Literature and the Undisciplined Prison

Teacher and writer Molly Murray reflects on the subject of ‘Literature and the Undisciplined Prison:

The idea of prison literature as a response to institutional constraint is so familiar as to be axiomatic.  In accounts ranging from the monitory genealogy of the carceral imagination in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, to the valorizing of dissident prisoners from Wilde to Solzhenitsyn to the Guantánamo detainees, theorists and critics posit the prison as a repressive context for thinking and writing. This thinking and writing, in turn, is figured as a symptomatic internalising of that repression, or – more optimistically – as a gesture of heroic resistance, stoic self-consolation, or political solidarity, formed against the forces of discipline.  But what kinds of thinking and writing might occur in a prison that is itself undisciplined, a prison in which inmates might be unmonitored, sentences unregulated, walls unfast?  In my current book project, Writing the Prison in Early Modern England, I am exploring the contingency and miscellaneity of English imprisonment from 1530s to the 1670s.  Considering both canonical and little-known works composed in and around prisons – from the Tower to the Fleet to ad hoc holding cells in private houses and public buildings – I argue that the relationship between imprisonment and the literary imagination in this period was in fact more complex than models of repression or resistance allow.

The chaotic, irregular world of the early modern English prison differed dramatically from the systematized order of later penal institutions.  These later institutions, most famously embodied in Bentham’s eighteenth-century “panopticon,” took regulation and correction as their primary desiderata; in Bentham’s words, penitentiaries are founded on “the objects of safe custody, confinement, solitude, forced labour, and instruction,” to which his panoptical prison would add constant surveillance.  Such desiderata, however, indicate the contrasting qualities of the earlier prisons such disciplinary institutions were designed to replace.  The English prisons of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, even as their role in English cultural and political life expanded dramatically, lacked consistent standards of jurisdiction or administration.  The for-profit basis of imprisonment – where inmates paid keepers and officials for room and board – led to a radical variety in the lived conditions of confinement, with inmates residing in anything from bare cells to lavish apartments equipped with linens and libraries. Early modern people could be imprisoned for causes ranging from debt to dissent to treason; these charges often overlapped, and the absence of regular evidentiary standards or sentencing procedures meant that prisoners could be prosecuted or pardoned at a moment’s notice. These various inmates would, moreover, often share quarters while awaiting punishment or release; only the most notorious or dangerous malefactors would be held in solitary or “close” confinement. If the Tower was generally used to house elite state prisoners, and the Counters housed debtors, many of London’s other prisons (particularly the Marshalsea, the King’s Bench, the Clink, the Fleet, and Newgate) housed a motley collection of priests and puritans, usurers and conjurors, prostitutes and noblemen.  Finally, the combination of procedural irregularity and material disorganization rendered the conceptual boundaries between “free” and “unfree” people – and sometimes even the literal walls of the prison – strikingly permeable.

A great many early modern prisoners used their stints in custody as occasions for reflection and expression, including Thomas More, Thomas Wyatt, the Earl of Surrey, Walter Ralegh, George Wither, Ben Jonson, John Lilburne, John Bunyan, and John Milton, as well as countless amateur poets, correspondents and diarists.  Belying the romantic image of the solitary prison-poet, however, I argue that these imaginative reckonings with bewilderingly irregular experiences of constraint (and sometimes release) occurred more often in dialogue than in solitude.  I argue, further, that the category of “prison writer” in this period should be expanded to include not only prisoners themselves, but also the family members and associates who visited or cohabited with them, the officers and officials who held them, and the myriad former prisoners whose memories of ambiguous constraint continued to shape their imaginations long after their return to the world at large.  The writings of these men and women seek, in various ways, to make a bewildering experience intelligible, and to reimagine identities and relationships made ambiguous or contingent by that experience.  My project ends with the passage of the 1679 Habeas Corpus Act, which sought to clarify and codify the legal status of prisoners.  Before the passage of this act, and before reformers like Bentham sought to rationalize the material conditions of confinement, the early modern prison functioned as a volatile (and occasionally violent) social laboratory, its experiments recorded, and at times conducted, in writing.  My object of attention in this study is thus not the genre or category of “prison literature,” a phrase that implies a straightforward relationship between literary text and institutional context, but rather the more dynamic process of “writing the prison,” which took a variety of forms (both institutional and imaginative) over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

A fellowship at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities encouraged me to think critically about the disciplinary and methodological reach of this project, and how I want to imagine the relationship between the formal or aesthetic qualities of prison literature and the contingencies of its historical context.  As part of this reconsideration, I convened an interdisciplinary roundtable discussion in July that brought together historians and literary scholars interested in “Literature and Constraint in Early Modern England,” broadly conceived.  On the historical end of the spectrum, Dr. Ruth Ahnert (English and Drama, QMUL) and Dr. Richard Bell (History, Birmingham) presented their research into the material conditions of prison writing in sixteenth and seventeenth century England, vivid illustrating how the boundary between “freedom” and “unfreedom” could break down in lived experience.  Using quantitative and digital methods, Ahnert’s presentation reconstructed some of the epistolary networks radiating within and from various London prisons, demonstrating how vibrant textual communities could form across material boundaries.  Bell, in turn, revealed instances of carceral “self-government” that challenge familiar accounts of power and subjection in the seventeenth-century prison.  His paper, drawing on his current archival research, showed how some prisoners took administrative roles in their respective institutions, helping establish some of the very rules by which they were restrained, and thus complicating the categories of confiner and confined.  The two other panelists took a more literary or formalist approach, presenting papers equally provocative in their configurations of freedom and constraint.  Dr. Andrea Brady (Poetry, QMUL) spoke on the subject of “Wyatt’s Clogs,” relating the prison experiences of Sir Thomas Wyatt to his experiments in stanzaic and metrical form, and his exploitation of limit as a deliberate poetic strategy even in those poems written outside the prison proper.  Our final panelist, Robert Stagg (English, Oxford) took up Milton’s suggestive denunciation of “the troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming,” in order to think about the ways that Renaissance poets and poetic theorists figured elements of versification in terms of liberty and its lack.  A lively concluding discussion with panelists and attendees not only explored the links between the literary and historical elements of these projects, but also considered the value of “carceral indiscipline” as a concept for understanding questions of imprisonment and prison writing at our present Anglo-American moment, in which the suspension of habeas corpus and the rise (or return) of private or secret prisons has begun to signal a new, post-disciplinary mode of ambiguous constraint.

Molly Murray writes about the non-dramatic literature of early modern England. Molly is a visiting Fellow at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities (BIH), whose articles have appeared in English Literary History, Studies in English Literature, Huntington Library Quarterly and Renaissance and Reformation


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