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Alice Eardley, 'hewen stone'

‘hewen stone’: Constructing Elizabeth Isham’s ‘Booke of Rememberance’



Alice Eardley, University of Warwick


1. Early in her ‘Booke of Rememberance’ Elizabeth Isham states:


I would not offer that to the Lord my God which doth cost me nothing but like hewen stone I have prepared this in all points as true as I could

(Princeton University Library, Robert H. Taylor Collection RTC01 no.62, f. 7v.)


She refers to her spiritual journal as a work of great and careful labour, which she presents before God as an attempt to document and preserve the truth of her life. Isham states that the ‘cost’ of her labour was summoned from both ‘soule’ and ‘body’, implying both physical and spiritual effort. Some indication of this effort can be found in the relationship between the carefully transcribed ‘Booke of Rememberance’ preserved in Princeton University Library and the rough notes now in Northamptonshire Record Office IC4344. These notes comprise a series of passages drafted into the blank spaces of a letter sent to Isham by her sister-in-law Jane. The letter is not dated but Jane Isham refers to one of her own young children and to her wet-nurse (she writes: ‘I may send direction about nurs garrit who I heare douth trouble hir selfe about frivolus matters and one that I should missturst hir care of my childe wich I pray tell hir I did not nor shall not without she now give \me/ ocation by hir frettinge away hir milke’.) The first of the Ishams’ children, also called Jane, was born in 1635 suggesting the passages were composed no earlier than this and possibly prior to the composition of the Princeton manuscript c.1640. An examination of Isham’s composition practices, as evidenced by these manuscripts, provides an interesting perspective on the way Isham ‘constructed’ both her devotional text and her authorial persona. Her final text takes the form of a confession, apparently modelled on those by Saint Augustine (to which she refers throughout her text) and is both an exploration of her own spiritual development and an educational volume for her family. (I have not been able to identify the precise edition of Augustine to which Isham refers. It is possible that, rather than have the text in front of her as she wrote, she recalled the passages of text from memory, as seems to have been the case for her Biblical references. Throughout this paper I will refer to William Watts, Saint Augustines Confessions Translated: and With Some Marginall Notes Illustrated. Wherein, Diuers Antiquities are Explayned; and the Marginall Notes of a Former Popish Translation, Answered (1631).)

2. As the title of her text suggests, Isham presents her narrative as a devotional recollection or ‘remembrance’ of her own life. IC4344 comprises sections of Isham’s autobiographical text, which can be found in two main sections of the Princeton manuscript. They do not however appear in the order they are incorporated into this later volume. The Northamptonshire manuscript comprises a single sheet folded in half with Jane Isham’s letter on f. 1r and Isham’s drafts on f.1v-2v. The draft sections are clustered around ff. 13-16 and ff. 30-33 in the Princeton text, pertaining to the 10th/11th and 27th/28th years of Isham’s life. As Erica Longfellow points out in her discussion of the Northamptonshire manuscript, the sections of text on the first page mainly address occasions of sickness within Isham’s family while the sections appearing on the inside pages deal with issues of conscience. This suggests that Isham set about recalling different events in her life according to specific themes rather than in chronological order. The discrete sections of the text in the Northamptonshire manuscript are reproduced in virtually identical paragraphs in the later transcription. Some effort seems to have been expended in recalling these events, providing a coherent account of specific events and then ordering them into a roughly chronological narrative. In contrast to Augustine, who presents his text as a stream of consciousness recollection of his own life, Isham carefully drafted and reworked her own narrative. In referring to the ‘hewen stone’ of her autobiography, she appears to present the process of textual composition as integral to her spiritual labours.

3. In the Princeton manuscript, Isham follows each discrete account of an event in her own life with a devotional meditation, but we do not have draft versions of these portions of the final text. It is possible that Isham’s meditations fell into a category of their own and were written out on a separate sheet now lost. Alternatively, the passages of meditation may have been added spontaneously as Isham was writing, in contrast to the sections of biographical narrative, which were clearly drafted beforehand. Some evidence of this is provided by a passage in the Princeton text where she first provides a ‘Consideration of these yeeres’, which takes the form of a rigorous appraisal of her own actions and thoughts (f. 6v). She then pauses with the statement: ‘I desire to refresh my selfe a little’ before engaging in a passage of prayer, incorporating an explanation of her agenda and purpose in writing her text (f. 7r). Isham suggests that the act of recollection and self-examination constitutes the crafted labour of her project, while prayer provides a welcome rest from this process.

4. Isham appears to have expended a significant amount of labour in a rigorous process of revision. At its most basic, this revision includes the correction of spelling of words in the Princeton manuscript. In one corner of a page of IC4344 (f. 2r) are random words apparently written out in an attempt to check or remember spelling as she went along. But in addition to this, the tone and address of her text changes significantly between the Northampton draft and the Princeton transcription. The Princeton manuscript is addressed directly to God while the Northampton version is written about God: for example: ‘if wee should see any part of that immortall glory it might make our flesh weary /impatient\ of this pilgramage which G hath aloted for us’ (IC4434 f. 1v) which is altered to ‘if wee shoud see any part of that immortall glory it might make our flesh impatient of this pilgrimage which thou Lord hast aloted for us’ (Princeton manuscript, f. 31r). This shift in address perhaps accounts for the many slips that occur in the Princeton manuscript where Isham has to correct her mode of address (e.g. '‘[if] \thou/ God have given here so many good things’, f. 33v). This duality, and to some the extent conflation of the two different addresses, is likely to be a consequence of the journal’s purpose and intended audience. In keeping with St Augustine, whose confessions are designed to ‘praise the righteous and good God’ and to ‘excite men's minds and affections toward him’ (Retractations, A6v), Isham’s text is designed both as her own spiritual examination before God and to provide edification for those family members reading her text after her death. She states for example that ‘this and other workes of my calling’ have been prepared ‘both for my owne wellbeing and others’ (Princeton manuscript, f. 8r). In draft form, Isham’s accounts of her own life are simple recollections in which she refers to God. These are then revised in her later text where she combines a direct address to God with her incorporated examinations and prayers. As part of this process she becomes more hesitant in her assertions adding clauses such as ‘I suppose’ to previously more assertive statements (‘whereby he was somewhat eased and me\n/ded by degrees’ (IC4344 f. 1v), altered to ‘whereby (as I suppose) he was somwhat eased and mended by degrees’ (Princeton manuscript f. 14v).) Laying herself bare before God who, as she states, knows everything, she is less assured in her account of her own life. Referring to her ‘Booke of Rememberance’ Isham writes: ‘nither doe I this as if thou knewest not \all/ my God’ (Princeton manuscript, f. 7v).

5. The marginalia of both manuscripts provide interesting evidence about the ways in which Isham constructed her text. Some of the corrections made to the draft text in the marginalia were later incorporated into the main body of the final text. Not all marginal notes are treated in this way some, for example, are reproduced in the margins of the Princeton manuscript. This suggests that Isham had a fairly clear concept of ‘marginalia’ and of the material she intended it to convey; in both manuscripts this often includes references to other texts, recipes and domestic details. In addition to this, in the Northampton manuscript are several passages within the marginalia which do not appear in the final text. See for example ‘who taught him to garg[el] his [m] with aqua vity and suger’ on f. 1v of IC4344, which does not appear in the Princeton text. This lends weight to the suggestion that she was not entirely successful in presenting the ultimate ‘truth’ of her own life. An interesting issue is raised by the very tiny dark script which appears in the marginalia of both the Northamptonshire and the Princeton manuscripts. This script appears in Isham’s hand but it is distinctively different from the main body of both texts. It would seem that Isham returned to both of her texts after she had completed the composition of the Princeton manuscript. This is possibly a means by which she continued her confessional project to reveal everything before God: things later recalled were incorporated where there was space. While Isham may not be able to supply a completely accurate rendition of her life she is able to invest spiritual and physical effort in the ongoing attempt to perfect her narrative.

6. Interestingly, the sections Isham has added later to the Northamptonshire manuscript contain less than complementary references to several members of her family, including her sister Judith Isham and her own father. She writes, for example, ‘my S [Iudith?] [seemed] to blame my mother for malancoly yet she tasted of the same cup her selfe’ and later adds that ‘my father seem[ed] to love or make more of my sister Judith than of my selfe’ (IC4344, , f. 2r.) Here her dual audience begins to diverge: that which is acknowledged before God in the rough notes is not included in the text officially designated for the eyes of her surviving family. A similar practice can be seen in a surviving letter addressed to an anonymous suitor (Northamptonshire Record Office, IC4336). In what appears to be a final draft or the letter she tells the unfortunate gentleman that if he forgets his love for her then ‘The Sun of Devine truth will apeare more Cleare not being interposed by any earthly Object’. In contrast to the spiritual, almost poetic nature of these lines a rough note on the back of the letter states: ‘if their remain in you any tho[ughts] of carnall affectio[n] I wish you may suppress them’. In these notes it is possible to catch a glimpse of a different aspect of Isham’s character. She expresses thoughts and opinions later excised from those texts designed to be read by an external audience. The demands made on Isham as an author were therefore highly complex. On one hand she sets out to conform to the model provided by Augustine’s confessions in presenting before God an entirely truthful account of her own life. On the other hand however, she is clearly aware of her potential earthly audience and is subject to the restraints imposed by personal, familial relations and by pervasive cultural values. It would appear that while she aspired to present the truth, Isham was aware of her own failure to reach this ideal; the Princeton manuscript is ostensibly a final transcription of her narrative but nonetheless it contains on-going changes and emendations.


Works Cited




Princeton University Library. Robert H. Taylor Collection MS RTC01 no.62. Elizabeth Isham’s ‘Book of Rememberance’. c. 1639.

Northamptonshire Record Office. IC4344. Jane Isham to Elizabeth Isham, with drafts of Elizabeth Isham’s Book of Rememberance. c. 1638.

—. IC4336. Elizabeth Isham, draft letter to an unnamed suitor. No date.


Secondary Sources

Watts, William. Saint Augustines Confessions Translated: and With Some Marginall Notes Illustrated. Wherein, Diuers Antiquities are Explayned; and the Marginall Notes of a Former Popish Translation, Answered (1631).