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Death and the Early Modern Englishwoman

Becker, L. M. (2000) Death and the Early Modern Englishwoman. PhD thesis, University of Reading

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Abstract/Summary

The fact of death is universal. So too is the fact of womanhood. Yet each age aims to ameliorate the fear of death, and to cope with the construction of womanhood, in its own way. This study explores the female experience of death in Early Modem England. By tracing attitudes towards gender through the occasion of death, it aims to advance our understanding of the construction of femininity in the period. The underlying hypothesis of the study is that the process of dying could be a positive event for a woman, and for her mourners, in terms of defining, enabling and elevating her. The thesis is divided into three sections. The first section, comprising three chapters, takes a cultural and historical overview of death in Early Modem England, examining the means by which the inescapable fact of human mortality was confronted, and how the fear of death and dying could be used to uphold the mores of society. The female experience of death is considered, and the advantages, to both dying women and their supporters, of achieving a death well done are examined. The power of the deathbed is recognised, as is the empowerment of motherhood, in allowing women to speak out from the deathbed in order to bestow dying maternal blessings upon their offspring, or to leave instructions and advice to their survivors, including their children. The second section of the thesis explores, in two contrasting chapters, examples of good and bad female deaths. The motivation behind the reporting of deaths is discussed, and the veracity of such accounts is scrutinised. The societal need to create posthumous images of women, both good and bad, is highlighted, and the ways in which such reports could be used for religious, political and patriarchal purposes is considered. The main body of the research concludes, in the final section of the thesis, with a consideration of how death, as well as confining women within a patriarchy, could also paradoxically liberate them, albeit within accepted gender boundaries. Chapter Six evaluates the opportunity for female involvement in dying and posthumous rituals, including funeral rites, funeral sermons, elegies and epitaphs. Chapter Seven focuses upon two specific areas of posthumous female representation: will-making and the posthumous marital status of women. In the final chapter, the genre of women's literary legacies is discussed. In this chapter it is argued that death could be a catalyst by which women were privileged into print and an assessment of the female response to this unusual opportunity is made. Throughout the thesis it is understood that perfect femininity is an unachievable icon, an artificial construct of its age, and that Early Modem women were necessarily living, and dying, within this construct. Whilst accounts of dying women largely underpinned the existing patriarchy, the experience of dying allowed some women to express themselves by allowing them to utilise an established male discourse. It is this opportunity for expression, coupled with the power of the deathbed, that provides the focus for the thesis.

Item Type:Thesis (PhD)
Thesis Supervisor:Heale, E.
Thesis/Report Department:English Literature
Identification Number/DOI:
Divisions:Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Science > School of Literature and Languages > English Literature
ID Code:76986

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