Katherine Hodgkin (ed.), Women, Madness and Sin in Early Modern England: The Autobiographical Writings of Dionys Fitzherbert

Katherine Hodgkin (ed.), Women, Madness and Sin in Early Modern England: The Autobiographical Writings of Dionys Fitzherbert (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010). 290pp. £65.00hb.  ISBN 978-0-7546-3018-0.

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In Women, Madness and Sin in Early Modern England, Katherine Hodgkin explores the complex relationship between religion and madness and the early modern notion of sin in the autobiographical narrative of Dionys Fitzherbert (born around 1580, died early 1640s). Born into an Oxfordshire gentry family, Fitzherbert’s narrative is an exceptional piece of writing in terms of genre, authorship and content that survives, unusually, in three versions—Fitzherbert’s original autograph manuscript and two scribal copies. Fitzherbert’s narrative focuses upon a spiritual and mental crisis she suffered in her late twenties. It details the onset and course of her affliction, ‘my ferefull tremblings and estonishments my depr grons sobs and vnspekabell sithes the anguish and dollor of my hart’ (f.30r).

What makes this narrative extraordinary is that it is an account of mental illness from the inside. Fitzherbert believes this six-month crises is an instance of spiritual suffering and trial, thus, Katherine Hodgkin asserts, the narrative is a challenge to those who saw Fitzherbert as mad, while simultaneously offering an intriguing insight into the definition and treatment of madness in early modern England. Fitzherbert herself gives two primary reasons for writing this account. The first is to wish to offer a true explanation of what happened to her, to ‘stay the Iudgment’ (f.7r) of those who believed her condition to be melancholy or madness. Secondly, she wishes to offer comfort to those ‘beloued partakers of the same sufiringes & aflictions’ (f.6r) by setting her own example before them.

As Hodgkin points out, Fitzherbert’s narrative is ‘inescapably enigmatic’. By her late teens, Fitzherbert’s religious dedication and the question of marriage appears to have given rise to tensions between her family and herself. From about the age of twenty until she was twenty-six, when the affliction occurs, she lived and worked in a succession of often aristocratic households. It appears that the onset of the ailment was when Fitzherbert ‘feigned’ wind colic to avoid an awkward situation—she had not received the expected money from her father—and thus was unable to give the customary present to the Countess of Huntingdon at the New Year festivities. Having pretended to be ill she was then overwhelmed by the reality of physical illness which appears to escalate rapidly into a state where she has anxiety about death and God’s judgement. She imagines herself physically fragmented and disintegrating, and the spiritual terror she feels at believing she is sinful and God’s enemy, is accompanied by other irrational fears such as delusions  and confusion especially of those around her and of her own identity. She believed herself damned and that she was ‘a lose liuer and a thief ‘(f.10r). What emerges is that Fitzherbert’s ‘language of madness’ gives voice to fears and ambiguities that would otherwise go unacknowledged, such as over paternal authority, sibling relationships and gender hierarchy. These tensions are not fully developed by the author and may merit a more detailed analysis.

After being confined to her room for just over four weeks Fitzherbert was then moved to London under the care of Dr Carter and his wife where gradually her more florid delusions receded. She was then moved to Oxford and finally to Wales under the care of her mother and sisters where her recovery is marked by a return to the activities of daily living such as Bible reading, walking, sewing and spiritual devotions. For Fitzherbert, the suddenness of the recovery is crucial in demonstrating the divine nature of her affliction. Her narrative is steeped with biblical allusions and she describes her illness as a spiritual battle for her soul. She shows that it is not physic alone that cures her, but rather how reading and prayer re-establish her right mind. In her view, her pride needed humbling and her decreasing attention to religious duties needed punishment. The problem her narrative addresses is that others failed to recognise that she was punished by a special trial and treated her as mad. As an example of early modern writing, Fitzherbert’s account is self-generated, following no explicit model, and this example of self-writing reminds us of the complexities of the relation between gender, genre and self-representation in this period.

Hodgkin’s comprehensive and well-informed introduction explores Fitzherbert’s life and family background, looking at kinship and household networks, tracing financial and religious relationships, and giving an account of Fitzherbert’s affliction as she describes it. Hodgkin then examines the writing of the narrative, placing it in various literary contexts (life writing, spiritual autobiography, women’s writing) and presents a credible argument for Fitzherbert as an early modern woman writer. Because Fitzherbert’s narrative is an account of mental crisis written from the inside, Hodgkin dedicates the final part of this section to examining aspects of the history of madness, and, in particular, melancholy, in relation to spiritual affliction and to gender. She provides a comprehensive and up-to-date overview of the literature on madness and locates the narrative within its cultural context.

Hodgkin presents two transcriptions of Fitzherbert’s self-writing. In addition to the main narrative that is a replica of the original text (Bodleian Library, Ms.e Mus. 169), on the left-hand side, there are letters written by Fitzherbert after her mental crises. On the right-hand page is an annotated version in modern typography with standardized spelling. This annotated version includes modern punctuation and a particular strength of the book is the extensive scholarly and insightful footnotes that accompany the transcriptions. These footnotes clarify biblical allusions and quotations, provide definitions of archaic words and clarify, where possible, individual characters. In addition to constructing sense from disordered sentences, the footnotes reflect and comment on the social, cultural, legal and medical knowledge and practices of the seventeenth century. In addition, Hodgkin includes an appendix that compares variations of the scribal copies that differ significantly from the original text as well as a summary table showing the contents of each copy of the Fitzherbert manuscript.

Overall, this authoritative book occupies an important niche in early modern literature that will be invaluable to specialist scholars particularly those researching women, writing and religion in this period. It is also accessible to non-specialists as a result of the author’s detailed and comprehensive scholarship which is notable for its clarity and erudition.

Barbara Kennedy, University of Sussex

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