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MHC Professor of English Noel Kinnamon Co-edits Sixth Book
Over the past 35 years, Dr. Noel Kinnamon has studied literally thousands of poems, letters and other writings by various members of the Sidney family, an aristocratic household which enjoyed prominence in England in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
Kinnamon, a textual scholar and a professor of English at Mars Hill College, says he relishes the exacting and sometimes tedious work of a scholar, with its resulting glimpses of life in a distant time and place. Through the words of the Sidney family, Kinnamon has been observer to everything from the daily decisions of the English aristocracy, to the discussions of loving parents who hope to make a satisfying marriage match for their daughter; everything from the political maneuverings of Queen Elizabeth’s court to the intimate expressions of love – or anger — between man and wife.
“That’s one of the real pleasures of working with these letters.” Kinnamon said. “You are able to listen in on a life.”
With the recent publication of The Correspondence of Dorothy Percy Sidney, Countess of Leicester (Ashgate, 2010), Kinnamon and his co-editors have now completed six books that “listen in” on the lives of the Sidney family, and by extension, early modern England. Kinnamon, together with Margaret Hannay, professor of English at Siena College in New York and Michael G. Brennan, professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Leeds (UK) have recently signed a contract to publish their seventh book: The Correspondence of Rowland Whyte.
According to Kinnamon, the letters of Dorothy Percy Sidney are especially important in showing modern readers the surprisingly complex role of women in the male-dominated society of 17th century England. While all women, even those in the aristocracy, had limited control over their lives and possessions, any notion of utter subservience is far too simplistic.
“The real value of the letters is that they clarify the role of early modern women. They show that that role was more complex than you might think,” Kinnamon said. “It was still a hierarchical society; women were still subordinate and restricted, but that didn’t mean necessarily the family relationships were not loving. It was accepted as part of their culture that the men would be head of household and all of that. But it is clear that there was a lot of affection there; and also that she had a lot of responsibility for the decisions of the household.”
Dorothy Sidney was married to Robert Sidney, Second Earl of Leicester. The volume includes around 100 letters, including numerous letters to Robert when he was in Paris serving as the English ambassador to France, letters to and from the Sidney family solicitor, and letters to and from political and religious figures of note. The letters cover a wide range of issues and vividly illustrate her vital role in her family’s personal and public affairs. The book also includes an introduction and notes throughout which provide biographical, historical and political context for the letters.
This sixth book is a companion volume to an earlier book by the same editors which revealed the correspondence between Dorothy’s in-laws, Robert and Barbara Sidney, called Domestic Politics and Family Absence: The Correspondence of Robert Sidney, First Earl of Leicester, and Barbara Gamage Sidney, Countess of Leicester. Though the letters in that book come from the pen of Robert Sidney, the voice of Barbara Sidney is very evident throughout, Kinnamon said. Like her daughter-in-law, she was the one left in charge of the family affairs while her husband conducted business abroad.
With respect to hearing the woman’s viewpoint, however, there is an obvious advantage to reading Dorothy’s letters. “The plus here is that you have a woman’s point of view, directly, because of course she wrote these herself,” Kinnamon said.
Dorothy was unusually well-educated for a woman of the time, though women could not attend university. Evidence of her education and intelligence is found in her personal library.
“With Dorothy Percy Sidney, we have this evidence of an intellectual life that we don’t know as much about with Barbara, because she had this incredible collection of books. They were her own, they weren’t just part of the family library,” Kinnamon said. And, almost all of Dorothy Sidney’s books were religious in nature, a characteristic that was not unusual for an aristocratic library of the time.
It was the desire to investigate the lives of women in early modern England that first drew Kinnamon and his co-editors to the Sidney family. Their first book together was published in 1998 and was titled: The Collected Works of Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1998).
“Our goal from the beginning really was to give voice to early modern women in England,” Kinnamon said. “And so that’s why we chose first of all to edit the works of Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, who is now considered to be the most important woman non-royal writer of 16th century England.”
A later publication, The Sidney Psalter: The Psalms of Sir Philip and Mary Sidney (Oxford, 2009) by Kinnamon, Hannay and Brennan (with Hannibal Hamlin) included the Sidneys’ combined work in converting the biblical psalms into metrical verse. This practice, particularly common among 16th century English Protestants, produced hymns and poems which were often used in worship services. While Sir Philip Sidney, Mary’s brother, was the most famous of the Sidney lot during his lifetime, her metrical psalms are now recognized by scholars to be particularly exemplary in their literary value.
For his seventh collaborative project, Kinnamon has investigated the letter of Rowland Whyte, (the elder) Robert Sidney’s agent in Queen Elizabeth I’s Court. That volume promises not only personal information about the family, but a close-up examination of historical and political details of the period as well.
As a scholar and professor of English for 45 years, Kinnamon is captivated by the literary and historic value of the Sidneys’ writings, but it is the human element that lends poignancy to all of the volumes. Despite communicating across continents and months, Kinnamon sees a level of communication in the Sidneys’ letters and writings that he speculates is often lost in our era of lightning-fast emails and text messages.
“I think we’ve lost a sense of human connection which is very real and very strong in those letters,” Kinnamon said. “When we think we’re communicating more, we’re probably not communicating as much in the long run.”