Pulter, Lady Hester (1605–78), author, was born on 8 June 1605 in Thomas Court, a neighbourhood adjacent to Dublin. She was the eighth of ten children of James Ley (qv), chief justice of the King’s Bench in Ireland at Pulter’s birth but who returned to England in 1608, and in 1626 was elevated as the first earl of Marlborough. Less is known of Pulter’s mother, Mary (née Petty or Pettie, d. 1613). James Ley is depicted with admiration in a sonnet by John Milton addressed to Pulter’s sister, Margaret.
On 4 January 1620, Hester married Arthur Pulter (1603–89), who held various public roles, such as justice of the peace, captain and sheriff, during the first decades of their marriage, but appears to have retired from public life shortly after the outbreak of the English civil wars. The family’s principal residence was his inherited estate of Broadfield near the village of Cottered in Hertfordshire. Over nearly a quarter of a century of marriage, between 1624 and 1648, Pulter gave birth to eight daughters and seven sons, who are mentioned, sometimes by name, in several of her poems. All but two children died before she did.
Pulter’s education is suggested by the intellectual richness of her sole surviving manuscript, a fair copy of over one hundred original poems and an unfinished work of prose fiction. Her wide reading and the concerns of her social circle may be deduced from citations and allusions to texts by authors such as Plutarch and Pliny, and topics including alchemy and natural history, as well as her embrace of recent scientific developments and controversies, including Galilean astronomy and atomism. Pulter’s learning can also be discerned through her mastery of a variety of literary genres: romance, topographical poetry, pastoral, elegy, occasional verse, complaint, meditative devotion, satire and the emblem.
Her verse at times reveals personal experiences, such as grief at the deaths of her children or concern about being separated from them, as well as periods of illness, isolation and melancholy. Other poems reflect Pulter’s political engagements, especially her admiration for the embattled Stuart monarchy and her vitriolic rejection of Oliver Cromwell (qv) and his supporters. She frequently alludes to her theology in her attention to possible forms of spiritual and material reconfiguration after death and the Day of Judgment. Still other poems take the form of thought experiments or imagined debates in order to explore relations among natural phenomena small and large, from plants to the planets.
In the manuscript, the verse appears under the title Poems breathed forth by the noble Hadassas (a form of Hadassah, the Hebrew for Esther, of which Hester is a variant). The poems are divided into two sections: ‘Haddassas chast fancies’, comprising a variety of lyric forms, and ‘Emblems’, a numbered series that locates moral lessons in a wide variety of zoological, mythological, biblical and classical figures. Pulter’s is the first known collection of original emblem poems by a woman writing in English.
At the other end of her manuscript volume is found The unfortunate Florinda, a prose romance in two parts (the second part unfinished), which recounts the story of two heroines who devise revenge in response to planned and executed rapes by local tyrants; the heroines then enter successful marriages that permit their dominion over large tracts of Europe and Africa. Florinda is the third known romance by a woman writing in English.
Dates found in or derived from the manuscript suggest that much of it was composed between the 1640s and the 1660s, with the fair copy itself completed within Pulter’s lifetime. None of her work was published or discussed while she lived, nor is the manuscript known to have circulated. The manuscript first received scholarly attention in the late 1990s and was first edited in the twenty-first century. Since coming to light, Pulter’s corpus has been hailed as a major addition to the known works of early modern women writing in English.
Pulter’s burial on 9 April 1678 was recorded in the register of the Cottered parish church near her home. No likenesses survive.