- Katherine Paston and Brilliana Harley:Maternal Letters and the Genre of Mother's Advice
Among the conduct books popular in the early seventeenth century are several on maternal advice written by women who found in the newly acknowledged responsibilities of motherhood the potential for personal fulfillment.1 In particular, the numerous editions of works by Elizabeth Grymeston, Dorothy Leigh, and Elizabeth Joscelin reflect the growing Protestant recognition that mothers must share with their husbands the obligation to ensure their children's welfare.2 For any woman who has "carried her child within her, so neere [End Page 431] her hart, and brought it forth into this world with so much bitter paine," Dorothy Leigh writes, the duty to nurture is undeniable: "Will shee not instruct it in the youth, and admonish it in the age, and pray for it continually?" 3 The bond formed in the womb, as Elizabeth Grymeston further emphasizes, becomes a means of fulfillment: "There is no loue so forcible as the loue of an affectionate mother to her natur all childe: there is no mother can either more affectionately shew her nature, or more naturally manifest her affection, than in aduising her children out of her own experience."4 And yet, paradoxically, maternal nature and affection seem largely secondary, if not absent, in the "true portraiture of thy mothers minde" Grymeston leaves her son;5 nor are they strikingly apparent in the legacies of the other authors to their children. Their desire to "shew my selfe a louing Mother, and a duti full Wife"6 is more complexly and movingly apparent in the writing of two other women not traditionally associated with mother's advice books, the letters of Katherine Paston (1578-1629) and Brilliana Harley (1600-43) to their sons.7
Unlike the writing of these two mothers' published counterparts, the private correspondence of each began when her firstborn left for university and was never intended for publication, so neither mother has any need to justify her advice. The other authors exploit the threat of imminent death as an occasion not only for their own self-presentation, [End Page 432] but also as justification for addressing a readership not limited to their children.8 The meditations and counsel Elizabeth Grymeston leaves to comfort her son and serve as her memorial sometimes blur the "thou" and "thy" addressed, more concerned with representing a "register" of the meditative mother than with providing genuine maternal advice beyond a number of saws and epigrams tacked on the end. While Elizabeth Joscelin assures her husband that her legacy is intended only for their unborn child, the service and devotion she prescribes befit an ideal daily religious practice that affirms her own faith and addresses fears of death in childbirth.9 Similarly, Dorothy Leigh's desire to provide her three sons temporal and spiritual sustenance finds in motherhood the voice customarily denied women in print: the tenor and cadences of The Mothers Blessing resemble those of a sermon intended for a public audience.10 Katherine Paston's and Brilliana Harley's letters, in contrast, consciously limit their audiences, never intending or assuming readers other than their sons. Lady Harley, in fact, explicitly warns her son not to let others see the letters, sending them by the "safe hand" of carriers she trusts and including a key to decipher some of the last correspondence. The forty-three Paston letters and the 197 Harley letters reflect a spirituality common to published maternal advice; their spontaneity, however, conveys a new dimension of intimacy and affection. Together the two collections of private correspondence written on similar [End Page 433] occasions provide the opportunity to reassess the extent to which two women embodied in their lives Protestant precepts about the so-called "new mother." Each mother reveals a distinctive individuality as a woman who defines herself by her son's development.
When in January 1624 thirteen-year-old William Paston left his Norfolk home for Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and when in October 1638 fourteen-year-old Edward Harley left Brampton Bryan in Herefordshire for Magdalen Hall, Oxford, they parted from mothers who led comfortable gentry lives.11 In marrying Edmund Paston, Katherine...