Leigh [née Kempe], Dorothy
- Jocelyn Catty
Leigh [née Kempe], Dorothy (d. in or before 1616), writer, was the daughter of William Kempe of Finchingfield, Essex, according to a contemporary ‘heraldic book’ (BL, Harley MS 6071). Further details of her parentage are unknown. She married Ralph Leigh (d. c.1616), a gentleman of Cheshire who served under the earl of Essex at Cadiz. They had three sons, George, John, and William; the last became rector at Groton in Suffolk and is mentioned in letters by John Winthrop between 1626 and 1630 (for example, Winthrop, 1.347). An alternative hypothesis (Morant, 2.363) makes her the daughter of Robert Kempe and his wife, Elizabeth, daughter of Clement Higham of Barrow-Hall in Suffolk, and sister of William Kempe (1555–1628). It is unlikely, however, that the woman who died in 1616, the mother of young children, had a brother aged sixty-one at the time, and Morant makes no mention of her work.
The Mothers Blessing was published in 1616, subtitled, 'The Godly Counsaile of a Gentlewoman, not long since deceased, left behind her for her Children'. Twenty-three editions of this work were published, of which sixteen are extant, the latest dated 1674. Leigh utilizes the ‘mother's advice book’, a popular genre which could legitimize a woman's writing at a time when it was readily seen as an ‘unchaste’ act. She justifies her writing through the idea of leaving advice to her young sons, as a mother's love 'is hardly contained within the bounds of reason', and structures the text around this idea, most chapters being entitled 'the [nth] cause of writing is …'. Mother's advice books are typically prefaced with an epistle from the male printer recording the author's death and innocence of publication. Leigh's death is recorded in the book's title, but she markets the book herself in dedicating it to Princess Elizabeth, the queen of Bohemia. Her projected readership, moreover, expands from her sons to a wider, and female, one: once Leigh has defined the third cause of writing as 'to move women to be careful of their children', this larger female audience hovers behind subsequent chapters.
Leigh claims for herself a strong moral position by writing on religious themes, identifying herself clearly as a protestant who condemns the 'vain prayers' of Catholics, and exhorting women to be chaste: the woman who is 'unclean' is 'worse than a beast'. She also expresses more radical views, however, in particular on women's rights in marriage and on rape and its significance for women. In instructing her sons on their 'choice of wives' she argues for women's emotional rights in marriage and their equality with their husbands. Leigh advocates female learning and validates this not only through its religious focus, but also as a defence against male threat. A woman's reading thus becomes a defence against listening to wicked male persuasion. Engaging with the long-standing debate over rape, she argues, contentiously, that rape does not undermine a woman's chastity. The feelings of shame experienced by women after rape, she contends, signify their innocence, exemplified particularly in those who commit suicide. The great number of editions of Leigh's work testifies to the popularity of her writing.
- D. Leigh, The mothers blessing (1616)
- ‘An heraldic book’, BL, Harley MS 6071
- P. Morant, The history and antiquities of the county of Essex, 2 (1768)
- N&Q, 4th ser., 2 (10 Oct 1868)
- J. Winthrop, The history of New England from 1630 to 1649, ed. J. Savage, 1 (1825)
- B. Travitsky, ed., The paradise of women: writings by Englishwomen of the Renaissance (1981)
- J. L. Klein, Daughters, wives, and widows (1992)