A Page in the Life of Sarah Savage: Love Among Women

[In our mini-series ‘A Page in the Life’, each post briefly introduces a new writer and a single page from their manuscript. In this post, Amanda E. Herbert (@amandaeherbert) introduces us to a diary-writing woman and her extraordinary relationship with a female friend. Amanda has explored the diary in more detail in her new Gender & History article, ‘Queer Intimacy: Speaking with the Dead in Eighteenth-Century Britain’, and her book on Female Alliances.]

Sarah Henry Savage (1664-c.1751) had a very hard time making friends.  A middling-sort Nonconformist from Cheshire at the turn of the eighteenth century, she lived at the edges and borders of early modern life: financially, spiritually, socially, and geographically, Sarah Savage didn’t – and sometimes, deliberately chose not to – fit into the traditions and standards which governed her society.[1]

Sarah Savage - Wrenbury on Speed map of Cheshire

Sarah Savage’s hometown of Wrenbury in Cheshire on John Speed’s map of 1614

But Savage had one great friend: Jane Ward Hunt.  Hunt and Savage shared a social network, a common faith, a sense of family by fostering children at one another’s homes, and perhaps most importantly, their time: in Savage’s papers, she recorded that the women exchanged visits, walks, sermon-notes, meetings, and countless letters over the course of their friendship.  Savage and Hunt shared what I have termed a ‘queer intimacy’:  a relationship which distorted traditional gender roles and gendered writing practices, and which was imbued with love, longing, and same-sex desire, with its many nuances, silences, and degrees of feeling.  Savage’s and Hunt’s bond was particularly and peculiarly shaped by spiritual strangeness: religious dissent, and its concomitant refusal to conform, its celebration of difference.

When Jane Hunt died unexpectedly in early middle age, Savage was utterly bereft.  She wept constantly.  She suffered from insomnia and, when she did manage to sleep, endured troubled dreams about Hunt and their lost alliance.  She wrote guiltily in her diary that she felt she was mourning excessively, but could not control her emotions; although she believed that she ‘should lay aside every Weight that would hinder my joy’, Savage noted sadly, this was an impossible task, for ‘well may this world be stiled a vale of Tears’.[2]

My recent Gender & History article on Savage and Hunt’s unique relationship – as it existed both before and after Jane Hunt’s death – offers a close, unparalleled, and extremely detailed case-study of one middling-sort British woman’s thoughts, feelings, and writings about the death of someone she loved.  While much excellent scholarly work has been done on the histories of friendship, few of these projects have treated postmortem relationships; we know relatively little about what happened to the survivors of loss after shrouds had been sewn, graves dug, and funeral sermons brought to a close.

When Jane Hunt died, Sarah Savaged continued to ‘talk’ to her deceased friend for nearly thirty-six years, writing to Hunt in her diary by quoting her from memory and then responding to the dead woman’s ideas as if the two confidants – one living, and one dead – were having a conversation.  Savage referred to this practice quite consciously, explaining that it was through ‘Mrs. H’s Papers in which she being dead yet speaketh’.[3]  Savage’s voluminous papers, including the diaries, some correspondence, and an account book, are now scattered, held in at least eight separate institutions on both sides of the Atlantic.[4]  This excerpt comes from one of the few surviving diaries in Savage’s own hand.  It’s held by Dr. Williams’s Library in London, and offers entries for 22 and 29 January 1744/5:

Sarah Savage; Dr. Williams_s Henry MSS 90 (2), the Savage diary from 1743-1748 which, entry for 22 January 1744

Sarah Savage, Journal Volume 13, 1743–48, Henry MSS 90 (2), Dr. Williams’s Library

Sab[bathday] Jan[uary] 22. Brot in mercy to this Sab[bath] Bl[essed] be God oh that I c[oul]d be in a Sab[bath] frame – alase how weak is my Hart Excel[len]t things in Bish[op] Halls Letters – to one in Afflic[tion]. Can you Expect that a Carpet sh[oul]d be spread for your feet to tread on by no means – troubles are often [th]e lot of Gods own Children – this D[ay] I spend in the House – Little S[arah] not very well – sore eye seeing the Mothers tendernes – minds of a good remark that Our Heavenly Father pittys & spares his poor Children – notwithst[anding] weaknes and infirmitys – how soon am I tired in Duty – How weak is my [HEART], An Excell[en]t Pray[e]r of Xt [Christ] Joh[n] 17 that all his might be with him, then and not before all will be Eternally well, to Day I met with this remark Its easy to rehearse the Creed to say I believe in god the Father &c, But hard to do it aright, L[or]d increase my Faith a good Pray[e]r of Da[ugh]t[er] H[olland] for her Childr[en] that they might have that Education as might fit em to be some way useful in the world well minds me to be Thankful for my good Education, When I look back to this 22 of Jan[uary] tis with wonder that I sh[oul]d forget those 2 great Events – Good Mrs. Hunts Death & Da[ugh]t[er] Holl[ands] Birth – the former a great Affliction, & the other a great mercy – she spard thro[ugh] much Weaknes to Bear & Nurse 9 Childr[en].  This week comes in one of my Grandsons J. Holland – in his way to Northhamp[ton].  A Great affair, Lord make it sucesful – that he may set out w[i]th God & be useful in [th]e Church – good Counsel given him to be sure to take his Religion along with him As Pious Abram still wherever he came, built an Altar to God

Sab[bathday] Jan[uary] 29 Ime spard – a poor Barren tree, O that I could bring forth some Fruit – confind by Extreme Cold, & some sorenes in my Eyes – O for more spiritual sight – I have great Help by good Books – that Passage in Joh[n] 17 – Father Keep ‘em – Lord Keep my Graces, Lord Keep my Comforts – thine they were – & thou gavest them me – one Evid[ence] of Love to Xt [Christ] I find in an old Serm[on] is to make him our Treasure he s[ai]d Alexander w[he]n desired to shew one his Treasure pointed to a Friend – oh that I c[oul]d thus Evid[ence] my Love to Xt [Christ] I desire to Love him more – & esteem him my Treasure [5]

This piece, which appeared near the end of Savage’s extremely long life, invokes Biblical verses as well as Nonconformist ideas and sermons, offers reflection on the experiences of family and friends, and, most notably, makes reference to Jane Hunt, which Savage calls one of ‘2 great Events – Good Mrs. Hunts Death & Da[ugh]t[er] Holl[ands] Birth – the former a great Affliction, & the other a great mercy’, and represents a fairly typical ‘page in the life’ for Sarah Savage.

As the years of Savage’s life passed, she spoke with Hunt repeatedly in order to process and discuss stage-of-life concerns.  She especially commemorated Hunt’s ‘death day’, using it as an opportunity to remember her friend and to think about her legacy.  The idea that she might meet with Jane Hunt in heaven was appealing to Savage, who used bittersweet sentiment to claim ‘what a desreable place must heaven be, whither so many are removed, who while here were the glory and beauty of this lower world’.[6]  For Savage, the pain of Jane Hunt’s loss was commingled with the joy of her friendship in past, present, and future.

This blog post was written from ideas taken from my article in Gender & History Vol 31, Issue 1 (2019). Particular thanks are owed to David Wykes and Jane Giscombe of Dr. Williams’s Library, London, for their very welcome help in preparing this post.  The image from Savage’s diary has been reproduced by kind permission of the Trustees of Dr. Williams’s Library.

[1] For more on Sarah Savage and her struggles with sociability, see Amanda E. Herbert, Female Alliances: Gender, Identity, and Friendship in Early Modern Britain (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2014).

[2] Mrs. S. Savage, Diary, entitled ‘Mrs. S. Savage’s diary from May 31st 1714 to Decem 25th 1723’, MS Engl.misc.e.331, p. 83, Bodleian Library.  As this is the version of the diary used most frequently in this post, further references to this volume will describe it simply as ‘Savage, Diary,’ with the appropriate page number.

[3] The quote ‘in which he being dead yet speaketh’ is Biblical (Hebrews 11:4).

[4] Manuscripts of Savage’s diaries can be found at the following institutions: Sarah Savage, Diary, 1686–88, Z-D/Basten/8, Cheshire Archives and Local Studies; Mrs. S. Savage, Diary, entitled ‘Mrs. S. Savage’s diary from May 31st 1714 to Decem 25th 1723’, MS Engl.misc.e.331, Bodleian Library; Sarah Savage, Diary, 1724–45, MS Savage 4, Harris Manchester College Library; Sarah Savage, Devotional Journal, 1714–38, Henry Papers, Add. 42849, ff. 109r–169v, British Library; Sarah Savage, Diary, 1727–30 and 1739–43, Osborn c506, James Marshall and Marie-Louise Osborn Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University; Sarah Savage, Diary, 1724–51, SC 313, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Library; Sarah Savage, Diary of Sarah Savage (Modern Copy), c. 1688-1695, MS 90 (10), Henry MSS, Dr. Williams’s Library; and Sarah Savage, Journal Volume 13, 1743–48, Henry MSS 90 (2), Dr. Williams’s Library.  In addition to the two volumes of Savage’s diary, Dr. Williams’s Library also holds correspondence and account books written by Savage.

[5] Readers will note that Savage made frequent use of abbreviation.  In order to make the entry more easily readable, I’ve expanded many of these in brackets.  Spelling, underlining, and punctuation have been retained.  One of Savage’s written idiosyncrasies was to include a symbol – an upside-down heart shape – instead of spelling out the word ‘heart’.  In this transcription, her heart symbols have been represented in all caps and included within brackets.  Sarah Savage, Journal Volume 13, 1743–48, Henry MSS 90 (2), Dr. Williams’s Library.

[6] Savage, Diary, p. 90.

2 thoughts on “A Page in the Life of Sarah Savage: Love Among Women

  1. Pingback: A Page in the Life | the many-headed monster

  2. Pingback: Merkwaardig (week 47) | www.weyerman.nl

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