“A Solitary Discourse”?: The manuscript of Hester Pulter

02 July 2020


For my blog this week I decided to revisit one of my all-time favourite documents, MS Lt q 32 or Poems breathed forth by the nobel Hadassas, and The Unfortunate Florinda, by Lady Hesther Pulter, digitised in Adam Matthew's resource Literary Manuscripts Leeds. Probably written and compiled between 1645-1665, the manuscript appears to have laid largely unread until 1996, when it was discovered by Mark Robson during a digital cataloguing project at the Brotherton Library. With 167 leaves divided into two sections, the manuscript comprises 120 poems and one unfinished verse romance.

Handwriting variation in Lt q 32 © Brotherton Library, University of Leeds. No further reproduction without permission.

Part of an aristocratic family herself – Pulter’s father, James Ley, became the first earl of Marlborough in 1626 – the then Hester Ley married into the wealthy Pulter family, who owned the Broadfield estate in Hertfordshire. This estate, and Pulter’s experience there, influences much of her poetic work. Like many prominent figures, Pulter’s husband withdrew to his country estate at the outbreak of the civil wars, a withdrawal framed often in Pulter’s poetry as a period of confinement and intense isolation. Poems such as “A Solitary Complaint”, “Why Must I Thus Forever Be Confined” and “The Invitation into the Country” speak to her feelings of entrapment and displacement.

Her work covers various themes but is deeply personal, and throughout maintains a pervading sense of grief – for the thirteen of her fifteen children who predeceased her, for herself as she ages and approaches the end of her life, for the executed Charles I, fellow Royalists and the nation at large as it came under the “Fierce Hydra” of Cromwell’s rule.

End lines of
"Why Must I Thus Forever Be Confined" © Brotherton Library, University of Leeds. No further reproduction without permission.

A question which rises from any study of Pulter’s work, then, is that of intention and readership. Studying the digitised manuscript, we can see a range of handwriting styles – a majority of the poems are written in a clear italic hand, presumably by a scribe, with emendations and additions in a second hand, assumed to be Pulter’s herself. That the “fair”, or scribal, copy was corrected by Pulter, and that further poems were added and “tipped in” in her hand is intriguing as, when combined with the general organisation of the manuscript and its self-conscious presentation as a one writer’s collected works, it gives the impression of a text which was intended to be circulated and read.

As experts have deduced from its condition, though, it seems unlikely that the manuscript circulated in Pulter’s lifetime. What, then, was its purpose? Did writing provide such consolation and catharsis to Pulter, during a time of great upheaval and upset in both her personal life and that of the nation, that she wished to compile her works together for her own benefit? Did she intend for the manuscript to circulate among other displaced Royalists during the civil wars and Interregnum, as other poets’ works did? Did she envisage a readership after her own death? Certainly, in a verse added to the end of Poem 57, “Why Must I Thus Forever Be Confined”, Pulter alludes to a possible intellectual freedom after death:

For I no liberty expect to see
Until to atoms I dispersed be;
Then, being enfranchised, free as my verse […]

"The Invitation into the countrey" in Lt q 32 © Brotherton Library, University of Leeds. No further reproduction without permission.

The story of Lt q 32’s creation may never be discovered, however the manuscript both as textual object and poetic work offers itself for our interpretation and makes, in my opinion, for a fascinating study of women’s writing, Royalist poetry, poetics of exile and, significantly, the interaction of choices relating to the material text with the content found within it.

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About the Author

Emma Woodcock

Emma Woodcock

Since I started at Adam Matthew in the summer of 2018, I've worked on a range of projects including Socialism on Film, Food and Drink in History and America in World War Two. My academic interests lie in Early Modern book history, literature and politics.