Society's Role in Margery Kempe's Autobiography

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Society's Role in Margery Kempe's Autobiography

In her essay "Professions for Women," Virginia Woolf recounts her experience with Coventry Patmore's "Angel in the House." The "Angel," society's ideal woman, is concerned primarily with others, identifies herself only as a wife/mother, and remains conventional in her actions, conscious of the standards for women. Woolf indicates that women writers are guided by this "Angel" unless they liberate themselves. Society's ideals ("the Angel in the House") have influenced Margery Kempe's autobiography as revealed by her content, form, and identity.

Kempe chronicles her struggle to obey God while attending to her marital duties: she says to her husband, "I may not deny you my body, but the love of my heart and my affections are withdrawn from all earthly creatures, and set only in God" (Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, 20). Kempe's only explanation for wanting to abstain from sexual relations with her husband is that to do so is sinful. Her expressed reason appears sincere, as it is consistent with her religious behavior: Kempe elaborates on her fasting, praying, and going to confession. She is almost masochistic in her opinion and treatment of herself; wearing a hair-cloth and "beholding her wickedness," she devoutly goes to church every day. After describing her efforts to become spiritually pure, Kempe asserts that God tempts her with lechery (adultery). Even though this slightly contradicts her established piousness, Kempe likely includes her decision to consent with another man to reinforce her relationship with God: "That grace, God gave his creature, blessed may He be, but He withdrew not her temptation, but rather increased it" (22). Furthermore, she declares "Our L...

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...e lived. To engage in a battle of sexual politics with one's husband would have been unheard-of, but to endure a spiritual trial with the intent to please God would have been commendable. Even if she was a product of a time characterized by religious zeal, Kempe's intense desire to obey God earned her the independence of thought and body.

Society's ideals may have dictated the content and form of her work, but Kempe serves as an early model for "killing" the "Angel" at least in one regard: she contrasts Woolf's description of the ideal woman who "was so constituted that she never had a mind or wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others" (Woolf in NALW, 1346). Were this true of Kempe, she would not have conducted herself nor developed the passionate beliefs she did; she especially would not have transcribed her story.

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