Isham and the Re-construction of Autobiography
Julie A. Eckerle, University of Minnesota, Morris
In this essay, I consider how the particular form of Elizabeth Isham’s Booke of Rememberance challenges traditional assumptions about genre and gender in the field of autobiography studies. For all its generic complexity (indeed, perhaps because of its generic complexity), Isham’s manuscript adopts a relatively traditional form. There are many reasons for this, but one of the most important is her seeming desire to justify and explain her identity as an intellectual woman—and an unmarried intellectual woman at that. This desire leads not only to Isham’s construction of what I would like to call a “literacy narrative” (a coherent tale through which she depicts her coming to knowledge) but also helps to explain the text’s drive toward coherence in the first place. Through a consideration of traditional approaches to autobiography, the more recent critique of these approaches (often through a feminist lens), and Isham’s text itself, I argue that—despite a tradition of distinguishing between men and women’s autobiographical practice and making limited assumptions about what early female life writers could achieve—Isham’s text demonstrates that the autobiographical impulse for both self-examination and a unifed self was alive and well even in early modern Englishwomen’s manuscript writing. Because 17th-century life writing was composed before the term (and thus genre) “autobiography” came into being, it took multiple forms and comprised multiple genres and combinations of genres. Only in the twentieth century did we come to think of autobiography as a very particular birth-to-death narrative that presented a unique and coherent life to its readers from a perspective of self-reflective maturity. In the early modern period, however, formal variety was commonplace, and factors like purpose, audience, context, and a writer’s textual experience all helped to determine the particular form a piece of life writing would take. This disconnect between a modern understanding of autobiography and the reality of autobiographical expression in the early modern period offers a valuable space for a reconsideration of the genre and particularly of the role gender plays in an autobiographical text’s ultimate form. And it is in this newly opened critical space where Isham’s narrative becomes a useful case study, helping to shatter limiting definitional boundaries in part—ironically—because of her text’s relatively traditional form. Despite what critics have said about early modern women’s autobiography, Isham’s Booke of Rememberance does indeed seem to meet most of the basic criteria for autobiography as it has been traditionally defined, not least of which is the impulse to explain her self (whether to God, herself, or others). Furthermore, the fact that an early modern woman rhetorically negotiates and constructs this self defies old assumptions about gender, even as her failure to do so in a particularly individualistic way confirms them. In other words, her text both confirms and contradicts traditional assumptions about typically male-authored autobiography, but it also both confirms and contradicts traditional assumptions about what female-authored autobiography looks like. A critical analysis of Isham’s Booke of Rememberance thus suggests that autobiographical criticism to date—focused as it is on defining and drawing boundaries—is inadequate to the texts it seeks to explain, just as it demonstrates that categorization along purely gendered lines can lead to dangerous oversimplifications. In the course of my analysis, I consider Isham’s tone, the perspective from which her narrative is written, the relatively chronological order of her life story (beginning with her birth), the consistent themes that help to provide unity to her narrative, her explicit attention to a range of audiences, and the complex set of purposes that motivate her narrative in the first place.