A conversation through time: a case study of Anne Clifford

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Samara Bissonnette

In a twenty-first century university conference room, Dr. Leah Knight brought her audience back through time to the North in the English Renaissance. Her in-depth studies of one Anne Clifford, Countess of Dorset, were brought to life as she delivered a tantalizing taste of her research in a presentation entitled, "Living La Vida Local: Anne Clifford's Personal Typology of Place". Through a close analysis of Anne's own records, that Dr. Knight described how in terms of obsession, tedium and repetition, she was able to paint a colourful picture of Renaissance life.

In a time when technology advances at a pace that turns life into a hazy blur of speed, bustle, and impatience, taking a look at Cliford's life and records is incredibly worth-while for emphasizing the importance of the "simple life" and the local life that surrounds us on a daily basis. Clifford's interest in reassesing the value of the local opened herself up to other times and allows her to reach an audience through studies like Dr. Knight's in the twenty-first century.

Clifford's relationship with her surroundings is a "typological localism of the self", said Dr. Knight, tossing us some light-hearted jargon. While this phrase sums up Clifford in a neat package, Dr. Knight proceeded to illuminate the depth of this Renaissance woman's passion regarding how she identified herself in relation to her setting. In order to effectively show how Clifford did this, one must understand a little bit about the woman and her life-long struggle. Born January 30th, 1590 to a wealthy family with a prestigious name, Anne, to say the least, had a rather cushy childhood. The daughter of a well-known nobleman, she was entitled to certain educational priveledges after all. However, when her father died in 1605, with her family estates entitled away to distant male cousins, Anne was left in the dust due to her 'unfortunate' sex, thus beginning the life-long struggle to regain her extensive properties in the North of England. 

This historical context forms the basis for Dr. Knight's research in drawing a relationship between Clifford and her locations. To aid her conclusion is a hint provided by Clifford herself in a famous portrait commissioned by her in her old age called "The Great Picture", which depicts quite clearly several texts that Anne associates herself of them being Henry Wotton's "Elements of Architecture". While Wotton proclaims that "a man's home is the seat of self-fruition...etc.etc.", Anne similarly notes that she is fond of her "simple life" and the abundance her properties (which she successfully wins in 1649 by masterfully out-living all the remaining heirs). 

Just as our lovely Dr. Knight has researched every detail of Clifford's life and family history that she can get her hands on, so too did Clifford herself research her own family history to a painstakingly detailed degree. Right down to describing the rooms that each family member moved through, where they sat, slept, ate, who they met with and where, and when they left. Though Dr. Knight's animated recounting of some of these records made us chuckle, the key to understanding Clifford lies in those exhaustive details. She continually mentions the providencial significance of the unification of different moments in time through the occupation of space. For example, the incredibly powerful moments when she realizes that she lies in the same room that she had not lain in since she was a child...or when her daughters and her daughter's daughters all meet in the same space on her land, connecting as if by an invisible hand reaching out to the same space, occupied by herself and her own mother years and years ago. 

The exhaustive details may seem unnecessary or tedious to us, but Dr. Knight provided her audience with a rather illuminating interpretation. Clifford's records are an example of "emphatic and deliberate acts of remembering". To Clifford, time was flexible and moments could be linked accross time and space, seeing ghostly figures existing in the same spaces as her and her company. She made herself into a text to be read, to reach out that invisible hand to voices in the past and in the future. This one woman, hundreds of years ago, still speaks to us today, having initiated the time-defying conversation in which life is non-linear, and human beings can connect intimately despite temporal restrictions. So, to say the least, I think if anything can be drawn from Dr. Knight's case study for our budding intellects accross the world, that it is worth-while to pause and for a moment, ignore the speedy pass of time, the blur of motion, and the bustle of a technological world. That even though time-travel in a physical sense may not yet exist, we can still sit down and have a chat with ghosts from the past. 


Dr. Leah Knight is a member of the Canadian Society for Renaissance Studies Conference, assistant professor and participating faculty member for the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Brock University. Dr. Knight specializes in early modern studies and the cultural history of reading, writing, and publishing. She has published several books, including "Of Books and Botany in Early Modern England: Sixteenth Century Plants and Print Culture" (2009) and "Reading Green in Early Modern England" (2014), and her current research project is a case study of the life and reading of Anne Clifford (1590-1676).


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