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Margaret Ezell, 'Books of Remembrance and Forgetting'


Elizabeth Isham’s Books of Remembrance and Forgetting

Margaret Ezell, Texas A&M University


(All quotations from the mss are based on the transcriptions by Jill Seal Millman and Alice Eardley)


1. Elizabeth Isham, born in 1608 the daughter of a comfortable provincial landowner, in many ways led an unremarkable life. As with many early modern women, it was her father Sir John Isham, the first baronet, and her brother the royalist Sir Justinian, an early member of the Royal Society, who have in the past attracted the interest of historians. Elizabeth Isham nevertheless is now emerging as an equally remarkable figure, not so much because of the specific events in her life, but because she left behind her at her death in 1654 two very different manuscript texts intent on preserving them [Aughterson (2004)]. When one adds to the presence of two versions of one life story the romance of the very recent recovery and reunion of these previously separated and lost texts, it is little wonder that there are presently two large projects in hand dealing with this previously obscure seventeenth-century provincial lady. The family motto of the Ishams, carved into the stone work at Lamport Hall in Northumberland, is “I Show, I Sham Not.” What better creed could a writer of memoirs have from the point of view of modern readers? And yet, perhaps it is not only memories, I will argue, that are being preserved in these two very different documents.

2. One project is being conducted by the historian Isaac Stephens, who has posted his transcription of the narrative version on the web as part of his doctoral dissertation on her ( The other arose initially from the Perdita Project, a British venture to catalogue manuscript texts by early modern women, which resulted in the recent symposium held in Princeton in 2007 on “Constructing Elizabeth Isham,” ( which is how I became acquainted with the woman and her writings.

3. Elizabeth Isham’s narrative spiritual autobiography, now in the Princeton University Library (MS RTC 01 no. 62), was sold away from a private collection in England 1952 for £10. Karl Josef Höltgen, a German scholar working on John Donne, posted a request for help in Notes and Queries in 1972 requesting information about where it might have gone, but it was not until over twenty years later that the connection between the Northamptonshire mss sheet and the Princeton volume was made. The Princeton manuscript is a stunningly rich text, full of interest for historians and literary scholars alike. For those working with early modern medicine and herbal healing, looking at gender roles and power within the family, with considering the ways in which elements of the spiritual life are coincident with the everyday, and those searching for evidence to add a further crack in the crumbling model of profound female illiteracy on which so many paradigms have been based, Isham’s self-titled “Booke of Remembrance” offers glimpses into the domestic as well as spiritual life of a single young woman growing up during the end of the Stuart era.

4. The other text, a single folio page inscribed with lists and short jottings, is preserved in the Northamptonshire County Record Office (IL3365). It could be described in contrast to the Princeton text as somewhat impoverished in terms of its content and expression: “My brother was ill. Wee played abroad with hodkings wife. I quilted me a ball” run typical entries (panel 6). As Jill Millman has noted, the majority of the notations concern Isham’s domestic work, her needlework and embroidery, her reading, and births and deaths in the family. The format of the document, as I shall discuss later, is one element creating a laconic style, but is there something more at work here? Unlike some of its readers, I do not feel that the correspondence between the two texts—the narrative quarto volume and the lists of the single folio sheet—is as simple as one might first think, where the Princeton narrative has taken the spare and sparse declarations in the Northamptonshire text and elaborated on them in a methodical way. (See Alice Eardley’s account of the composition of the Princeton manuscript as being a “final” version and another Northamptonshire manuscript, IC3344, acting more as “notes”.) Instead, I believe that there is more of interest and at work in those frequently cryptic references than might meet the modern eye at first glance and that indeed, in this document’s seeming resistance to narrative, it is offering us instead a glimpse of another form of early modern techniques of artificial and artful memory.

5. Elizabeth Isham called her Princeton narrative text “My Booke of Remembrance.” According to the OED, in the seventeenth century, “remembrance” was used with several shades of meaning. It was defined as the act or process of remembering, but it also could represent “memories” themselves, or a tangible object which serves to remind one of something. It could be interior actions summoning up thought or an external cue, a physical note or entry serving as a prompt or reminder, such as a memorandum or a symbol. One definition combines these functions: “the act of reminding or putting in mind. Book of remembrance, a memorandum-book.” In this seeming catch-all definition, remembrance is the act and the object, the thing and the process by which it is made visible and knowable. What strikes me, however, when I am reading Isham’s various renderings of her life and her memories, is that it is curious to notice how often her remembering is actually about forgetting.

6. In modern psychiatric terms, memory is typically defined as being “motivated” and autobiographical memory in particular is marked by a striving for “coherence” as part of the construction of self, over a simple “correspondence” to known fact [Conway, 594-5]. It is this desire for a coherent sense of self based on goals which, in this theory of self and memory, makes some past experiences immediately accessible and others less so. But what happens to that coherent self when memory fails and bits and pieces of experience are for some reason unavailable for assembly into recalled experience? Some people appear born with poor memories and others have them thrust upon them. Anyone who has experienced a period of prolonged stress or a traumatic incident or set of events (or simply reached a certain age) is aware that one of the side-effects after the events themselves have past is the ways in which one’s memory goes awry. The immediate past becomes slippery, actions seem to leave no impression on the mind—did one actually take that pill or simply have the thought that the pill should be taken? Important chunks of automatic, learned behaviors that usually require no thought simply vanish from one’s mind--one watches in appalled surprise as the car rolls away because you have forgotten to put it into park before getting out. The simple and everyday suddenly becomes unpredictable and alien. On the other hand, at the same time, certain types of past events relentlessly crowd into the brain at unpredictable moments—a cross word spoken, a painful scene, a feeling of overwhelming despair. They replay in an endless loop, or pop up unbidden even when there seems no particular reason for their appearance. No level of internal conscious will or motivated desire seems to be able to control and organize such forgetting or such memories.

7. For the second type of problem, the memory which will not be lost, therapeutic writing is frequently invoked. The point is not so much to remember, but to recontextualize painful memories and to make them external to oneself, to gain some measure of control them through narrating them. For the first type of problem—the nonfunctioning short term memory--one is sometimes advised likewise to turn to writing. One solution is to create an “external memory,” such as lists of tasks performed as well as do to, resulting a visual, textual map confirming events, even trivial, of the day. Freud himself suggested creating a “permanent memory trace,” so that “if I distrust my memory…I am able to supplement and guarantee its working by making a note in writing. In that case the surface upon which this note is preserved, the pocket-book or sheet of papers, is as it were a materialized portion of my mnenic apparatus, which I otherwise carry about with me invisible.” [Freud, 114.] The only problem here is, as he observes, that “the receptive capacity of the writing surface is soon exhausted.”

8. The tradition of using writing to overcome faulty and/or painful memories can be traced back through Locke and Descartes. Descartes suggested that one should write “on paper whatever ought to be preserved, employing the most abbreviated symbols,” and I will return to his insistence on the minuteness of the symbols later in the discussion. [Quoted in Stabile (2004), 83. See also Dacome (2005) and Yeo (2004).] For Susan Stabile, working with later eighteenth-century materials, “tracing memories on paper, handwriting transparently reflects thought. Script creates continuous, visual images much like the chain of associations traced by the memory” (83). Isham’s extremely difficult handwritten texts and their relationship to issues of memory, however, seem to offer us different challenges and points to ponder than texts in elegant scribal penmanship, where words have been turned into objects for display and the text itself into a polished memento. Elizabeth Isham’s autobiographical writings strike me as being not only the attempt to construct a self within a specific traditional religious narrative framework based on recollection, meditation, and interpretation of past actions, but also as offering glimpses of the ways in which she is negotiating a complicated series of responses to the problems and anxieties which arise from the need to remember, the memories themselves, and the fears of forgetting. The ways in which she attempts to embody her memory in these two texts rest both on elements of the rhetorical shaping of the content on one hand and the physical representation of it on the other.

9. The Princeton narrative is frequently organized by her remark “I will now call to mind” (2v, 4v). This statement begins new sections in the chronological progression or emphasizes a point she wishes to make within a year. The remarks “heretofore I understood not” or “now coming to a fuller understanding of this Act” (7r ,5r), suggest a pause in the narrative, where a simple memory is processed and interpreted in the field of the present. It is clear in this account that as children, she and her siblings were trained to exercise their memories and that having a good memory in terms of memorization was valued in her family. For example, in an account of her childhood, she laments her poor performance in memorizing what she reads, although it is clear in the narrative that as an adult, she can recall easily that which she heard read to her and what she herself did—“I wel remember my praying unto thee to avoyde my mothers displeasure, evn for my nedle when I had lost it.” Likewise, she can recall without difficulty herself at around eight years on the occasion of formally learning the Catechism. She writes that she remembers that “I had learnt a little at the beginning in mine infancy, and I could say most of that in the servis book by hearing her that tended us.” (10v). However, when her parents desire her to read and learn it, her memory / forgetfulness bring her into conflict with her father:

I delighted so much in ballets [ballads] that I could say many by hart, my father being much offened with me that I could not learn that which was better: at last I having learnt it my father hard me say it, and my brother and sister every Sabbath when our turns came…I remember the paines I tooke saying it every night to my self for feare les I should forget it (10v).

On another occasion, she comments sadly, that when she and her sister were called by Mr. Dod to learn daily two chapters from the Bible, one from the Old Testament to be memorized in the morning and one from the New at night, and then to perform them in front of her mother or father, “my sister had the flourishingest memory,” while she and her brother were less impressive; her sister is described as having little interest in “work” (which I take to be needle work) and preferring her book, and thus “she was much commended …for her memorie.” Isham remembers being “something cast down that my self was no better regarded” (12r) because of her tendency to forget--her memory of forgetting and the shame and distress forgetting created for her is every bit as powerful as the events she does remember.

10. Sometimes she is equally strong in stating what she does not remember, but in a positive way. Speaking of the relationship of her mother and her grandmother when she was a child, the adult states, “now I never remember any jarring betwixt them, no not in word, but they lived and loved together the best that I knew any mother and daughter-in-law” (10v) A little later she declares of her mother that “I never remember that ever she brack foorth into any outraighious; or unadvised speech” (11r). “Never remember” of course, is not the equivalent of saying “I have forgotten”. Instead, it seems a strong way to assert the impossibility of her mother and grandmother disagreeing or her mother losing control of her language. On the other hand, in such sections, there is present a constant tension over the real possibility of forgetting important pieces of her life’s remembrance because, alongside her statements of what she does remember and the use of memory as a stable point of reference (if I don’t remember it, it could not be), there are also disquieting remarks about her general inability to remember, what she call her “brittle memory”: “in these times as I take it my memory was so brittle that if my mother had sumtimes sent me on an arrent I should forget it I had gon out of the room.” (9v)

11. While having a poor talent for memorizing eternal texts brings one into conflict with one’s parents and is thus lamentable, not forgetting certain matters brings one into conflict with God. There are several points throughout the narrative where she points to things which should not be remembered or should best be forgotten.

Wee longer retaine things that are done against us then wee doe those that are done for us …even though wee be bad innough of our selfes yet wee are too apt to iudge evill of another and when they have commited some great sin wee think the worse of them a great while after, though it may be they turned from it. (9r)

She makes the point that this operation of memory “is not so with thee Lord: who hast promised that when the wicked turne from there evill wayes there sinnnes shall noe more be remembered. ” Near the very end of the narrative she declares that one of her many sins is her “remembering of what I should forget injuries, indignities” (37r) The refusal to forget—to bear a grudge, or nourish a slight, or painful moment—to forget and thus to forgive one who has wronged you or caused you pain, is a form of remembrance, but a dangerous one.

12. Likewise, she notes carefully that certain types of memories cause her extreme mental distress. This type of memory could be of events external or feelings internal. On a minor level, even though she notes that she did not, contrary to her mother’s expectations, physically blush with the memory of her childhood crimes when confronted with them by her mother, the memory of the acts nevertheless caused her mental unease because she cannot forget them: ”if I had thought that these things would have so run in my mind, I suppose I should not have don them.” (10r) Likewise, she recalls with dramatic clarity how her sister would tremble at the approach of the bone-setter Mr. Hale, how her mother could not stay in the room while the little girl’s leg bone was rebroken, and how she herself went outside, how her mother and sister subsequently shared a sick room and her mother spoke to visitors of the injured girl as being “a marter for her broken bones,” only to conclude “but why speake I of these things by which my affections became bitter unto mee” (6v).

13. In a striking later passage when two of her hopeful suitors had suddenly died, “I found my mind full of confusion being apressed with unessecary inordinate and immoderate cares which availed not but made me much worse interrupting me in good duties.”

It troubled me the cause and after I was sorry when they were dead, thinking they might be the worse for taking unkindnesse at my carriage and it was to late to make amends. I confesse these thoughts did me much harm…they might be a means of shortening my owne life. (27r)

At this critical moment, she remembers that she then made the decision to forget: “I resolved not to thinke on but to trust in they mercie and to put all vaine thoughts and those which I could not helpe out of my head…I therefore indevered to thrust forth all unessecary thoughts and cares wherein I found hurt and wholly to trust in thee.” She concludes that by banishing these thoughts, “great peace and strength I found in doing thus,” but clearly the thoughts were not so much banished or erased as redirected into writing and narrative.

14. The references to “calling to mind” or “I remember” become fewer in the Princeton narrative as she progresses through her childhood years. In fact, they begin to taper off after about age 13 and it is interesting to ask oneself why. Elizabeth records that she learns to write, about age 8 or 9, “as I remember I learned to write having a naturell inclinacion thereunto” (5r), which is long after she has been working with her needle, crafting patterns and designs in stitches. Social historians, archeologists, and anthropologists have all pointed to the ways in which embroidery in particular came to be gendered as a female activity during this period. Rozsika Parker in The Subversive Stitch (1984) considered the ways in which the separation of needlework into spheres of “craft” and “art” positioned embroidery in the seventeenth century, in particular, as a means of inculcating an ideology of femininity to young girls, but also the ways in which it could be used as a way of covertly “making meanings of their own” while “overtly living up” to the stereotype of the passive feminine needlewoman. [Parker (1984), 11-14.] More recently, the archeologist Mary Beaudry has urged a reconsideration of the significance of the artifacts of needlecraft, arguing that we must be wary of the “carefully crafted nostalgic vision” of sewing as the “ultimate feminine domestic art,” an assumption that frequently leads us to overlook “other settings for sewing as well as the range of attitudes that needlewomen held towards their work.” [Beaudry (2006), 169.] Elizabeth Isham clearly mastered the many techniques of the needle at an early age, both the practical housekeeping ones and also what Beaudry calls decorative “fancy” work intended for social display, such as her “silk Adam and Eve” (5-6). However, in addition to Isham’s obvious participation in this cultural model of social relationships, what interests me is the ways in which the techniques of the needlewoman may also be at play in the pen of the memoir writer.

15. It is interesting to note that antique collectors as well as those working on the material culture of seventeenth-century sewing, its tools and artifacts, have recovered several examples of “sewing compendiums” or containers for children’s needlework tools in the shape of very small books, measuring 2 ¼ x 1 7/8 x 1 ½ in. [Taunton (1997), 18-19.] In one example, in addition to containing a small pincushion and a child’s silver thimble, it also “contains a notebook with a dry-point writing implement, a mirrored compartment and a purse,” all held together with a silver catch. Taunton speculates based on the existence of more than one of these little sewing books made with the same silk brocade and similar silver fittings that perhaps such objects were professionally made, which in turn suggests to me material example of the links between the acts of sewing and writing for seventeenth-century girls of a class whose parents would have been able to afford such a fine object (19).

16. In turning to writing to support and to assist memory, Elizabeth does of course have strong role models in her mother as well as her grandparents. She was raised in a highly textual family, notable for their collections of books [Gordon (1970)]. Her mother Judith, the daughter of a judge of the prerogative court of Canterbury, laments to Mr. Williams her own weak powers of memory and she kept by her bed table books and notebooks. Both her mother and her grandmother left manuscript texts which Elizabeth read and preserved. Elizabeth records how she herself around age twelve would make notes of what she read and how this was strengthing and comforting to her. Elizabeth’s other miscellaneous writings, such as the poem on her on reading Donne’s anniversaries, ascribed to her in an early article by Karl Höltgen, show her lively engagement with the materials she read and the ways in which they infused her own writings. [Höltgen (1971), 302-306.] (This attribution has been accepted by the editors of the Donne Variorum edition, although it is seen as ambiguous by those associated with the Isham project.)

17. While her brother Justinian kept a commonplace book in Latin, there at this time is no evidence that Elizabeth did so. (It is uncertain from the references in the Princeton mss whether or not she did in fact know how to read Latin, but unlike her brother, there is no evidence of her writing in it. Erica Longfellow argues that she was offered the opportunity to study it but preferred instead to study herbalism. But we do have evidence, striking evidence, of her methods of creating external systems for the textualizing of memory. Compared to the narrative life found in the Princeton mss, the Northamptonshire County Record Office manuscript certainly seems to have less material for those interested in the contents of a life; unlike the narrative, it does not weave together the details to create a sense of the texture of daily living and as a document it seems to lack the introspective perspective of a self-conscious narrator. But I would disagree with critics who might say that it has less value, or even that it is, as Isham’s DNB biographer suggests, a “common” or conventional way of recording life. I can honestly say that I have never encountered a literary object quite like it.

18. Isham took a blank folio sheet, folded it in half, then folded that in thirds and then folded it again in thirds, deeply creasing the folds to create a grid pattern in which she wrote. Into each of the rectangles, approximately 2’’ by 3,” she put a year of her life, with the exception of the very first sections which cover her earliest childhood memories. Rather than being a narrative of a life shaped through meditation, it seems more like a graphic schematic. It is not a map, but it is hard to say what type of graphic it is—a calendar? An architectural creation? An embroidery pattern?

19. What the peculiarity of the document and its contents foregrounds for me are questions concerning rituals of remembrance: when one is uncertain about one’s memory, what does one want to remember and what are the techniques and technologies for assisting remembrance? As Lorraine Daston observes in her study of scientific reading practices, “Cognitive practices like memory and attention are … part of a learned (and learne`d) habitus, which has bodily, mental, and ethical components.” [Daston (2004), 446.] What type of textual rituals helped Isham to preserve the elements of memory and to anchor her firmly in the world of “knowing” what she knows about herself? With this in mind, I don’t think that the Northamptonshire County Record Office document was intended to be what the Princeton manuscript so clearly is, a “Book” of Remembrance”: the NRO text has a very different relationship with its reader than does the Princeton, one as well as a different function for its writer.

20. It is not just that it is clearly a home-made text—one large single sheet whose pattern of deep creases from repeated folds creates not pages but thirty-six separate spaces or panels for writing, the writing implement which created the tiny notations perhaps a needle or a seamstress’ pin rather than the pen. Each of these spaces or compartments houses a year in her life, or in the case of her early infancy, a cluster of years. To “read” it now, one firsts opens the center fold, then reads from the top left corner across the top of both what we would call the verse and recto sides, moving in horizontal columns and ending up in the bottom right hand corner. One then flips the entire piece over and starts again at the top, rather like a modern monthly desk calendar with a box for each day of the week and a row for each week. Simply looking at the marks on the page with no attempt to read them, one notices the care with which margins are preserved and how the writing is contained within its space, which sometimes deforms it or causes it to literally change direction and become vertical. It is the physical white space of the panel which controls the words, not the words shaping the space, and it would appear it is more important to keep within the boundaries is than to narrate.

21. The size of the writing in this document (as well as the copious annotations in the margins of the Princeton narrative) also strikes one as remarkable. Susan Stewart in On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir and the Collection (1993), calls this micrographia, or “minute” writing. While Isham’s text can’t compare with Stewart’s example of the transcription of the Bible by Peter Bales which could be fit into a walnut shell the size of a small hen’s egg, I would argue that there is more at work in her calligraphy than a simple desire to save paper. For Stewart, discussing the creation of miniature books, “minute writing is emblematic of craft and discipline; while the materiality of the product is diminished, the labor involved multiplies, and so does the significance of the total object.” “Minute writing,” she observes, “experiments with the bodily skill of writing.” [Stewart, 38.] One wonders as well about the clear connection between her skill with her needle--her creation of numerous samplers, which were designed to be a “storehouse” of different stitches, and her designing her own patterns for embroidery--and her reading and writing practices. (See Fawdry and Brown (1980) for the history of the transition of the sampler from being a practical compendium of stitches for the needlewoman “a personal record of stitches and designs,” to being a method of educating young girls and an item of social display.) In Panel 2 recounting her memories of herself when she would only have been 4 or 5 years old, she notes in short fragments, each with its own line, “home Book prayers playing making rings of rushes on Sundays…/I wrot gambeleing works/ I reioyced when I had a new book…I wrot 2 samplours …after a nother samplour of trustch one which I took out my self play prayers” Throughout both her accounts but in particular the NRO mss, she painstakingly notes the different stitches she uses—trustich, aranwork, breadstich, fingerwork, cutwork, quilting--objects she makes—balls, handerchiefs, gloves, lace, purses, boot hose, a washcase--and subjects she chooses for her embroidery. “I did Psalme 8 cover in trustich” she remembers about her 13th year (panel 9), handwork which embodies the text and holds its memory in a material, textile design. As she grew older, she invented the designs for herself. ”I did work of breadstich and aranwork and begun my silken Adam and Eve“ she notes in panel 13 for the year 1625, epitomizing the genesis narrative in a single scene, delineated through tiny perfect stitches, and later she copied the flower in the garden into needlework, preserving the ephemeral in the handwork of her daily life.

22. It is not a far step from the tiny, precise stitches demanded by embroidery and fine work to the tiny, precise black characters filling the white space of the individual panels. While the attempt to “read” this document in a narrative fashion can be frustrating for us, it clearly was soothing for its compositor, who continued to add to it through the 1640s. We know from the Princeton narrative that Isham found pleasure in making miniature texts, or more accurately making texts miniature. She recalls with detail how she found a loose “paper of the Epistles of Saint John (which had laped somewhat) I folded it up and made mee a little booke of it and being very ioyent of it I kept it in my poket reading it often to my selfe, and now I growing to more yeeres of discretion had also by the remembrance of this epistle hath bettered me ever since” (14r). There are multiple pleasure here--in making the little book, of having it in her pocket, and later, in remembering its contents. As an adult, she also in effect, miniaturizes other texts and makes them part of her: in panel 32 (1640) marked with a large C in the margin, she states, “I began to wright what I could at Church of the Sermon in my tables and so since and to write it better out the weeke after.” These do not sound to me so much like the creation of a commonplace book as a ritual or habit of making memory into text and making text into patterns.

23. In addition to the minuteness of the writing, one is struck by her constructions within the panels. Here again I differ with those who interpret the document as being a type of end of the year, start of a new year summary of activities. For the early years in which she is recording memories of the more distant past, the information is contained in a single column, which is then occasionally annotated. It seems fixed, self-contained, and under control. The first annotations don’t appear until panel 4, when she is describing herself as an 8 year old. In my perception of the document, it appears that panel 31 (1639), might be the last of the ones written with the whole year in her vision as a past event. As she catches up to herself in terms of writing years, however, and remembrance becomes more recent experience, she is clearly, especially after panel 33 (1641), devising other spatial schemes and structures, such as columns of three, to accommodate the proliferation of memory markers with their annotations and additions, staggering text down the panel, leaving space where she can for future thoughts.

24. In one sense, her decision to create an artificial paper memory organized into discreet compartments, in which texts are organized and stored, physically resembles medieval and renaissance models of memory which were used to train the mind to store and organize information. As Frances Yates (1966) and Mary Carruthers (1990) have analyzed, early modern memory was frequently conceived of in spatial, architecture terms, the mind as a cabinet with little drawers, a palace with many rooms, a store house of knowledge. Other critics such as Susan Stabile (2004) and Susan Stewart (1993) working with eighteenth-century and later materials have investigated the ways in which people have created physical, material repositories of memory—scrap books, souvenirs, mementos, curio cases—where a single object or cluster of them carries with it the whole weight of a narrative memory. One could suggest that Isham, using as she does a type of short-hand as Descartes had recommended (including stars and free-standing capital letters), is likewise loading meaning on to tiny signifiers, where a single letter or symbol could be understood by her to stand for a much larger unit of meaning and a phrase about making gloves for her brother is the memory key to unlock a longer narrative. In assembling these tiny bits of texts within the frame of the individual panel, one could argue that given her life-time training and skill with her needle, with its apparent association with the miniature and creating patterns of meaning, through such means she is creating narrative using a type of “needlepoint logic” to structure it rather than the conventions of textual narrative. (I am indebted to Vera Camden for this turn of phrase “needlepoint logic” to think about Isham’s creation.)

25. What shall we make of this type of text as opposed to the more appealing, the more richly informative narrative representation of her life? There is a typically cryptic in panel 17, when she is recalling events of her 11th year. “My father told me (as I take it about this time) that I would forget my righting but I think I have remembered it.” Isham states that she will leave her “Booke of Remembrance” for her family and her brother’s children, so that they might profit by reading it. The NRO text, I would say was really hers. What she has left in that single artifact is the artful working of the tiny and fine stitches of her daily life into a textual memento, a visible record of things done, held forever in spatial relationship to each other through the artistic use of artificial memory technology based on the craft of needlework.

26. If read for content alone, the NRO text can be a less satisfying document as it represses narrative with its deliberate record-keeping structure and it provides less internal or meditative “stuff” for us to pull from it to create our pictures of the person writing. But what it does represent, brilliantly and artfully for me, is Isham’s initial and ongoing attempt to construct an external memory to counter the anxieties posed by an unreliable or unruly interior one. The focus in the notations concerning the sewing and needle work, the keeping of bees, the stakes of a card game, the activities of the everyday over those of the extraordinary, likewise create a very different type of textualized memory than one which is seeking to define or understand the self against the events of the larger external world. It is, I would suggest, in such small, tiny details of everyday life that personal memory adheres, is anchored, and creates a sense of permanence and stability that the coherent sense of self of the autobiographical memory strives to attain.


Works Cited





Princeton University Library. Robert C. Taylor Collection MS RTC 01 no. 62. Elizabeth Isham’s ‘Book of Rememberance’. c. 1639.

Northamptonshire Record Office. IL3365. Elizabeth Isham, memoranda. c. 1638-48.

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


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