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Presence, obligation and memory in John Donne's texts for the Countess of Bedford

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In the context of gift theory and the range of epistolary and text presentation practice in the period, this article analyses all the extant texts written by John Donne for Lucy, Countess of Bedford, in a male-to-female, client-patron relationship. Using an inclusive policy, eighteen texts are analysed from the most prominent exponent in England of ‘social authorship’ in manuscript form, embracing letters, verse letters, and other occasional presentational texts. The series includes a problematic and generally unpopular set of poems about deaths in the family and household, for all of which Lady Bedford is the prime reader. Particular attention is paid to the material features of the texts, and all are interpreted as transactional in the developing or fluctuating relationship between the two correspondents. Various new readings are suggested, and it is demonstrated how one text may provide the terms of reference for another, and how the appeal to memories of earlier services may dictate the terms of later exchanges. The series is understood as a series, within a code of mutual obligation. It is suggested that many features can be seen in other cases, both within the Donne oeuvre and more widely in early modern society.

Keywords: Countess of Bedford; John Donne; Lucy; cumulative memory; gift theory; letters; patronage; textual exchange

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: University of Reading

Publication date: February 1, 2008

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