Alice Thornton's Books: Remembrances of a Woman's Life in the Seventeenth Century

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of History, Classics and Archaeology


This project will edit and make available online the four books of 'my life' that Alice Wandesford Thornton bequeathed to her daughter in 1707. Thornton was the daughter of a former Lord Deputy of Ireland and she married a member of the lesser gentry in North Yorkshire. Three of the manuscript books were edited in 1875, for the Surtees Society (dedicated to the history of north east England), and have been read widely for their insight into life in seventeenth-century England with its civil war, plague and high infant mortality rate. However, while Thornton's manuscripts retrace the events of her life multiple times, the 1875 edition created a single narrative from the three original volumes by placing the entries in chronological order. In so doing Thornton's original arrangement of her life story was obscured and some significant material was omitted. The whereabouts of the manuscripts was unknown for many decades. In 2009 two of the texts, the first and third books of her life, were acquired by the British Library but the second volume remained untraced. In 2019 it was traced to Durham Cathedral Library by Cordelia Beattie, who had also recently located a smaller 'Book of Remembrances,' also in Thornton's hand, in a chest in a terraced house in Shropshire.

Now that all the original manuscripts have been located, we are finally able to 'unedit' the Victorian edition and to ask both how this alters critical understanding of Thornton's life and texts in particular and what implications this has for the broader fields of early modern history and life-writing. While by no means the only woman to write her life in early modern England, Thornton's books offer an extraordinarily rich example of how a woman below the ranks of the nobility did so. The fact that she produced more than one version of it makes her even more exceptional. Although it has long been established that many male diarists (such as Pepys) curated their texts, such evidence does not appear to survive for early modern women writers.

This project will edit all four books and make them freely available on the web in a Digital Scholarly Edition (DSE) so as to reach the widest possible audience; the importance of this form of access has been highlighted at a time in which travel and library access has been curtailed by a global pandemic. The digital aspect of this project means that, as well as making each text available in its entirety, searches for key people, places and events are enabled, which will make it useful to those interested in an array of historical issues ranging from healthcare to the British civil wars. The encoding means that we will be able to show how the content changes between the different manuscript books and how Thornton drew on other sources, especially the Bible, to write about her life. Collectively, these factors will enable us to better appreciate Thornton as an early modern writer. The DSE will also contribute to existing debates on editorial methods within the Digital Humanities and allow future scholars to develop alternative approaches to our dataset.

The topics at issue are still of keen interest today and we aim to prompt critical reflection on present-day ideas of gender, religion, science and place and their relationship with the distant past through a series of public lectures at Durham Cathedral, talks to local history groups and blog posts on our website. For example, the writings of Alice Thornton, mother-in-law of a former Dean of the Cathedral, can encourage reflection on the longer history of women's role in the Church of England. Our project partner, Durham Cathedral, has also offered to host an exhibition of Thornton related manuscripts and a one-woman play in which Thornton's words are brought to life for a modern audience. In sum, the project seeks to rescue Alice Thornton from the nineteenth-century prism through which she has long been viewed and re-present her for a twenty-first century audience.


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