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Michelle Dowd, 'Forms of Selfhood'

Forms of Selfhood: Household Piety and the Mothers’ Legacy


Michelle M. Dowd, University of North Carolina, Greensboro



In our introduction to Genre and Women’s Life Writing in Early Modern England (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), Julie A. Eckerle and I argue that early modern women writers often creatively deploy and combine generic structures to produce diverse, historically specific narratives of the self. We refer to these texts as “life writings” to emphasize their diversity and structural fluidity. Taking the broad and flexible category of “life writing” as its starting point, this paper focuses specifically on the ways in which literary genres and rhetorical structures influence Elizabethan Isham’s narrative self construction. Reading Isham’s Booke of Rememberance as an example of early modern women’s life writing—with all the internal variety and even experimentation that that term implies—I emphasize two aspects of Isham’s text that I think are interrelated, even though they may not immediately appear to be so: the genre of the mothers’ legacy and Isham’s description of her own housework in spiritual terms. I argue that Isham’s narrative, though not a mothers’ legacy by definition, shares many aspects of that genre and that one of the reasons she records details of her pious housework is precisely to leave a strong record of virtuous behavior for her brother’s children.

Isham indicates in her Booke that she intends to leave her writings for the benefit of her brother and his children, a claim that explicitly links her text to the legacy genre. In addition, childlessness in Isham’s text is figuratively rewritten so as to be compatible with (rather than antithetical to) maternity, legacy, and spiritual grace. Understood in this context, Isham’s narrative offers an alternative model of the mothers’ legacy, a rhetorical qualification of the more traditional form that suggests we might expand the category of the legacy book to include those texts written by figurative or surrogate mothers—writers, in other words, who borrow from the persona of the maternal author to construct their discourses. Isham also develops a narrative of household piety and diligence in her Booke, which is intended at least in part, I suggest, as an exemplum for her readers and especially for her nieces and nephews to whom she intends to leave her writings. Establishing both her struggles and her successes at introspection and domestic management, Isham provides a future generation of readers with a kind of template for leading a spiritual life that is fully commensurate with one’s domestic, quotidian duties. Attending to these kinds of generic and rhetorical underpinnings in Isham’s text can better enable us not only to appreciate the rich complexity of stories like hers, but also to articulate more broadly the myriad forms of selfhood that were imagined by early modern women.