Women's Writing Before Woolf: A Social Reference/Winifred Thimelby (1619–1690)

Winifred Thimelby (1619-1690)Edit

Mary “Winifred” Thimelby (1619 – 1690) was a Roman Catholic prioress and notable manuscript letter writer of the Aston-Thimelby family literary circle.

BiographyEdit

Mary Thimelby was born to Richard and Mary (nee Brooksby) Thimelby in Irnham, Lincolnshire, England. The Thimelby’s were a well-known Catholic family. In 1635, at age 16, Mary took on the name Winifred/Winefrid when she was admitted as a nun in St. Monica’s Convent in Louvain. St. Monica’s was an English convent of St. Augustine’s Order which had moved to Belgium due to the rising Protestant repression of Catholicism in Britain. In 1668, she became the third Prioress of St. Monica’s. Winifred died in Louvain in 1690, at age 71, having served in the convent for 55 years.[1]

Little is known about Winifred’s education, but her letters show she was highly literate and sophisticated.[2]

Winifred was a part of the Aston-Thimelby family literary circle. The family exchanged poetry and letters which are preserved in the Tixall Letters and Tixall Poems, compiled by Arthur Clifford in 1815.[1] Notable poets and writers within this circle include Katherine Thimelby, Winifred’s sister, Gertrude Aston Thimelby, Winifred’s sister-in-law, and Constance Aston-Fowler, Gertrude’s sister.

WorksEdit

Winifred is noted for her prolific letter writing. Arthur Clifford, the compiler of the Tixall Letters, claimed to have access to between 60-70 letters sent from Winifred to other members of the family circle.[3] Of these, only 39 were published in the Tixall Letters. These include letters to her sister Katherine, over 25 letters to her brother-in-law, Herbert Aston, after the death of Katherine, and numerous letters to her various nieces and nephews.

Winifred is also the author of a devotional entitled “Meditations of the principal obligations of a Christian, taken out of the scriptures, councils, and fathers”. Clifford describes the devotional in the Tixall Letters but does not reproduce it.[4] The devotional contains 24 meditations, each including a reflection and prayer.[4] This was originally intended solely for her niece, Gertrude Aston. However, in an introduction entitled “Advice to the Reader”, Winifred notes that she believed the devotion “might prove profitable to many”.[4]

The devotional was preserved in manuscript form in the Library of Tixall Hall in Staffordshire, England, until the demolition of the hall in 1927. The location of the manuscript is now unknown.  

Winifred’s letters depict an ongoing struggle to reconcile her monastic commitments alongside her deep desire to maintain strong connections with her family. Further, the letters contain passionate language, which was, at the time, seen as unfit for a nun.[5] This is chiefly evident in letter LXXVII to Herbert Aston in which she states that her duty as a nun requires that she denounce the world and “love nothing but God”.[6] Yet, she admits that she struggles to do so because she cares deeply for her family and her worries often detract from her focus upon faith.

Similarly, in the following excerpt from letter LVI, also to Aston, Winifred admits that she is not the perfect nun, but rather she desires ongoing connection with, and news from, her family:

Doe not suppose me a well-mortifyed nun dead to the world; for alas tis not so, I am alive, and as nearly concern’d for thos I love, as if I had never left them, and must shar in all their fortunes whither good or bad.[7]

Scholars such as Victoria Van Hyning suggest that these letters demonstrate a strong attachment to the physical world.[8] However, Claire Walker argues that this should not be read as discontentment with, or rebellion against, her monastic life.[9] Rather, Winifred’s letters simultaneously illustrate a deep satisfaction with her choice. Indeed, she often attempted to recruit her nieces and other family members to the convent.[4] Further, Winifred’s letters, as well as the devotional, exhibit her desire to continually develop and grow her family members in their own faiths.

Reputation / LegacyEdit

Many of the responses to Winifred’s letters have been lost, and as such, it is not known how the letters were received, nor what impact Winifred had upon the family.[10] Nevertheless, she was successful in recruiting her sister-in-law, Gertrude Aston-Thimelby, and her niece Katherine Aston to St. Monica’s. Her niece Gertrude Aston, for whom the devotional was penned, also joined Winifred at St. Monica’s for some time. Although Gertrude did not become a nun, it is clear Winifred impacted upon her life to some extent.

Arthur Clifford, in his introduction to the Tixall Letters, claimed that Winifred’s letters are significant for both “sentiment and style”.[4] This is echoed in modern scholarship, which suggests that Winifred’s tone and style was highly sophisticated and familial, unlike the majority of writings from religious women.[10] [2]

Victoria Van Hyning suggests that Winifred has received a reputation in modern scholarship as “a nun who breached clausura[11] and other monastic restrictions. However, she argues that this view is highly restrictive and rather, Winifred’s legacy should be reconsidered in light of her desire to achieve “eternal union with friends and family, and the maintenance of their collective faith.”[11]

More recent scholarship attests to the broader significance of Winifred’s letters. As an exiled convent, the nuns of St. Monica were not subject to the King or any other male authority. Indeed, Confessor Richard White wrote to Winifred, attempting to regulate St. Monica’s connection to the outside world by restricting the number of letters to be sent. However, it is commonly accepted that neither Winifred, nor her fellow nuns adhered to this limit. Thus, the presence of the letters themselves attest to a unique level of female agency, otherwise unheard of within English convents at the time.[12]

Similarly, Pfannebecker argues that Winifred’s letters are significant as they support the notion of spiritual patronage, by which convents would offer spiritual gifts in return for financial aid.[12] The exiled convents relied heavily upon the dowries from nun’s families. However, this was not often enough, and prioresses would be required to use their secular contacts to maintain financial stability.[12] This context provides a new perspective to Winifred’s continued appeals to family members, encouraging them to join the convent. It may be that her purposes in doing so were two-fold; firstly, she believed the monastic life would be beneficial to their faith,[13] and secondly, their joining the convent would provide financial aid, thereby ensuring its continued survival.[12] Further, Pfannebecker suggests this notion of spiritual patronage may be supported by letter XLII to Herbert Aston[14] in which she purports to repay his debt by intervening for him on judgement day.[15]

Further Reading:Edit

Clifford, Arthur, editor. Tixall Letters; Or, The Correspondence Of The Aston Family And Their Friends, During The Seventeenth Century. Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown (Edinburgh), 1815.

Clifford, Arthur, editor. Tixall Poetry. Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, And Brown (London), 1813.

Pfannebecker, Mareile. “‘Love’s Interest’: Agency and Identity in a Seventeenth-Century Nun’s Letters,” Literature Compass, vol. 3, no. 6, 2006, pp. 149-156. Doi: 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2006.00309.

ReferencesEdit

  1. a b Clifford, Arthur, editor. Tixall Letters; Or, The Correspondence Of The Aston Family And Their Friends, During The Seventeenth Century. Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown (Edinburgh), 1815. pg.2.
  2. a b Stevenson, Jane. “The Tixall circle and the musical life of St Monica’s, Louvain.” British Catholic History, vol. 233, no. 4, 2017, pp. 583–602. doi:10.1017/bch.2017.26. pg. 587.
  3. Clifford, Arthur, editor. Tixall Poetry. Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, And Brown (London), 1813. (pg xxv); Stevenson (n 2) pg. 586.
  4. a b c d e Clifford, Arthur, editor. Tixall Letters; Or, The Correspondence Of The Aston Family And Their Friends, During The Seventeenth Century. Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown (Edinburgh), 1815. pg.3
  5. Sharp, Tanyss. No Other Means Than By Pen”: LettersFrom Early Modern English Nuns In Exile. Carleton University Ottawa, Ontario, 2020. Revised Thesis. Pg. 44
  6. Clifford, Arthur, editor. Tixall Letters; Or, The Correspondence Of The Aston Family And Their Friends, During The Seventeenth Century. Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown (Edinburgh), 1815. pg.95.
  7. Clifford, Arthur, editor. Tixall Letters; Or, The Correspondence Of The Aston Family And Their Friends, During The Seventeenth Century. Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown (Edinburgh), 1815. pg.44.
  8. Victoria Van Hyning, “Thimelby-Aston Literary Exchanges: ‘Itt imports not wher but how we live’,” English Convents in Exile, 1600–1800: Volume 3. Life Writing I, edited by Nicky Hallett, Elizabeth Perry and Victoria Van Hyning. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2012, pg. 263.
  9. Walker, Claire. ‘Doe not suppose me a well mortifyed Nun dead to the world’: Letter writing in early modern English convents’, Early Modern Women’s Letter Writing, 1450–1700, edited by James Daybell. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. 2001, pg. 169.
  10. a b Sharp, Tanyss. No Other Means Than By Pen”: LettersFrom Early Modern English Nuns In Exile. Carleton University Ottawa, Ontario, 2020. Revised Thesis. Pg. 43
  11. a b Victoria Van Hyning, “Thimelby-Aston Literary Exchanges: ‘Itt imports not wher but how we live’,” English Convents in Exile, 1600–1800: Volume 3. Life Writing I, edited by Nicky Hallett, Elizabeth Perry and Victoria Van Hyning. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2012, pg. 264
  12. a b c d Pfannebecker, Mareile. “‘Love’s Interest’: Agency and Identity in a Seventeenth-Century Nun’s Letters,” Literature Compass, vol. 3, no. 6, 2006, pp. 149-156. Doi: 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2006.00309. pg. 153.
  13. Clifford, Arthur, editor. Tixall Letters; Or, The Correspondence Of The Aston Family And Their Friends, During The Seventeenth Century. Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown (Edinburgh), 1815. pg.4.
  14. Clifford, Arthur, editor. Tixall Letters; Or, The Correspondence Of The Aston Family And Their Friends, During The Seventeenth Century. Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown (Edinburgh), 1815. pg.12
  15. Pfannebecker, Mareile. “‘Love’s Interest’: Agency and Identity in a Seventeenth-Century Nun’s Letters,” Literature Compass, vol. 3, no. 6, 2006, pp. 149-156. Doi: 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2006.00309. pg. 154