Women's Writing Before Woolf: A Social Reference/Alice Thornton (1626–1707)

Alice Thornton (1626-1707)Edit

Alice Thornton (born Alice Wandesford) (13 February 1626 – January 1707) was a British life-writer who documented her life, family and religious piety through three miscellany manuscripts. An edited version of these manuscripts were published in part in 1875 by Charles Jackson from the Surtees Society.

BiographyEdit

Alice Wandesford was born on Monday the 13th of February in 1626 in Kirklington, Richmondshire.[1] She was the daughter of Christopher Wandesford and Alice Osborne, who had four sons and three daughters together.[1] The Wandesford family were piously devout, and the religious education of their children was of utmost importance. The family came together three times a day for devotions, and prayer or bible verse recital was a daily practice.[1] In her manuscripts, Thornton speaks fondly of her family and recalls a happy childhood.[2]

Her father, a prominent politician, moved to Ireland  in 1631 where he served on council at the behest of Sir Thomas Wentworth, the Earl of Strafford. The following year, Alice, her mother, and two younger brothers also relocated to Ireland. During this time, Alice resided in Dublin Castle in the company of Lady Anne and Lady Arabelle Wentworth. She learned to write and speak fluent French, as well as other practical skills of “huswifery” such as making sweet meats.[1]

In 1940, after the downfall of Sir Thomas Wentworth, Thornton’s father replaced him as the Lord Deputy of Ireland. However, he only lasted in this position for a few short months before his death. Shortly after this time, Thornton’s family fled Ireland due to the Irish Rebellion of 1641, returning, after some time to Kirklington. During their escape from Ireland, the Last Will and Testament of Christopher Wandesford disappeared, causing financial hardship and conflict within the family. Thornton accounts the contents of this Will in her writing, which would have generously provided for her, but without proof of the document she was not entitled to what was promised.[1] These events contributed to her reluctant marriage to William Thornton in 1651. Despite this reluctance, her marriage to William Thornton proved to be a happy one.[3]

The couple built a home together in East Newton, Yorkshire, where Alice gave birth to nine children; however only three survived to adulthood. Her writing accounts the grief of miscarriage and child loss. Her husband, despite being a dutiful and loving man, made unwise decisions, encumbering the family in greater debt than that which had accumulated since the death of Alice's father.[3] In 1668, William Thornton died, leaving a widowed Alice to reside in their home in East Newton until her own death in 1707.

WorksEdit

As a life-writer, Thornton documented the story of her life from birth through the major events she experienced. She writes on illness, injury, death, birth, duty, love and family, combining domestic and spiritual writing in her memoirs. [4] Thornton began the first volume of this story in 1669, however, she states she had been writing from an early age.[2]  The surviving works of Alice Thornton are three miscellany volumes bound in brown leather, as well as a "small memorandum book".[1] These volumes are described in detail by Charles Jackson in the preface to his edited manuscript 'The Autobiography of Mrs Alice Thornton, of East Newton, co. York' that was published in 1875. The first two volumes are described as being five inches by three inches, the former being 303 pages and the latter 291 pages. These two volumes both explore Thornton’s life from birth up until the death of her husband. The third volume is described as being five inches by seven inches and containing 216 pages describing the years after the death of Thornton’s husband.[1] At the time of her death, Thornton had left “three books of my owne Meditations and Transactions of my life, and all the residue of my Papers and Books written with my owne hand” to her daughter Alice Thornton Comber.[1] Jackson also describes a fourth, smaller book that was in the possession of Thomas Comber, one of the descendants of Thornton’s daughter, which is a similar recount of the other three volumes. All four volume's were written in the small handwriting of Alice Thornton.[1]

The whereabouts of the original volume's of Alice Thornton's writing were unknown for many years, until two volumes resurfaced in 1982 and 1994 at a private auction. These manuscripts were the first and third manuscripts described by Charles Jackson in his 1875 edition and in 2009 they were resold to the British Library.[5] The further two missing manuscripts were discovered by Cordelia Beattie in 2019, the first being the "small memorandum book" as described by Jackson. It was found to be in the private collection of the Comber family. The lost, second manuscript was also located by Beattie amongst the Dean Comber papers in Durham Cathedral.[5]

The Autobiography of Mrs Alice Thornton, of East Newton, co. York (1875)Edit

In his edited manuscript of Thornton’s volumes, Jackson takes liberties at what to include from Thornton's story. He described a lot of repetition across the volumes, and states that "these repetitions were so considerable, that it has been found necessary not only to make omissions, but to transpose passages here and there, to preserve to a certain extent the chronological sequence of events."[1] This edition relied heavily on the first of Alice Thornton's manuscripts, with "only about a quarter of the second manuscript" included.[5] As Cordelia Beattie explains, Jackson included segments of the volumes in chronological order, which meant the original arrangement by Thornton was lost in this edition. As Julie Eckerle accounts, “while this editorial style my provide a certain amount of undeniable narrative satisfaction, the resulting omissions and distortions misrepresent Thornton’s efforts to write - and rewrite - her self over an extended period." [6] This assertion is echoed by Raymond Anselment who suggests Jackson’s edit of Thornton’s writing lessens the impact of her authorial intent. [4]

The First Booke of My Life (2014)Edit

After submitting several papers detailing the discrepancies between the 1875 publication of ‘The Autobiography of Mrs Alice Thornton, of East Newton, co. York’ and her original manuscript, critic Raymond Anselment was charged with putting together a new edition of Thornton’s work. His edition focus entirely on the first manuscript, and attempts to faithfully represent the structure of Thornton’s original work. In a review of this book, Julie A. Eckerle names Anselment as the ideal editor for Thornton’s writing, as he had already produced two editions of notable life-writers Mary Rich and Elizabeth Freke.[6] Further to this, Eckerle claims "My First Booke of My Life is an important volume for a number of reasons, not least of which is that, with its publication, Anselment makes Thornton’s work readily accessible for the first time in a trustworthy and accurate edition."

Reputation and LegacyEdit

Thornton states that her writing began in earnest to compound a slandering of her reputation that occurred upon the marriage of her eldest daughter to Thomas Comber. As she describes, “to have lived to the 42nd yeare of my life in an unspotted reputation, and now to be seen by these lyeing tongues to  have bin guilty of something unworthy of that noble race, and vertuous, that I came from” is agreed to be the catalyst and motivation for her surviving work.[1] Anselment determined that the early volumes of Thornton's writing were intended to be circulated amongst friends and family to dispel the rumours against her, framing her as a woman of virtue.[7]

At the time of the 1875 edition’s printing, Jackson and the Surtees Society express that autobiographical work of this nature was hidden within the homes of “our ancient houses; concealed there, partly because it touches upon matters of domestic concern, and partly because, in the opinion of its owner,  the trivial subjects or the devotional aspirations which such volumes generally record” are of little interest to the public sphere. This is a claim they dispute, emphasising the virtue and values present within Alice Thornton’s account of her life. At this time in history, her legacy was her upstanding reputation. As Jackson accounts in his preface to his edition of Thornton’s work, “the book is that of a true daughter, wife and mother. Affection and piety pervade it.” [1]

However, a critical lens has been applied to Thornton’s writing since the retrieval of her original miscellany in the late twentieth century. Scholar’s have shifted the focus from Thornton being a good wife and mother to that of a good writer. Her motivation for writing has become the focus of the analysis of Alice Thornton’s writing by scholar’s Raymond Anselment and Anne Lear. Their works both draw on the construction of self present within Alice Thornton’s life-writing, emphasising the restructuring of memories to position herself more favourably. [8][3][7] Thornton represents a unique study of authorial construction due to the multiple volumes detailing the same instances. The repetition that Jackson discarded from his own edition is now at the forefront of contemporary analysis.

With the discovery of the second volume of Thornton’s manuscript by Cordelia Beattie, there is the potential for the interplay of self between all three volume’s to further be explored in future research. In April of 2021 it was announced that the University of Edinburgh had received a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to digitise the four manuscripts of Alice Thornton's writing, as well as extending research into her motivations.[9] This digitisation will open up the writing of Alice Thornton for new audience's to "appreciate her significance," extending the legacy of this woman's life.[9]

ReferencesEdit

Anselment, Raymond A. “'My first Booke of my Life:’ The Apology of a Seventeenth-Century Gentry Woman.” Prose Studies, vol. 24, issue 2, 2001, pp. 1-14. doi:10.1080/713869606

Anselment, Raymond A. “Seventeenth-Century Manuscript Sources of Alice Thornton’s Life.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 45, issue 1, 2005, pp. 135-155.

Anselment, Raymond A. “The deliverances of Alice Thornton: The re-creation of a seventeenth-century life. Prose Studies, vol. 19, issue 1, 1996, pp. 19-36. doi: 10.1080/01440359608586572

Beattie, Cordelia. “The Discovery of Two Missing Alice Thornton Manuscripts.” Notes and Queries, vol. 66, issue 4, 2019, pp. 547-553. doi: 10.1093/notesj/gjz116

Eckerle, Julie A. Review of My First Booke of My Life, edited by Raymond A. Anselment. Early Modern Women: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 10, issue 1, 2015, pp. 230-232. doi:10.1353/emw.2015.0030

Lear, Anne. “‘Yet Thou Did Deliver Me’: The Exemplary Life of Alice Thornton.” The Unsociable Sociability of Women’s Lifewriting, edited by Anne Collett and Louise D’Arcens.  London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, pp. 89-106. doi:10.1057/9780230294868_6

Thornton, Alice. The Autobiography of Mrs Alice Thornton of East Newton, Co. York. Edited by Charles Jackson, Durham, Edinburgh and London: Andrews, Whittaker and Blackwood, 1875.

Thornton, Alice. The First Booke of My Life. Edited by Raymond A. Anselment, Nebraska Press, 2014.

“University research project receives funding to digitise Alice Thornton manuscripts, discovered at Durham Cathedral.” Durham Cathedral, 26 April 2021, www.durhamcathedral.co.uk/news/university-research-project-receives-funding-to-digitise-alice-thornton-manuscripts-discovered-at-durham-cathedral.

Further ReadingEdit

Works by the authorEdit

Thornton, Alice. The Autobiography of Mrs Alice Thornton of East Newton, Co. York. Edited by Charles Jackson: Durham, Edinburgh and London, Andrews, Whittaker and Blackwood, 1875.

Thornton, Alice. The First Booke of My Life. Edited by Raymond A. Anselment, Nebraska Press, 2014.

Life-writing in Early Modern EnglandEdit

Kempe, Margery. The Book of Margery Kempe. Edited by Lynn Staley, Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1996.  

Walker, Anthony. Memoir of Lady Warwick: Also, Her Diary, from A.D. 1666 to 1672, now first published : to which are added, extracts from her other writings. London: Religious Tract Society, 1847.

Warwick, Mary. Autobiography of Lady Warwick. Edited by Thomas Crofton Croker. London: Percy Society, 1848.

Academic TextsEdit

Ebner, Dean. Autobiography in Seventeenth-Century England. The Hague, Mouton, 1971.

Graham, Elspeth, et al. Her Own Life: Autobiographical Writings by Seventeenth-Century Englishwomen. Abingdon: Routledge, 1989.

  1. a b c d e f g h i j k l Thornton, Alice. The Autobiography of Mrs Alice Thornton of East Newton, Co. York, edited by Charles Jackson, Durham, Edinburgh and London, Andrews, Whittaker and Blackwood, 1875.
  2. a b Thornton, Alice. The First Booke of My Life. Edited by Raymond A. Anselment, Nebraska Press, 2014.
  3. a b c Anselment, Raymond A. “The deliverances of Alice Thornton: The re-creation of a seventeenth-century life. Prose Studies, vol. 19, issue 1, 1996, pp. 19-36. doi: 10.1080/01440359608586572
  4. a b Anselment, Raymond A. “Seventeenth-Century Manuscript Sources of Alice Thornton’s Life.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 45, issue 1, 2005, pp. 135-155.
  5. a b c Beattie, Cordelia. “The Discovery of Two Missing Alice Thornton Manuscripts.” Notes and Queries, vol. 66, issue 4, 2019, pp. 547-553. doi: 10.1093/notesj/gjz116
  6. a b Eckerle, Julie A. Review of My First Booke of My Life, edited by Raymond A. Anselment. Early Modern Women: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 10, issue 1, 2015, pp. 230-232. doi:10.1353/emw.2015.0030
  7. a b Anselment, Raymond A. “'My first Booke of my Life:’ The Apology of a Seventeenth-Century Gentry Woman.” Prose Studies, vol. 24, issue 2, 2001, pp. 1-14. doi:10.1080/713869606
  8. Lear, Anne. “‘Yet Thou Did Deliver Me’: The Exemplary Life of Alice Thornton.” The Unsociable Sociability of Women’s Lifewriting, edited by Anne Collett and Louise D’Arcens.  London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, pp. 89-106. doi:10.1057/9780230294868_6
  9. a b “University research project receives funding to digitise Alice Thornton manuscripts, discovered at Durham Cathedral.” Durham Cathedral, 26 April 2021, www.durhamcathedral.co.uk/news/university-research-project-receives-funding-to-digitise-alice-thornton-manuscripts-discovered-at-durham-cathedral.