Elizabeth Clarke, ‘There is a great deal of research to be done on Hester Pulter’

Imagine my excitement when a friend told me in 1996 about the discovery of a miscatalogued manuscript by a woman in the Brotherton Library at Leeds –one that had never been read! And one accompanied by a rather dodgy family tree –at least we knew who wrote it, although Hester Pulter’s pen name was Hadassah, a biblical name for Esther, taken we think from Francis Quarles’ 1621 Hadassa: or The history of Queene Ester. She had certainly read Quarles as so many seventeenth-century women did — in fact it soon became obvious that Hester Pulter was very well read indeed, imitating many contemporary poets such as George Herbert, and prose writers such as John Ogilby. It was obvious from her poems and biography that she had been brought up in the literary environment of the early Stuart court and although we have not found any evidence that she wrote in a coterie she was clearly immersed in courtly
literary culture. From the first time I saw the handsome folio manuscript it became clear that here was the kind of woman writer that we had hoped to find in the Perdita Project—a serious writer who wrote in many genres and in many moods—and who actually had a sense of humour!

Up until now there are very few poems in print by Hester Pulter—there are a couple in Jane Stevenson and Peter Davidson’s Oxford Early Modern Women Poets; An Anthology (2001) and eight in the Perdita Project’s anthology of early modern women’s manuscript verse (2005). Nevertheless much to my delight undergraduate students are already being taught her poems—in Warwick (of course), in Florida and Canada, in New Zealand. My students like her work because it is so personal—unlike the masterly rhetoric of male poets in the seventeenth century, Hester Pulter’s poems about the deaths of thirteen of her children, or the loss of Charles I, or simply about looking in the mirror when she is 47 years old, have the ring of bitter experience. The interesting thing about Pulter, though, is that she does not only write from personal experience. She was clearly an expert in alchemy, as Jayne Archer has shown. She writes many poems about astronomy and in her poem ‘This Was Written 1648 When I Lay In With My Son John, Being My 15th Child, I Being So Weak That In Ten Days And Nights I Never Moved My Head One Jot From My Pillow, Out Of Which Great Weakness My Gracious God Restored Me That I Still Live To Magnify His Mercy, 1655’ is not only about lying-in but on what she does to distract herself from childbirth—she observes the heavens. The poem seems committed to a knowledgable view of Copernican astrophysics, something that Milton, a close contemporary, does not seem sure about in 1667. Her poems include a wealth of specialised vocabulary and knowledge as Sarah Ross has shown. Sarah was the first person, at Oxford, to include a chapter on Pulter in her doctoral thesis and it was with her that I first explored the Hertfordshire Hester Pulter had known. On the map there was the name of her mansion, Broadfield Hall, and as we approached it, near the village of Cottered, expectations were high. Sadly although the stables by Hawksmoor are still there and still impressive the house as Hester knew it was knocked down and rebuilt less than a century ago. At least I managed to find a seventeenth-century print in a local antique shop that is Broadfield Hall dating from the 1680s—not long after Hester Pulter’s death in 1678.

There is a great deal of research to be done on Hester Pulter, which will be made possible by this lovely new edition. I hope to see articles on her political involvement, her scientific knowledge and not least on her sense of humour which in the verse epistle to Davenant is sharp, well-informed and surprisingly crude. I hope someone will explore her personal voice, which is strong and individualistic, and which contrasts with the seventeenth-century poetry that we know. Most of all I hope readers will be struck by the unashamed femininity of her voice, recording events, thoughts and feelings as they happened. In a way I think Hester Pulter is the female poet many of us have been waiting for. She insists that her poetry is private, and we currently know of no mentions of her poetry, yet she describes herself as ‘enfranchised’ by her verse. She writes on many of the same topics as her younger contemporary Katherine Philips, but in a very different way. The manuscript also includes a fascinating unfinished romance which I hope will be studied during the new interest in early modern romances. There are many subjects for research that this edition will make possible and I hope there will be a real flowering of research on Hester Pulter.

University of Warwick

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