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In Praise of Dorothy Osborne

Dorothy, Lady Osborne, by Gaspar Netscher (1671)

I pause in my labors every decade or so to utter this lament: Dorothy Osborne (1627-1695) continues to be one of the most neglected of English writers. She wrote nothing but letters, but what letters!

Most of those that survive were to William Temple, whom she loved and wished to marry, against the most passionate wishes of her family, who thought that they could make a better match for her. Her older brother, the head of the Osborne family after the death of their father, was utterly determined to break Dorothy’s commitment to Temple and convince her to marry one of her wealthier suitors (or “servants,” as she always slyly refers to them). Over a period of some years the brother’s aversion to his Dorothy’s beloved intensified, until, in February of 1654, a point of crisis was reached. Osborne wrote to Temple to tell him the story, and her letter is, I think, one of the most beautiful in the English language:

All this I can say to you, but when my brother disputes it with me, I have other arguments for him, and I drove him up so close t’ other night that for want of a better gap to get out at, he was fain to say that he feared as much your having a fortune as your having none, for he saw you held my lord Lisle’s principles, that religion or honor were things you did not consider at all, and that he was confident you would take any engagement, serve in any employment, or do anything to advance yourself. I had no patience with this. To say you were a beggar, your father not worth £4,000 in the whole world, was nothing in comparison of having no religion nor no honor. I forgot all my disguise, and we talked ourselves weary; he renounced me again and I defied him, but both in as civil language as it would permit, and parted in great anger with the usual ceremony of a leg and a curtsey, that you would have died with laughing to have seen us.

The next day I, not being at dinner, saw him not till night; then he came into my chamber, where I supped, but he did not. Afterwards, Mr. Gibson and he and I talked of indifferent things till all but we two went to bed. There he sat half an hour and said not one word, nor I to him; at last in a pitiful tone, “Sister,” says he, “I have heard you say that when anything troubles you, of all things you apprehend going to bed, because there it increases upon you and you lie at the mercy of all your sad thoughts which the silence and darkness of the night adds a horror to. I am at that pass now, I vow to God I would not endure another night like the last to gain a crown.” I, who resolved to take no notice what ailed him, said ’twas a knowledge I had raised from my spleen only; and so fell into a discourse of melancholy and the causes, and from that (I know not how) into religion, and we talked so long of it and so devoutly that it allayed all our anger. We grew to a calm and peace with all the world; two hermits conversing in a cell they equally inhabit never expressed more humble, charitable kindness toward one another than we. He asked my pardon and I his, and he has promised me never to speak of it to me whilst he lives, but leave the event to God Almighty, and till he sees it done he will be always the same to me that he is. Then he shall leave me, he says, not out of want of kindness to me, but because he cannot see the ruin of a person that he loves so passionately and in whose happiness he had laid up all his.

These are the terms we are at, and I am confident he will keep his word with me; so that you have no reason to fear him in any respect, for though he should break his promise he should never make me break mine. No, let me assure you, this rival nor any other shall ever alter me. Therefore, spare your jealousy, or turn it all into kindness.

Dorothy Osborne and William Temple married on Christmas Day of that year, and their marriage lasted until her death. You may see the full text of their correspondence here, and my 2001 tribute to Osborne here.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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