Society's Role in Margery Kempe's Autobiography
In her essay "Professions for Women," Virginia Woolf recounts her experience with Coventry Patmore's "Angel in the House." The "Angel," society's ideal woman, is concerned primarily with others, identifies herself only as a wife/mother, and remains conventional in her actions, conscious of the standards for women. Woolf indicates that women writers are guided by this "Angel" unless they liberate themselves. Society's ideals ("the Angel in the House") have influenced Margery Kempe's autobiography as revealed by her content, form, and identity.
Kempe chronicles her struggle to obey God while attending to her marital duties: she says to her husband, "I may not deny you my body, but the love of my heart and my affections are withdrawn from all earthly creatures, and set only in God" (Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, 20). Kempe's only explanation for wanting to abstain from sexual relations with her husband is that to do so is sinful. Her expressed reason appears sincere, as it is consistent with her religious behavior: Kempe elaborates on her fasting, praying, and going to confession. She is almost masochistic in her opinion and treatment of herself; wearing a hair-cloth and "beholding her wickedness," she devoutly goes to church every day. After describing her efforts to become spiritually pure, Kempe asserts that God tempts her with lechery (adultery). Even though this slightly contradicts her established piousness, Kempe likely includes her decision to consent with another man to reinforce her relationship with God: "That grace, God gave his creature, blessed may He be, but He withdrew not her temptation, but rather increased it" (22). Furthermore, she declares "Our Lord Jesus Christ...command[ed] her" to make her deal with her husband. Clearly Kempe chose the details for her autobiography carefully: the narrative may reveal a woman's decision to live chaste in spite of her husband, but the context is her spirituality.
Kempe writes her autobiography in the third-person perspective, which is indicative of society's influence on her writing. Referring to herself as "this creature," Kempe puts the reader in a situation where she/he more likely associates with the "creature" as a character than a real person. Also, the focus chapters 3, 4, and 11 is...