Thursday 20 August 2015

"You are a Female, I won’t say Woman"

Today I am honoured to welcome Dr Sara Read to the salon for a look at her research into the summer letters of Edward Synge and his daughter. Sara is the author of the marvellous Maids, Wives, Widows: Exploring Early Modern Women’s Lives, 1540-1740, and I urge you to make that book your next read!

In this post I have the chance to explore a set of correspondence which is from a little later than the time period I normally work on. In eighteenth-century Ireland, Edward Synge (1691-1762) wrote some 221 letters to his daughter Alicia (1733-1807) between 1746 and 1752. These letters have been edited and published in a modern edition by Marie-Louise Legg (Lilliput Press, 1996). Synge was an Anglican bishop in the Church of Ireland who was Bishop of Elphin at the time of this correspondence. The letters for each year (apart from the ones from 1748 which have not survived) cover the summer months from May to October while Synge was in his diocese in the Co. Roscommon and his daughter remained at home in Dublin. 
These letters provide an intriguing insight into a father-daughter relationship at this time. Alicia was the Bishop’s youngest child, and her mother had died when she was just five years old. It is clear from the letters that Synge felt he must supply the role of both parents to his daughter as she grew into a young woman who appears to have resembled her late mother. Synge wrote in July 1746 that ‘I flatter my self that you are your good Mother’s daughter in understanding, as well as in feature’. At the start of the collection of letters Alicia is thirteen, and the frankness with which the pair communicate did not escape Synge ‘This, Hussy, is a very odd letter for me to write to a Girl of thirteen’. ‘Hussy’ in this usage is a diminutive version of housewife, playfully suggesting Alicia is the mistress of her father’s household. Synge most often called his daughter ‘my dear girl’ but when she forgot where the gilt paper was kept he teasingly called her ‘Madam giddy’. Frustratingly, we only have access to one side of the epistolary exchange and so can’t know the full reaction of the young woman to her father’s letters. However the problems of transmitting tone in a letter between generations and is clear when Synge gently chided Alicia for misinterpreting his letters (which she perhaps did deliberately); he complained in June 1749 that ‘You must learn, My Dear Girl, to distinguish between the Serious and jocose [jokes-filled] tho’ in grave Words –what I wrote about you betraying vanity, was of the latter kind and you have taken the former’. His daughter wasn’t given to vanity for which he was thankful – he was playfully responding to an apparent assertion by Alicia that her ‘Welfare is of some importance to me’.  
The Cathedral of St John the Baptist, Sligo, the episcopal seat of the Church of Ireland bishops of Elphin
The Cathedral of St John the Baptist, Sligo, the episcopal seat of the Church of Ireland bishops of Elphin
Synge took great pleasure in hearing from his daughter during the long summer months that they were apart, writing on 13 May 1747:
‘My Dear Girl’s Long letters are very pleasing; and if you manage so as not to distress or embarrass your self with writing them, I care not how long they are – you may do as I do, Take a whole sheet, and fill it with a Girl’s prattle as I do mine with Old Dad’s’
That is not to say he was uncritical of her expression, and in the same letter pointed out that in her last she misspelt ‘sitting’ and ‘dropped’ and that she must take more care with full-stops. Despite his need to point out syntactical and spelling errors Synge still wanted to hear from his daughter in her own, unmediated voice. In one letter from earlier in May 1747, he implored her not to allow anyone to correct either her writing nor make suggestions about her tone and topic, writing in phrasing which he acknowledged as risqué: ‘Sauve vôtre modestie, I must see you naked’.
The letters are often filled with household news such as the refurbishment of Alicia’s bedroom which was taking place in June 1749. Synge issued various instructions that his daughter was to pass to various tradespeople but he also told her she was free to pick out the wallpaper in any ‘sort or colour that you like’. He also told her to ignore Mr Eaton who would be sure to tell her that there was no Irish oak to be had, but that regardless of cost she was to have it. There is perhaps little wonder that one contemporary who met Alicia at a dinner party in 1752 remarked that ‘she is brought up like a princess’.  As well as exchanging household and personal news, Synge would advise his daughter about her health. For instance when he fretted over a toothache she developed in August 1752. Synge was keen to hear if Alicia had had a comfortable night before recommending that she found the best ‘Operator’ to have the troublesome tooth extracted. 
One particular exchange about health from May 1751 stands out. Synge reproved his daughter for not telling the doctor about problems she had been having with her periods. Synge was moved to write to her about this because the family physician has told him how poorly she had been – this brought back unhappy memories for Synge who blamed his wife’s false modesty in being too embarrassed to be frank with her doctor for causing her early death. Synge lamented that ‘Your good Mother lost her health the same way: And probably to this is owing, that for so many years, I have mourn’d, and shall mourn to the end of life’. Synge, then, was determined not to let history repeat itself. He said that the news of her problems had filled him with ‘terror’. He acknowledged that this was a tricky topic for a father/daughter correspondence but felt his intervention was now unavoidable. It is worth quoting from this letter at length:
My Dear Dear Girl. Consider. You are a Female, I won’t say Woman. Every thing therefore that belongs to Females, belongs to you. Your Frame and Nature is what the great God of Nature has given you. Can any thing then that is natural, be matter of reproach, or be conceal’d as shamefull Imperfection? It is not one. To want it, would be. [...] Modesty, My Dear, is the great Ornament of your Sex. I see with pleasure in how great a degree you possess it. I’ll go further with you. Shamefacedness in young persons if an imperfection, is a beautifull one; and great regard is always to be had to what Decency requires. And this varys in different Countrys. The same thing, perfectly innocent, may be indecent in one Country, not so in another.  In France  A Lady will speak with more ease of ses Ordinaires [her periods], than I now write the Word. I could scarce write it in English. Such is the force of Custom.

As Synge’s comments show decency and modesty are constructed differently in different cultures and Synge recounts the tale of a French Lady in a coach who ordered the driver to stop because she needed a ‘pisse’ which ill-breeding he reproved. However, as he noted, this frankness also extended to menstruation and in France women were less reluctant to talk about their cycles than were English and Irish women.  Synge carried on to explain that while it was vulgar to shout out about needing to wee in public, no one would think it so should the woman have a problem with urinating that required a doctor’s intervention. All through the early modern era books of women’s illnesses bemoan the fact that women will not see their doctors for period problems until they become so serious that they can’t be avoided and as early as Thomas Raynalde’s version of The Midwives Book (1545) healthcare professionals had been imploring women to put aside their modesty and seek help sooner rather than later. Synge noted the same regret in the doctors he knew, ‘Every one, whom I have employ’d, have lamented them to me, and own’d that they have been some time so embarrass’d by them as they knew not what to do, and have no doubt but multitudes of Women are every year thus destroy’d.  How can it be otherwise?’  He continued ‘If they have their health, they are once a month in the same Circumstances. If single Women are not, some thing is wrong; and this too frequently happens. But there is such a false delicacy forsooth in speaking or being spoken to even by a Physician, That they neither know how to manage on the approach, or, while it is on them, nor can they receive directions, because they will not give information. No! ‘Tis an affront to speak to them even in the most distant, and best Couch’d terms on the Subject’. 
Synge was also cross that his daughter has used ‘Mrs J.’ to pass messages on to the doctor rather than Alicia speak to them herself. It was common for women to speak to the doctor’s wife, or have their husbands speak to a doctor if they were too embarrassed themselves, but for Synge this was ridiculous: ‘Princes have whipping boys, who are corrected when they offend. Must you have one to be indecent for you? [...] Consider that No information from her, can be Exact as from your Self. She may not know the proper Questions to ask, or you may frump [sneer] at her asking them’. 
Synge closed by saying that he will say no more on the matter but that he hoped he had said enough to ‘convince you of the monstrous folly of this fausse delicatesse’. This letter is significant on a cultural level, showing as it does the differences in social norms between countries about what is acceptable to discuss openly, but what this letter shows more than anything else is how scared the Bishop was when he learned that his daughter was having menstrual problems (the nature of which is not spelt out in the correspondence), and how he was determined that his daughter should not suffer the same fate as his wife, and especially not through a preventable illness. In fact Alicia went on to live a long life, dying at the age of 74. 

To learn more about the lives of early modern women, see Sara’s latest book Maids, Wives, Widows: Exploring Early Modern Women’s Lives, 1540-1740 out now with Pen and Sword press. 
All quotations are taken from the modern edition cited above Marie-Louise Legg, ed., The Synge Letters: Bishop Edward Synge to his Daughter Alicia, Roscommon to Dublin 1746-1752 (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 1996), 530 pp. 
About the Author
Sara Read holds a doctorate in early modern literature. She is a lecturer in English at Loughborough University and has published widely on the topics of women's reproductive health and on women and religion. She is on Twitter as @Floweringbodies
This post copyright © Sara Read, 2015.


Sarah said...

Perhaps Alicia took her father's advice! I am amazed at so frank a discussion, how nice that they had so close a relationship.

Anne said...

It marvelous we have these letters! Thanks for posting

Catherine Curzon said...

It is quite remarkable!

Catherine Curzon said...

Isn't it wonderful?

Helena P. Schrader said...

This correspondence also underscores that feminist notions about women being "possessions" and uncherished just because they didn't have equal rights is rubbish.

Catherine Curzon said...

Thank *you*!