Monday, June 26, 2006

Coming on strong, early modern style

I spent an almost spookily quiet Sunday (the England match was on TV) cycling in rural Hampshire.

After two visits to churches, one of which, on the redundant churches list, had cobwebs between the pews, and then traversing the site of the Battle of Cheriton Down (March, 1644) -

- gives a reasonable summary based on William Seymour's analysis - I decided that I was communing with the 17th century dead rather too keenly.

So here's a bit of 17th century life, as rendered by Thomas Deloney in Part 2 of The Gentle Craft (1639). Harry Nevell is trying (this is Chapter 9) to woo Mistress Farmer, a London widow just 2o years old:

Faire Mistris quoth Harry, I know it is the custome of women to make their denials unto their louers, & strictly to stand on nice points, because they will not be accounted easily won, or soone entreated: alack deere Dame consider nature did not adorne your face with such incomparable beauty, & framed every other part so full of excellency, to wound men with woe, but to worke their content.

Wherefore now in the Aprill of your yeares, & the sweet summer of your dayes, banish not the pleasures incident to bright beauty, but honour London streets with the faire fruite of your womb & make me blessed by being father to the issue of your delicate body; & though your beauty as the spring doth yet yearely grow, yet in the black winter of old age it will not be so, & we see by daily experience, that flowers not gathered in time rot & consume themselves: wherfore in my opinion you should doe the world intollerable wrong to live like a fruitlesse figtree.

"Honour London streets with the fair fruit of your womb, and make me blessed by being father to the issue of your delicate body." Deloney is praised for the vividity of his dialogue, on which his fiction is highly dependent. He's fond of his shoemakers, who are always depicted as rather lucky fellows, who have a professional access to women's (lower) bodies. My illustration, from a 1678 edition of the first part of the book, captures those erotics. Earlier in the fiction, Long Meg of Westminster is involved in a piece of intense flirtation, and recites as she lifts her clothes (and is encouraged to lift them higher still):
Euery Carter may reach to the garter,
A Shoemaker he may reach to the knee,
But he that creepes higher shall aske leaue of me.

Harry's undeniably forthright pitch fails, for Mistress Farmer turns him down. But I do not think he is represented as foolish, rather that his carpe diem arguments (echoic of Venus and Adonis) are meant to sound eloquent, and his allusion to getting her pregnant - with its odd insinuation of a metropolitan version of patriotism, in which she first honours London, and secondly blesses him - was meant as well said. He rather goes off the rails after her refusal, largely because he is so winning in his ways with his later mistresses and their maids. Mistress Farmer accepts the offer of one of her shop's senior apprentices, after a series of trials of his patience, and his point blank advances on her. She tells him to join the army, he replies that: I had rather have my manhood tried in another place. Yfaith where quoth shee? by my troth said he, in your soft bed, which is far better then the hard field: why thou bold knave quoth she...

Till reading this part of The Gentle Craft, I don't think I'd noticed that it seems to have been customary for the mistress of a middle class house and premises to summon her servants using a whistle. There's an early allusion in the book, as two maids are fantasising about the pleasures of married life and being in charge of a household: 'she sets her siluer whistle to her mouth, and calles her maid to cleare the boord'. Mistress Farmer uses her whistle later in the book.


bdh said...

Do you think the carpe diem argument actually worked? One gets the feeling that if Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" or Herrick's "To the Virgins" were actually persuasive arguments, that they'd both be too busy to be setting pen to paper...

The 'patriotism' argument reminds me of the first caption contest over at Blogging the Renaissance, "lie back and think of New England."

This post has got me thinking about Jennifer Panek's wonderful monograph on widows in early modern English comedy. I only wish her discussion was wider than just comedy...

DrRoy said...

I intend to post sometime soon on a poem by Thomas Randolph, 'A Pastoral Eclogue', which again uses this type of 'let's get you pregnant' argument on the lady being persuaded. It seems so unlikely to us, to be leading with the disincentive. Again, as here, the speaker isn't absolutely endorsed by status. But he gets his wish, and poem ends with the lady commenting that she might be able to forgive him if they can meet again tomorrow.