‘Tis hard we shou’d be by the Men despis’d,
Yet kept from knowing what wou’d make us priz’d:
Debarr’d from Knowledge, banish’d from the Schools,
And with the utmost Industry bred Fools.
Laugh’d out of Reason, jested out of Sense,
And nothing left but Native Innocence:
Then told we are incapable of Wit,
And only for the meanest Drudgeries fit:
Made Slaves to serve their Luxury and Pride,
And with innumerable Hardships try’d,
‘Till Pitying Heav’n release us from our Pain . . .
—From “The Ladies’ Defense” by Lady Mary Chudleigh
Lady Mary Chudleigh was a devout Angelican, which was the safest way to go in the late 17th century, and also a staunch defender of the rights of women, which was less so, though it probably helped to be part of the aristocracy, and also contemporaries with Mary Astell and Judith Drake.*
We don’t know much more about Her Ladyship—I couldn’t even find a confirmed portrait— except from her poems and essays, from which several scholars have gathered that her husband was a heavy-handed tyrant.
To the Ladies
(Lady Mary Chudleigh)
Wife and servant are the same,
But only differ in the name :
For when that fatal knot is ty’d,
Which nothing, nothing can divide :
When she the word obey has said,
And man by law supreme has made,
Then all that’s kind is laid aside,
And nothing left but state and pride :
Fierce as an eastern prince he grows,
And all his innate rigour shows :
Then but to look, to laugh, or speak,
Will the nuptial contract break.
Like mutes, she signs alone must make,
And never any freedom take :
But still be govern’d by a nod,
And fear her husband as a God :
Him still must serve, him still obey,
And nothing act, and nothing say,
But what her haughty lord thinks fit,
Who with the power, has all the wit.
Then shun, oh ! shun that wretched state,
And all the fawning flatt’rers hate :
Value yourselves, and men despise :
You must be proud, if you’ll be wise.
But attitude doesn’t equal autobiography—Sir George Chudleigh did allow his wife to publish her poems and essays under her own name,** which hardly seems the act of an insecure despot, and her unfinished works and other papers were saved after her death. The Chudleighs also had perhaps a few more children than one might expect from a bad marriage of their elevated class . . . but that’s really just impertinent guesswork.
What I do know is that her poems are witty and wise and occasionally snarky—and we have the same taste in men:
(Lady Mary Chudleigh)
Would but indulgent Fortune send
To me a kind, and faithful Friend,
One who to Virtue’s Laws is true,
And does her nicest Rules pursue;
One Pious, Lib’ral, Just and Brave,
And to his Passions not a Slave;
Who full of Honour, void of Pride,
Will freely praise, and freely chide;
But not indulge the smallest Fault,
Nor entertain one slighting Thought:
Who still the same will ever prove,
Will still instruct and still will love:
In whom I safely may confide,
And with him all my Cares divide:
Who has a large capacious Mind,
Join’d with a Knowledge unconfin’d:
A Reason bright, a Judgement true,
A Wit both quick, and solid too:
Who can of all things talk with Ease,
And whose Converse will ever please:
Who charm’d with Wit, and inward Graces,
Despises Fools with tempting Faces;
And still a beauteous Mind does prize
Above the most enchanting Eyes:
I would not envy Queens their State,
Nor once desire a happier Fate.
I know what I just said about autobiography, but I like to imagine that Sir George filled her “Wish” and that his admiration for her was more than skin, or pocket, deep.
(Lady Mary Chudleigh)
Why, Damon, why, why, why so pressing?
The heart you beg’s not worth possessing:
Each look, each word, each smile’s affected,
And inward charms are quite neglected:
Then scorn her, scorn her, foolish Swain,
And sigh no more, no more in vain.
Beauty’s worthless, fading, flying;
Who would for trifles think of dying?
Who for a face, a shape, wou’d languish,
And tell the brooks, and groves his anguish,
Till she, till she thinks fit to prize him,
And all, and all beside despise him?
Fix, fix your thoughts on what’s inviting,
On what will never bear the slighting:
Wit and Virtue claim your duty,
They’re much more worth than gold and beauty:
To them, to them, your heart resign,
And you’ll no more, no more repine.
Not bad advice, even after 300 years.
Her essays are worth a look, too—not only for the history but for her fantastic turns of phrase and impeccable logic. No matter one’s views on feminism, there’s no question that the woman could lay down an argument.
One or two of these are available online, and there are published collections*** as well that include some scathing examinations of the routine limitations placed upon the women of her time and also more of her poetry, which isn’t all on the scathing side—there are some real tearjerkers about the death of her daughter as well—but enough to ensure a good time.
I invite you to take a look. Say hello to her Ladyship for me.
*Who have each been lauded as the First Feminist Ever, possibly because their essays kept being attributed to each other. Mary Astell usually wins, or so my Women’s Literature prof said.
**Judith Drake’s husband didn’t, which explains the confusion mentioned in the first footnote.
***On a completely unrelated note, my birthday is coming up in a couple of months . . .