Fit Words for the “Pitts brinke”: the Achievement of Elizabeth Isham
Anne Cotterill, University of Missouri-Rolla
As the personal account of a Protestant woman who maintained the right not to marry, Elizabeth Isham’s manuscript “Booke of Rememberance” is almost unique among life-writing by early modern women and is also unusual in being addressed to God as “these confessions” (33r). What had this pious woman to confess at age 30? The text suggests that she writes both a spiritual confession and a self-defense prompted by her controversial choice of a single life and by bitter temptations to despair and atheism in response to repeated loss and disappointment, surviving her mother, sister, and sister-in-law whose deaths left her as she finishes writing the sole female prop of her father and brother, a widower with four daughters. The manuscript reveals that reading, writing, and remembering what Elizabeth calls “fit” words and useful “places” from scripture and other volumes, in company and alone, were central occupations for Elizabeth, her invalid mother, and her younger, sicklier sister, who together thought intensely about physical and spiritual health and who recorded useful words from their reading in a struggle against religious doubt, despair, and suicide. Remembered as the child with a “brittle memory,” Elizabeth portrays herself as industrious in culling from books passages with the potential to heal sickness of mind and soul, words or “places” that she describes variously as “fit” or “fitting” – “fit for me” or, referring to her mother, “places fitt for her,” “a fitt salve to her sore.” In one remarkable metaphor, she imagines an interior space within herself for contemplation of sin but also for communion with God, entered by going through her body pictured as multiple doors opening on a place of personal knowledge where she has tested for herself God’s words for truth: “If I goe within the dores of my owne flesh I find thy providence wonderfull towards me that even at the very same time of the pitts brinke of despare thou shouldest comfort for I have found thine owne words according to truth fit for me” (32r). She has sounded God’s word within herself – imagining her body’s outer bounds as affording doors to an interior closet within whose privacy she has tested the power of Scripture against the most devastating experiences and found it, to her relief, “fit for me.” Elizabeth’s habit of writing down scriptural “places” that might fit her own and others’ needs for spiritual guidance or comfort, and the many occasions when comfort was needed, has prepared her, along with her determination to cure herself of sadness, to fit them together for her own healing into a new text. Her manuscript suggests a direct relationship between this preoccupation with finding, recording, and memorizing from a young age healing “places” and both her manner of writing – such that at times her words and those of Augustine or the Psalmist become inextricable – and her inclination and ability to write this highly personal book. She was introduced to and experienced books and writing most deeply through associations with women and their internal lives; perhaps her learning and applying Scripture as part of a lifelong conversation with God and search for spiritual assurance became such compelling nourishment for her intellectual and emotional life, centered on these women, as to take on the force of an alternative to marriage.