DOWN-HOME BACON, OR, A SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY WOMAN'S "CONSIDER

DOWN-HOME BACON, OR, A SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY WOMAN'S "CONSIDERATIONS CONCERNING MARRIAGE"

Source: Down-home Bacon, or, a seventeenth-century woman's... By: Travitsky, Betty S., ANQ, 0895769X, Apr-Jul92, Vol. 5, Issue 2/3


Over the last two decades, students of Renaissance social history have come to realize that Renaissance women experienced many cross-class, gender-specific constraints. In particular, a wife, or feme covert, was without independent legal status or right of redress for even the most fundamental violations committed against herself, including any perpetrated by her husband. While this understanding has come slowly to students of Renaissance history, the reality was recognized during the Renaissance itself. As Erasmus put it, "Certainly no man will envy the condition of a wife if he observes what is true, that all the goods of marriage belong rather to the husband than the wife."(n1)

It is therefore a sadly ironic measure of the debased status of Renaissance women that only in exceptional cases did they have the liberty to choose to remain single and thus be positioned to participate in public affairs. Nevertheless, negative conceptions of the liabilities for a man on marriage were so strong that such early humanists as Alberti, Leonard Bruni, and Francesco Barbaro wrote in praise of marriage to fend off the extinction they feared of noble families.(n2) In seventeenth-century England, negative conceptions about these liabilities found a resonant echo in a well-known essay by Francis Bacon that incorporates such contradictory, and unresolved, sentiments as the following:

He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief. Certainly the best works, and of greatest merit for the public, have proceeded from the unmarried or childless men; which both in affection and means have endowed the public. Yet it were great reason that those that have children should have greatest care of future times; unto which they know they must transmit their dearest pledges.... [T]he most ordinary cause of a single life is liberty, especially in certain self-pleasing and humorous minds, which are so sensible of every restraint, as they will go near to think their girdles and garters to be bonds and shackles. Unmarried men are best friends, best masters, best servants, but not always best subjects.... Certainly wife and children are a kind of discipline of humanity.... Grave natures, led by custom, and therefore constant, are commonly loving husbands.... Chaste women are often proud and froward, as presuming upon the merit of their chastity.... [A] man may have a quarrel to marry when he will. But yet he was reputed one of the wise men, that made answer to the question, when a man should marry?--A young man not yet, an older man not at all.(n3)

Clever pronouncements like Bacon's, rich in allusion to classical authorities and in witty digs at even the virtuous wife, were beyond the ken or pen of even relatively educated Renaissance women, who were taught to read, and perhaps to write, to enable them to conduct their homes and families in a pious manner.(n4) The reformers' efforts improved women's education, but most advocated utilitarian study, limited largely to prayer book and Bible. This program reinforced such traditional ideals for women as chastity, silence, and obedience, and, sadly, left us little evidence of the thinking of obedient women, since "silence" was construed to refer to written communication as well as public speech.

Even when obedient women did write, primarily for private audiences, their writings incorporated few rhetorical flourishes since the study of rhetoric was considered inappropriate for women.(n5) Fortunately, at least one unpublished essay on marriage by an indisputably obedient wife, Elizabeth Egerton, Countess of Bridgewater (1626-1663), has been preserved for us--inadvertently--by her grieving husband, who commemorated his wife in an extraordinary epitaph after "she exchanged her earthly Coronet for an heavenly Crown" and also had copies of her "Loose Papers" made. As a result, the Countess's "Considerations concerning Marriage" is preserved in a journal that has come down to us in three scribal copies.(n6)

While her essay may seem rhetorically a species of "down-home Bacon," having none of the flourish and sophistication of Bacon's jeu d'esprit, it is nevertheless a very important social document. When contrasted with Bacon's essay it is particularly illuminating.(n7) Bacon's ideas were viable only to a male who enjoyed the options he describes, and, as the Countess's essay shows, were outside the thinking of a respectable, contemporary woman. It remains to note that the manu****** also contains a second essay on marriage, "Of Marriage, and of Widdowes," and that the more homely perspective that the Countess brings to her subject is well indicated by the comparison she considers: unlike Bacon, she does not regard the single state a serious option. Her "Considerations" follow:

Some account of Marriage as an unhappy life, by reason there is an obedience must belong from the wife to the Husband; and `tis greate reason it should so be, since we are commanded, by those that are above our capacity of reason, by God himselfe, and truly I think that person unhappy that will not esteeme of Matrimony, so as to take that tye into consideration, to inquire with themselves, whether or no they could esteeme of such a person so as to value his Judgment; and in matter of consequence, to yeild to his councell; not to be in such awe of him, as a servant of his Master, as not to speake, to contradict the least word he saith, but to have an affection, and love to him, as to a friend, and so to speake their mind, and opinion freely to him, yet not value him the lesse; & if he have a reciprocall affection to his wife, it makes them both blest in one another, whereas otherwayes if the wife be so meeke, and low in spirit, to be in Subjection, for every word, she makes him feare he is troublesome, and that shee had rather be alone then in his company; this is far from a companions way; if hye, and lofty, and willful, then of the other side, he is not himselfe when he is with her; so then rather, though he loves her, then bring himselfe into an unquiet disturbed life, he leaves her to goe into some other company, careing not how little he is with her, and when he sees her in company, doubts she will give him some undigested words, and if so, then he is discontented with the sight of her, so must give her a reprehension, at least in private, thus cloth this indiscretion cause a miserable life to them both; and if she be over awed by her owne Fancyes, 'tis a sad life to her selfe, and a trouble to her Husband, who other wayes would be a friendly companion, which makes a marriage happy, especially when a woman values her husband in busines of weight, not so much minding every petty action, as to think, now he loves me not, but love him sincerely; and if he be hasty, 'tis fitt she should be silent, giving him no cause to be angry, and then his anger cannot last long; if he be fickle and various, not careing much to be with his wife at home, then thus may the wife make her owne happinesse, for then she may give her selfe up to prayer, which St. Paul speakes as if a marryed person could not; and thus, in his absence, she is as much God's, as a virgine; and if She have a loving discreet Husband, and one that feares God, he will doubtlesse not hinder her duty to God, but endeavour the increase of her faith, and holynesse,. and there is no doubt, but where both these parties do perfectly agree, with passionate and sincere affection, but 'tis the happyest condition, a friendship never to be broke, as the words of Matrimony say, till death them depart. Now God grant all my friends to enjoy this happy and blessed friendship. (78b-84a)

"Considerations concerning Marriage" demonstrates a Renaissance woman's internalization of the patriarchal attitudes of her time. For reasons that should now be clear to us, but that may seem to us unconvincing, Egerton insists that woman's condition in the married state is a happy one. Without, perhaps, understanding what she is suggesting, she attempts to rationalize and maneuver within her subordinate state. Note, too, the barren simplicity of her language, in comparison to the rich economy of Bacon's, as well as the more limited range of reference in her essay, which never soars beyond domestic and religious considerations and which makes no allusion to the wider world. These areas were presumably of less concern to the Countess who, while educated for a woman of her time, was less learned than many men of a class lower than her own, like Bacon.(n8) A stunning instance of the adaptation by the member of an underprivileged group of the values of the privileged, Egerton's essay provides rare evidence of the thinking of a Renaissance woman about the state which was almost inevitably the lot of women in her time.

(n1.) Christiani matrimonii institutio (1526), f. 55; quoted by Ruth Kelso, Doctrine for the Lady of the Renaissance (Urbana, 1956), p. 91.

(n2.) Elizabeth Welles, "The Iconography of Marriage in Fifteenth-Century Florentine Painting", unpublished paper presented to the Colloquium on Women in the Renaissance (Washington, D.C.), November 29, 1990.

(n3.) Francis Bacon, "Of Marriage and Single Life," in Works, ed. James Spedding, et al. (Boston, 1860), XII, 101-03.

(n4.) Mary Beth Rose, "Maternal De-Formations: Renaissance Options for the Representation of Gender and Shakespearean Dramatic Genre," forthcoming in Shakespeare Quarterly (1991), and Betty S. Travitsky, "The New Mother of the English Renaissance: Her Writings on Motherhood," in The Lost Tradition: Mothers and Daughters in Literature, ed. E. M. Broner and Cathy N. Davidson (New York, 1980), pp. 33-43.

(n5.) Walter J. Ong, "Latin Language Study as a Renaissance Puberty Rite," SP 36 (1959). 103-24; Patricia A. Sullivan, "Seventeenth-Century British Biography and a Female Tradition in Rhetoric," IJWS (1980)3 143-59.

(n6.) One of the three. MS Egerton 607, is owned by the British Library, the other two by the Duke of Sutherland (a descendant of the family), who very kindly allowed me access to the manu******s to prepare an edition of the journals, now in progress under the advisement of Professor G. Thomas Tanselle, for whose patience and kindness I am greatly indebted. Citations are to MS Egerton 607; I have retained the original spelling and punctuation except for expanding contractions and conversion of u-v, i-j, and long s; line breaks are ANQ's.

(n7.) On the value of juxtaposing writings by men and women to garner new insights on the Renaissance, see Jean Howard, "Feminism and the Question of History: Resituating the Debate," Women's Studies 19 (Women in the Renaissance: An Interdisciplinary Forum, ed. Ann Rosalind Jones and Betty S. Travitsky [Summer 1991], 149-57).

(n8.) Some Renaissance women were extremely erudite; Bacon's own mother, Anna (DNB 1, 796), a daughter of Sir Anthony Cooke, was a remarkable Tudor prodigy (Travitsky, "New Mother"). For several extraordinary women in Egerton's family, see Travitsky, "`His wife's prayers and meditations': MS Egerton 607." in Renaissance Englishwoman in Print: Counterbalancing the Canon, ed. Anne M. Haselkorn and Betty S. Travitsky (Amherst, 1990). 241-60. Both Bacon and Egerton had fathers who were very influential in court affairs.

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By Betty S. Travitsky, NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY

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