Her Own Life, Her Own Living? Text and Materiality in Seventeenth-century Englishwomen’s Autobiographical Writings

  • Helen Wilcox
Part of the Early Modern Literature in History book series (EMLH)


The focus of this essay is a selection of texts from the considerable body of autobiographical writing by seventeenth-century Englishwomen, ranging from the diary of Lady Anne Clifford at the beginning of the century to the self-vindication of Anne Wentworth in the Restoration period. My purpose is to investigate the interrelation of the idea of a life in writing with the material realities of living. Autobiography is a genre — or perhaps an instinct — which is always poised at the borderline of word and deed. This balancing-act is rendered additionally complex in women’s autobiographical texts by, on the one hand, the gendered sense of a life instilled in their authors and, on the other, the women’s limited material independence. The light which these two constraining factors shed on one another, and on the emergence of forms of textual self-representation among early modern Englishwomen, is my concern here.


Seventeenth Century Restoration Period Spiritual Meditation Autobiographical Writing Barbarous Action 
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  1. 1.
    For an account of women’s writing in early modern Britain, in the context of religion, education, literacy and literary production, see Women and Literature in Britain 1500–1700, ed. Helen Wilcox (Cambridge, 1996).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Among the recent studies of women’s autobiographical writing in this period, see Elspeth Graham, ‘Women’s Writing and the Self’, in Women and Literature in Britain 1500–1700 pp. 209–33, and Sheila Ottway, Desiring Disencumbrance: The Representation of the Self in Autobiographical Writings by Seventeenth-Century Englishwomen (University of Groningen PhD thesis, 1998).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, A True Relation of my Birth, Breeding and Life (1656) in Her Own Life: Autobiographical Writings by Seventeenth-century Englishwomen, ed. Elspeth Graham, Hilary Hinds, Elaine Hobby and Helen Wilcox (London, 1989) p. 98.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    ‘The Memorandum of Martha Moulsworth, Widow’ (1632), modernised text from ‘The Birthday of Myself’: Martha Moulsworth, Renaissance Poet, ed. Ann Depas-Orange and Robert C. Evans (Princeton, 1996) pp. 11–14.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    The Meditations of Lady Elizabeth Delaval, ed. Douglas G. Greene, Surtees Society vol. CXC (Gateshead, 1978) pp. 68–9.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Lady Anne Clifford, Diary, in Her Own Life, p. 48. The full text of her diaries is available in The Diaries of Lady Anne Clifford, ed. D.J.H. Clifford (London, 1990).Google Scholar

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© Helen Wilcox 2000

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  • Helen Wilcox

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