800 Years of Women's Letters

800 Years of Women's Letters

by Olga Kenyon

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800 Years of Women's Letters by Olga Kenyon

This inspiring and fascinating book is the first truly comprehensive study of women's letters ever published. Organised by subject matter, and covering a wide range of topics from politics, work and war, to childhood, love and sexual passion. '800 Years of Women's Letter' reveals the depth, breadth and diversity of women's lives through the ages. Here Holoise writes to Abelad of her undying devotion, Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woofl correspond about life and writing, and Queen Victoria complains to Robert Peel about the neglect of Buckingham Palace. Many more women write letters that reveal the compassion, humour, love and tenacity with which they confront the often difficult circumstances of everyday life. This is an intriguing insight, and a rare opportunity to read the real words of real women, in their own intimate language. "No literary form is more revealing, more spontaneous of more individual than a letter." P D James

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752472003
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 10/21/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
File size: 602 KB
Age Range: 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

800 Years of Women's Letters

By Olga Kenyon

The History Press

Copyright © 2011 Olga Kenyon
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-7200-3


How Women View Their Roles

Too little is still known about how women in the past differed from women today. The letters that follow give insights into explicit and implicit attitudes and how far gender division was accepted by most women. Did four walls and long skirts restrict the mind more than the body? When ideas of the inferiority of women were enshrined in religion and legislation, how many felt able to express their discontent?

There appear times when women have unselfconsciously used the language of patriarchy, even adopted the approach of males. Patriarchal discourse and assumptions are present in the letters of twelfth-century Hildegard of Bingen, Elizabeth I, and Anaïs Nin in the twentieth century. This could be partially explained by their upbringing, or by a temporary increase in equality. Feminists such as Dale Spender argue that history is cyclical, that women's movements have recurred, been suppressed, only to resurface in another period. These letters provide primary source material on this contentious issue of possible progress.

Also highlighted are the many different ways in which women reacted to cultural constructing of 'femininity'. The very fact of being literate, being able to pick up a pen to manipulate words may have given them a sense of self-worth. Nevertheless, throughout the centuries dependent girls, from medieval Dorothy Plumpton to nineteenth-century Stéphanie Jullien, reveal themselves in more anxious and pleading registers than the few who exercised power.

In each century writing ranges from the forceful deployment of reason and argument to a variety of affectionate, emotional, dramatic and descriptive registers or styles, from Héloïse in the twelfth century to the present.

More is now available from the Middle Ages, thanks to feminist historians. The letters of Hildegard of Bingen, recently translated from the Latin, show she could be bold when writing to Popes; yet when asking for support, from Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, she used strategies suggesting the weakness of her sex, in order to beg for his much-needed male ecclesiastical support for her bold visionary preaching.

Héloïse, at roughly the same time, wrote in the scholastic language she had learnt in her uncle's house, while pleading for a letter from her adored Abelard, fusing 'feminine' attributes in religious registers. Paris proved less chauvinist than most capitals and in the late fourteenth century, the first professional woman writer emerged: Christine de Pisan. Though born in Italy, as her name suggests, her father went to work in Paris when she was young. That is where she married and wrote her seminal works, even disputing the sexism of Le Roman de la Rose publicly. Like many women, she published first out of economic necessity, as she was widowed at twenty-five, and had three young children to support. She explicitly offered role models in The City of Ladies (1405), written in praise of women.

In seventeenth-century France, under Louis XIV, aristocrats had enforced leisure, in which they could analyse their feelings, as shown in the burgeoning novels about love, and the letters of Madame de Sévigné. The short extract here stresses the unpretentiousness which is a trait noticeable in many female letters from the time of Hildegard, a humility often used as a strategy. Women were particularly praised for the 'sensibility' of their letters in seventeenth-century France, which saw the publication of anthologies of their work.

England, after the Civil War, offered less leisure. But some aristocratic women, notably Lady Margaret Cavendish, inherited money, and she was able to write as she wished, thanks to an unusually understanding husband. The public letter included is addressed 'To All Writing Women'. It exploits rhetoric in a way few women did, probably because she wished to make public statements, like the Latin orators seldom taught to girls.

From her time, women rebelled more overtly against restrictions, and by the eighteenth century were expressing themselves with striking clarity, whether writing to men or women, but especially to women they knew well, such as Lady Mary Wortley Montagu who wrote skilfully on girls' education. In this extract to her daughter she expresses clear ideas for her granddaughter, advising her against breeding 'a fine lady qualifying her for a station in which she will never appear, and at the same time incapacitating her for that retirement for which she is destined'. Such advice might seem to emanate from a poverty-stricken pen. The fact that it comes from the daughter of the Earl of Kingston, whose husband was an ambassador, is first-hand evidence of the low public esteem of even well-born women.

Mary Hays and Mary Wollstonecraft felt a little freer just before the French Revolution, when what might be called a feminist movement surfaced. They expounded public issues, the rights of women, their social position, the need for franchise, demands for education. However, Hays lived long enough to feel the backlash against feminism (and revolutionaries) in the late 1790s, and softened her political statements with her Christian beliefs.

To counteract such subversiveness, many middle-class writers, mainly men, expounded on female duties. These hierarchical, proclaimedly Christian attitudes were often interiorized by women, who wrote letters, both real and fictitious, usually to daughters, on topics such as duty towards husbands, female education, and proper behaviour. From the 1740s there were attempts to define women's roles and determine sexual ethics. Mary Astell had already written on wifely submission, in 1700, but with irony; whereas Hannah More, in 1799, stressed obedience, while advocating education ('industry and humility are worth more than splendour'). Lady Pennington (1761) advised 'discreet improvement' of indifferent males, and education of daughters – strategies of subversion and adaptation, a frequent necessity.

The nineteenth century saw an increase in the availability of education, though slowly. There was a wider spectrum of female letter-writers, from middleclass wives with enforced leisure, to girls forced to support themselves in one of the few new professions, teaching. Village schools, ragged schools and Sunday schools were being founded, generally underfunded, but at least keeping some children out of factory work while imparting a modicum of literacy. Primary education for all was not introduced in England until 1873, later than in France and Germany, and cost a penny a week, even from the unemployed. Capitalism was also producing industrialists who employed governesses for their offspring, hoping to resemble the aristocracy. Many letters from lonely, underpaid young middle-class women testify to their usually undignified treatment, and misery in old age.

By the 1850s, with Victoria securely on a now respected throne, more women felt able to lead public campaigns against the harsh treatment of their sex, of poor children, and of the working class. The letters of Caroline Norton are impressive, since her arguments are both reasoned and forceful. She campaigned for years, and finally brought about some improvement for brutally treated wives. Women like her devoted years of their lives to fighting for women's rights. They succeeded in alleviating various harsh laws (against prostitutes, etc.), in creating the first colleges of higher education for women, and in winkling an opening to some of the professions, such as medicine. This struggle was pursued far more publicly by the suffragettes, though even they had little success till after the First World War.

The letter here from Millicent Fawcett, who campaigned for women's suffrage, is a private one, showing her sense of perspective, tact and humour, despite setbacks. Women are allowed to reveal their sense of fun and wit far more publicly in the late twentieth century. One of my aims with these letters is to show that women always enjoyed humour, in areas where not repressed by patriarchal mores. Fay Weldon, one of whose semi-fictional letters to her niece is also included, commented to me that women were inhibited until very recently by the need not to displease the men on whom they were economically dependent. Weldon exemplifies the freedom of economically independent twentieth-century women to state what they really think about male behaviour. The extract here is ostensibly from a work of fiction, but used polemically to broadcast one of her feminist messages.

As there is little from virtually silent majorities such as Muslim women, I have included a letter from an African epistolary novel. The author voices the stoicism necessary to ill-treated wives. The chapter ends on a completely new tone, a lesbian proud of her love, examining the potential of lesbian relationships. It is significant that these three letters were published in the early eighties. Three vastly different twentieth-century attitutdes to women's predicaments are voiced, all skilful, all individual, yet preoccupied with the lot of other women and with working out strategies for survival – by wielding the pen.


This letter is from Héloïse to her beloved Abelard, in twelfth-century Paris. Abelard was in the church, and it would have ruined his promising career if churchmen in power learned that he was having a passionate love affair. Here she claims she would rather be his 'whore' than his wife, in order to allow him to pursue his studies. Her selflessness was not rewarded, because her uncle, an ecclesiastic, put a cruel end to their love by castrating Abelard, and shutting her in a convent. She proved so able that she soon became Abbess.

Twelfth Century

Your superior wisdom knows better than our humble learning of the many serious treatises which the holy Fathers compiled for the instruction or exhortation or even the consolation of holy women, and of the care with which these were composed. And so in the precarious early days of our conversion long ago I was not a little surprised and troubled by your forgetfulness, when neither reverence for God nor our mutual love nor the example of the holy Fathers made you think of trying to comfort me, wavering and exhausted as I was by prolonged grief, either by word when I was with you or by letter when we had parted. Yet you must know that you are bound to me by an obligation which is all the greater for the further close tie of the marriage sacrament uniting us, and are the deeper in my debt because of the love I have always borne you, as everyone knows, a love which is beyond all bounds.

You know, beloved, as the whole world knows, how much I have lost in you, how at one wretched stroke of fortune that supreme act of flagrant treachery robbed me of my very self in robbing me of you; and how my sorrow for my loss is nothing compared with what I feel for the manner in which I lost you. Surely the greater the cause for grief the greater the need for the help of consolation, and this no one can bring but you; you are the sole cause of my sorrow, and you alone can grant me the grace of consolation. You alone have the power to make me sad, to bring me happiness or comfort; you alone have so great a debt to repay me, particularly now when I have carried out all your orders so implicitly that I was powerless to oppose you in anything, I found strength at your command to destroy myself. I did more, strange to say – my love rose to such heights of madness that it robbed itself of what it most desired beyond hope of recovery, when immediately at your bidding I changed my clothing along with my mind, in order to prove you the sole possessor of my body and my will alike. God knows I never sought anything in you except yourself; I wanted simply you, nothing of yours. I looked for no marriage-bond, no marriage portion, and it was not my own pleasures and wishes I sought to gratify, as you well know, but yours. The name of wife may seem more sacred or more binding, but sweeter for me will always be the word mistress, or, if you will permit me, that of concubine or whore. I believed that the more I humbled myself on your account, the more gratitude I should win from you, and also the less damage I should do to the brightness of your reputation.

I beg you, think what you owe me, give ear to my plea for a word from you, and I will finish with a brief ending:

farewell, my only love



Hildegard of Bingen was respected by many churchmen in the twelfth century for her preaching and her visions. In 1141 she felt commanded by God to record her mystical visions. However she needed support and here writes to the authoritative Bernard of Clairvaux, currently preaching the Second Crusade.


Reverend Father Bernard, the great honours you have attained through the power of God are a source of wonder; you are truly to be feared by the lawless folly of this world. Under the banner of the Holy Cross, you draw men in exalted devotion, burning with love for the Son of God, to do battle in Christ's army against the savagery of the heathens. I beg you, Father, through the living God, to listen to me as I question you. I am greatly troubled by this vision which has appeared to me through the inspiration of divine mystery. I have never seen it with the outer eyes of the flesh. Wretched as I am (and more than wretched in bearing the name of woman) I have seen, ever since I was a child, great miracles, which my tongue could not utter had the Spirit of God not shown me them so that I might believe. Most true and gentle Father, answer in your goodness, your unworthy maidservant. For never, since I was a child, have I lived an hour free from care. Provide your servant-girl with comfort from your heart.

For in the text, I understand the inner meaning of the exposition of the Psalms and Gospels and the other books which are shown to me by this vision. The vision touches my heart and soul like a burning flame, showing me these depths of interpretation. Yet it does not show me writings in the German tongue – these I do not understand. I only know how to read the words as a single unit – I cannot pull the text apart for analysis.

So tell me please what all this seems to you to signify – for I am someone untaught by any schooling in external matters (though I have been taught within, in my soul), so that I speak, as though in doubt. But having heard of your wisdom and your holiness, I know that I will be comforted. For I have not dared to tell these things to anyone (since I have heard that there are many schisms in the world) except to a certain monk whose conduct in the community won my approval. To him I revealed all my secrets and he did indeed reassure me that these were great and worthy of reverence. Father, for the love of God, I want you to comfort me, and I will be certain.

Two years ago, I saw you in this vision as one who looked into the sun without being frightened – a truly brave man. And I wept because I blush so deeply and am so timorous.

Noble and most gentle Father, I depend upon your soul. Make it clear to me, if you will, through this exchange, whether I should say these things in the open or maintain my silence. For it costs me great pains to say what I have seen and heard in this vision. Yet, because I have kept silent, I have been laid out by this vision all this time on my bed, in great sickness, unable even to lift myself up. And so I wail before you, in sorrow. For I am prone to the motion of the winepress lever in my nature – the nature sprung from the root that rose from the Devil's promptings, which entered into Adam, and made him an outcast in an alien world. But now, rising up, I run to you. I tell you: You are not moved by that lever but are always lifting it up. You are a vanquisher in your soul, raising not just yourself, but the world as well, towards salvation.

Farewell. Be strong in your soul, Amen.



At the end of the fourteenth century Christine de Pisan offered this advice for girls and women. It comes from the prefatory open letter at the beginning of her magnificent City of Ladies where she praises the little recognized virtues of women, in an imaginary city without men. Though from Italy, she lived and wrote in Paris for most of her life.


And you, virgin maidens, be pure, simple, and serene, without vagueness, for the snares of evil men are set for you. Keep your eyes lowered, with few words in your mouths, and act respectfully. Be armed with the strength of virtue against the tricks of the deceptive and avoid their company.

And widows, may there be integrity in your dress, conduct, and speech; piety in your deeds and way of life; prudence in your bearing; patience (so necessary!) strength, and resistance in tribulations and difficult affairs; humility in your heart, countenance, and speech; and charity in your works.


Excerpted from 800 Years of Women's Letters by Olga Kenyon. Copyright © 2011 Olga Kenyon. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Foreword by P.D. James,
Women's Letters: The Feminist Approach,
1. How Women View Their Roles,
2. Friendship,
3. Childhood and Education,
4. Love and Sexual Passion,
5. Marriage and Childbirth,
6. Housekeeping and Daily Life,
7. Work,
8. War and Alleviating Suffering,
9. Travellers and Travelling,
10. Illness and Ageing,
11. Political Skills,
Appendix 1: The Epistolary Novel,
Appendix 2: Select Biographies,

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