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Emory Women Writers Resource Project Collections:
Emory Women Writers Resource Project

The Gentlewomans Companion, an electronic edition. Edited with an introduction by Katherine Ellison

by Anonymous

date: 1673
source publisher: Printed by A. Maxwell for Dorman Newman
collection: Early Modern through the 18th Century

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Hannah Wolley: Her Life and Works

The "spurious biography" that appears in the anonymous Companion is the basis for the majority of the few modern Wolley biographies. In her otherwise outstanding book, Raftery adopts the facts of the constructed life of Wolley (spelled "Woolley" in her text), but Raftery does admit that information about the author is incomplete. Apparently basing her knowledge of Wolley's life on "The Short Account" that appears in the beginning of the Companion, Raftery calculates Wolley's birth year as 1623, just one year off from Hobby's calculation (37). According to Raftery, Wolley was orphaned at age fourteen and, adopting the language of the account, became "mistress of her own little school" at the age of fifteen (37). Unfamiliar with Hobby's findings, Raftery inaccurately attributes the Companion to Wolley, stating that it is here that Wolley "boldly states that she believed that female ignorance was the result of male conspiracy" (37).

To set the record straight, Hobby provides a new biography, which she compiles after an impressive close reading of small hints throughout the corpus of Wolley's true texts and from county histories and death notices. From these readings, Hobby discovers that Wolley's date of birth is most likely 1622, and that from 1639 to 1646 Wolley worked as a servant for an unnamed woman, during which time she learned about medical remedies and recipes (166). In 1646 Hobby married Benjamin Wolley, who was the master of the Newport Grammar School where Hobby put into practice those skills of "physick" which she acquired earlier. Hobby does not cite where she obtains the information, but she states that Wolley and her husband moved from Newport to Hackney, where the couple started another school (166). Benjamin Wolley died on August 1661, as indicated in the Victoria County History, and interestingly Hannah Wolley publishes her first book, The Ladies Directory, just one month before her husband's death (166). Hobby speculates that the husband's death must have followed an illness, for Hannah most likely began publishing to provide an alternative income and to look ahead to her future as a single parent of four children (166). By the time of her first husband's death, Wolley had earned a reputation as a successful physician, despite her amateur experience and the volatile environment for female medics. "From the beginning," Hobby writes, "she used her books as an advertisement for her prowess, both preparing the way for her forthcoming publications and inviting her readers to consult her in person if they required further instruction" (167). Ironically, Hobby points out, Wolley's first title page warns readers to beware of counterfeits (167). Wolley remarried in 1666, but her second husband, Francis Chaloner, died within a decade later around 1674 (166). Wolley's own date of death is unknown, "but since she raised no public protest at T.P.s making free with her work in 1675 in The Accomplish'd Ladies Delight, it is possible that she did not live to see it appear"(Hobby 167).


According to Hobby, Wolley is the first woman to earn an income from writing and publishing cookery and medical-remedy books (166). Author of The Ladies Directory (1661 and 1662), The Cooks Guide (1664), The Queen-like Closet (1670, 1672, 1675-6, 1681, 1684), The Ladies Delight (1672), and A Supplement To The Queen-like Closet (1674, 1681, 1684), Wolley's corpus is impressive in its scope and intention. Her goal, as each of these works proves, is to achieve no less than educate every female member of society in nearly every area of life imaginable, be it domestic, recreational, romantic, or academic. Wolley's first book, The Ladies Directory, was first printed in July of 1661 and includes "fanciful instructions for candying and for creating court perfumes" (Hobby 167). Even on the title page, Wolley demonstrates her keen entrepreneurial skills, boasting that she is a former cook for Charles I and other noble figures. Hobby states that Wolley's earliest book is typical of the cookbooks of the late seventeenth century, as evidenced by the author's style, "fanciful instructions," and fantastic medical remedies (167). Hobby points out that Wolley intended The Cooks Guide, first printed in 1664, to be sold with The Ladies Directory, for Wolley states in her address to the reader that she has "joined both the books in one that they may pass as one" (qtd. in Hobby 167). Importantly, Wolley also follows the literary conventions of her day and dedicates her cookbook to members of the nobility--Lady Anne Wroth and her daughter Mary. Her failure to "evoke noble protection" in the first book, Hobby observes, "was due only to modesty" (168). The evolution of Wolley's writing, then, is already in progress. As well as learn the ropes of modesty tropes, Wolley also practices self-effacement as was already familiar to readers of Aemilia Lanyer and Katherine Philips.

The Queen-like Closet was published in 1670, and is largely an expansion of the content of her two previous works. "Her presentation of her material," Hobby points out, "shows her confidence in the act of writing, and her sense of the role of author, to be expanding" (168). Hobby concludes her summaries of Wolley's true works with a look at A Supplement to the Queen-like Closet, printed in 1674 and particularly important because it provides the main support for the false authorship of The Gentlewomans Companion. Like the compiled Companion, the supplement offers advice on letter writing, as well as contains discussions of needlework, handwriting, grammar, and household activities.

A look at the evolution of Wolley's writing proves that Renaissance scholars--and all readers in general--would benefit from additional studies of Wolley as a writer, an educator, and an activist. Her low-key goal in The Ladies Directory--to provide information on preserving and candying, is a stark contrast to the confidence of A Supplement, where Wolley even offers advice on writing and communication. During the course of her career, Wolley picks up the literary conventions of her time and successfully applies them so that, by the 1670s, her name is so well-known it is "borrowed" by a publisher who seeks additional profit for his printing business. As Hobby states, Wolley's body of work proves that she "has progressed a long way from her initial recipe books made up of long, rambling sentences, to being able to advise and adjudicate about the correct language to use for various purposes" (172).

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