Advice Books

Richard Brathwaite, from The English Gentlewoman

[Click on image to enlarge] The manual by Richard Brathwaite, The English Gentlewoman (1631), focuses on leisured women of the higher classes and the graces, virtues, and activities expected of them at the various stages of their lives. Brathwaite was a country gentleman of some fortune, a Cavalier and a Royalist. He examines the life of the lady in society, assuming that she will and should be often in company, not confined at home. (Wenceslaus Hollar's image of a gentlewoman shows the various accoutrements of the seventeenth-century society lady.) Brathwaite expects of his model gentlewoman that "her education hath so enabled her as she can converse with you of all places, deliver her judgment conceivingly of most persons, and discourse most delightfully of all fashions." For him the principal ornament of women is civility: chastity is important at all stages of life, but it is to be matched with gentility and courtesy and pleasing behavior. Brathwaite speaks of honor not only as moral worth but also as high estate or gentility and places special emphasis on preserving reputation, or "estimation." The extract given here focuses on the behavior expected of a widow, in regard to chastity and retirement, and the desirability of shunning a second marriage. The passage invites comparison with expectations of the widowed duchess in The Duchess of Malfi (NAEL 8, 1.1462).

 

Are you widows? You deserve much honor if you be so indeed. The name both from the Greek and Latin hath received one consonant etymology: deprived or destitute. Great difference then is there betwixt those widows which live alone and retire themselves from public concourse, and those which frequent the company of men. For a widow to love society, gives speedy wings to spreading infamy * * * for in public concourse and in court-resorts there is no place for widows. For in such meetings she exposeth her honor to danger, which above all others she ought incomparably to tender. >> note 1 Yea, but you will object: admit our inheritance, family, fortunes, and all lie a-bleeding? May we not make recourse to public courts for redress of our public wrongs? What of all this? Do not complain that you are desolate or alone. Modesty affecteth >> note 2 silence and secrecy; a chaste woman solitariness and privacy. If you have business with the judge of any court and you much fear the power of your adversary, employ all your care to this end, that your faith may be grounded in those promises of Christ, >> note 3 "Your Lord maketh intercession for you, rendering right judgment to the orphan and righteousness unto the widow."

The inestimable inheritance of chastity is incomparably more to be esteemed and with greater care preserved by widows than wives, albeit by these neither to be neglected but highly valued. Out of that ancient experience which time hath taught them, their own observations informed them, and the reverence of their condition put upon them, they are to instruct others in the practice of piety, reclaim others from the paths of folly, and with a virtuous convoy guide them to glory. It would less become them to trick and trim themselves gaudily or gorgeously than young girls, whose beauty and outward ornament is the hope and anchor-hold of their preferment, for by these do they husbands seek and hope in time to get what they seek. Whereas it were much more commendable for widows neither to seek them nor being offered to accept them; lest enforced by necessity or won by importunacy, or giving way to their frailty, they make exchange of their happy estate for a continuate scene of misery.


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