The Magazine

Dorothy Osborne

English literature's best unrediscovered woman writer.

Dec 10, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 13 • By ALAN JACOBS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

IN RECENT YEARS, "neglected women writers" have been much in vogue, with publishers bringing out series after series of them. Yet Dorothy Osborne, the most remarkable of that company, has been overlooked by literary archaeologists--and it is a scandal that her work is not more widely available. Think Jane Austen, a hundred and fifty years earlier--although Osborne may be even wittier.

Osborne, who lived from 1627 to 1695, never imagined her work would be published, in part because it consists solely of letters to her fianc , and in part because she did not think authorship a fit role for a woman. Indeed it is only because of the fame her eventual husband later achieved that her work came to light at all. Sir William Temple became a noted British diplomat--noted enough that a writer named Thomas Peregrine Courtenay composed one of those hefty Victorian biographies of him in 1838.

Courtenay's "Life of Sir William Temple" had the misfortune to fall into the hands of the brilliant historian, journalist, and polemicist Lord Macaulay, who tore it to shreds in the pages of the Edinburgh Review. But one aspect appealed to Macaulay: the Appendix, in which Courtenay had placed some of the letters written by Dorothy Osborne before her marriage to Temple. "Mr. Courtenay expresses some doubt whether his readers will think him justified in inserting so large a number of these epistles," Macaulay declared. "We only wish there were twice as many." Macaulay's enthusiasm in turn intrigued a certain Edward Abbott Parry, who tracked down the whole cache of letters and published an edition of them.

The story of William Temple and Dorothy Osborne is worthy of enshrinement in a romance movie. They met in 1645, in the midst of England's Civil War, with fathers on opposite sides: Sir John Temple supported Oliver Cromwell and served in the Long Parliament, while Sir Peter Osborne, lieutenant governor of the island of Guernsey, so passionately loved King Charles that he was the last Royalist leader to surrender, yielding Castle Cornet to Parliamentarian forces only when his men were starving.

Even after the war's conclusion, neither family was pleased by the prospect of Dorothy and William's union. Dorothy was beset by a flock of suitors (by all accounts she was a beauty), the most noteworthy of whom was Henry Cromwell, son of that dreadful rebel who would soon become Lord Protector of England.

The Osbornes, who were short of cash at the time, could scarcely afford to stand on ideological principle. Dorothy's brother Henry seems to have been especially eager for the match, although he would have preferred any number of suitors to Temple, of whom he said (as Dorothy wrote to her beloved), "that religion or honor were things that you did not consider at all, and that he was confident you would take any engagement, serve in any employment, or do anything to advance yourself."

Familial opposition prolonged the courtship for about eight years, though neither Dorothy nor William seems to have wavered in commitment. The letters of Dorothy's that survive (none of William's does) cover the courtship's last two years. Here's a characteristic passage from a letter written in the summer of 1653:

"My brother says not a word of you, nor your service, nor do I expect he should; if I could forget you, he would not help my memory. You would laugh, sure, if I could tell you how many servants [suitors] he has offered me since he came down; but one above all the rest I think he is in love with himself, and may marry him too if he pleases, I shall not hinder him. 'Tis one Talbot, the finest gentleman he has seen this seven year; but the mischief on't is he has not above fifteen or sixteen hundred pound a year, though he swears he begins to think one might bate L500 a year for such a husband. I tell him I am glad to hear it; and if I were as much taken [as he] with Mr. Talbot, I should not be less gallant; but I doubted the first extremely."

In addition to poor Talbot we find, in the same letter, an appearance by one of the recurrent characters in the epistolary saga: Sir Justinian Isham, a widower with five children (four of them daughters) who seems to have had a reputation for piety but whom Dorothy thinks "the vainest, impertinent, self-conceited learned coxcomb that ever yet I saw." She invariably refers to him as "the Emperor Justinian" and describes her encounters with him in diplomatic terms:

"Would you think it, that I have an ambassador from the Emperor Justinian that comes to renew the treaty? In earnest, 'tis true, and I want your counsel extremely, what to do in it. You told me once that of all my servants you liked him the best. If I could do so too, there were no dispute in't. Well, I'll think on't, and if it succeed I will be as good as my word; you shall take your choice of my four daughters."