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  • The Self-Fashioning of an Early Modern Englishwoman: Mary Carleton's Lives
  • Margaret J. Arnold
Mary Jo Kietzman . The Self-Fashioning of an Early Modern Englishwoman: Mary Carleton's Lives. Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2004. xii + 338 pp. index. illus. bibl. $79.95. ISBN: 0-7546-0859-X.

Mary Carleton, an obscure young Canterbury woman whose masquerade as "the German princess" prompted "at least twelve different narrative treatments" and "more names than would fit on a single tombstone" (2) provides Kietzman an engaging subject for exploring "serial" self-fashioning in the fluid social setting of Restoration London work, theater, and penal law.

Kietzman explains her scope and purpose: "By using the phrase 'self-serialization' to refer to a lifestyle that produced a series of oral and written autobiographical acts, I hope to illustrate some of the cultural pressures on lower-class individuals that contributed to their appropriation and adaptation of different narrative styles, cultural icons or social types, as well as prose genres to the task of self-representation" (9). This focus permits Kietzman to examine several genres: autobiography, biography, drama, letters, ballads, pamphlets, and legal records. Her meticulous attention to extant documents is set in a cultural and material context that sheds light on the historical circumstances of single women who moved in relative anonymity from one place to another. An especially interesting section examines legal evolution from the relatively lenient treatment of women who stole in order to survive to the more rigorous definition and enforcement of sentences for theft in the middle of the eighteenth century. Other chapters apply to varieties of autobiography, biography, the theater, and the novel. Because Mary Carleton spoke and wrote more fluently than many of her less articulate compatriots, Kietzman draws upon her words to convey the experience of a large group of under explored women. Rather than impose a thesis on all of these arenas, she chooses to organize "a different kind of history for each phase of her life" (25).

Chapter 1 explores the fictional persona that won Carleton's notoriety — "the German Princess" impersonation she used to win John Carleton and openly publicized in her performance on trial for bigamy as well as her written autobiography. The wider context, Kietzman argues, point to questions of identity and social masquerade in Restoration culture, a period in which impoverished royal figures needed to reestablish themselves after diverse commoners had asserted their prominence in the Civil War. Another social phenomenon, the legal structure that allowed principal litigants at court to argue their own cases, set Carleton apart from many who lacked her forensic skills.

Chapter 2, "Historicizing Mary Modders' 'Dream Self'" explores a plausible [End Page 720] background for a young woman who lacked a baptismal certificate to pose as an orphan from Canterbury. Another context for self-dramatization appears in chapter 3, "Writing Themselves into the World — Natural Actresses in Restoration London." Kietzman uses the reports of Mary Carleton's stage appearance playing her own part to consider women's performance of "self-ownership" in public life and on the stage. The section concludes with female characters created by such woman playwrights as Aphra Behn, Mary Pix, and Susanna Centlivre.

Chapter 4, "The Inn that Might Have Been — Underwood or Underground" returns Kietzman to her quest for the real Mary Carleton in the years following her public appearances. The verifiable "facts" are a series of arrests under different names and, more definitely, a holograph letter. Kietzman treats the material details of verifying Carleton's hand quite accurately, and her analysis of the "self" projected in it is quite plausible.

Carleton's serial identities lead Kietzman to investigate records of other women prisoners. Chapter 5, "Stealing to Own Her Self — Mary Carleton's Criminal Record" — uses Old Bailey records and histories of early criminal procedure to provide an interesting background to Carleton's activities and aliases between 1669 and 1673, the year of her execution. This section points to the frequently lenient sentences London justices and juries set for theft when the defendant's poverty and especially gender affected a family's survival.

The fragmented and picaresque nature of Mary Carleton's roles — to the point that...


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pp. 720-722
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Archived 2009
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