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Genre Trouble in Early Modern English Writing (1500–1800)

Early Modern Exemplars: Reading Strategies and the Assertion of Readerly Identity and Authority in the Life-writing of Mary Ward, Dionys Fitzherbert and Elizabeth Isham

L’exemplarité à la première modernité : stratégies de lecture et l’affirmation de l’identité et de l’autorité de la lectrice dans les récits de vie de Mary Ward, Dionys Fitzherbert et Elizabeth Isham
Martin Thompson


L’expansion récente de l’application du terme générique « life-writing » au sein des études de la première modernité a permis de mettre en lumière la valeur littéraire et culturelle de nombreux textes, surtout féminins, jusqu’ici délaissés. L’intégration de ces textes précédemment exclus du canon a révélé qu’ils étaient suffisamment riches pour compliquer notre conception du genre et même les paradigmes sur lesquels l’étude de l’écriture autobiographique était depuis longtemps fondée. Cet article propose des micro-lectures ainsi qu’une analyse matérielle de trois manuscrits autobiographiques écrits par des femmes afin de montrer que, contrairement aux présupposés occidentaux protestants et masculins, ces femmes pieuses du dix-septième siècle se percevaient comme lectrices et pas uniquement des autrices de leurs récits de vie spirituels. Prenant pour sujet d’étude principalement les paratextes qui précèdent les récits de vie de Mary Ward (1585-1645), Dionys Fitzherbert (c.1580-c.1642) et Elizabeth Isham (1609-1654), nous identifierons – au-delà des différences confessionnelles – des schémas lexico-grammaticaux communs qui démontrent que ces textes prônent et illustrent des stratégies de lecture particulières. Ces stratégies visent également à encourager les lecteurs potentiels à concevoir eux aussi leur propre vie comme un texte à lire. Nous soutiendrons que les textes de Mary Ward en particulier, d’inspiration ignatienne, réinventent radicalement le rôle de l’exemplarité dans les récits de vie féminins.

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1Few ideas are more enticing than the premise that each individual is the author of their own life. However, the ubiquity of this supposedly empowering trope in current discourse obscures the reality that its precedence relies on the historical and ongoing exclusion of alternatives. Silencing these alternatives through the imposition of a universalising narrative has significant implications for our proper appreciation of the dynamic between a person, their lived experience, and the traces they leave behind. My analysis of three examples of early modern life-writing composed by Mary Ward (1585-1645), Elizabeth Isham (1609-1654) and Dionys Fitzherbert (c.1580-c.1642) suggests an alternative paradigm that de-centres the authorial function and therefore challenges this particular master narrative of the emergence and nature of modern selfhood.

2By taking these three early modern texts on their own terms, this article will reveal a series of women who conceived of themselves, even in the act of writing, not primarily as authors of their own lives but as readers of an over-arching ur-text authored by God. I suggest that these texts represent examples of an alternative model for the relationship between individual and their life story even within the context of the early modern explosion in life-writing that is popularly represented as the point of origin for self-fashioning. Taking my lead from the sources themselves and the specific circumstances of the women who produced them, I challenge the projection into the past of the self-legitimising teleology for modern ideas of individuality and autonomy.

3Following scholarship by Julie Eckerle on early modern women’s prefaces as subversive autobiographical spaces and by Helen Smith and Louise Wilson on Renaissance paratexts more generally as sites of particular hermeneutic interest, my enquiry will focus primarily on the introductions to these texts. I will draw attention not only to commonalities – such as the women’s explicit self-identification as readers, and semantic and grammatical slippages between the descriptions of literal texts and lived experiences – but to subtle doctrinal differences in the interpretive strategies exemplified, outlined and advocated by these women. In keeping with the recent developments in the study of women’s writing celebrated by Michelle M. Dowd and Julie A. Eckerle, my aim is to “consider the productive relationship between the ‘life’ or ‘self’ represented in a text and the mechanics of that text” (Dowd and Eckerle 2007, 12-13). Thanks to the plentiful evidence of self-editing visible in the manuscripts, my analysis of these mechanics extends to the nuts and bolts of composition and revision: that is to say, to the materiality of these manuscripts.

Authoring the Self: Individualism and Autobiography

4Georges Gusdorf’s seminal 1956 essay “Conditions and Limits of Autobiography”, which helped to herald the birth of autobiography studies, suggests that autobiography as a genre is a geographically, historically and culturally contingent product of the Italian humanist Renaissance. In his view, the political, spiritual and artistic revolutions of the Renaissance led to the emergence of what he characterised as “the effort of a creator to give the meaning of his own mythic tale” (Gusdorf 1980, 48). The enduring influence and appeal of his work can be observed in the fact that decades later, Michael Mascuch returned to Gusdorf’s foundations in order to produce a genealogy for the development of English individualist autobiography. Mascuch does innovate on Gusdorf’s claim by differentiating the trajectory he proposes emphatically from the “other possible forms of autobiographical textuality and personal self-identity” (Mascuch 1997, 7) that the broad and inclusive discipline of autobiographical studies now encompasses. However, feminist scholars such as Susan Stanford Friedman have suggested that even if “the model of separate and unique selfhood” that is proposed in Gusdorf’s essay is only part of the story, it acts as a problematic benchmark that nevertheless “established a critical bias that leads to the (mis)reading and marginalization of autobiographical texts by women and minorities in the process of canon formation” (Friedman 1998, 72).

5Friedman suggests that the legacy of Gusdorf’s thesis is an “emphasis on individualism as the necessary precondition for autobiography” (Ibid.75). This emphasis is misrepresentative, she argues, because “the self created in a woman’s text is often not a “teleological entity,” or an “‘isolate being’ utterly separate from all others” (Ibid. 76). Psychoanalytic sociologist Nancy Chodorow expands on what she believes is the gendered dynamic at play here when she explains how “Girls […] come to experience themselves as less differentiated than boys, as more continuous with and related to the external object-world and as differently oriented to their inner object-world as well” (Chorodow 1978, 167).

6The implications of this feminist scholarship that presents individualism as an inadequate model of selfhood to assign early modern women are two-fold: not only should individualism not be seen as a precondition of their autobiographical writing, but we should search for alternative paradigms they might have used to understand their relation to themselves and the world.

7Important as these critiques are in highlighting the limitations of any particular paradigm of selfhood, the retrospective application of second-wave feminist concepts of gender solidarity and universal female experience can also be seen as a similarly anachronistic (and simultaneously outdated) imposition. The lesson to be learnt from the traditionalists and feminist revisionists alike is that of historical contingency and thus the crucial importance of attending to the specific and potentially multiple contexts of texts and selfhoods. Indeed, Mary G. Mason’s (oft-cited) assertion that “the self-discovery of female identity seems to acknowledge the real presence and recognition of another consciousness, and the disclosure of female self is linked to the identification of some ‘other’” (which, in three of her four examples, is either God or Christ) seems more apt in its acknowledgment of the way in which early modern female experience was not only gendered but often profoundly dictated by a distinctly religious worldview (Mason 2014, 210).

8If then, the assumption that individualism is a precondition of autobiographical production is open to debate, so too are the implications of this position. For example, this tradition suggests that “by acting as author, the individualist self becomes its own telos: it constitutes a beginning and an end in itself” (Mascuch 1997, 22) and that “the ‘life’ represented by the autobiographical narrative represents, figuratively if not literally, a story-teller, a writing subject” (Ibid. 23). This demonstrates that within this individualist paradigm, the autobiographical subject aligns with the position of author – or writer – of their own life. Crucially, however, this tradition fails to account for the fact that understandings of autobiography and selfhood in the early modern period cannot – and should not – be divorced from a worldview that very much still perceived of God as its point of origin, its telos and its author. Indeed, the conception of the early modern individualist self, itself traced teleologically back from our own modern conceptions of selfhood, has been described by Moshe Sluhovsky as “in fact always implicitly Protestant-and-always-already-becoming-secular” (Sluhovsky 2017, 1). Although Sluhovsky’s position is consistent with the particular concerns of the “religious turn” in early modern literary studies (which in several instances sought to rehabilitate Catholic contexts), the caution he advises with regards to the secularised nature of received knowledge is pertinent to broader postsecular debates.

9As Katharine Hodgkin, editor of the writing of the seventeenth-century English autobiographer Dionys Fitzherbert explains: for early modern individuals, “religion [… was] the very texture of human subjectivity, rather than something that masks a more ‘authentic’ other narrative” (Hodgkin 2010, 47). Therefore, a view of autobiographical texts written by religious women that fails to attend to this reality cannot do justice to either the texts themselves or the kind of selfhood they represent. Where narratives of Western, male, “always-already-becoming-secular” selfhood characterise the individualist autobiographical subject as “story-teller”, “writing subject” and therefore author, the life-writing of Mary Ward, Dionys Fitzherbert and Elizabeth Isham bears witness to processes of reflection, evaluation and interpretation that suggest they are records of acts of reading. Such a position, in preference to possible alternative autobiographical positions such as co-author, collaborator or amanuensis, seems to resonate particularly in an early modern context in which the metaphor of the book of nature has been shown to be predominant across the Christian West (Harrison 2006; Romeiras 2019).

10Within the more specific context of the English Reformation, Kate Narveson argues that the (writing-based) reading practices inculcated by reforms within the Church of England, in conjunction with the proliferation of those associated with Renaissance humanism, enabled and empowered laypeople to understand and define themselves (Narveson 2016, 13). As such, she maintains the essential interconnectedness of reading and writing, as does Femke Molekamp when she observes that “reading is implicated in acts of writing, just as acts of writing sometimes enhance reading processes” (Molekamp 2013, 12). These approaches suggest that rather than there being a binary opposition between the positions of reader and writer in which both are mutually exclusive, it is ultimately a matter of emphasis. Interestingly, the evidence presented by these two scholars for the special status of the written text in early modernity closely aligns with that presented by Tom Webster in illustration of “writing as validation and authority” in early modern spiritual diaries (Webster 1996, 46). God’s promise to the Israelites to “write [his laws] in their hearts” (Hebrews 8:10), for example, and godly Thomas Goodwin’s assertion in 1636 that the Holy Spirit “writes first all graces in us, and then teaches us to read his handwriting” (Thomas Goodwin 1636, 116) could just as easily be used to boulster claims that the primary identity espoused by some early moderns was as reader in relation to God’s ultimate role as author. I would like to challenge the previous priveleging of the relationship between text and writer by suggesting that Ward, Isham and Fitzherbert, amongst others, present themselves primarily as readers. This becomes particularly pertinent when we consider Edith Snook’s identification of the particular currency of reading as a cultural paradigm for women active in various early modern “cultural negotiations” (Snook 2005, 16).

11Despite coming from opposite sides of the Reformation confessional divide (and indeed the Channel, with most of Ward’s autobiographical accounts being attributed to locations across Europe during her exile), the conversation possible between these texts thanks to the acknowledgement of their literary value by recent developments in the field of life-writing reveals enlightening similarities. Comparisons of these three examples of early modern life-writing demonstrate a common conception of the relationship between autobiographical subject and life, both in terms of written record and lived experience. Inter-confessional commonalities do, however, also serve to highlight fundamental differences in the theological orientation of the reading strategies proposed in the texts. These theological differences, combined with analysis of the “marks of editing” evident in her manuscripts, distinguish Ward’s life-writing as an anomalous example of an early modern life whose workings as well as content act as exemplars for their readers. Considering both gendered and religious influences allows us to suggest that these three women inhabited and asserted the position of reader in such a way as afforded them authority, a paradigm only legible by paying attention to gender at the same time as (as David Aers famously insisted) taking these women’s Christianity seriously (Aers 1992, 196).

The Sources and their Writers

12Although originating from different counties and Christian traditions, the three subjects of this article are drawn from the same social class and all three appear to have opted to pursue lives of religiously-motivated celibacy (Hodgkin 2010, 9; Stephens 2016, 3). Their life-writing, much like the lived experiences it seeks to capture, is defined by the intersection of piety and gender.

13Dionys Fitzherbert was born around 1580 into the Oxfordshire gentry. A paucity of documentation means that, like her birth, her death date is approximate, having taken place in London at some point in the early 1640s (Hodgkin 2010, 1). Despite the lack of official records pertaining to Fitzherbert, three different manuscripts exist of her own account of her life, the autograph original left to the Bodleian Library in 1641 (Hodgkin 2010, 19, 75-80). Its main narrative concerns a period of intense spiritual and mental crisis which Fitzherbert frames as a test of faith. The manuscript also contains a series of other writings including letters to various religious figures and an account (with accompanying diagram) of a celestial vision. The cumulative effect is concomitant with the defence imperative identified in early modern women’s writing, but its composite nature is just one instance of its generic complexity.

  • 1 For a more detailed discussion of the nature of Ward’s Institute, the controversy it caused in the (...)

14The life of Mary Ward, a member of the Catholic gentry born in 1585 at Mulwith, near Ripon, is contemporary with that of Fitzherbert. Following a childhood amongst the influential recusant families of Yorkshire, Ward left for the Continent to pursue a religious vocation, initially with the intention of becoming a cloistered nun (O’Brien 2004). Following turbulent early years back and forth between the Continent and England, she made a more decisive departure with a set of companions towards the end of the first decade of the seventeenth century in order to establish a radical unenclosed apostolic order based on the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus. This institute spread across Europe until it suffered the censure of Pope Urban VIII who suppressed it by papal bull it in 1631 (Kenworthy-Browne 2008, xiii). The prohibition against acknowledging Ward as foundress (in place until 1909) means that the survival and preservation of her writing was for centuries piecemeal.1 There are eight surviving manuscripts, including five autograph manuscripts, in the Institute Archive of the Congregation of Jesus in Munich-Nymphenburg (AIM), known as the “Autobiographical Fragments’ (AB). These are mainly concerned with the early years of Ward’s life and her spiritual formation. To the longest of these English-language accounts—AIM-AB-III—are attached two versions of what appears to be a retrospectively composed introduction, also written by Ward herself.

15Although Northamptonshire gentlewoman Elizabeth Isham was born a few decades after Ward and Fitzherbert, her autobiographical text ‘My Book of Rememberance’ (1639) was written within both of their lifetimes. It was excluded from histories of autobiography until recently due to its being lost to obscurity at some point between its purchase by Princeton University Library around 1940 and its rediscovery by Tom Cogswell in 2002 (Stephens 2016, 2). In it, despite having remained unmarried and leaving no children, Isham adopts the conventions of the maternal advice book, amongst those of other genres. Within the text, Isham dispenses advice to her fraternal nieces, interspersing it with titbits of family history and details of both her spiritual development and quotidian activities (Stephens 2007, 7). As such, again, Isham’s work is generically hybrid and provides a rich source of insight not only into her life but also, in conjunction with her idiosyncratic diary, into the processes and practices of early modern life-writing more generally.

  • 2 For an influential study of the emergence of the genre, see Bruce D. Hindmarsh 2005. For a discussi (...)

16These three early modern women and their life-writing predate the late seventeenth-century proliferation of what became known as the “conversion narrative” – a genre (although highly formulaic and derivative) often credited with the earliest participation of Englishwomen in explicitly autobiographical life-writing.2 Although Abigail Shinn has shown that examples can be found beyond the non-conformist Protestant sects (Shinn 2018), the practice of writing a conversion narrative for entry into their congregations has been seen as a key point of origin for the genre of autobiography. In addition to acting as evidence of spiritual rebirth to other members, these texts – which are littered with scriptural references and merge sometimes indistinguishably into biblical accounts – served to aid their autobiographical subjects in interpreting their life narratives in order to discern their status as elect (saved) or reprobate (damned). Although drawing from different generic traditions (Ward’s from the Ignatian practice of General Confession, Fitzherbert’s from the reputational defence and Isham’s from the maternal advice book), all three texts construct coherent retrospective narratives of the women’s lived experience. This qualification for inclusion even within the most conservative definitions of life-writing means they constitute some of the earliest examples of autobiography in English.

An Alternative Paradigm – Early Modern Women as Readers of their own Lives

17In his formative 1987 work Seuils, translated into English ten years later as Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, Gerard Genette discusses the various additional texts that accompany the main work within printed books, such as titles, prefaces, dedications, and introductions. Genette sees these “paratexts” as fulfilling a functional, preparatory role whereby they “ensure for the text a destiny consistent with the author’s purpose” (Genette 1997, 407). Helen Smith and Louise Wilson revisit these assumptions within the context of the Renaissance, suggesting that “Paratexts do [. . .] shape our approach to the books we are reading. They also work upon our imagination, structuring our ways of thinking about the world” (Smith and Wilson 2011, 7). As moments of particular significance in ascertaining the relationship between a text and the world beyond it, the paratexts included in the three manuscripts explored here provide the interpretive key to the life narratives to which they are affixed and, so the three women suggest, to the reader’s understanding of their own life. It is no coincidence, therefore, that these paratexts are sites in which the alternative paradigm for the relationship between autobiographical subject and written record are particularly concentrated.

18Designated in the modern catalogue as “Rough Notes” for Ward’s “Autobiography,” the longest English-language autobiographical account (AIM-AB-III) consists of eleven folios, measuring 15.5 x 20 cm, with the exception of one double page (pp. 3-6, or ff. 2-3), which is 1 cm larger than the other pages (Dirmeier 2007, 11). Both the first leaf and the larger bifolio inserted after it contain separate versions of an introduction. A passage in the second introduction outlines Mary’s motivations for writing an account of her life: it explains that Mary was asked to record her life by her spiritual director, Father Roger Lee, first in 1613 or 1614 and again before his death in 1615. It explains that he insisted that she “should leave yt sealed upp with our company” in Liège “before [her] going to England or anie other place whear [her] life or liberty [illegible] ^might^ be endaingered” (Ward 1617, f. 2r).

  • 3 Christina Kenworthy-Browne acknowledges that the two introductions were “probably composed at diffe (...)

19Although today the folia in this manuscript are loose sheets, marks on all pages indicate that they were once stitched together and pagination in pencil on each folio includes the integrated bifolio. Collectively, these physical features suggest the tradition of viewing the two versions in parallel is an established one. However, the verso of the folio bearing the first introduction has ink marks that correspond to the text on the recto of the first page of the account of Ward’s early life. Alongside the discrepancies in terms of dimensions and the size of the handwriting, this suggests that at least initially, the second version of the introduction (which is unfinished) was stored separately. Furthermore, although this transfer of ink from f. 4r to f. 1v suggests the first introduction was composed at around the same time as the account of the early life, the introduction itself finishes before the end of the first page and the verso of the leaf is blank, suggesting that it was composed retrospectively on a folio already collated with the “main text.” This leaves us with two introductions likely to have been composed separately from the autobiographical account of the early life.3 I suggest that these introductory texts represent Ward’s articulation of a strategy that she employed and honed through reading and reviewing her experiences and which she advocated to her readers in relation to her life narrative and their own lives.

20Ward’s two introductions in AIM-AB-III, as Genette suggests of paratexts more broadly, prepare the reader to engage with the text as Ward intended. As Smith and Wilson argue is often the case, Ward intends the reader’s interaction with her text to be a model for the way they interact with the world beyond it too (Smith and Wilson 2011, 7). The introductions show us Mary Ward as a reader of her own life experiences and invite the reader to imitate not her actions themselves but the process of evaluation she was able to undertake by virtue of having recalled and recounted the events of her life.

21Neither the work itself nor an entity that stands fully outside of it, variously united with and divorced from the account of Ward’s early life by the manuscript’s subsequent custodians, the introductions exist in complicated relationship to the text itself. The marks of editing on each version as well as the evidence of re-drafting between the two versions provide windows into Ward’s thought process. They allow the reader to encounter her instructions as the opportunity and occasion for her to work out and articulate the purpose, or possibly the result (if indeed these were different), of a cycle of reflection in which writing acted as a record of reading. Within this scheme, the slippage between experience and written record is not only apparent, but I would argue, essential. The recalled events of Ward’s life become texts upon which her audience is invited to practise a particular act of reading. They are invited to approach her acts independently as texts. They are also invited to interrogate Ward’s interpretation of them. This means that the self-reflective kind of reading this text both models and facilitates stands to inform their reading of their own lives as texts.

22The first introduction is framed as an appeal to the reader. Despite initial appearances suggesting a conventional rehearsal of the kind of modesty topos identified by both Adelisa Malena (Malena 2012, 66) and Victoria Van Hyning (Van Hyning 2019, 23) in early modern convent-based instances of “self-writing,” I suggest that this appeal is in fact an explicit set of instructions for how the text should be read:

  • 4 All transcriptions from this manuscript are my own. They retain original spelling and punctuation. (...)

I beseech all thos (even for our lords love) that shall read thes my falts, and the efforts of love +goodnes of god+ towards me, notwithstanding my ingratitued +unworthynes,+ that they iudge not anie thinge ^hear^ according to their owne affections, but determin of all as the truth ys, distinguishing the great and true differance betwext gods preventinge graces, his imasurable goodnes and the meanes affourded me to be wholly his; and my continuall fales, unspeakable negligence, and imperfitt concurrance with all such his favours [. . .] (Ward 1617, f. 1r).4

23Ward addresses the reader directly, beseeching that “they judge not anie thinge ^hear^ according to their own affections.” This appeal for a detached “objectivity” outlines exactly how the text is to be read. In the phrase “I beseech all thos [. . .] that shall read thes my falts,” the particularising demonstrative pronoun “thes” and the verb “read” can be seen as self-referential in terms of the text as a whole. Although elsewhere the introduction underscores the correspondence of the text with Ward’s lived experience, it is evident from the outset that the reader is not being provided with unmediated access to Ward’s life, but a specific list of “falts” identified from a reflection upon it and then rendered in textual form. Indeed, modern editor Christina Kenworthy-Browne explains that this passage has been “described as a remarkable example of the grace of the First Week of the Spiritual Exercises” (Kenworthy-Browne 2008, 103). This refers to the influence of the initial stage of a spiritual regimen outlined by St Ignatius of Loyola whereby an individual is called upon to consider the nature of sin, is asked to abase him/herself and ultimately “comprehend the disorder of his or her actions” (Sluhovsky 2013, 32) within the context of salvation history. This following text, then, is both the product of and the basis for a particular interpretive process by which one reads one’s own life as a series of failures in order to reveal the ultimate workings of the “goodness of god.” Ward’s inter-lineal addition of “hear”, therefore, again draws attention back to the text itself. It also gestures towards her own process of authorial or mnemonic selection which has already taken place in order to produce the text. Ward implores her reader, instead of allowing their interpretation to be influenced by their “owne affections,” to “determin of all as the truth ys.” Here, “truth” could just as easily refer back in the sentence to the verity of the text itself as it could forward to the essential truth of God’s “imasurable goodnes” despite humanity’s “continuall fales, unspeakable negligence, and imperfitt concurrance with all such his favours.” This grammatical association seems to imply that the backward referent (the text) participates in or demonstrates the “verity of god,” which Ward goes on to expand upon in the following lines.

24The grammatical ambiguity in the introduction blurs the line between life as written record and lived experience but also between Ward’s past reading process and that of the reader which is both taking place in the introduction and will take place in the reader’s future interaction with the autobiographical texts. In order to recommend the reading strategy Ward outlines here, she has undergone her own reading process and her conception of God as ultimate author means that interpreting her confessional narratives, and the memories and events they recall, represent one and the same task. The ambiguities, therefore, are not examples of a literary sleight of hand that Ward denies out of authorial, pious or feminine modesty, but the consequence of a cognitive equivalence stemming from her understanding of God as author and her self-conception as reader. Far from passive, this reading position entails significant agency. In maintaining a Catholic attitude towards the individual’s consent to and participation in the processes of sin and reconciliation, it incorporates the possibility of personal interpretation and its implications for practical application beyond the written record.

25In contrast, texts written by Protestant Englishwomen, whilst exhibiting the same essential dynamic between autobiographical subject and God, present the delineation of these roles as dependent on the Calvinist concept of double predestination. This holds the implication that each life narrative, like scripture and the history of all creation, is a text already written, and, indeed, set in stone. As we look to Elizabeth Isham’s life narrative, we see a mirroring of the dynamic between God and the individual, and the individual and their life experience. However, we also observe significant deviations in the reading position reproduced in the text.

26In the introduction to her 1639 “My Book of Rememberance,” Elizabeth Isham situates herself as reader – of texts, of life and of life-as-text – from the very outset. In the first instance, she signals to the reader that her account is a record of her reading of others’ work, which includes her own life as a text authored by God. On the first folio, in a move that is immediately reminiscent of the early modern practice of commonplacing, Isham reproduces an epigrammatic verse, which her marginal annotation explains is the result of her “finding these verses in a Booke to be fit” for her to “have heare placed them” (Isham 1639, f.1r). From the very beginning of her own text, therefore, Isham identifies herself as a discerning reader and her own text as the product of a critical reading process. The verse itself is concerned with acts of reading and writing and establishes the dynamic between self and life expanded upon by Isham throughout her ‘Rememberance’:

Thou deepest searcher of each secret thought,
Infuse in me thy all affecting grace;
So shall my work\e/s to good effectes be brought,

While I pe\r/use my ugly sinnes a space,
Which (I co\n/fesse) in me hath tane deepe place,

Whose staining filth so spotted hath my soule,
As nought will wash but teares of inward dole[.]

27The semi-colon at the end of the second line emphasises that God is the engine and origin of the self-reflection as well as of the life that is its subject. The verse makes the edifying results of the process of retrospection and self-accusation clear; within the verse, the act itself is preceded by its effect (that the speaker’s “work\e/s to good effectes be brought”). The second part of the verse echoes medieval and contemporary literary depictions of the soul as text and figures the speaker’s attempts to assert authorship in superlatively negative terms. Perhaps most significantly, in contrast to the condemnation of human authorship, in the central line, the endorsed process of self-interrogation is represented explicitly in terms of reading.

28Isham’s choice of this inscription to preface her Life signals that, like Ward, her relationship to her experience is as reader to text. The verb “peruse” is instrumental here: it was, in contemporary usage, linked predominantly to the examination, scrutiny and consideration of texts, with one (now rare) application being specifically to the glossing, exegesis and critical reading of literature (OED Online, “peruse”). “Peruse” is the same verb used by Catholic nun Catherine Holland in her address to the reader in her 1664 conversion narrative entitled “How I Came to Change My Religion.” In this text, which Victoria Van Hyning argues holds significant parallels with St Augustine’s Confessions, Holland transitions from the preface to the main narrative with “Let this invite you to peruse, with the same Spirit, the following Truths” (Holland 1664, 273, emphasis my own). Incidentally, this linguistic echo provides another contemporary example of an autobiographical text written by a “never-married” Englishwoman in which the autobiographical subject exhibits self-consciousness of the textuality of their life story as well as to their own status as reader. The prominent place that Isham’s first verse quotation occupies within the manuscript leads to the possibility of a semantic ambiguity whereby the referent of the “work\e/s” to which it refers could be the actions of the confessing self, the process of reviewing one’s life as an example of such an act, and, by extension, Isham’s text itself as an embodiment of the slippage between life as written record and lived experience.

29Isham’s self-identification as reader of her own life story is reinforced by the emphasis she places upon her corresponding representation of God as author. Emma Rayner’s contribution to this issue of Sillages critiques draws attention to Isham’s linguistic references in her “Rememberance” to engravings on tablets or stone, suggesting that they were used to point to the individual and their life as artefact, as the product of God as artificer (Rayner 2023, supra). Accordingly, when Isham encounters her past sinfulness, she casts it as an act of destruction against the self rendered in God’s likeness, describing it as “defaceing that thine image” (Isham 1639, f.2r). That the “image,” and therefore the individual life, is in fact a textual artefact is implied by the continuation of the metaphor to depict God as the author who onto it “straitly markest iniquities” (Ibid. emphasis my own). This evokes the image of God carving the individual life onto tablets in a typological parallel of the Old (and therefore New Testament) covenant(s), thus establishing God as both author and artificer of all history as a single, highly wrought narrative. In reflection of the sentiment expressed in the introductory verse, sins, as instances of attempts at individual self-determination (or “authorship”), are figured therefore as aberrations against the natural order in which God is the undisputed author – a reiteration of the fittingness of mankind’s role as reader.

30Isham goes on to paraphrase the text of Matthew 7:11, explaining that “herein as in all earthly things I have repossed my whole confidence in thy providence, which knowest better what to give then wee to aske” (Ibid.). Isham’s paraphrase expresses an equivalence between “all earthly things” in her life and the current text “wherein” they are disclosed. God’s hand is thereby attributed with not only having dictated the events of Isham’s life but also the text itself, “which [he] hath put into my heart \mind/.” Therefore, Isham’s confessional process, which is “to meditate of these things,” is referred to interchangeably with the production of the text itself. She refers repeatedly to “this work” and by setting it amongst “other workes of my calling” (thus using the noun to refer to both the written “work” and good acts) the referent becomes ambiguous. The particularising demonstrative adjective “these” also gives the phrase “these things” a self-referential quality which simultaneously elevates the “Rememberances” to the status of good work and captures the act itself as one of reading. These moments of textual self-referentiality and the multiple grammatical and semantic slippages between experience and written record that they signpost are reminiscent of those in Ward’s introduction and therefore of a shared paradigm for the women’s understanding of their relation to their own experiences and the texts they produced to make sense of them.

31As is the case with Ward’s autograph manuscripts, “marks of editing” provide particular insight into Isham’s attempts to make sense of her experience of God in her own life. For example, when recommending particular pious practices based on her own experience, Isham describes how she tried “at night to thinke of those Chapters which I had read in the day” – a practice that was followed by her turning the process inward “to examen my selfe at night what I had done in the day” (Ibid. f. 28v). Referring back to these two nocturnal habits, Isham reflects that “for the most part I did read something which I thought would benefit my soule” (Ibid.). Although she seems to be referring here to the edifying results of her reading of the literal books, Isham makes the interlineal addition of the coordinating “and” between the aforementioned acts of pious reading and self-reflection. In addition to the fact that the referent in the subsequent sentence (“these things I did (by degrees) finding much profit and helpe by”) is in the plural, this suggests a comparable self-positioning as reader in relation to both text and life. In corroboration of the claim that this constitutes a rendering of a shared paradigm, there is a strikingly similar example in a case of life-writing from the other side of the confessional divide. In her diary-cum-maternal advice book, Catholic Englishwoman Elizabeth Grymeston advises her son “when you goe to bed, read ouer the carriage of your selfe that day” (quoted in Botonaki 2004, 46). As in Isham’s account, the verb “read” here could apply to an implied textual account of one’s conduct throughout the day, the reflection upon the behaviour, or indeed both simultaneously. This demonstrates that seventeenth-century diary-keeping and other life-writing practices did not terminate with the composition of a text but in fact entailed intense self-scrutiny facilitated by these texts. To view these texts as the early stirrings of individualist self-determination, therefore, is to place undue emphasis on textual production rather than the application and use of such texts.

32Indeed, at the close of the text, on the final folio, Isham reiterates that she does not and should not see herself as author of her life or even truly of the text itself. She offers up her “Rememberance” and the acts of confession and repentance it describes, to God, explaining: “all things come of thee and of thine owne hand have I given thee. Receive therefore thine owne gift. and let not my unworthynesse or weaknesse in it hinder my desire which I hope thou wilt not reject” (Isham 1639, f.38r).

33In so doing, the text and the self-examination that generated it are seen more compellingly here as one and the same thing. Almost even more crucially, they are emphasised as artefacts wrought ultimately by God’s, not Isham’s, hand. In addition to deferring to God as ultimate author, Isham outlines the Calvinist interpretive framework that dictates the Christian’s position as reader, which entails discerning “All the things which are given to me of thee And how not onely thou madest thy selfe knowen to me by the Name of the Allmighty God” (Ibid. f. 28v).

34This process is an exegetical one whereby typological parallels from “throughout the whole Bible both in the prophets and our Saviours words” are used to make sense of one’s own life as another text authored by God (Ibid. f. 37v). This was not only a well-entrenched exegetical method with roots stretching across centuries of medieval piety, tradition and scholarship, it was also a thriving contemporary practice, as Molekamp (2013) and Narveson (2016) have recently demonstrated. The vernacular notes in the Geneva Bible identifying in the New Testament echoes of events foreshadowed in the Old Testament, as one example, made the practice easily and widely accessible to the masses. Within such a scheme, it is easy to see how text and life become passively interchangeable. However, Isham’s more explicit identification of herself as reader and the coincidence of grammatical ambiguity that mirror Ward’s autobiographical account suggest that, more than life and text inhabiting the same cognitive space, their textual coincidence is on some level self-conscious on behalf of the autobiographical subject. 

35Both Ward and Isham identify themselves in contrast to God as ultimate author and position themselves, accordingly, as pious readers compelled to make sense of their lives rather than give them meaning. Moments in each of their accounts conflating the texts themselves with the experience they capture sit alongside other moments of textual self-referentiality. As such, we are presented with two readers, confident in the interpretative frameworks dictated by their religious convictions, poised to teach others how to read their lives.

“’[M]ake them able to desarne”: Mary Ward’s Reading Strategy

36“Marks of editing” evident in autograph manuscript AIM-AB-III indicate that the introductions are the result of the particular reading strategies Ward in turn advocates to her reader. This contributes further to the conflation of life and text within the introductions and, by implication, within the mind of the reader (a position encompassing both Ward herself and subsequent readers of her life).

37Towards the end of the second introduction, Ward addresses the reader directly:

^as your selves will judge +and wettnes with me^ so shall you doe iustis giveing god what ys due to his goodnes, and me my desarts, who asketh noe other recompence ^thinge etc. more accountable of anie thing they could do for me besides^ those that the readers of thes would endevour thence from that time +thence forward+, to become lovers of truth and workers of justis, which petition who granteth and proceedeth accordinge, verity yt self will free them from errors, rectify their iudgments, perfitt their knowlidg, endue them with true wisdom, +make+ show them able to desarne things as they are in them selves, the diferance betwext trifils and matters of importance, what ys to be done, or not done in all. (Ward 1617, f. 1r)

38When Ward anticipates that by reading the following text, her readers “[them] selves will judge,” she initially appears to refer to the events in the text itself. However, the sentence turns to a discussion of “verity yt self” and its ability to “make...them able to desarne things as they are in them selves, the diferance betwext trifils and matters of importance,” particularly when it gestures towards the practical application of verity in deciding “what ys to be done, or not done in all.” Where Ward’s hope that verity will guide the discerning reader in judging her actions within the text is still intact as one sense, the sentence also encompasses a broader hope that the reader will apply this judgement to their own actions. This sentence, underlined to reiterate its importance, represents the conflation of reading a ‘Life’ and scrutinising one’s own life as well as the process of writing one’s experiences in order to analyse, interpret, or rationalise them. This therefore represents the point in the introduction at which the conflation of life and text extends beyond Ward’s own life as text and becomes a shared paradigm for understanding and interacting with the world.

39The elasticity of the term “verity” and its centrality to Ward’s spirituality is further illustrated by a series of lectures she delivered to the members of her congregation at Saint-Omers in 1617. In these speeches, Ward mobilises the term in an impassioned speech about the spiritual equality of women. She moves between its scriptural basis (Psalms 116:2); its manifestation in the world (“who can love a creature or a friend that is not as he seemeth to be”) (Ward 2007, 357); and in application to the specific circumstances of the women before her (“This is verity to doe what we have to doe well: many thinks it nothing to doe ordinary things: But for us it is") (Ward 2007, 357). She defines verity variously in opposition to the “lyes” of flattery and earthly knowledge pursued for its own sake or gained by having been “tould by men [what] we must belewe” (Ward 2007, 363-4, 359). Ultimately, Ward defines verity as acting in accordance with God’s will. However, these various examples or definitions (scriptural, practical and rhetorical) demonstrate the capacity of the word to refer simultaneously to text and life. The related term “justice” is based on the New Testament lesson of Matthew 22:21 and in the idea of referring, or returning, all to God. Ward instructs her readers to abandon their attachment to all earthly things, including their devotion to her, in order to rightfully acknowledge God as the ground of all. She therefore directs her readers towards the motivations underlying her and their own actions, inviting them to choose to act in conformity with God’s goodness (Cover 1997, 130-1).

40Ward’s substitution of “thence forward” for “thence from that time” (Ward 1617a, f1r.) contributes further to the self-reflexivity of the introduction, establishing this text as a watershed in the process of learning to “read” in the way the text proposes. The general implication is that interpretation and the coherence this approach provides was a process achieved after recounting rather than an organisational strategy put in place before it was undertaken. However, Ward clearly sees this retrospective realisation of her own as the crucial framework for approaching the record of her life that follows. She prepares her reader to be alert to her own emergent process of “disarne[ment]” within the text in order for them to use the text to cultivate their own ability to “disarne.”

41The introduction concludes with another entreaty that turns out to be a pledge:

I [illegible] intreat all my frinds to convarse much with such and would to god I had ability in anie thing to further thes to heaven, our lord will not denye me to do somethinge for them, and all I shall be able to perform in heaven or on earth, they may freely challins as their due, and my [Illegible] unto them +promis+. (Ward 2007, f.1r.)

42Ward entreats her “frinds” to “convarse much with such” – the ambiguity of the referents of “such” again blurring the line between the text itself and the process of “desarnement” that it both results from and illustrates. The verb “convarse” emphasises that the process of using verity to discern “betwext trifils and matters of importance” is active rather than passive – as a relational process involving more than one active agent, the reader is required to participate. Ward suggests that her role in helping “to further thes [frinds?] to heaven” is supportive and prays God will not “denye [her] to do somethinge for them.” Although the phrase “I shall be able to perform in heaven or on earth” suggests that her role will be to intercede, in a more abstract sense, on her “frinds’” behalf in their receipt of God’s verity, the idea that the current text is a model for such a process also stands. As “their due” and Ward’s “promis,” this makes the text of the introduction itself, if not the work it anticipates more broadly, a pledge to aid her companions in learning the skill of discernment.

43In the second version of the introduction, this appeal to the reader is turned into a prayer for her readers. Signalled by apostrophe and anaphora, Ward prays that “verity yt self” will “preserve” “all seeing goodness,” “lovers of truth” and “workers of iustes” (Ibid. f. 2r). She prays that verity will “rectifie their iudgements” and “perfitt their knowlidg” (Ibid.). This prayer for her readers is therefore distinct and separate from Ward’s instruction (now imperative) to her readers to “do iustis giveing god what ys hes, and me my desarts.” In the second version of the introduction, this creates a parallel between the reader’s ability to “disarne” “the goodnes of god” within the text and the future improvement of their “iudgements” and “knowlidg” beyond it. This heightens the sense that the text is instrumental in inculcating an approach with a practical application beyond the text itself.

  • 5 For a discussion of Mary Ward’s other contributions to the education of Catholic girls, see Carolin (...)

44By these means, Ward’s introductions declare her text instructional, or at least exemplary, and present it as a gift made amongst equals or to those of only slightly subordinate status. This is in keeping with the suggestion made by editor Christina Kenworthy-Browne that this passage clearly demonstrates Ward’s “concern for the formation of those who will join her Institute” (Kenworthy Browne 2008, 103). This presumed audience and intention for the text corresponds with the intended matrilineal transmission and familial circulation of Isham’s “Remembrances” and also corresponds with the instructional nature of both Isham’s book and the various manuscripts of Fitzherbert’s writings deposited at the Bodleian and Lambeth Palace Libraries (Stephens 2016, 35; Hodgkin 2010, 111). As Jennifer Cameron sought to impress, Ward’s pursuit of education for Catholic women was a continuation of what historian John Bossy identified as the “matriarchal period” of Recusant Catholicism, during which country houses run largely by women fulfilled various parochial functions (Cameron 2000, 17).5 This context permits Ward to be considered in relation to Mary Morrissey and Gillian Wright’s characterisation of “the sociability of early modern piety” (Morrissey and Wright 2006, 38-50). All three women, therefore, engaging in acts of instruction help to further demonstrate that there is not a strict binary between reader and writer. The women can acknowledge authorship over their texts without presuming to suggest this entails authorship over their lives precisely because the texts they have authored illustrate and promote appropriate acts of reading. The women inhabit positions of authority and do so to remind their readers of God’s ultimate authority over their lives and thereby doubly endorse the position of reader.

“[E]very Christian may in some measure apply it unto himself”: Dionys Fitzherbert’s Reading Strategy

45In the manuscript left to the Bodleian Library in 1641, the Oxfordshire gentlewoman Dionys Fitzherbert also outlines how her own text can be used as a model by her readers. As was the case with Ward’s introductions, multiple introductory texts composed at different points are attached to Fitzherbert’s life narrative (Hodgkin 2010, 149). This suggests a comparable relationship between the authors and the accounts of their lives – one which entailed the retroactive process of reading and interpreting previously composed texts.

46More explicitly than Ward, Fitzherbert outlines her purposes as “to show (so near as may be judged) that I was no hypocrite in my former profession” and “by the anatomising of my own cause, to bring some joy, comfort or assured hope to any of your grieved minds, by seeing the inestimable mercy of God and his infinite goodness upon such an abject” (Fitzherbert 2010, 175). Fitzherbert’s account centres on her experience of a prolonged spiritual trial inflicted by God to test her faith and bring about her conversion.

47In both the preface added to the account in 1610 and a later address to the reader, Fitzherbert frames her attempt to make sense of her own experience in terms of biblical exegesis. The later introduction includes references to the books of Revelation, Isaiah, Jonah, the Psalms, the gospel of Matthew and Paul’s epistles to the Corinthians and Ephesians. The original 1610 preface “Unto all the true mourners” provides a more systematic exegesis, linking biblical interpretation to Fitzherbert’s own experience and then encouraging the reader to do the same, but nonetheless does so via numerous Old and New Testament passages (including from Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jonah, Lamentations, Psalms and the Gospels of Matthew and Mark). Outlining her own interpretive method and the applicability of lessons gleaned from scripture, Fitzherbert explains that “although written by the prophet and directed to the whole church of God, yet I am persuaded that every Christian may in some measure apply it unto himself” (Ibid.159).

48She continues, expanding on how the process of biblical exegesis applied to her analysis of her own experience specifically: “Therefore when I took these things [written by Isaiah] into my consideration, I purposed to have made application of it to the several occurrences of my whole life in a more larger manner than I had formerly done” (Ibid.).

49Fitzherbert indicates that her own representation of her life will provide an example of “God’s most gracious mercy so magnified toward one subject to so much and so many infirmities” (Ibid. 161). She suggests that the biblical lesson is played out in her own experience and, by implication, that this endorses her interpretation of the scriptures and should console her readership whose own experience may mirror her despair. For Fitzherbert, her struggle and recovery are examples of God’s grace. Like Ward, then, her introduction prepares the reader to be alert to the workings of grace and to distinguish this from human error, and in particular the “continuall fales” and “unspeakable negligence” of their authors. Unlike Ward, however, the purpose of this reading strategy and perceptiveness to the workings of grace is to identify correspondences that reveal the pattern of God’s providence and, in finding these in reflection upon one’s own past, to identify evidence of one’s elect status.

50Like Ward, Fitzherbert invites her reader to exercise discrimination in their reading when she states “I do most instantly desire whosoever shall read or know it attentively to mark the manner of everything,” warning (or perhaps fearing) that if her reader does not “circumspectly note and weigh every matter, [they] may judge as uncharitably as any that were beholders of [her madness at the time]” (Ibid.,175). In anticipating and dismissing an unfavourable interpretation of her madness (which would see it medicalised as the result of melancholy), Fitzherbert clearly defines the outcome of the reader’s interaction with her text. This is in-keeping with the self-defence imperative often associated with female-authored paratexts from the same period (Eckerle 2016, 99). Fitzherbert’s preface, then, although drawing attention to the practice of interpreting texts, appears to have been composed with this specific reading in mind. This is reinforced by a truth claim reminiscent of Ward’s promising to “before the majesty of God […] (so near as he shall give me memory and assistance) deliver it in the same manner as it was done” (Fitzherbert 2010, 175).

51Just as Isaac Stephens claims of Isham’s remembrances, however, Fitzherbert highlights the role of providence in her endeavour, acknowledging that she shall do so “so near as [God] shall give me memory and assistance.” The correspondences identified between biblical teaching and Fitzherbert’s remembrances are recognitions of the patterning of events by God. The narrative is dictated by God and goes to prove a lesson laid out in the Bible, a book similarly made up of divinely-inspired texts. Fitzherbert’s introduction is concerned with reading. However, her life itself (the content of the text) exemplifies the pattern and is justified by the correspondence.

  • 6 Adelisa Malena has already revised the more modern view of autobiography as an “anatomy of the self (...)

52The reading process, conversely, is the subject of Ward’s introduction. Ward’s readers are invited to cultivate the same strategies that she has herself developed as a result of her systematic interrogation of her past. This is what makes the term “strategies” so appropriate in this case: Ward invites her readers to be alert to her own participation in the process of recall and in the fostering of a hermeneutic strategy for approaching one’s experiences beyond their existence as literal texts. Ward’s strategy is hermeneutic where Fitzherbert’s is exegetical. Ward is concerned with teaching her readers how to interpret one’s actions and inclinations so that they can practically counteract the nefarious workings of evil in the future. Where Fitzherbert promises to “anatomise” – that is to “lay open minutely” or “analyse” (OED Online, “anatomise”) – her cause, Ward’s introductions represent the result of her anatomising her own process of discernment. In an illustration of one of the fundamental differences between a Calvinism defined by predestination and an Ignatian brand of Catholicism emphasising individual action, Fitzherbert dictates the patterns her readers will find in retrospective accounts whereas Ward recommends attentiveness to the very act of interpretation and orientates this towards a future in which the individual is still able to exercise agency. Rather than a retrospective strategy that encourages individuals to read their reminiscences typologically in parallel with scripture to identify their elect status, Ward’s proposed strategy is the result of a kind of meta-analysis. Thereby she engages with her own hermeneutic process in order to generate personalised practical strategies for combatting malign influences in a cosmic scheme that, unlike Calvinist predestination, requires the cooperation of the human soul and therefore allows for significant individual agency. As such, Ward’s “Autobiographical Fragments” represent a unique example of a text that presents an anatomy not of the self, but of itself.6


53Records of early modern women’s lives, like the hagiographies of previous ages, were often examples to their readers. However, Effie Botonaki has suggested that early modern Englishwomen innovated upon this tradition by using their own life-writing to offer the kind of spiritual advice usually dispensed by men (Botonaki 2004). Placing early modern texts and women within a broader Christian history, Patricia Ranft suggests that these texts can be seen to represent a continuation in what was in fact a centuries-long tradition of female spiritual direction stretching back to the early Church (Ranft 2000, 121-2).

54Beyond merely presenting exemplary lives, therefore, all three of the early modern women explored here, like Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe before them, use their own lived experiences in order to teach their readers. Ward, Isham and Fitzherbert, however, present their lives as practical examples of the application of particular reading strategies. Where the Puritanical narratives offer lives as exemplars and demonstrate the transference of their biblical exegesis onto their own life narratives, Ward presents a model for the reading process itself and interrogates the nature of the collaboration required of the Catholic subject in this process. Her particular innovation, therefore, is in modelling a sensitivity to her own emerging and evolving interpretive process. In doing so, Ward gestures towards the potential plurality of the strategies generated by each reader’s own interrogation of their lives and their reading process.

55Both Calvinist Protestantism and Ignatian Catholicism refer to the very different processes (of using one’s past to establish one’s predetermined status as saved or damned, and of identifying between malign and benevolent spiritual influences, respectively) as “discernment.” Clearly, therefore, much like when employing the generic label “life-writing” across a diverse range of texts, one must exercise caution to ensure that that common vocabulary does not elide significant and essential differences. Nonetheless, there are profound commonalities: all three women self-identify within their instructional texts as reader in order to accommodate their subject to their readers’ understanding.

56For all their differences, these three texts present autobiographical subjects who are readers, are aware of themselves as readers and in turn, invite their readers to become readers of their own lives. All three women inhabit and assert the position of reader in such a way as demonstrates its capacity to enable authority and exemplify ultimate subordination to God. Just such a position illustrates how women belonging to both the old religion and Protestant denominations negotiated existing traditions and harnessed innovations, assimilating these into just one example of an alternative conceptual paradigm for the relation between the individual and their life. Together these texts’ voices rise to challenge prevailing patriarchal paradigms and yet by listening carefully, we can still be sensitive to the notes of discord and points of disagreement. It is the expansion of the bounds of the generic label “life-writing” that has brought these texts into conversation with one another. Returning to the sources themselves by employing both linguistic and material analysis allows us to listen carefully not only to what a text has to say for itself, but how it is saying it. By filtering out the subsequent centuries of theory, commentary and debate, the conversations we tap into, it would seem, may not be those we would expect, but – as is often the case with conversations overheard – the repercussions can be significant. 

57Aers, David. ‘A Whisper in the Ear of Early Modernists; or, Reflections on Literary Critics Writing the “History of the Subject”’. Culture and History 1350-1600: Essays on English Communities, Identities and Writing. Ed. David Aers. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1992. 177-202.

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Ward, Mary. “Thre speches of our Reverende Mother cheef superior made at St Omers having ben long absent.” Mary Ward und ihre Gründung: Die Quellentexte bis 1645. Vol. 1. Ed. Sr. Ursula CJ Dirmeier. Münster: Aschendorff, 2007. 362-66.

Webster, Tom. “Writing to Redundancy: Approaches to Spiritual Journals and Early Modern Spirituality.” The Historical Journal 39.1 (1996): 33-56.

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1 For a more detailed discussion of the nature of Ward’s Institute, the controversy it caused in the seventeenth century and its legacy, see Lux-Sterritt 2001, 636-647; Lux-Sterritt 2006, 192-208; Lux-Sterritt 2010, 83-98.

2 For an influential study of the emergence of the genre, see Bruce D. Hindmarsh 2005. For a discussion of the earliest female-authored examples, see Naomi Baker 2005.

3 Christina Kenworthy-Browne acknowledges that the two introductions were “probably composed at different times” but does not comment on the relation between their composition and that of the main text which follows (Kenworthy-Browne 2008, 103).

4 All transcriptions from this manuscript are my own. They retain original spelling and punctuation. Interlineal additions are rendered in between circumflex accents (^); immediate corrections are rendered in between plus signs (+); strikethrough has been used to render crossed out text legible as it is in manuscripts. As far as possible, this reflects the number of words struck through in the manuscript. Passages underlined in the original are underlined in the transcription. The hash sign (#) is used to indicate where text is added using a coda.

5 For a discussion of Mary Ward’s other contributions to the education of Catholic girls, see Caroline Bicks (2016).

6 Adelisa Malena has already revised the more modern view of autobiography as an “anatomy of the self” in describing the autobiographical texts written by nuns in fulfilment of commands by confessors or other clergy as “anatomies of the soul” (Malena 2012, 107).

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Martin Thompson, « Early Modern Exemplars: Reading Strategies and the Assertion of Readerly Identity and Authority in the Life-writing of Mary Ward, Dionys Fitzherbert and Elizabeth Isham »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 34 | 2023, mis en ligne le 30 juin 2023, consulté le 10 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Martin Thompson

The University of Manchester

Martin Thompson is a final-year PhD student at the University of Manchester in the Department of English, American Studies and Creative Writing. His interdisciplinary research uses the life-writing of the seventeenth-century Catholic exile Mary Ward and her early followers (including a set of fifty paintings known as the Painted Life) in order to interrogate assumptions about early modern life writing and its relation to gender, confessional identity, and literary tradition. His Master’s study at the John Rylands Library and Research Institute led to a particular interest in the materiality of texts and the transmission and ownership history of Catholic manuscripts. His archive-based research seeks to situate early modern texts and figures within multiple contexts including the counter-Reformation, the later English Catholic revival and Vatican II, tracing enduring continuities and profound transformations within Catholic and literary culture.

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