Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

Katherine Austen and the Widow's Might

Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

Katherine Austen and the Widow's Might

Article excerpt

Throughout seventeenth-century England the widow often appeared a contradictory figure. The social realities of women who had lost their spouses commonly reenforced both the biblical image of the suffering widow and the word's etymological meaning, destitute and desolate.1 While the Old and New Testaments assured early modern contemporaries that divine providence blesses the afflicted, as it did the widow of Zarephath, scriptural passages emphasizing the desolation also led them to conclude that "widowehood is a plague of God vpon the vngodly."2 Municipal and local parish records further suggest isolation and deprivation: women were less likely to remarry than men, and widows depended more than other needy upon poor relief.3 Yet the object of pity and charity was also commonly seen as a threat to male security and patriarchal society.4 Along with their redefined social position and, in some cases, their economic gains from a former marriage, widows were in fact free from constraints that limited other woman. Some, though not all, seemed to enjoy an independence recognized by both their seventeenth-century contemporaries and modern scholars. For the financially secure woman, widowhood may well have been, as Sara Mendelson and Patricia Crawford contend, "a time of maximum female autonomy."5 Freed from the legal restraints of coverture, which gave the husband control of the property his wife brought to the marriage, the widow in seventeenth-century England was entitled during her lifetime to at least one third of the estate's real property as well as any designated property held in trust; and as an executrix her control of the estate further increased significantly.6 The declining rate of remarriage documented in the century has led scholars to conclude that even less wealthy widows benefited from "female agency in a patriarchal culture."7 The reasons an increasing number of women chose not to remarry are, however, uncertain; and the extent to which widowhood was liberating is debatable.8 Among the seventeenth-century women's diaries, memoirs, and remembrances written after the death of a spouse, the account of Katherine Austen (1628-1683) in particular presents both a conventional and contradictory picture, one that confirms and challenges established impressions of the widow and her daily lot.

In a century during which upwards of half the married women would be widowed by the age of fifty, it is not surprising that many of the surviving remembrances concern this last of the three traditional stages of womanhood.9 Austen's manuscript of the sixth and seventh years after her husband's death on 31 October 1658, however, describes at unusual length the afflictions of widowhood and the limitations of remarriage.10 The first folio's designation of the manuscript as "Book M" and subsequent references to a parchment, a brown paper, and other lettered manuscripts suggest that Austen intended to combine the surviving folios into a work that presumably included her earlier widowed years. "Book M" nevertheless provides an especially valuable record of her experiences because of its liminal nature: the sixth and seventh years marked the end of a self-imposed period of mourning, a time to underscore the past and consider the future.11

As she confronts her difficulties, Austen fashions an engaging image shaped by her culture. Though her self-representation has not been extensively considered, the two published pieces on her manuscript appreciate "the insight into the mind of a woman grappling with her own personal crises during a turbulent time in English history" (Todd, "'I Do No Injury by Not Loving'" 207). The more ambitious of the studies, based on the manuscript's poems, further stresses the "multi-faceted, discontinuous self-figuration, through which she negotiates the incompatibilities between her socioeconomic ambitions and gender" (Hammons 12). The nature of Austen's conflict, however, may be more deeply rooted in the traditional cultural values and social expectations than in her alleged desire to deflect "attention away from her economic and social ambitions. …

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