Untold lives blog

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09 December 2021

Elizabeth Polwhele’s taste in reading

A recent acquisition at the British Library may potentially provide more information about the reading taste of the playwright, Elizabeth Polwhele (c. 1651-1691).  We believe we now have a book owned by Polwhele.  The first edition of Hannah Woolley's The Gentlewoman's Companion (1673) is signed with the name 'Elizabeth Polwheile' (Shelfmark C.194.a.1455).  Whether this is the playwright deserves further investigation - copies of Polwhele´s handwriting survive in the manuscripts of her comedy The Frolicks and her tragedy The Faithful Virgins.

Tilte page of The Gentlewoman’s CompanionTitle page of Hannah Woolley,  The Gentlewoman’s Companion; or, A Guide to the Female Sex: containing directions of behaviour with letters and discourses upon all occasions Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The Gentlewoman's Companion is a female conduct book that features recipes, advice, remedies for illness, including a cure for greensickness (anaemia) - a condition mentioned in Polwhele´s comedy by the rake Rightwit, who offers sexual intercourse with the heroine as a cure for this ailment.  Woolley's preface states that she ‘considered the great need of such a Book as might be a Universal Companion and Guide to the Female Sex, in all Relations, Companies, Conditions, and states of Life, even from Child-hood down to Old-age’.  On the subject of marriage, Woolley cautions: 'Whatever you do be not induced to marry one you have either abhorrency or loathing to; for it is neither affluence of estate, potency of friends, nor highness of descent can allay the insufferable grief of a loathed bed'.

Like Woolley, Polwhele´s work engaged with the complications faced by young women and young wives in maintaining a virtuous reputation whilst preserving their personal happiness.  Clarabell, the witty breeches heroine of The Frolicks, asserts her independence by telling her father who has chosen suitors for her that she 'would not have one to displease me' and will not let her father choose for her.  Polwhele's strong-willed heroine anticipates Hellena in Aphra Behn's The Rover (1677), who also actively resists the future planned for her.  Polwhele was ahead of her time in having Clarabell connect the breeches disguise with independence rather than eroticism, referring to her 'legs and a willing mind' that carry her across the city to free Righwit from debtors´prison.  Polwhele's The Faithful Virgins featured female rivals who unite through friendship, 25 years before this theme was explored in Catharine Trotter's Agnes de Castro (1696).

Charlotte Goodall  in the Breeches Role of Adeline for Battle of Hexham - plumed hat, long hair, cloak, left hand extended with shield, sword in right hand.Charlotte Goodall (actress, 1766 – July, 1830) in the Breeches Role of Adeline for Battle of Hexham by George Colman. Source Royal Collection Trust, RCIN 655229.

It would be wonderful to discover more books from Polwhele's library - even fragmentary traces of what she read could tell us more about her level of education, and her literary influences, to help provide a more complete picture of this talented woman, who described herself as ‘haunted with poetic devils’ and wrote ‘by nature, not art’.  Both Woolley and Polwhele are important figures in the history and development of early women's writing, so the possibility that this is the playwright herself united with Woolley in the British Library's collection is extremely fitting.

Beth Cortese
Assistant Professor in Restoration and 18th Century Literature at the University of Iceland. Her PhD entitled ´Women's Wit onstage, 1660-1720' focused on the representation of witty heroines in the work of female and male playwrights.

Further reading:
Polwhele, Elizabeth. c. 1671. The Frolicks, or The Lawyer Cheated, edited by Judith Milhous and Robert D. Hume. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977.
—— c. 1670. The Faythfull Virgins. Bodleian Library MS Rawl. poet. 195, fols. 49-78.
Woolley, Hannah. 1673. The Gentlewoman’s Companion; or, A Guide to the Female Sex: containing directions of behaviour with letters and discourses upon all occasions. London: A. Mawell. British Library General Reference Collection, Shelfmark C.194.a.1455.


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