Exemplarity and Margery Kempe’s encounters of the heart
Building on recent work in the history of emotions, this chapter argues that Margery Kempe’s interaction with her fellow believers, within the Book itself and in relation to her readers (both medieval and modern) is predicated on an emotional exchange and encounter that takes place in the heart. This imitative encounter is facilitated by an embedded and repeated lyric couplet in the Book that draws on well-established devotions to the Sacred Heart in Middle English lyrics and in the work of Mechthild of Hackeborn, depicting the heart as a locus for emotional reciprocity and connection with Christ. Reassessing Kempe’s interactions with her female communities in particular, I argue that the Book ‘stirs up’ and enacts a compassionate empathy that is fundamentally sustained by supportive female networks and that offers an empowering model for the twenty-first-century academy. We learn from Margery Kempe’s book of ‘felyngys’ by putting her exemplary and heart-felt devotion into practice. But Kempe’s exemplarity is always in process, always negotiated and critiqued in each moment of its unruly performance. I argue, therefore, that The Book of Margery Kempe produces a new kind of lay exemplarity that is emotionally capacious, socially dynamic, and invitingly adaptable, and which encourages us to think more flexibly about how we frame and understand interactions between medieval exemplary texts and their readers.
The Book of Margery Kempe is often one of the earliest works by a women encountered by English literature students. As a consequence, it is sometimes read as a text without a pre-text. Yet although considerable evidence survives of English women’s engagement in a vibrant literary culture in Latin and subsequently French from the early Middle Ages onwards, the relationships between The Book of Margery Kempe and her literary antecedents are still relatively unknown or unexplored. This chapter asks what happens if we encounter The Book not at the start of a tradition or canon of women’s writing, but in the middle of one. It does not make claims for direct influences between Margery Kempe and her Book’s literary antecedents. Rather it unravels intriguing parallels with texts associated with some of the earliest women writers in the English tradition, including the eighth-century letters of Boniface’s early medieval women correspondents, Hugeburc of Heidenheim’s Hodoeporicon [or voyage narrative] of St Willibald (written c. 778–80), and Rudolf of Fulda’s Life of Leoba (written c. 836). Particular attention is paid to the treatment of travel and pilgrimage in these earlier texts that anticipate Kempe’s own accounts of her journeys around England and Europe and to the Holy Land; to the representations of the subjects’ encounters with other people, countries and cultures; and to the gendered construction of authority within the texts, and the tensions that often emerge between subject and scribe.
The Book of Margery Kempe’s third-person narration has received very little sustained analysis from a narratological perspective. Although the Book is not an autobiography in the modern sense, this chapter draws on Philippe Lejeune’s notion of ‘the autobiographical pact’ and his analysis of third-person narration in modern autobiographies to argue that Kempe’s use of the third person is a mode of figuration that both inscribes her divided identity and precludes the reader’s encounter with a knowable life. Autobiography holds out the promise of that encounter but ultimately thwarts it. After briefly contextualising Kempe’s practice in relation to late medieval devotional writing, the chapter uses the narratological distinction between the utterance [énoncé] and the enunciation [énonciation] to analyse the multiple effects of Kempe’s insistent reference to herself in the third person, either as ‘sche’ or ‘this creatur’. A further aspect of that third-person narration is Kempe’s distinctive, but understudied, use of the deictic ‘this’ in the phrase ‘this creatur’. The chapter argues that this usage contributes to Kempe’s radical understanding of her subjectivity in the Book as a process of self-begetting. Third-person narration allows Kempe to articulate her selfhood as a tension between identity and difference, unity and division, and also brings out what is implicit in all autobiographical texts, namely, their status as both writing – a written text – and as the documentary recording of a life.
The traditional way of conceiving source study is to think of it as an elephants’ graveyard. This conclusion proposes that in what was considered a ‘graveyard’ there is a very live ‘elephant’ that enacts dynamically with what it encounters. The textual resources that Shakespeare deploys are not inert or skeletal; they are dynamic, and that dynamism is repeated in the ways in which subsequent generations of writers have appropriated, deployed, plagiarised Shakespearean texts and made of them literary artefacts.
This chapter proposes a series of connections between ways of imagining the task of writing and ways of imagining the swoon, whereby the swoon is offered as a model of artistic transformation. The swoon in the work of the writers considered here is a shadow of dominant narratives of resurrection and rebirth: it is used to describe dark and ‘death-born’ processes of revivification, and we find it frequently in the work of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writers who seek to channel feminine morbidity in order to challenge masculinist discourses of health and power. If the swoon had become tarnished by associations with feminine incapacity by the end of the eighteenth century, the writers discussed here play on that association in order to devise new forms of writing and of politics. Recent work in disability studies, particularly from scholars formulating ‘disability aesthetics’, has demonstrated how the formal dimensions of artistic work are shaped in relation to ideas and lived experiences of the body: disability aesthetics rejects notions of the ‘healthy body’ as the crucible for the production of art. I (re)present the work of John Keats, Edgar Allan Poe and James Joyce to show that they revere a morbid process of swooning as the initiator of art, and in so doing they reject received narratives of health, virility and vitality. James Joyce’s descriptions of souls swooning is given special consideration here as part of his complex reconfiguration of the mind and the body in relation to the aesthetic.
Noni Jabavu, an unconventional South African in London
This brief consideration of South African memoirist and journalist Noni Jabavu focuses on her writing that engages with London in the 1960s. Jabavu’s divergence from her South African contemporaries Todd Matshikiza and Peter Abrahams is emphasised, and this difference is attributed not only to her gendered experience, but also to her particular class identifications and her deep immersion in South African and British liberal, middle-class circles. In her New Strand editor’s columns, Jabavu provides insights into her life in London and the tensions between her London working life and her connections elsewhere, including South Africa and Jamaica. The columns evince her dual ‘loyalty’ to South Africa and Britain, but even beyond this, a truly multi-locational perspective.
In this short study, it is argued that co-operation between exiled anti-apartheid activists and black British activists in London became more evident in the 1980s. Focusing on the relationships forged between writers and within literary institutions, this ‘detour’ explores these activist networks through a consideration of the history of the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books and through an exploration of the role that South African Lauretta Ngcobo played in forging alliances between black British and South African women writers. Exiled South African writers like Ngcobo shaped the direction of British publishing and anti-racist politics, even as their end goal remained forging solidarities that would help to turn the tide of apartheid in South Africa.
Encountering The Book of Margery Kempe illuminates the capaciousness of Margery Kempe studies in the twenty-first century. Through multiple, probing ‘encounters’, this innovative collection of essays generates and inspires interdisciplinary, overlapping, supportive, disruptive, and exploratory theoretical and creative approaches to the Book, and is a valuable new critical companion. Structured around four categories of encounter – textual, internal, external, and performative – the volume suggests particular thematic threads yet reveals the way in which The Book of Margery Kempe resists strict categorisation. The fundamental unruliness of the Book is a touchstone for the analyses in the volume’s chapters, which define and destabilise concepts such ‘autobiography’ or ‘feeling’, and communities of texts and people, both medieval and modern. The chapters, written by leading scholars in Margery Kempe studies, cover a broad range of approaches: theories of psychoanalysis, emotion, ecocriticism, autobiography, post-structuralism, and performance; and methodologies including the medical humanities, history of science, history of medieval women’s literary culture, digital humanities, literary criticism, oral history, the Global Middle Ages, archival discovery, and creative reimagining. Deliberately diverse, these encounters with the Book capture the necessary expanse that it demands. Topics include the intertextuality of the Book, particularly in Europe; Kempe’s position within a global context, both urban and rural; the historicity of her life and kin; the Book’s contested form as a ‘life’ textualised and memorialised; and its performative, collaborative mode. Encounters are dynamic, but they always require negotiation and reciprocity. This volume examines how encountering Kempe and her Book is a multi-way process, and paves the way for future critical work.
Transnational solidarities and fractures in Ishtiyaq Shukri’s The Silent Minaret
The epilogue is focused on Ishtiyaq Shukri’s The Silent Minaret (2005), which recounts the disappearance of a South African student of Muslim heritage in post-9/11 London. Shukri’s novel is presented as an example of post-transitional South African writing, which travels beyond the national context to include reflections on global forms of both conviviality and racism. The Silent Minaret continues a tradition within South African writing that engages with the global, while remaining rooted in the twin locations of South Africa and London, and through its introduction of other locations, such as Palestine, the novel also exemplifies the reach of contemporary South African literature beyond South Africa and the West. Furthermore, Shukri moves beyond a comparison of national contexts since he aims towards the transcendence of nationalisms or national identities altogether.
The swooning Shakespearean body is mired in expressive crisis. The Shakespearean swoons that are brought into focus in this chapter are abyssal: they stage a fall into the dark depths of a body that is inaccessible to the modes of ‘reading’ attempted by other characters in the plays. This chapter examines pivotal swoons in Much Ado About Nothing (1598), Julius Caesar (c.1599) and Othello (1604), because these are plays in which bodies are explicitly presented as texts to be read and deciphered – and swooning reveals such processes of reading to be complex, fraught and/or tragically flawed. Each of these swoons occurs when the body cannot be parsed through the signifying systems available within the world of the play: when the systems by which bodies mean something – according to humoral theories of the body and/as character, or via narratives of differentiation according to sex and race and religion, for example – break down under pressure.