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ELH 68.3 (2001) 563-592

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Feeding on the Seed of the Woman: Dorothy Leigh and the Figure of Maternal Dissent

Catharine Gray

And first it is cast up by diverse that employ their pens upon apologies for rebellions and treasons, that every man is born to carry such a natural zeal and duty to his mother; that seeing her so rent and deadly wounded, as whiles it will be by wicked and tyrannous Kings, good Citizens will be forced . . . to put their hand to work for freeing their commonwealth.

--James VI and I, The Trew Law of Free Monarchies

In 1616 two important books of family advice hit the shelves of early modern booksellers. The first was a republication of James I's Basilicon Doron, originally published in England in 1603 and immediately, as Jenny Wormald puts it, a "best-seller." 1 This earlier edition was published at James's accession to the English throne and was geared towards introducing the Scottish king to his English subjects; such was its popularity that it ran to as many as 16,000 copies that year alone. 2 It was republished in 1616, both in the ornate edition of James's Workes, put together by James Montagu, and in a popularized form titled The Father's Blessing, a spin-off edition that took key points of James's text and elaborated them for all fathers to follow. 3 The second book of family advice that concerns us was Dorothy Leigh's The Mother's Blessing, published for the first time just four months after The Father's Blessing. Leigh's book is a two-hundred-and-seventy page prose tract of maternal advice, broken into forty-five chapters. Like the father in James's Basilicon Doron, Leigh's maternal narrator advises her sons on religious practices, marriage, and household economy. The Mother's Blessing was itself so popular that it went through at least nineteen editions before 1640, an extraordinary publication history that marks Leigh's text as an important work for seventeenth-century literature and culture. 4 Yet, while Basilicon Doron has become part of the New Historical canon, receiving attention from historians of political discourse and literary critics alike, The Mother's Blessing has been either ignored, or treated as purely domestic--a woman's foray into the limited field of conduct literature. 5 [End Page 563]

This desire to circumscribe Leigh's text as domestic underestimates the political engagement of her work in a project of reform and dissent that self-consciously exceeds the bounds of the intimate sphere. As Jonathan Goldberg has shown us, James's Basilicon Doron, like The Trew Law of Free Monarchies, is political, forming part of Jacobean culture's attempt to create a royal patriarchal icon at the center of the English church and state. 6 Leigh's title, which recalls the popularized version of James's text, suggests that her book offers a response to this political patriarchalism, particularly as the 1624 edition of The Father's Blessing and the 1627 version of Leigh's book were found bound together, indicating that readers saw them as engaged in dialogue. 7 Leigh's text is not just a supplement to Basilicon Doron, however, but a critical answer to James's text that displaces the image of the patriarch king with that of the zealous mother. Challenging the language of patriarchy with an emotive rhetoric of maternity, Leigh's text turns a position of maternal care into one of moderate religio-political dissent, creating a specifically feminine speaking position within public, political discourse, one that will be used by later writers--both male and female--to voice radical critiques of royal policy. 8

Patriarchy, Maternity and the Ideology of Conduct

One reason that Leigh has been largely ignored until recently is that her text does not easily fit the prevailing critical paradigms for dealing with conduct literature. Critics from Goldberg to Lawrence Stone have argued that the accession of James I installed an oppressively patriarchal regime of family and state governance...


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