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Bosom Companions and Secretarial Duties

Monday, April 16, 2018 - 07:00

Historical studies of prominent women such as Queen Elizabeth I often focus on the men who filled key positions in their governments or who served as advisors. Such an approach that looks primarily at formal structures can overlook the immense power and influence that women had in a social context where people spent most of their lives in gender-segregated contexts. If you wanted to present your petition and plead your case to a woman like Queen Elizabeth, the most efficient means was not to approach Burghley or Walsingham, but to have a personal connection with one of the gentlewomen of the chamber--the women who interacted directly with the queen every day in her private spaces. This article looks at such "unofficial" personal networks between women in early modern England, and especially as they revolve around the role of secretary--literally the person who in entrusted with and and keeps one's secrets. While some prominent women might have male secretaries to handle their correspondence, the social context made it far more likely that a woman would fill a role such as this that expected and required a level of trust, faithfulness, and intimacy that were hard to achieve across the genders at that time.

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Crawford, Julie. 2009. “Women’s Secretaries” in Queer Renaissance Historiography, Vin Nardizzi, Stephen Guy-Bray & Will Stockton, eds. Ashgate, Burlington VT. ISBN 978-0-7546-7608-9

Publication summary: 

A collection of articles generally on queer approaches to literary history in 16th century England.

Crawford, Julie. 2009. “Women’s Secretaries”

Crawford tackles the intriguing topic of women in 16-17th century England serving as secretaries--both in official and de facto positions--especially in service to other women. She particularly looks at the function of a secretary as an advisor and secret-keeper. As the Oxford English Dictionary gives for the first definition of the word: “One who is entrusted with private or secret matters; a confidant; one privy to a secret.” (Keep in mind that the root of “secretary” is “secret”.) The second definition, involving the job of managing correspondence, developed later but is also a significant sense in the 16th century. And, indeed, one of the contextual citations in the OED for this sense is feminine, though allegorical, referring to Mary Sidney Herbert as “eloquent secretary to the Muses.”

While studies of secretaries in the 16th century commonly focus solely on men who served women in this role--especially those serving Elizabeth I--Crawford seeks to recognize women themselves fulfilling the role of secretary. The general omission may in part be due to a focus on the function of secretaries in those social spheres less open to women, and especially on the significant homosocial bonds between men in these functions in the public sphere. But 16th century writers had no problem with accepting that women might fill the role of secretary for other women, in particular fulfilling the role of private counselor and often serving as intimate confidante.

There is a brief survey of examples of women secretaries and their duties: Hannah Wolley in The Gentlewoman’s Companion (1674) describes handling her mistress’s correspondence; Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World features a female scribe working for another woman; and there are numerous examples of women whose secretarial duties involved reading aloud to their employer. One pair that may be of particular interest is the Countess of Bedford and court poet Cecilia Bulstrode, whom Ben Jonson satirized with an accusation of lesbianism.

The women serving female monarchs, such as Queen Elizabeth and Queen Anne fulfilled an interwoven set of official and unofficial secretarial duties that are hard to untangle from more intimate services. At the upper levels of society, women shared beds as well as secrets with their closest companions and the women in service to powerful employers enjoyed significant control over access to their attention. Crawford suggests that such close relationships--although not considered sexual in their historic context--could not avoid having an erotic component. The article examines the role of these female secretaries in terms of specific types of functions.

The first of those functions examined is “bosom counsel and bed-sharing,” that is, someone to serve as a close confidante--“close” in both a metaphoric and physical sense. As Angel Day put it in The English Secretarie (1592) a secretary is someone “in whose bosome he holdeth the repose of his [master’s] safety to be far more precious then either estate, living, or advancement, whereof men earthly minded are for the most part desirous.”

The word “bosom,” literally meaning “breast” and extended to the clothing covering it, came metaphorically to mean both closeness and discretion. Papers and letters meant not to be seen were tucked beneath clothing on the upper body, embodying the idea of secret speech entrusted to the bearer. Inescapably, the language of taking someone to one’s bosom, or sharing one’s bosom evokes images of female erotic intimacy. Examples of such language between women is offered from several Shakespearean works such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing.

These female confidantes in Shakespeare often combine the sharing of secrets with the sharing of a bed. Here the complicated interpretation of bed-sharing must be examined. In early modern England, it was normal and expected for people of the same sex to share a bed. (If nothing else, housing logistics and less than ideal home heating arrangements made it desirable.) Bedfellows might be siblings, close friends, host and guest, employer and servant, random travelers staying at the same inn. But such arrangements did also involve complex social politics and could both indicate and negotiate friendships and alliances. Sharing a bed was de facto an intimate relationship and offered the opportunity for private conversation that could lead to possibilities for advice and influence as well as strengthening inter-personal bonds. And it was a context that provided opportunity for homoerotic interactions, regardless of how the participants might have understood and classified those interactions.

The article quotes correspondence about bed-sharing that uses erotically charged language (with all the necessary caveats about interpreting it as specifically sexual). In 1603 Lady Anne Clifford writes in regard to her cousin Frances Bourchier (they later had significant social ties throughout their lives), “[she] got the key of my chamber and lay with me which was the first time I loved her so very well.” A different letter describing the same event mentions a third party, “I lay all night with my cousin Frances Bourchier and Mrs. Mary Cary, which was the first beginning of the greatness between us.” Clifford wrote two years later to her mother about not sleeping with Lady Arabella Stuart “which she very much desires” and which her mother had urged.

These were personal connections, but also the creation and strengthening of political alliances with consequences for the extended families of all the women involved. Anne Clifford had a number of young women of good family in her service--a key part of the life cycle of the upper classes when such bonds were established. The question of sharing sleeping quarters and beds was a dynamic part of making those bonds for the future, in part because of the opportunities for “knowledge exchange” in a private context.

The second type of function covered under the position of secretary was identified by terms such as chambermaid and handmaid. Changes in meaning can result in misunderstandings about the functions involved. “Chambermaid” in this context does not simply mean some who does household cleaning, but a servant responsible for a woman’s personal, private sphere (the “chamber”) and so someone with regular and reliable access to her employer. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night when Maria is identified as Olivia’s “chambermaid” it is clear from context that hers is a position of significant power and influence within the household. A connection is made with Queen Elizabeth’s “gentlewomen of the privy chamber” who were recognized for their potential as influential intermediaries and were sought out to transmit letters, petitions, and requests to the queen. This is the same sort of role that Maria fills for Olivia--a role of such responsibility that Maria can write letters in Olivia’s name and hand and have them taken for her mistress’s word.

A third function associated with the secretary is that of someone expected to be present within their employer’s private spaces and interactions and to keep those transactions secure.

The friend/counselor/secretary relationship between women was seen as qualitatively different from their relationships with men due to the absence of gendered differentials of power. It could function as resistance to patriarchal structures even when it served political networks inextricably linked to patriarchal authority. Female same-sex interactions served an ideal of fidelity and equality that worked against external tyrannies. But in some ways, the concept of consilium (advice) was itself a gendered concept, with the “counselor” understood as pairing with the person being advised in relationships that mirrored gendered pairings such as husband and wife. Thus women were, in some ways, seen as always standing in a consilium function in any relationship.

The article expands on this with an extended look at the characters of Paulina and Hermione in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale and how Paulina’s function as counselor, “gatekeeper”, and eventually guardian of the queen’s most important secret (her continued existence) makes her both a prototype of key secretarial functions and an example of how those functions can act to resist tyrrany. Another literary example that is a more direct allegorical representation of real-world politics is Lady Mary Wroth’s The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania, where various of the female characters serve this function of advisor and secret-keeper for each other.

The author concludes with a summary of how secretary-like functions between women in early modern England were an integrated part of women’s social and political power, as well as illustrating the complex possibilities of same-sex intimacy and eroticism that underlay the ostensibly heterosexual foundations of society.

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