Gender and generation in Robert Southwell’s Epistle to his father

In an ‘Epistle to his Father’, the Jesuit priest and poet Robert Southwell signs himself ‘Your most dutiful and loving son’. Dutiful it may be, but loving this letter certainly is not. Southwell threatens his father with a horrifying vision of his ‘departing-bed’, asking him to imagine himself ‘burdened with the heavy load of your former trespasses, and gored with the sting and prick of a festered conscience’, feeling ‘the cramp of death wresting your heart-strings’. This essay considers the relationship between Southwell’s construction of gender identity and his attempts to convert English Protestants – beginning with those in his own family. Southwell’s role as a son, and his relationship to his father, is central here, as this chapter reveals the ways in which early modern masculinity is both engendered and called into question by the process of religious conversion. The chapter also considers a different kind of conversion; that which Southwell effects upon the literary genre of the letter of advice. Drawing out the etymological relationship between ‘gender’, ‘genre’ and ‘generation,’ the analysis work in the interstices of these terms, showing their centrality to the confessional narrative at the heart of this volume.

in Conversions