PHILIPS, KATHERINE FOWLER (16321664) Katherine Fowler was born in London, daughter of a merchant. A precocious child, she had read the Bible by age four, according to family mythology. She attended school in Hackney, where she probably studied French, as she would later translate from that language. She began writing as a teenager and made important friendships at school, including that of Mary Harvey, niece of William Harvey, credited with describing the circulatory system.
After her father's death Katherine's mother married Sir Richard Philips of Wales, the country with which Katherine would later be associated. A widower, Philips had first married Elizabeth Dryden, aunt of John Dryden, and Katherine became acquainted with the poet. As would Dryden, she would change religion several times. Raised a Presbyterian, she later become an Anglican. Those Anglican sympathies caused her to identify with the monarchy, rather than oliver Cromwell's Puritans, who took power after the 1649 execution of King Charles I. She remained a staunch lifelong Royalist and later converted to Catholicism, although her stepfather supported Parliament over the king. He would lose his Wales estate for a time during the Restoration, but later regained it.
Through Sir Richard Katherine met Colonel James Philips, the 54-year-old widower who had been married to Sir Richard's deceased daughter. The 16-year-old Katherine found Philips, a prominent Puritan Parliament member, attractive. The two married in
1647, despite the tremendous difference in their ages and religious leanings, not to mention Katherine's earlier declaration regarding the desire to marry a learned Royalist. Philips did meet Katherine's desire for a husband "not too well read," and yet not illiterate either. She had described such a man as the perfect husband in a childhood poem titled "No blooming youth shall ever make me erre." He allowed her to avoid a "blooming youth," offering instead the maturity to perform those "Moderate, grave & wise acts" that she valued. An affectionate husband, Philips later allowed Sir Charles Cotterell, who served Charles II as master of ceremonies, to become his wife's intellectual patron with no apparent resulting friction. Philips remained dedicated to his young wife, and from indications in her later poetry and her correspondence theirs appears to have been enough of a love match to satisfy the practical Katherine. She staunchly supported her husband during the Restoration, probably saving his life through her Royalist sympathies.
Katherine Philips proved an unusual figure for the 17th century, in that she earned public approval as a writer, despite being a woman. While Margaret Cavendish, duchess of Newcastle, suffered criticism for her writing, Katherine enjoyed great acclaim. Her dignity and regal bearing, noteworthy attributes in a commoner, had much to do with her public acceptance. She represented the ideal of woman: meek, chaste, and quietly intelligent. If she knew how to avoid the ire of men, she also knew how to gain the love of women. Katherine celebrated women in same-sex love poetry, praising particular women with whom she shared apparently platonic relationships. A question she posed regarding the topic of friendship inspired the Anglican spiritual writer of the day, Jeremy Taylor, to produce a tract on that topic in which he mentions Katherine as his motivation for writing. Her society of friendship embraced men as well as women, and many members received romantic classical names used in Katherine's poetry and correspondence. Calling herself orinda, she would later receive public acclamation as the "Matchless Orinda," a phrase that endured beyond her early and tragic death of smallpox.
A translator as well as a poet, Philips translated the French tragedy Morte de Pompeii (The Death of Pompey)
by Pierre Corneille into heroic couplets. In 1662-63 it became the first drama translated by an Englishwoman to appear on stage, produced in Dublin and securing Katherine's fame. However, her reputation grew from the circulation of her unpublished poems in manuscript, few of them published during her life time.
Reserved and humble by nature, Philips expressed embarrassment over the popular reception of her works and only published with reluctance. Apparently hoping to reap benefits from her soaring popularity, a printer released a pirated version of her poetry in November 1663. As expected of a woman in the Renaissance, she reacted violently to what she felt was a great injustice. Not only had her modesty been insulted, some of the poems contained errors, and the printer attributed work to Katherine that she had not written. Even Abraham Cowley's ode attached to the collection that praised Katherine in elegiac terms did not ease her discomfort. Cowley wrote, in part,
For, as in angels, we
Do in thy verses see
Both improved sexes eminently meet,—
They are than Man more strong, and more than Woman sweet.
Katherine Philips never openly competed with men, denying any wish for public approval, causing men to support her efforts and allowing her to claim that she published at their urging. She skillfully manipulated them into urging her to do what she considered improper to do on her own. Men liked her for her deferential nature. In addition to Cowley, supporters included Roger Boyle; Lord Orrery, chief justice of Ireland; and the earl of Roscommon. The public welcomed her humility, as it perpetuated the traditional ideal of womanhood to which 17th-century English culture clung. The public preferred the more feminine Philips to the brash Cavendish, as well as to the new wave of women writers that would follow, including the outspoken and bawdy Aphra Behn. Early women writers reflecting her influence included Anne Killi-grew; Lady Mary Chudleigh; Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea; Mary Barber; Mary Astell; and Sarah Fyge Egerton.
By the 18th century Philips's work would pass from favor, although the 19th-century romantic poet John Keats would ask a friend whether he had seen "a book of poetry written by one beautiful Mrs. Philips, a friend of Jeremy Taylor's and called The Matchless Orinda." The work of Katherine Philips received renewed and deserved attention in the 20th century, as feminist studies rejuvenated interest in women writers of the early modern period. Widely anthologized works include "A Married State"; "Friendship's Mysteries, to My Dearest Lucasia"; "On the Death of My First and Dearest Child, Hector Philips"; "To My Excellent Lucasia, on Our Friendship"; and "Upon the Double Murder of King Charles."
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