Dorothy Osborne

Genre: letters, a precursor to the epistolary memoir and, finally, to the epistolary novel.

Form: prose.

Characters: Dorothy, her brother, and Sir William Temple, whom she married after the two-year courtship which is the subject of these letters.

Summary: Dorothy and Sir William address each other warmly on the subject of their thwarted romance, and Dorothy deftly portrays her brother's futile but vehement attempts to control her marriage.  Click here to read the whole collection of the Osborne-Temple letters.

Issues and Research Sources:

  1. These letters first were published in 1836, when T.P. Courtenay added them to his biography of Sir William Temple.
    • How might they be read as an allegory of C19 male critics' view of the writings of women as "marginal" when compared with the works of the men they married?

    Some might complain that reading Osborne's letters, in the context of Milton's epic verse and Jonson's comic drama, begs the question of whether her letters are "literature" and deserving of a place in the Norton.

  2. Osborne, like Lady Anne Halkett, was a well-educated woman whose prose style reflects her wide reading in previous eras' literature and her own.  Consider the "shepherdesses" she invites Temple to join.  What literary convention and which genre is being imitated there, probably playfully and ironically, and how might the scene in fields have played itself out had Temple walked by the group of daughters and their handmaids one day?  If you were Temple, where could you go to find the "script" for your behavior and speech?
  3. Following the observation in #2 above, we might observe that Osborne's life as a rebellious daughter brought her into daily conflict with her brother John, who was acting as the family's marriage negotiator to control her choice of a proper husband.  His assumption of male power puts him in the "Father"'s position relative to her as the "Daughter," and his anger at her resistence might remind us of another outraged father when "he reunounced me again and I defied him" (1751).  In the evening of the next day, John comes to Dorothy and they reconcile their differences in a scene she describes to William Temple with this negative simile: "two hermits conversing in a cell they equally inhabit never expressed more humble, charitable kindness toward one another than we" (1752).   Do you hear an echo of an earlier work of literature which would have been famous in Osborne's time, an echo which Osborne would have expected Temple to hear without needing a reference because he, too, would know the work in question?
  1. Dorothy Osborne and William Temple settled at Moor Park, Farnham and often entertained Jonathan Swift, who first published Temple's letters after his death (1700-3).  Temple's diplomacy was essential in creating the "Triple Alliance" which united the Protestant lands of England, Holland and Sweden against France's efforts to add Spainish territory to itself.
    • What do you see in Osborne's character, as revealed in the letters, which might make her someone who would appeal to the tastes of a major-league diplomat and a world-class satirist with staunch political convictions?
  2. Osborne's prose style has been much commented upon as reflecting a new, easy flowing sentence using diction that captures the actual speech of the drawing rooms and parlors of the day.   Compare Osborne's style with Halkett's.
    • Can you see differences and similarities between the speech of these two children of Royalist households?

    Note they are almost exactly contemporaneous (Halkett, 1622-1699 and Osborne 1627-1695).

    • Could you explain the differences by virtue of the fact that Osborne's prose comes to us from letters not intended for publication whereas Halkett's prose was written for publication?
    • What does that tell us about public vs. private English in the late C17?
  3. Other sites which offer scholarly editions of previously unpublished works by women who wrote during the Renaissance, Restoration, and 18th century include the Brown University Women Writers Project, and the Emory Women Writers Resource Project at Emory University's Lewis H. Beck Center.  The Brown site has an exceptionally large text base of edited Renaissance women writers, and the Emory site's strength is its unedited (as in previously unpublished) texts.  These are being used as part of Emory's graduate program to teach editing practices.  To see Professor Sheila Cavanagh's very well-explained set of instructions for how a scholarly edition is prepared, and a well-equipped set of scholarly tools (paper and online), click here.

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