was liable to captivate the unwary Sex. If the Heart he was in Pursuit of, was to be won by the gay, polite and easy, he could be that Sort of fine Gentleman; if to be taken by Storm, the Soldier; were she devout, he good Soul! could be the Saint.

Thus was his Genius fitted to every Foible of that weak, unguarded Sex. (II, p. 105)

The story closes with a several-page itemized "Account" of the money she has paid out for him, ranging from "Hush-Money to her Servants, to prevent Letters and Meetings coming to the knowledge of Mr. B____" (II, p. 186), and "A Pocket Book Mounted with Gold" (II, p. 186), to "Maintenance of the Child eleven Years" (II, p. 187), and "funeral Expenses for the Child" (II, p. 187). Nonetheless, she is, like Laetitia Pilkington, "convinced of the Certainty of her being formed to make the best Wife in the World" (I, p. 217).

Con Phillips, in short, was no pillar of rectitude, but she had many redeeming virtues. If nothing else, she must be given credit for the clarity with which she perceived the social injustices of which she was a victim. And if her hatred of men was relentless, we must acknowledge that it was to some extent founded on the social realities of the period in which she lived.


2. Patterns in Women’s Autobiography: 1700-1750


Con Phillips brings us to the midpoint of the century. Before proceeding with the authors who wrote after 1750, it might be desirable to survey briefly the works we have been considering and to note the many new directions in which women’s autobiography seems to be heading.

The first salient characteristic of women’s autobiography between 1700 and 1750 is the great increase in decisively secular works; in fact, in contrast with the previous century, the secular works now outnumber the religious works. In the seventeenth century, moreover, even the works which we have labeled secular were heavily steeped in the authors’ religious faith. In the eighteenth century, the secular and the religious have become much more polarized; outside of works whose impetus was explicitly religious, the formal spiritual life of the author seems to have little relevance to her idea of herself as expressed in her autobiography.

As Stauffer remarks, "Women had a virtual monopoly in recording the affairs of the heart."48 This statement applies to the seventeenth century as well as to the eighteenth, but a remarkable change has occurred: love has come out of the home and into the market-place, so to speak. For the more respectable secular autobiographers--Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Mrs. Delany, and (perhaps) Elizabeth Thomas--the focus has shifted from married life to courtship; for their more tarnished sisters, it has shifted to intrigue. For many of the women, retailing their relationships is literally a matter of economic necessity; for Laetitia Pilkington, to take but one example, writing is an alternative to begging and prostitution. As early as Delariviere Manley in 1714, we see the beginnings of professionalism; the great majority of autobiographies by eighteenth century women were written for publication--and for money.

Women are still by and large dependent on men, but the complexity of that dependence becomes clearer as the socially institutionalized cruelty of men towards women becomes more prominent. A few women even achieve a measure of independence, or have it thrust upon them. Though the duchess of Marlborough was evidently devoted to her husband, he scarcely figures in her autobiography, for she had important work of her own which was only indirectly related to his career. Elizabeth Elstob and Elizabeth Thomas remained unmarried, pursing such careers as they had, albeit in dire poverty. Delariviere Manley, Laetitia Pilkington, and Con Phillips, though married, can count on no support form their husbands; but they manage to eke out some sort of living by their writing and other activities.

All this is not to say that the autobiographies of the eighteenth century represent an abrupt and total break with those of the seventeenth century. Religious autobiographies, still largely Quaker, continue to be written. For the most part, these works do not differ radically from those of their seventeenth century predecessors. Elizabeth Ashbridge, to be sure, achieves an interesting mixture of the religious and secular modes, but this work appears to be a literary cul-de-sac; on the whole, religious autobiography manages to remain surprisingly insulated from developments in secular literature. Among secular works, not all are the work of women who must support themselves. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Mary Delany, though the content of their works differs markedly from that of the seventeenth century writers, hark back to a more leisurely tradition of aristocratic writing--not for money or for publication, but for the diversion of themselves and a few friends.

On the whole, however, one is struck with the differences rather than the similarities between the works on the first half of the eighteenth century and those which have gone before. In the next chapter we shall see how many of the trends of early eighteenth century autobiography are further developed and refined in the latter half of the century.