- The Mother’s Legacy in Early Modern England
Jennifer Heller’s study of the mother’s legacy in early modern England explores how and why the dying mother’s devout counsel to her children emerged as a popular sub-genre within the advice tradition in late sixteenth-century England, and flourished in phases throughout the seventeenth. Using printed and manuscript sources produced between 1575 and 1672, Heller elucidates the mother’s legacy as an important, mutable, and intensely personal genre that offered women a culturally sanctioned means of responding to complex and rapidly changing religious, political, and social institutions. Heller’s close reading of some twenty legacies from this period, by women of varying social backgrounds and religious persuasions, demonstrates how mothers sought to shape their children’s beliefs and behaviours in ways that reflected the larger cultural context, historical events, and social trends during this period of momentous religious and political transformation.
Heller begins her study by exploring the intellectual background of English women in general and legacy writers in particular. Becoming good and pious wives and mothers was the ultimate aim of education for women in Protestant England, but legacy writers, it seems, benefited from more substantial learning. However, their legacies show little evidence of their classical education, stressing instead piety and spirituality as qualities to [End Page 214] strive for. Readers expected women to offer spiritual guidance as devout and virtuous wives and mothers, and not as classically educated women.
Heller argues that legacy writers drew upon the idealized figure of the mother to establish their authority as advice givers. In contrast to male legacy writers, women adopted a humble stance, denigrating their writing as unworthy, while, at the same time, insisting that their maternal authority heightened the obligation of their children to heed their advice. The suffering of childbirth, religious and maternal responsibilities, womanly emotion, and the susceptibility of children to sin and corruption were all evoked in the legacies to engender a maternal, spiritual authority that could not be ignored.
The different types of advice offered to sons and daughters are explored in Chapter 3. Mothers kindly advised their daughters to follow the prescribed gender roles of chastity and godly obedience, directing them to overcome their natural weaknesses of pride and vanity. They empathized with their daughters and stressed the importance of the woman’s role in the family as helpmeet. Sons were counselled to overcome anger, impetuosity, and profligacy, and urged to adopt the feminine virtues of patience and self-restraint in order to preserve and increase the family estate. They were also directed to treat their wives with honour and respect, and to serve as exemplary and godly examples within their households. In this way, Heller argues, women used their writing to mediate in matters of religion and politics.
This argument is given more detailed consideration in Heller’s discussion of the intercessions of legacy writers in the religious life of seventeenth-century England. Encouraged by James I’s conciliatory stance on religion in the early years of his reign, women writers urged their children to promote Church reform, while advocating religious tolerance and harmony. In their legacies, women of diverse religious persuasions commented on the controversial issues of the day, such as the observation of the Sabbath, oath taking, the preaching ministry, and the role of the sacraments. In the legacies written during the reign of Charles I, the Interregnum, and Restoration, Heller found that legacy writers from eminent families sought to enhance their family’s social status by advocating political obedience and loyalty, while urging children to adhere to their principles and exercise religious tolerance. During this time of prodigious and traumatic social and religious change, legacy writers expressed their faith in the healing power of the Church to restore England to a reconciled and harmonious society.
The final chapter examines gendered experiences of dying. Women endured the perils and pain of childbirth, and the death of children, coped with the difficulties of widowhood, and tended...