Agnes Beaumont: A Seventeenth-Century Story of Self, Suffering, and Spirituality
Agnes Beaumont was a woman who lived in seventeenth-century England and who is worthy of an introduction to the modern reader. She is not nearly as well-known as Jane Austen or the Brontë sisters, but in the fall of 2015, while on sabbatical, I began to contribute to the case that she is significant in her own right through my scholarship. Beaumont wrote one major text in her life. It was aptly titled, The Narrative of the Persecutions of Agnes Beaumont. It was not a page turning novel, a insightful essay, or a lyrical poem. Rather, it belongs to a class of writing popular in seventeenth-century England called life writing or spiritual autobiography. I chose to take up Agnes Beaumont as the subject of my studies over the course of my sabbatical for several reasons, the first of which is that her story, while removed from us by centuries, is fascinating.
Agnes Beaumont claims a page in history today mainly because of her connection to the more well-known John Bunyan. She was not his colleague or affiliate; she was a member of his Baptist congregation. The key moment in their lives together that sets her narrative into play is that she rides to church on horseback with him one night. This may seem like the most insignificant interaction that could possibly take place between a man and a woman, but in 17th century England, this was town gossip. Enough of town gossip to set Beaumont’s life into complete disruption and despair. As we learn in the text, Beaumont’s father had forbidden her to go to this church gathering because he is not fond of Bunyan and his beliefs. He finally gives his approval when he knows a trusted neighbor will take her. Unfortunately, the neighbor never shows up. As Beaumont is waiting in desperation to go, Bunyan happens to ride by. After much pleading and negotiating, he reluctantly agrees to take her to church. We are given insight into the woman Beaumont was when people begin to stop and stare and she reflects in her text, “But to speak the truth…my heart was puffed up with pride, and I began to have high thoughts of myself, and proud to think I should ride behind such a man as he was” (Beaumont 44).
This quote illustrates the other aspect of this text that interested me so much. Beaumont’s text has been criticized for being a failed spiritual autobiography in that it does not focus on her move from feeling like she is damned to knowing she is saved. My article argues that this text is incorrectly classified as a spiritual autobiography. Beaumont knows from the very beginning of this text that her God, “In trials and temptations he never left me without his teaching and comforting presence” (Beaumont 37). She is saved from the moment the text begins. My article argues that this text is less concerned with the state of her soul and more concerned with how the trials of the world interfere with her spiritual pursuits.
It is almost illogical to our minds in the 21st century, but this ride on horseback results in her father throwing her out of his house and Beaumont spending a night in the cold darkness praying for his forgiveness. Once achieved, he dies and she is charged with his murder. All of this happens as a result of a ride on horseback with John Bunyan. Beaumont’s text provides the reader with front row seats to one woman’s struggle in choosing between her faith and her father. To whose authority will she yield? To obey her father and refuse to attend Bunyan’s services would jeopardize her soul. To obey her God and continue to attend services against her father’s wishes would jeopardize her entire station in her society. She would be homeless, penniless, and forced into service. Beaumont’s narrative shows us a seventeenth-century woman with no network on which to rely. Her only recourse, her only champion is God.
While Beaumont makes reference to the divine throughout her narrative, her text really tells the tale of her life and what happens to a young women in 17th century England when her beliefs are in opposition to the beliefs of her father. It details the few options that were available to her when she is thrown out of her father’s house. It throws into sharp relief the limited world in which Beaumont and women like her lived. God appears over and over in her text, because her only recourse, the only access to power she could possible invoke, was her undeterred dedication to God.
While Beaumont’s story unfolded hundreds of years ago, it is worthy of study because her tale, while removed from us in time, resonates in many ways with the struggles and choices that many of us are asked to make in our lives. The limitations placed on her simple movement from point A to point B within her community also echo the struggles faced by women in many parts of the world today where things as basic to us as driving are controversial. Beaumont made choices that would upset her family, that would cause conflict in her domestic life, but she made them because she decided they were the right decisions to make for her. Beaumont’s text is the story of how a young woman navigates the conflict between her domestic comfort and her spiritual peace.
During my sabbatical, I presented a portion of my article the 2015 East Central Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. I am currently refining the manuscript to be considered for publication.
Beaumont, Agnes. The Narrative of the Persecutions of Agnes Beaumont. Ed. Vera Camden. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press. 1992.
Deputy Chair of the English Department
Dr. Andrea Fabrizio is an Associate Professor of English and Deputy Chair of the English Department at Hostos Community College. She is also the co-coordinator of Hostos Writing Across Curriculum Initiative. Prof. Fabrizio’s scholarly interest include seventeenth-century British women’s writing, writing pedagogy, and the role of the humanities in liberal arts education. In 2015 she took a semester long sabbatical to study a seventeenth-century writer, Agnes Beaumont. Before this, she published an article on Quaker women writers, Katherine Evans and Sarah Cheevers in Clio entitled, “Women Writing Their Faith: Doctrine, Genre, and Gender in – This is A Short Relation of Some of the Cruel Sufferings (For the Truth’s Sake)of Katherine Evans and Sarah Cheevers (1662).”