When Hannah Allen, née Archer in 1638, published her A Narrative of God’s Gracious Dealings With that Choice Christian Mrs Hannah Allen, etc. in 1683, John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666) had already become a classic in nonconformist households. Allen’s Narrative, which looks back at the mid-1660s, may indeed be included in the spiritual autobiographical tradition that was deep-rooted among Protestant dissenting groups in seventeenth-century England, and of which Bunyan’s is the most famous representative. Protestant concern with self-scrutiny of one own’s conscience, free from the authority of an Established church, together with the constant worry about sin and salvation, found natural and best expression in autobiographical writings that also served as a proper instrument of conversion and illustration for the reading community of brothers (Delany 1969 and MacDonald 1992). As happens in Grace Abounding, Allen’s distress refers to the terror of having committed the «Unpardonable Sin» against the Holy Ghost (Allen, 4), which gives way to the conviction of being nothing but «a cursed Hypocrite» (Allen, 21). Her narrative is therefore one of regeneration from a state of spiritual dejection in a trajectory that leads from early episodes of temptation down to the very pit of despair and on to an eventual recovery of faith and quiet. Yet, not only does her descent into «the Language of Despair» – as she styles it – (Allen, 10) take on the Bunyanesque pattern of conflict between the opposing forces of God and the Devil, but also relates of what the author herself acknowledges as a melancholic condition (especially violent after the death of her first husband). This extends the possibilities of critical analysis to the discourse of insanity and cure with regard to contemporary medical treatises on (religious) melancholy and mental illness. Although Allen was never confined to Bedlam, A Narrative traces her gradual subjection to affliction and madness, while the protagonist reaches what was called a «metaphorical Bedlam […] a dungeon, not shallower than Hell» (Adams 1615, 78). Eventually, after telling of her descent to the nadir (marked by a couple of attempts at suicide), she draws the stages of an ascent towards a regenerated spiritual as well as social well being. To be sure, Allen’s book interestingly becomes at the same time the product of regeneration, being written retrospectively from the vantage point of view of a ‘healed I’, and the instrument of it, as the protagonist struggles to become that ‘I’. My aim is therefore to explore, and possibly correlate, both these critical paths of analysis: the one fitting into traditional nonconformist narrative of spiritual growth towards salvation, and the other following the original phases of medical and psychological recovery from a state of mental disturbance in the words and memories of a late seventeenth-century woman.
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