‘Take unto you words’: gender, family writing culture and Elizabeth Isham’s life-writing
Erica Longfellow, Kingston University
(folio references are to the Princeton manuscript unless otherwise specified)
1. Elizabeth Isham is a remarkable find for scholarship of women’s writing. We can think of few other women who left behind both substantial pieces of non-epistolary writing and a large collection of family letters, notes and other ephemera. The range and variety of this material is difficult to conceive: the Isham archive in the Northamptonshire Record Office includes wills, inventories, mortgages, kin-keeping letters exchanged between family members, intimate letters of condolence, tense correspondence relating to marriage negotiations, penitential devotions and medical notes scrawled in the spare space around letters, classical translations, Latin epitaphs, newsletters and even a draft letter to Charles I and a petition to parliament.
2. The depth of the archive enables us to glimpse influences on a woman’s life and writing from a variety of angles, and thus gives us a new perspective on some of the questions that continue to vex and intrigue scholars of early modern women’s writing and early modern women’s history (Clarke and Robson; Longfellow). The Perdita Project and other research endeavours have considerably broadened our perspective on which women were writing in the early modern period and what they tended to write, but the large corpus of evidence they have unearthed is both diverse and piecemeal. As a result, studies of individual women continue to be one of our most significant means of understanding the influences that shaped women’s experience of writing in the early modern period. How did gender interact with family, education, religious persuasion, politics, local circumstances and other influences on an early modern individual’s self-presentation? In short, how much did it matter that Elizabeth Isham was a woman?
3. This introductory paper considers that question by examining aspects of the family writing culture evident in the Isham archive and relating them to Elizabeth Isham’s oeuvre. In particular, the paper asks what led Elizabeth Isham to write her unusual narrative and memoranda of her life, and how those two texts are related to each other and to the family writing culture. The paper concludes by considering how Elizabeth Isham’s writings compare with others of a similar religious or socio-economic perspective, both male and female. Scholarship of women’s writing has moved far beyond the tendency to categorise women writers as either oppressed or oppositional, but the writings of an Elizabeth Isham, a woman who gave up her study of Latin to pursue the more edifying topic of herbalism (28r), and expressed a profound love for ‘the Sweetnesse of a privat liffe’ (21r), might easily bring us up short. Placing Isham’s writing in the context of others provides a model for estimating the paradigms of authorship available to a writer of her gender, socio-economic status and religious persuasion, and for continuing to question our assumptions about what it meant for a woman to write in the early modern period.
4. The bulk of the Isham archive consists of correspondence which falls into three broad categories: business transactions between male members of the family, particularly Elizabeth Isham’s father Sir John and her brother Justinian, and their male associates; kin-keeping letters to members of the family scattered across the south of England; and Justinian’s more playful correspondence with both men and women of his Oxford circle, which was intended to display the writers’ learning and wit. I’d like to focus on the second type for the moment, those kin-keeping letters to aunts, uncles, siblings and in-laws. What is most notable about this correspondence is that the recipients are for the most part very close relatives. Unlike Walter Bagot, another prolific letter-writer who as a Justice of the Peace received pleas for intervention from men and women who were very distant kin indeed, Sir John Isham seems to have dealt largely with his own close relatives and those who were in his immediate neighbourhood. This tendency to keep close to their own family seems to be a trait of the Ishams of Lamport, well documented by Mary Finch in her study of how the Ishams and other Northamptonshire families acquired their wealth. Finch argues that frugality was one of the keys to the Isham’s wealth, which in the early seventeenth-century meant not keeping a house in London or lavishing money on a court career (6-37). Although he was influential in his own locality, Sir John seems to have sought few connections at court, and the limited nature of his own correspondents is apparent when compared to the wide range of correspondents to his son. His daughter’s connections appear even smaller. Although we have relatively little correspondence to or from Elizabeth Isham, almost all of it is from close kin, including her father, brother, nieces and her aunt Elizabeth Denton. There are only a handful of letters to others, and all relate to business of one kind or another, whether it be marriage negotiations, medical advice, or petitions to Parliament for financial redress.
5. The fact that Elizabeth Isham chose to write only to family members or on necessary business is in keeping with her assertions in her Book of Rememberance that she desired to live privately among her friends (21r) and that she felt that this was the better way of life. It would be easy to read such assertions as evidence of a feminine withdrawal from society, and it may be that Elizabeth Isham’s self-imposed semi-seclusion was in part influenced by gendered virtues. Significantly, Isham herself never connects her restricted connections to her gender, and her account refers frequently to other women who ‘mislike of our liveing so solitary’ or urge her to travel. In addition, the narrowness of her father’s connections for a man of his position suggests that her desire to be at home with family had at least as much to do with family culture as it did with femininity.
6. A second aspect of the archive that illuminates how we understand Elizabeth Isham’s manuscript legacy is the presence of multiple drafts from several family members. The Ishams had a strong tradition of keeping a record of both sides of an exchange by drafting replies on the verso of letters received, a tradition that is in keeping with Mary Finch’s image of the Ishams as a frugal family that carefully husbanded their resources. Sir John, Justinian, and Elizabeth all maintained this tradition, and although keeping a record of correspondence does seem to have been a feature of many early modern families of a similar social position, most surviving examples involve a scribe making copies of letters sent rather than the senders writing drafts on spare paper. The most tantalising example from Elizabeth Isham is a draft letter to an unnamed suitor asking him to suppress any thoughts of carnal desire and to honour her resolution to ‘to liue this life without great perturbation of mind’ (IC4336). Aside from the suggestive content, this letter provides us with evidence, consistent with examples from her father and brother, that this was a family that expended considerable effort in drafting their letters, as there are not only corrections to this draft of the body of the letter but on the verso further drafts, partly in shorthand.
7. The family habits of preserving paper and making multiple drafts extended beyond epistolary writing, as both Elizabeth and Justinian regularly used spare paper around letters they had received to draft other texts. Justinian, for example, translated classical characters in minute writing in the spaces around his young daughters’ letters. Interestingly, the family rarely used spare paper for simple accounts, at least in the surviving correspondence: what survives is all literary or quasi-literary. The drafting habit does seem to accelerate in the 1640s when the conflict may have made it difficult to obtain paper, but it also seems to be a part of the family tendency to husband resources, if we think of resources not just as the paper written on but the work expended in writing drafts of all kinds.
8. Elizabeth Isham was a prolific draft writer who excelled at using up spare bits of paper. In fact, most of Elizabeth Isham’s writing preserved in the family archive is a draft of one kind or another, including one of her booklists, drafts of letters to her brother, father, and that unnamed suitor, two letters and five other sheets of paper on which she has scrawled medical notes, a draft letter to the King offering him a ‘view of my Labours’ (IC4621), and drafts of penitential devotions and her Book of Rememberance. Her habit of adding marginal notes—a habit not shared by other family members—might have been an extension of this drafting culture, as she corrects and amplifies what she has written by making notations. She even had a habit of adding marginalia to brief correspondence, as her brother complains in one letter that he ‘vnderstand[s] all your way of writing very well, except that at first in ye margent where your letters are not so cleare as they are in the lines at length’ (IC3275), thus offering great comfort to later scholars who have struggled to decipher her minute hand. Alice Eardley’s work on the drafts of the Book of Rememberance in IC4344 suggests that Elizabeth Isham had a clear concept of marginalia and how they worked. IL3365, the curious manuscript in which Isham noted and reflected on the events of her life, seems to be more in keeping with the habit of adding marginalia than with the culture of drafting. The way Elizabeth Isham’s hand, ink and style of recording change in the manuscript, and the paucity of direct relationships between the memoranda and the Book of Rememberance, suggest that the memoranda were begun shortly after Elizabeth Isham finished the bulk of her Book of Rememberance, and perhaps used to add some of the marginal notes to the longer manuscript, but did not serve as a draft or notes for the narrative account (see Jill Millman's paper). Here we have evidence of Isham briefly noting and commenting on life events in much the same way as she does in marginalia elsewhere; we might think of ‘text’ she is annotating as her unrecorded thoughts or meditations on her experiences (as discussed by Margaret Ezell).
9. In generic, as well as material terms, the majority of Elizabeth Isham’s drafted texts are in keeping with the family writing culture. Only the medical writing has no analogue in the archive, and there is no evidence to suggest that others in her family had such a sustained interest in medicine. (For more on her medical writing, see Michelle DiMeo's paper.) Of Elizabeth Isham’s most typical mode of writing, devotional writing, there are no substantial survivals from other family members, but there are some tantalising traces. As far back as 1585 Elizabeth Isham’s grandfather Thomas wrote to William Fludd enclosing a little book of devotions he had written in response to the deaths of his sisters (IC 3480). The significance of this archival trace—the book itself is now lost—lies in the fact that Thomas Isham was blind from a young age, and would have needed to go to considerable effort to produce any writing, much less to use it as a means of devotion. We know from Elizabeth Isham’s Book of Rememberance that the tradition was taken up by her mother, Judith, Lady Isham, nee Lewyn. Although none of Judith Isham’s devotional writings survive, the Book of Remembrance tells us that she, like her daughter, was a prolific writer of devotional ‘notes’, as well as of a ‘table-book’, which may have been a commonplace book or a record of her own devotional meditations. Elizabeth Isham records that her mother desired to use her writing ‘to make good use of all the Lords mercies and corrections to her’ and quotes her instruction to herself to ‘ever set the Lords gifts to thee. and thy sinnes before thee consider \that/ wee are the Lords steurdes and must give acount of that wee who how wee dispose of that wee have’ (11r).
10. These comments suggest not only that devotional writing was part of the family tradition, but also how the family viewed the utility of writing in a devotional context. Writing was part of the devotional process of giving account, of both blessings received and sins committed, as George Webbe advised his readers, in a text Elizabeth Isham owned (see her booklist in IC4829):
In thy Bedde before thou fall asleepe, looke backe vnto the former workes of the day; call thy soule to a scrutinie, to giue vp an account how thou hast spent the day past, how thou hast past it ouer: And how farre thou hast walked with God, and wherein (as thou art able to remember) thou has offended and then crauing pardon for those sinnes wherunto thou are priuie, and entring into a resolution (as much as possibly thou mayest) for the time to come, to abandon, and forsake them. (Webbe, sig. Gr.)
For the individual, then, devotion served to enable the writer to better understand her relationship with God by considering her experience within a Calvinist salvation narrative. By meditating on her experience, the individual Christian could detect the pattern of God’s providence in her life, note signs of her election, and, most importantly, ‘make good use of’ those now ordered memories to encourage and guide her in future godliness.
11. Both Elizabeth Isham and her mother practiced devotional writing in this way, so that writing was not just about recording the process of devotion for the self and others, but was in fact part of that process, itself. In the beginning of her Book of Rememberance, Elizabeth Isham instructs herself in the words of Hosea 14:2: ‘thy Holy word hath taught us formes both of confession and praises unto thee saying *Take unto you words* and turne to the Lord \and/ say unto \him/ Take away all iniquitye and receive us gracious:
although since I have thought this worke great by reason of the fantnes of my spirits and weakenes of my body, yet \sumtimes/ to summon the whole powers of my soule (and body which this worke requiereth) to doe \my/ God servis I thought I could not doe better, for 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. (7r)
Elizabeth Isham’s penitential ‘worke’ of devotion is also evident in meditations she has scrawled on a letter from her Aunt Isham that connect her personal sinfulness with the national crises of the 1640s, and suggest the way in which practitioners of devotional writing expected this sort of work to bear fruit, both in personal spirituality and in the health of the wider community in its relationship towards God (IC249). The ‘worke’ of devotion is also suggested by the arrangement of the draft passages from her Book of Rememberance in IC4344. The passages are organised not chronologically but thematically: the verso of the sheet contains sections scattered throughout the Book of Rememberance, but all referring to family illness and death, while the sections copied around the direction all relate to conscience and religious practice (as mentioned by Alice Eardley in her paper). These groupings suggest that Elizabeth Isham did not begin at the beginning when drafting her life narrative, but rather set herself devotional topics, the better to ‘make good use of’ her own experiences of God’s providence.
12. For the individual, then, devotional meditation and the recording of experience were a significant part of the development of the Christian self, but Isham’s writing also demonstrates that devotional writing in this period was not merely introspective. Devotional writing also acted as a conversation, frequently in memoriam, a way of remembering and analysing not only one’s own past actions but also those of family and friends, especially those who had died. Elizabeth Isham not only remembers her mother’s devotional writing but also quotes from it, making it part of her own devotional work. She remarks, ‘I can no better express my mothers troubles then out of the nots of her owne hand-writing, which she keept (carring then about her) as rememberancess and instructions to her selfe’ (10r), and later notes that ‘I find often written by her wherein she acknowldgeth the Lords aboundant mercie in inableing her so comfortabley to goe through her afflictions; so that in her I have found verefied that the Lord hast not made the heart of the righteous Sad, Ezek.13.22.’ (13r). Elizabeth Isham not only finds the truth of her mother’s inward experiences in her mother’s writing, but also finds assurances for her own soul in the evidence of how her mother was comforted in affliction, and an example of how to use her own devotional ‘nots’ as ‘rememberancess and instructions to her selfe’. In recording how she has found memories, instruction and comfort in her mother’s writing, Elizabeth Isham reminds her readers—and especially her nieces, to whom she leaves her devotional writing—that they might make the same use of her own Book of Rememberance, to continue its devotional work into the next generation.
13. It is in the context of this tradition of devotional account and memorial that we might speculate about the function of IL3365, Elizabeth Isham’s memoranda. Although it may seem strange indeed to us to begin jotting down the events in one’s life after completing a narrative autobiography, in light of early modern writing practice and the Isham family writing culture it is not perhaps so strange. In her Book of Rememberance, Elizabeth Isham describes how ‘profitable’ and renewing she has found the process of remembering her past, and compares this work to her joy in hearing the stories of her grandparents. Writers of memoirs and autobiography in our own time often describe the flood of memories that occurs when they begin to record their past. Elizabeth Isham’s memoranda might similarly be a continuance of that recording, of the events that flooded back after she had completed her Book of Rememberance, but which she did not feel warranted revision of that long work, beyond the occasional marginal note.
14. A final piece of evidence from the Isham archive returns us to the question of how—and indeed whether—Elizabeth Isham’s gender influenced her writing. As I briefly remarked near the beginning of this paper, Isham’s brother Justinian broke the family mould by becoming a prolific correspondent with a wide and varied circle of acquaintance, ranging from current and future bishops, the founders of the Royal Society, pious gentrywomen and flirty and well-connected noblewomen. Justinian also had pretensions to classical learning and political ambitions that far exceeded the family tradition, penning a well-known but now lost paraphrase of Bacon’s Instauratio Magna, as well as classical translations and scientific exchanges that led him to be among those who founded the Royal Society. If the family writing culture evidenced in the Isham archive could produce reserved, pious Elizabeth Isham, how could it also produce this epitome of the leisured gentleman, who dabbled in all kinds of learning and exchanged pleasantries with much of royalist society? Was it, in the end, her gender that led Elizabeth Isham to choose the route of piety and the quiet life?
15. I have a few tentative answers to that question. The first is that there are hints in the archive that Elizabeth Isham could turn to politics when circumstances demanded. In the early 1640s she drafted a letter to the King offering him a ‘view of my Labours’ (IC4621). We have no way of knowing what work she intended for the king—it may even have been needlework rather than writing—nor whether she ever sent it, although she does refer to having sought the advice of another, so she did share her work with at least one other. We also have no way of knowing whether the letter to the king was part of a larger trend in her writing. We do know that from 1640 she recorded events in the civil wars in her memoranda (see Jill Millman's paper), and in IC249 her meditations turned to national as well as personal and familial events. These traces suggest that Isham became conscious of politics when the crisis of the 1640s forced upon her the connection between her religious convictions and national events, but that her interest always remained firmly linked to those religious convictions, and her primary motivation in writing the carrying out of devotional work. In doing so she reflects the experience of other puritans such as Nehemiah Wallington, whose extant notebooks from the 1640s are much more concerned with recording and interpreting national events than the earlier and later books that primarily record and interpret Wallington’s own life (Seaver, 199-208).
16. Whether Elizabeth Isham’s focus on devotional work arose from her gender or from something in her character that made her more inclined to piety we will probably never be able to say, and it is likely that those two influences are closely intertwined. But the evidence of the writing of two other women might help us to understand the options that were available to Elizabeth Isham as well as the circumstances influencing her. The first, Justinian’s aristocratic correspondent Dorothy ‘Dolly’ Long, nee Leach (1623-1710), was a scant degree in station above both Justinian and Elizabeth. She was the niece of Justinian’s correspondent Bishop Duppa, and she married well: her husband Sir James Long, second baronet, was from an old Wiltshire family, and his mother Anne was the only child of James Ley, first earl of Marlborough. The Isham family, by contrast, were comparatively nouveau riche: they had held their estate for four generations and their title for two. Lady Long’s letters, from 1650 onwards, are roughly contemporary with Elizabeth Isham’s final memoranda from the late 1640s in IL3365, but it is difficult to imagine two more different writers. Lady Long’s letters to Justinian are openly flirtatious, exchanging coquettish witticisims with her ‘Sweet Valentine’ in almost the same breath as she offers her husband’s greetings (IC288). Her letters employ the witty banter of a royalist coterie, complete with nicknames and a reference to their ‘Academy’, in a style that is reminiscent of the more familiar and accomplished works of Margaret Cavendish and Katherine Philips (Chalmers, 59-72 and 132-48). Lady Long does display an interest in literature, particularly the salacious Ovid, but she mocks a mutual friend who had engaged in a serious study of Donne (IC288). Had she read any of this correspondence, Elizabeth Isham would almost certainly have disapproved of Lady Long’s worldly and immodest literary persona. Yet the existence of Lady Long’s letters to Justinian demonstrates that Elizabeth Isham’s path of piety, reserve and learning was not the only option available to an educated gentlewoman in the period, and serves as an important reminder that at least two conflicting models of the ideal gentlewoman existed in close proximity in this period. Perhaps the fact that Lady Long had achieved the status to which Justinian aspired enabled her to transgress social and gender boundaries in a way that was unavailable to Justinian’s unmarried sister. Nevertheless, Justinian’s letter of advice to his very young daughters in 1642 (when he had not yet begun to correspond with Lady Long) advises them to follow the family example of ‘Maides, Wifes & Widdowes, all of a very vertuous & Examplary Life’ (IC3415). Clearly Justinian’s own social prospects had not at that time altered his view of exemplary womanhood, although his determined attempt to persuade Dorothy Osborne to marry him in the early 1650s may suggest that his ideals evolved as his own fortunes found firmer footing.
17. Piety did not, however, necessarily mean reserve or seclusion for a woman. Lucy Hutchinson came from a very similar social and religious background to Elizabeth Isham, and even lived in the same region of the country, but her family’s direct involvement in politics, as well as her own affirming classical education, enabled her to engage more directly and frequently with both classical scholarship and the political events of the day. Hutchinson assisted her husband in the defence of Nottingham Castle, and after the Restoration successfully pled for his life. Her writings are both intellectually and politically daring: in the 1650s she translated Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, then fashionable among atheists, solely out of curiosity, and although she later regretted having spent her time so frivolously she did not destroy the translation but sent it to the Earl of Anglessey for safekeeping (de Quehen, esp. 23-27). She also penned a polemical biography of her husband and a narrative poem based on the book of Genesis, both of which circulated in manuscript (Keeble; Norbrook). The directness of Hutchinson’s political engagement contrasts starkly with Elizabeth Isham’s devotional response to the turmoil of the 1640s, in spite of that enigmatic letter to the king.
18. Taken together, the writings of Dolly Long and Lucy Hutchinson demonstrate that a life of devotion was not the only option for Elizabeth Isham. Nor did her choice of that life automatically limit her social and political connections; she might, like Lucy Hutchinson, have turned her religious commitments to a more active political engagement. It is also important to note that Isham herself registers no sense that she has been limited in her choices, by her gender or by any other influence. She presents herself as making reasoned decisions about all of her actions, from her costly and hard-fought decision not to marry, to the intellectual choice of medicine over Latin or her measured assessment of John Dod (‘I am not of there opinion who extole Mr Dod above all others’ (15r)). Her choices are all made out of a wider sense of duty as well as knowledge of herself; recording how a friend told her she ‘might doe more good in the commonwealth’ if she married, Elizabeth Isham retorts, ‘yet if I doe not I hope I shall not prove an unprofitable member therof’ (29r). She chooses herbal knowledge over Latin because she feels it ‘might be very beneficiall both to my Sister and others’ (28r)—and her later medical drafts demonstrate that she ultimately combined these skills, using Latin titles for receipts and the Latin names of ingredients, as Michelle DiMeo points out.
19. Sue Wiseman has recently argued that reading early modern women’s writing requires ‘that we expand and refine what we mean by politics’ (59). I would not argue that our understanding of politics ought to expand so far as to include Elizabeth Isham’s largely self-focussed devotional writing, but Wiseman’s work ought to remind us that for seventeenth-century puritans a well-ordered inner life was considered vital in both men and women, for the good of the wider community as well as for the individual. Twenty-first century readers might value the wit and subversion of gender conventions in Dolly Long’s letters, or the politically daring manuscripts of Lucy Hutchinson, but for Elizabeth Isham a life of writing as devotional work was equally profitable, both to herself and to the commonwealth.
ManuscriptsPrinceton 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.
—. IC249. Elizabeth Denton to Elizabeth Isham, with Elizabeth Isham’s devotional writing. 30.09.1644
—. IC288. Lady Dorothy Long to Justinian Isham. 05.09.1650
—. IC3275. Justinian Isham to Elizabeth Isham. 04.04.164?
—. IC3415. Justinian Isham to his daughters, enclosed in a letter to John Stuteville. 04.08.1645
—. IC 3480. Thomas Isham, copy of a letter to William Fludd. 1585.
—. 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.
—. IC4621. Elizabeth Isham, draft letter to King Charles I. No date.
—. IC4829. Susanna Stuteville to Elizabeth Isham, with Elizabeth Isham’s booklist in blank spaces and on verso. 27.05.1648
Early Modern Printed Books
Webbe, George. A short Direction for the dayly exercise of a Christian. In William Perkins, et al. A garden of spirituall flowers. Planted by Ri. Ro. R. Green. Will. Per. M. M and Geo. Web. The fift time imprinted. London: for T. Pavier, 1609.
Chalmers, Hero. Royalist Women Writers 1650-1689. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Clarke, Elizabeth and Lynn Robson. ‘Why are we “Still Kissing the Rod”?: The future for the study of early modern women’s writing’. Women’s Writing 14.2 (2007): 177-93.
de Quehen, Hugh ed. Lucy Hutchinson's Translation of Lucretius: De rerum natura. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996.
Finch, Mary E. The Wealth of Five Northamptonshire Families 1540-1640 (Oxford: Northamptonshire Record Society, 1956).
Keeble, N. H., ed. and Introduction. Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson. London: Everyman, 1995.
Longfellow, Erica. ‘Early Modern Women’s Writing in 2005’. Literature Compass 3/4 (2006): 792–803.
Norbrook, David, ed. and Introduction. Order and Disorder. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.
Seaver, Paul S. Wallington’s World. A Puritan Artisan in Seventeenth-Century London. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1985.
Wiseman, Sue. Conspiracy and Virtue: Women, Writing, and Politics in Seventeenth-Century England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.