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women, letters, self-expression


The central themes of this essay are delineated by the contrasting examples of two female correspondents. Both women are from similar gentry backgrounds and wrote in the late 1570s to early 1590s. The first is Mary Harding, the court maid of Lady Bridget Manners, herself the daughter of Elizabeth, countess of Rutland, famed for her marriage to Robert Tyrwhit in 1594, which so greatly incurred the wrath of Elizabeth I. Only four of Mary Harding’s letters have survived, all of which were sent to her mistress’s mother in order to keep her abreast of court news, her daughter’s progress, and potential marriage suitors. Of particular interest is the fact that although the letters bear her signature Mary appears to have been unable to write them herself, but instead relied upon the services of an amanuensis. Indeed, she wrote on one occasion, “Umblely beseching your honor not to be ofended withe me for that I write noe oftner to your honour. Thee caues is that I cannot write myselfe and I am louthe to make any bodye acquianted withe my leaters.”