The Lisle Letters: Lady Honor Lisle’s Epistolary Influence

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(Thesis) Ph.D.
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This dissertation offers an original contribution to Tudor studies by examining The Lisle Letters as an illuminating example of how aristocratic Tudor women used the epistle to manipulate networks of obligation and gain socio-political influence. Women, such as Lady Honor Lisle, the primary subject of this study, fashioned letters to create and maintain communities of influence in order to assist their families, advance their social position, and bring various other projects to fruition. By using the lens of practice theory to examine the Lisle Letters, I will demonstrate that the relational aspects governing an individual’s agency, in the light of ever-changing variables – friends, kinship groups, societal knowledge, socio-economic status, and so on – are what allowed aristocratic women such as Lady Lisle to exercise influence, despite the fact they could not hold official positions of power, such as judge, magistrate, or Lord Privy Seal. I will argue that women’s involvement in the socio-political world was a perpetual process of negotiation and adjustment within a web of imbricated relations, and that mastery of this diplomatic process could put considerable power in a woman’s hands. The Lisle Letters highlight the importance of the epistle as a particularly important device of power accrual. The epistle, with its underpinning of obligation, its various styles, and its discursive conventions, allows us to consider how power was accessible outside of purely formal channels in a social (and political) context that attached great importance to written entreaties and the informal cultural rules surrounding them; it is because of such rules and conventions, that we discover, in the letter, a privileged tool for bridging the gap between formal and informal avenues of power. The Lisle Letters, for example, allow mistress and servant to traverse boundaries of gender and class by using the stylized rhetoric of patronage and the warm and more natural language of friendship. The various discursive styles allow for the boundaries between mistress and servant to be crossed by establishing intimate connections and trust – an area that has been little examined in epistolary scholarship. The letters further illustrate how the epistle could be used to create and maintain bonds across international borders – making connections and accruing influence to assist in a bid for upward mobility. The Lisle Letters also document Lady Lisle’s negotiations with one of the key power figures of the Tudor era, Thomas Cromwell, in the male public arena of the court. The letters show us not simply her personal strategies and tactics, but how she uses all of her resources, including the conventions of the epistle, to negotiate a better hand than the one she had been dealt. By examining the language of obligation and such rhetorical scripts as deference and assurance, we can see how women manipulated the epistle to create alliances and reinforce previous associations to bring their personal projects to fruition.
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Thesis advisor: Delany, Paul
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