Recovering Love’s Fugitive: Elizabeth Wilmot and the Oscillations between the Sexual and Textual Body in a Libertine Woman’s Manuscript Poetry




Elizabeth Wilmot, women's manuscript writing, feminist recovery work, feminist literary theory

How to Cite

Bowles-Smith, E. (2008). Recovering Love’s Fugitive: Elizabeth Wilmot and the Oscillations between the Sexual and Textual Body in a Libertine Woman’s Manuscript Poetry. M/C Journal, 11(6).
Vol. 11 No. 6 (2008): recover
Published 2008-11-28

Elizabeth Wilmot, Countess of Rochester, is best known to most modern readers as the woman John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, abducted and later wed.  As Samuel Pepys memorably records in his diary entry for 28 May 1665:

Thence to my Lady Sandwich’s, where, to my shame, I had not been a great while before. Here, upon my telling her a story of my Lord Rochester’s running away on Friday night last with Mrs Mallet, the great beauty and fortune of the North, who had supped at Whitehall with Mrs Stewart, and was going home to her lodgings with her grandfather, my Lord Haly, by coach; and was at Charing Cross seized on by both horse and footmen, and forcibly taken from him, and put into a coach with six horses, and two women provided to receive her, and carried away. Upon immediate pursuit, my Lord of Rochester (for whom the King had spoke to the lady often, but with no success) was taken at Uxbridge; but the lady is not yet heard of, and the King mighty angry and the Lord sent to the Tower.  (

Here Pepys provides an anecdote that offers what Helen Deutsch has described in another context as “the elusive possibility of truth embodied by ‘things in themselves,’ by the things, that is, preserved in anecdotal form” (28). Pepys’s diary entry yields up an “elusive possibility” of embodied truth; his version of Wilmot’s abduction solidifies what he perceives to be the most notable features of her identity: her beauty, her wealth, and her sexual trajectory.

Pepys’s conclusion that “the lady is not yet heard of” complicates this idea of anecdotal preservation, for he neatly ties up his story of Wilmot’s body by erasing her from it: she is removed, voiceless and disembodied, from even this anecdote of her own abduction.  Pepys’s double maneuver demonstrates the complex set of interactions surrounding the preservation of early modern women’s sexual and textual selves. Written into Pepys’s diary and writing in conversation with her husband, Wilmot has generally been treated as a subordinate historical and literary figure—a character rather than an agent or an author.  The richness of Wilmot’s own writing has been largely ignored; her manuscript poetry has been treated as an artefact and a source of autobiographical material, whereas Rochester’s poetry—itself teeming with autobiographical details, references to material culture, and ephemera—is recognised and esteemed as literary. Rochester’s work provides a tremendous resource, a window through which we can read and re-read his wife’s work in ways that enlighten and open up readings rather than closing them down, and her works similarly complicate his writings.

By looking at Wilmot as a case study, I would like to draw attention to some of the continued dilemmas that scholars face when we attempt to recover early modern women’s writing.  With this study, I will focus on distinct features of Wilmot’s sexual and textual identity.  I will consider assumptions about female docility; the politics and poetics of erotic espionage; and Wilmot’s construction of fugitive desires in her poetry.  Like the writings of many early modern women, Wilmot’s manuscript poetry challenges assumptions about the intersections of gender, sexuality, and authorship.

Early Modern Women’s Docile Bodies?

As the entry from Pepys’s diary suggests, Wilmot has been constructed as a docile female body—she is rendered “ideal” according to a set of gendered practices by which “inferior status has been inscribed” on her body (Bartky 139). Contrasting Pepys’s references to Wilmot’s beauty and marriageability with Wilmot’s own vivid descriptions of sexual desire highlights Wilmot’s tactical awareness and deployment of her inscribed form. In one of her manuscript poems, she writes:

Nothing ades to Loves fond fire
More than scorn and cold disdain
I to cherish your desire
kindness used but twas in vain
you insulted on your Slave
To be mine you soon refused
Hope hope not then the power to have
Which ingloriously you used.  (230)

This poem yields up a wealth of autobiographical information and provides glimpses into Wilmot’s psychology. Rochester spent much of his married life having affairs with women and men, and Wilmot represents herself as embodying her devotion to her husband even as he rejects her. In a recent blog entry about Wilmot’s poetry, Ellen Moody suggests that Wilmot “must maintain her invulnerable guard or will be hurt; the mores damn her whatever she does.”  Interpretations of Wilmot’s verse typically overlay such sentiments on her words: she is damned by social mores, forced to configure her body and desire according to rigorous social codes that expect women to be pure and inviolable yet also accessible to their lovers and “invulnerable” to the pain produced by infidelity.  Such interpretations, however, deny Wilmot the textual and sexual agency accorded to Rochester, begging the question of whether or not we have moved beyond reading women’s writing as essential, natural, and embodied.

Thus while these lines might in fact yield up insights into Wilmot’s psychosocial and sexual identities, we continue to marginalise her writing and by extension her author-self if we insist on taking her words at face value.  Compare, for example, Wilmot’s verse to the following song by her contemporary Aphra Behn:

Love in Fantastique Triumph satt,
Whilst Bleeding Hearts a round him flow’d,
For whom Fresh paines he did Create,
And strange Tyranick power he show’d;
From thy Bright Eyes he took his fire,
Which round about, in sports he hurl’d;
But ’twas from mine, he took desire,
Enough to undo the Amorous World.  (53)  

This poem, which first appeared in Behn’s tragedy Abdelazer (1677) and was later printed in Poems upon Several Occasions (1684), was one of Behn’s most popular lyric verses.  In the 1920s and 1930s Ernest Bernbaum, Montague Summers, Edmund Gosse, and others mined Behn’s works for autobiographical details and suggested that such historical details were all that her works offered—a trend that continued, disturbingly, into the later half of the twentieth century. Since the 1980s, Paula R. Backscheider, Ros Ballaster, Catherine Gallagher, Robert Markley, Paul Salzman, Jane Spencer, and Janet Todd have shown that Behn’s works are not simple autobiographical documents; they are the carefully crafted productions of a literary professional. Even though Behn’s song evokes a masochistic relationship between lover and beloved much like Wilmot’s song, critics treat “Love Arm’d” as a literary work rather than a literal transcription of female desire.

Of course there are material differences between Wilmot’s song and Behn’s “Love Arm’d,” the most notable of which involves Behn’s self-conscious professionalism and her poem’s entrenchment in the structures of performance and print culture.  But as scholars including Kathryn King and Margaret J. M. Ezell have begun to suggest, print publication was not the only way for writers to produce and circulate literary texts.  King has demonstrated the ways in which female authors of manuscripts were producing social texts (563), and Ezell has shown that “collapsing ‘public’ into ‘publication’” leads modern readers to “overlook the importance of the social function of literature for women as well as men” (39).  Wilmot’s poems did not go through the same material, ideological, and commercial processes as Behn’s poems did, but they participated in a social and cultural network of exchange that operated according to its own rules and that, significantly, was the same network that Rochester himself used for the circulation of his verses.

Wilmot’s writings constitute about half of the manuscript Portland PwV 31, held by Hallward Library, University of Nottingham—a manuscript catalogued in the Perdita Project but lacking a description and biographical note. Teresa D. Kemp has discussed the impact of the Perdita Project on the study of early modern women’s writing in Feminist Teacher, and Jill Seal Millman and Elizabeth Clarke (both of whom are involved with the project) have also written articles about the usability of the database. Like many of the women writers catalogued by the Perdita Project, Wilmot lacks her own entry in the Dictionary of National Biography and is instead relegated to the periphery in Rochester’s entry.

The nineteen-page folio includes poems by both Rochester and Wilmot.  The first eight poems are autograph manuscript poems by Rochester, and a scene from a manuscript play ‘Scaene 1st, Mr. Daynty’s chamber’ is also included. The remaining poems, excluding one without attribution, are by Wilmot and are identified on the finding aid as follows:

  1. Autograph MS poem, entitled ‘Song’, by Elizabeth Wilmot
  2. Autograph MS poem, entitled ‘Song’, by Elizabeth Wilmot
  3. Autograph MS poem, entitled ‘Song’, by Elizabeth Wilmot
  4. MS poem, untitled, not ascribed
  5. Autograph MS poem, entitled ‘Song’, by Elizabeth Wilmot
  6. Autograph MS poem, untitled, by Elizabeth Wilmot
  7. Autograph MS poem, untitled, by Elizabeth Wilmot
  8. Autograph MS poem, untitled, by Elizabeth Wilmot
  9. Autograph MS poem, untitled, by Elizabeth Wilmot

Two of the songs (including the lyric quoted above) have been published in Kissing the Rod with the disclaimer that marks of revision reveal that “Lady Rochester was not serving as an amanuensis for her husband” yet the editors maintain that “some sort of literary collaboration cannot be ruled out” (230), implying that Rochester helped his wife write her poetry. 

Establishing a non-hierarchical strategy for reading women’s collaborative manuscript writing here seems necessary. Unlike Behn, who produced works in manuscript and in print and whose maximization of the slippages between these modes has recently been analyzed by Anne Russell, Wilmot and Rochester both wrote primarily in manuscript. Yet only Rochester’s writings have been accorded literary status by historians of the book and of manuscript theory such as Harold Love and Arthur Marotti. Even though John Wilders notes that Rochester’s earliest poems were dialogues written with his wife, the literariness of her contributions is often undercut.  Wilders offers a helpful suggestion that the dialogues set up by these poems helps “hint … at further complexities in the other” (51), but the complexities are identified as sexual rather than textual.  Further, the poems are treated as responses to Rochester rather than conversations with him.  Readers like Moody, moreover, draw reflections of marital psychology from Wilmot’s poems instead of considering their polysemic qualities and other literary traits.

Instead of approaching the lines quoted above from Wilmot’s song as indications of her erotic and conjugal desire for her husband, we can consider her confident deployment of metaphysical conceits, her careful rhymes, and her visceral imagery.  Furthermore, we can locate ways in which Wilmot and Rochester use the device of the answer poem to build a complex dialogue rather than a hierarchical relationship in which one voice dominates the other.  The poems comprising Portland PwV 31 are written in two hands and two voices; they complement one another, but neither contains or controls the other. Despite the fact that David Farley-Hills dismissively calls this an “‘answer’ to this poem written in Lady Rochester’s handwriting” (29), the verses coexist in playful exchange textually as well as sexually.   

Erotic Exchange, Erotic Espionage

But does a reorientation of literary criticism away from Wilmot’s body and towards her body of verse necessarily entail a loss of her sexual and artefactual identity? Along with the account from Pepys’s diary mentioned at the outset of this study, letters from Rochester to his wife survive that provide a prosaic account of the couple’s married life. For instance, Rochester writes to her: “I love not myself as much as you do” (quoted in Green 159). Letters from Rochester to his wife typically showcase his playfulness, wit, and ribaldry (in one letter, he berates the artist responsible for two miniatures of Wilmot in strokes that are humorous yet also charged with a satire that borders on invective). The couple’s relationship was beleaguered by the doubts, infidelities, and sexual double standards that an autobiographical reading of Wilmot’s songs yields up, therefore it seems as counterproductive for feminist literary theory, criticism, and recovery work to entirely dispense with the autobiographical readings as it seems reductive to entirely rely on them.

When approaching works like these manuscript poems, then, I propose using a model of erotic exchange and erotic espionage in tandem with more text-bound modes of literary criticism. To make this maneuver, we might begin by considering Gayle Rubin’s proposition that “If women are the gifts, then it is men who are the exchange partners. And it is the partners, not the presents, upon whom reciprocal exchange confers its quasi-mystical power of social linkage” (398).  Wilmot’s poetry relentlessly unsettles the binary set up between partner and present, thereby demanding a more pluralistic identification of sexual and textual economies. Wilmot constructs Rochester as absent (“Thats caused by absence norished by despaire”), which is an explicit inversion of the gendered terms stereotypically deployed in poetry (the absent woman in works by Rochester as well as later satirists like Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope often catalyzes sexual desire) that also registers Wilmot’s autobiographical contexts. She was, during most of her married life, living with his mother, her own mother, and Rochester’s nieces in his house at Adderbury while he stayed in London.

The desire in Wilmot’s poetry is textualised as much as it is sexualised; weaving this doublebraid of desires and designs together ultimately provides the most complete interpretation of the verses.  I read the verses as offering a literary form of erotic espionage in which Wilmot serves simultaneously as erotic object and author.  That is, she both is and is not the Cloris of her (and Rochester’s) poetry, capable of looking on and authorizing her desired and desiring body.

The lyric in which Wilmot writes “He would return the fugitive with Shame” provides the clearest example of the interpretive tactic that I am proposing. The line, from Wilmot’s song “Cloris misfortunes that can be exprest,” refers to the deity of Love in its complete context:

Such conquering charmes contribute to my chain
And ade fresh torments to my lingering pain
That could blind Love juge of my faithful flame
He would return the fugitive with Shame
For having bin insenceable to love
That does by constancy it merritt prove. (232)

The speaker of the poem invokes Cupid and calls on “blind Love” to judge “my faithful flame.”  The beloved would then be returned “fugitive with Shame” because “blind Love” would have weighed the lover’s passion and the beloved’s insensibility. 

Interestingly, the gender of the beloved and the lover are not marked in this poem. Only Cupid is marked as male. Although the lover is hypothetically associated with femaleness in the final stanza (“She that calls not reason to her aid / Deserves the punishmentt”), the ascription could as easily be gendering the trait of irrationality as gendering the subject/author of the poem. Desire, complaint, and power circulate in the song in a manner that lacks clear reference; the reader receives glimpses into an erotic world that is far more ornately literary than it is material. That is, reading the poem makes one aware of tropes of power and desire, whereas actual bodies recede into the margins of the text—identifiable because of the author’s handwriting, not a uniquely female perspective on sexuality or (contrary to Moody’s interpretation) a specifically feminine acquiescence to gender norms. 

Strategies for Reading a Body of Verse

Wilmot’s poetry participates in what might be described as two distinct poetic and political modes.  On one hand, her writing reproduces textual expectations about Restoration answer poems, songs and lyrics, and romantic verses.  She crafts poetry that corresponds to the same textual conventions that men like Rochester, John Dryden, Abraham Cowley, and William Cavendish utilised when they wrote in manuscript.  For Wilmot, as for her male contemporaries, such manuscript writing would have been socially circulated; at the same time, the manuscript documents had a fluidity that was less common in print texts.  Dryden and Behn’s published writings, for instance, often had a more literary context (“Love Arm’d” refers to Abdelazer, not to Behn’s sexual identity), whereas manuscript writing often referred to coteries of readers and writers, friends and lovers.

As part of the volatile world of manuscript writing, Wilmot’s poetry also highlights her embodied erotic relationships.  But over-reading—or only reading—the poetry as depicting a conjugal erotics limits our ability to recover Wilmot as an author and an agent. Feminist recovery work has opened many new tactics for incorporating women’s writing into existing literary canons; it has also helped us imagine ways of including female domestic work, sexuality, and other embodied forms into our understanding of early modern culture. By drawing together literary recovery work with a more material interest in recuperating women’s sexual bodies, we should begin to recuperate women like Wilmot not simply as authors or bodies but as both. The oscillations between the sexual and textual body in Wilmot’s poetry, and in our assessments of her life and writings, should help us approach her works (like the works of Rochester) as possessing a three-dimensionality that they have long been denied. 


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Author Biography

Emily Bowles-Smith, Lawrence University

Emily Bowles-Smith is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Lawrence University.  Her publications include the book Triumphant Bodies: Sexual-Political Conquest in British Women’s Published Writing, 1660-1763 (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2007), as well as articles on Margaret Cavendish, Aphra Behn, and Frances Brooke for journals including Notes and Queries, The Age of Johnson: A Scholarly Annual, and The Eighteenth-Century Novel.  She is an executive board member of the Aphra Behn Society and is currently researching the ways in which feminist theories of sexuality have shaped trends in reading and recovering early modern women’s writing.