Lady Dorothy Shirley (1600-1636) was a poet and literary patron. Two poems have survived from her literary corpus and both of these are transcribed in the manuscript verse miscellany of Lady Dorothy’s friend, Constance Aston Fowler (Huntington Lib., MS HM 904). Fowler was the daughter of the diplomat, Walter, Lord Aston. During the 1630s, Fowler (at her family home in Staffordshire) compiled a collection of poems by her predominantly Catholic coterie including Lady Dorothy, William Pershall and Herbert Aston.
The first of Lady Dorothy’s poems in Fowler’s miscellany is titled ‘of uncon[s]tancy’ and has as its first line: ‘Why did you fayne both sight’s and teares to gayne’. Fowler ends her transcription of this poem with the initials ‘L: D: S:’.
In this poem, the female speaker castigates her male beloved for spurning her after claiming that he loved her. This poem may have been written by Lady Dorothy in response to her discordant relationship with her first husband, Sir Henry Shirley. In c.1627, Sir Henry was accused of adultery, whereupon Lady Dorothy ‘both for safeguard of her honour, blemished by him scandalously, and for her alimony or maintenance (being glad to get from him) she was forced to endure a suit in the High Commission Court’ (State Trials 1809: 2. 1456; Burke 2004).
In ‘Why did you fayne’, the female speaker berates her male beloved as follows:
Did not your hart know what your tounge did say
or did your they both agree for to betray
poore wemen that beleeue, that fathlesse you
speake what you thinke, because themselues are true. (MS HM 904, f. 136r)
Given Sir Henry’s alleged infidelity, the words ‘betray’ and ‘fathlesse’ here may carry with them a potent personal resonance for the female speaker, ‘L: D: S:’ – Lady Dorothy Shirley.
The second poem by Lady Dorothy in Fowler’s miscellany is part of a verse dialogue between Lady Dorothy and her friend, Katherine Thimelby. As B. H. Newdigate (1942: 216) observes, this poetic exchange may have been based on a social occasion when Thimelby visited Lady Dorothy at one of her residences. The Thimelby-Shirley dialogue begins with a poem headed ‘upon the L D saying K T could be sad in her company’ (subscribed ‘M K T’) in which Thimelby declares ‘when in your [Lady Dorothy’s] conuersation I can find / Ther be all treasures to delight the mind’ (MS HM 904, f. 158v). ‘The L. D. ansure’ thanks Thimelby for her commendations and posits that friendship makes Thimelby view her better than she is (MS HM 904, ff. 158v-159r; see Ezell 1987: 121-22 and Hackett 2013: 141-42). This Thimelby-Shirley dialogue foregrounds fruitful conversation and literary exchange between female friends and stands in sharp contrast to Lady Dorothy’s ‘Why did you fayne’ which had pointed to the perilous effects of heterosexual love.
Fowler was not the only seventeenth-century transcriber of Lady Dorothy’s poems. So far I have found that there are five further copies of Lady Dorothy’s ‘Why did you fayne’ in five different manuscript miscellanies. Since this is not a well-known fact, I have outlined below exactly which manuscripts include this poem.
Harvard University, MS Eng 626
This is a folio verse miscellany compiled in the 1630s. There are three different ownership marks in this manuscript: ‘Anthony St John/ Ann: St John/ 1640 Bletso’ (on the flyleaf, identified on CELM as Anthony St John (1618-1673), of Christ’s College, Cambridge); ‘Oliver Beeesfor[d]’ (flyleaf); and ‘John Watts’ (f. 81v). ‘Why did you fayne’ is attributed to ‘L. Dorothy Sherley’ (f. 18r) in this miscellany, but this subscription seems to be in a different hand to the transcription:
Bodleian Library, MS Eng. poet. c. 50
A folio verse miscellany, dated to c. 1630s-1640s on CELM. Ownership marks as follows: ‘Peeter Daniell’ (flyleaf), ‘Thomas Gardinor’, ‘James Leigh’ and ‘Pettrus Romell’ (f. 134v). ‘Why did you fayne’ (f. 81r) is unattributed in this miscellany:
Rosenbach Museum and Library, MS 239/23
A quarto verse miscellany in a single secretary hand, dated to the 1630s on CELM. Howard Thompson (1959: lxi) argues that the anonymous compiler of this manuscript may have had connections to the court. ‘Why did you fayne’ (pp. 79-80) is unattributed here.
British Library, MS Egerton 2725
This is a quarto miscellany of verse and prose. CELM dates the manuscript to the 1640s. Inscribed on f. 179r is the name: ‘Sr. Thomas Meres [or Maiors]’ – this may be Sir Thomas Meres of Kirton, Lincolnshire. ‘Why did you fayne’ is titled ‘A neglected Lady to a dissembling Lover’ (f. 108v), but Lady Dorothy’s name is not cited:
British Library, MS Sloane 1446
A quarto verse miscellany. CELM dates the manuscript to 1633 and states that it may have been associated with Christ Church, Oxford. There are several ownership marks in this miscellany including ‘ffrancis Baskeruile’ (f. 93v, probably Francis Baskerville, MP for Marlborough, Wiltshire). Other inscribed names include ‘Elizabeth White’ (f. 9v) and ‘William Walrond his booke 1663’ (f. 54v). Just like MS Egerton 2725, ‘Why did you fayne’ is headed ‘A neglected Ladie to a dissembling louer’ (f. 49v) and Lady Dorothy’s name is not mentioned.
The six extant transcriptions of ‘Why did you fayne’ contain minor textual differences between them. What is striking about these six copies, however, is the varied ways in which the poem is titled and attributed.
Fowler is the only scribe to head the poem ‘of uncon[s]tancy’. She may have done this because she is particularly interested in the idea of male and female constancy in love. ‘Why did you fayne’ is immediately followed in Fowler’s miscellany with an unattributed poem in which an anonymous male speaker accuses his female beloved for smiling upon other admirers (MS HM 904, ff. 136v-137r). This male-voiced poem also appears in BL MS Egerton 2725 (f. 92v), but it is not presented as being in dialogue with ‘Why did you fayne’ as it is in Fowler’s miscellany.
Fowler and the compilers of Harvard MS Eng 626 are the only known scriveners to attach Lady Dorothy’s name to ‘Why did you fayne’. For the scribes of Bod. MS Eng. poet. c. 50 and Rosenbach MS 239/23, Lady Dorothy’s identity as a poet seems to be either unknown or unimportant. However, in BL MS Sloane 1446 and BL MS Egerton 2725 the compilers choose to place the author’s gender in the title of the poem: ‘A neglected Lady to a dissembling Lover’. The implicit attribution of this poem in these two miscellanies to ‘A neglected Lady’ both reveals and masques female authorship – it suggests an awareness that a female poet is involved, but her exact identity is titillatingly (?) obscured.
Lady Dorothy is usually regarded as a coterie poet who participated in the literary milieu of the Aston-Thimelby circle of Staffordshire and Lincolnshire (see Stevenson and Davidson 2001: 261; Ezell 1999: 27). However, the multiple extant transcriptions of ‘Why did you fayne’ suggests that at least one of Lady Dorothy’s poems was transmitted beyond coterie cultures and was being read at court and at the universities.
Over the next few months I will be analyzing the connections between the six miscellanies that include ‘Why did you fayne’. We know, for instance, that each of these miscellanies include works by Thomas Randolph who wrote a poem celebrating Lady Dorothy’s second marriage (MS HM 904, ff. 189r-195v). Randolph was a friend of Lady Dorothy’s second husband, William Stafford, and may have been a key agent of transmission for ‘Why did you fayne’. Which other male and female authors’ works were being transcribed alongside ‘Why did you fayne’? The complete catalogues and inventories of these six manuscripts that RECIRC has painstakingly completed will enable me to address this question – watch this space!
Works Cited and Consulted
Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Eng. poet. c. 50.
British Library, London, MS Egerton 2725.
British Library, London, MS Sloane 1446.
Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, MS Eng 626.
Huntington Library, San Marino, MS HM 904.
Rosenbach Museum and Library, Philadelphia, MS 239/23.
Printed and Electronic Sources
Aldrich-Watson, Deborah, ed. 2000. The Verse Miscellany of Constance Aston Fowler: A Diplomatic Edition. Tempe: Renaissance English Text Society.
Burke, Victoria E. 2004. ‘Stafford, Lady Dorothy (1600-1636)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/68096> [accessed 9 August 2017].
——. 2009. ‘Manuscript Miscellanies’. In The Cambridge Companion to Early Modern Women’s Writing, edited by Laura Lunger Knoppers, 54-67. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
CELM: Catalogue of English Literary Manuscripts, 1450-1700. 2013. http://www.celm-ms.org.uk/ [accessed 9 August 2017].
Ezell, Margaret J. M. 1987. The Patriarch’s Wife: Literary Evidence and the History of the Family. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
——. 1999. Social Authorship and the Advent of Print. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Hackett, Helen. 2013. ‘Sisterhood and Female Friendship in Constance Aston Fowler’s Verse Miscellany’. In Early Modern Women and the Poem, edited by Susan Wiseman, 131-46. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Jenkins, Robin P. 2004. ‘Shirley, Sir Henry, second baronet (1589-1633)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/70620> [accessed 9 August 2017].
Newdigate, B. H. 1942. ‘The Constant Lovers, II’. The Times Literary Supplement 2099: 216.
State Trials. 1809-1826, edited by Thomas Bayley Howell et al. 33 vols. London: T. C. Hansard.
Stevenson, Jane, and Peter Davidson, eds. 2001. Early Modern Women Poets (1520-1700): An Anthology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Thompson, Howard H. 1959. ‘An Edition of Two Seventeenth-Century Manuscript Poetical Miscellanies’. Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Pennsylvania.