THE discovery of a rare pamphlet, published 330 years ago, has enabled the University of Huddersfield's Dr Jessica Malay to reconstruct a shocking, often violent saga of marital abuse and a woman's long and harrowing campaign to reclaim her rights, which led her to issue a printed account of the ordeal.
Although first published in 1684, the autobiographical pamphlet - entitled A Plain and Compendious Relation of the Case of Mrs Mary Hampson - anticipates the confessional and scandal-ridden memoirs and autobiographies that are devoured by readers today. But although hundreds of copies were probably printed and circulated, only three survive.
Two are archived in university libraries at Oxford and Cambridge, where they have languished in obscurity. But when a third copy came on the market, Dr Malay - who specialises in the autobiographical writings of women in the early-modern period - acquired it at auction.
After exhaustive extra research, which included poring over more than 40 legal documents, Dr Malay has now published The Case of Mistress Mary Hampson. It includes the full text of the 1684 pamphlet plus a large quantity of extra material, which examines the episode in depth and rounds out the story of Mary Hampson, who died in 1698, after a few short, final years of relative peace and prosperity.
A grasping and violent husband
Much of her life had been devoted to a struggle to wrest control of her property from a grasping and violent husband, the lawyer Robert Hampson, whom she had married - under family pressure - in 1656, aged 17. Before long he had begun to beat her and until Robert's death in 1688 the couple were usually estranged and there were several violent episodes. Mary spent long periods on the Continent, visiting England occasionally to try and claim alimony.
When, in desperation, Mary published her pamphlet, Robert riposted with a similar publication in which he accused his wife of trying to murder him. Mary's problems continued even after she was widowed, because her daughters were hostile, assuring legal authorities that their mother was dead, so that she had to go to great lengths to establish her identity.
Repairing her reputation
Mary Hampson's pamphlet belonged to a genre of publishing that was something of a vogue in the late 1600s.
"When people felt that they had come to the end of what they could expect from the legal system they would go public, publishing stories of their marital problems. They did it to make some money or to try to repair their reputation by getting their side of the story out," said Dr Malay.
"Mary's is one of the most detailed of these publications. Most are a single broadsheet or two or three pages long, while hers is 30,000 words and was published in two editions. It is an autobiography, more than just an account of the problems of a marriage."
This means that Mary Hampson's memoir is a perfect fit with Dr Malay's broader areas of research, which have included a major scholarly investigation of a near contemporary of Mary Hampson. This was Lady Anne Clifford, who compiled a series of volumes known as her "Great Books", in which she built up a powerful case to reclaim her aristocratic inheritance.
Mary Hampson occupied a lower rung on the social ladder, but there are clear similarities between the two women.
"Anne Clifford was fighting for a grand estate while Mary Hampson was fighting for some pasture land that brought in an income of about £100. But it was hers and she wasn't going to give it up. Both women showed the same kind of determination in their different social spheres and I find that admirable," said Dr Malay, who is a Reader in English Literature at the University of Huddersfield.
"We hear a voice from an early-modern woman, which is very important, and it shows us how women negotiated marital difficulties, despite legal and social repercussions. The roots of many social attitudes and problems that we still have today can be seen in a story like Mary's."
- The Case of Mistress Mary Hampson: Her Story of Marital Abuse and Defiance in Seventeenth-Century England, by Jessica Malay, is published by Stanford University Press.