Autobiography in English was invented by a woman – a fourteenth- and fifteenth-century mystic called Margery Kempe. As Pattie McCarthy writes, in her remarkable and highly original pamphlet of sonnets, margerykempething: ‘margery kempe invents the autobi- / ography & vernacular tell-all.’ Kempe founded the autobiographical tradition, which – despite its associations more recently with patrilinearity – is hence, at heart, about ‘ladies [who] write history concerning ladies.’
For McCarthy, this autobiographical tradition clearly does not just consist of individual ‘ladies’ writing for and about themselves; rather, these writers are also writing ‘histories’ for and about other ‘ladies’ plural. Unlike, say, the more solipsistic tradition of post-Romantic male autobiographers, this is a matrilinear tradition where women write their histories for other women – where autobiography is a collective form, which might encompass or speak to the experiences of other women across history. Certainly, there are moments in margerkempething where Kempe’s experiences speak to twenty-first century experiences – and, conversely, there are also moments where the twenty-first century speaks back to Kempe.
Kempe – who bore fourteen children, then renounced sex, experienced visions, and who was, on multiple occasions, imprisoned, accused of heresy – was apparently ‘no good wife’ or ‘wifthing.’ She was not even a ‘good saint,’ because ‘a really good [female] saint does nothing,’ and is ‘smaller & duller’ than a male saint. Instead of doing nothing, she went on pilgrimages, preached in public, made noisy displays of her ecstatic faith, and threatened ‘to lure / … [other] wifthings [away] from’ their husbands. She was, in short, a fifteenth-century proto-feminist, and what a certain president might now call a ‘nasty woman.’ McCarthy’s pamphlet shows that only the sexist terms of reference have changed over time, not necessarily the attitudes behind them. In the twenty-first century, rather than being called a bad ‘wifthing,’ Kempe is accused, by various modern critics, of being ‘petty neurotic vain / illiterate’ with a ‘mental banality.’
Faced with all these accusations, new and old, Kempe is ‘churched postpartum’, and ‘is arrested & is arrested / & is arrested & is arrested / … & she is … questioned / … & then … / is threatened with rape & prison.’ The threat is at once individual and collective, persisting across history. Despite having lived ‘thirty-eight years … with … [her] husband, / when … not on pilgrimages,’ despite having given birth to fourteen children, Kempe is still seen as a ‘strumpet,’ ‘no good wife,’ and is hence threatened with rape, violence, imprisonment. As a woman, it seems impossible for her either to be a good wife or good saint – the society sets up impossible (and paradoxical) ideals, and threatens her with extreme violence for failing to live up to them. This, as one particularly powerful sonnet makes clear, is a failure and threat shared by women across history:
we heretics we wolves we birth we birth
we winterward we cluster we blister we quire
we escape the fire we lucky creatures
we latin we goodwives we daughterthings
we patience figures we soft unforgiving …
inordinate love we hairshirt we lapse
we churched we bloody we slide we between
we margery kempe we gentle bedtime
Here is a powerful statement of a shared, collective, almost transhistorical female identity and lineage; here, in this poem and the pamphlet as a whole, is a statement which is timely – given current conservative rhetoric about women – and which is perhaps always timely: ‘we swive we margery me marry we burn’.
About the reviewer
Jonathan Taylor's most recent books are the poetry collection Cassandra Complex (Shoestring, 2018), and the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015). He directs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk.