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Sharon Seelig, 'Contexts for Reading Elizabeth Isham'

“My Booke of Rememberance”: Contexts for Reading Elizabeth Isham


Sharon Cadman Seelig, Smith College




The existence of two roughly contemporaneous manuscripts by Elizabeth Isham, “My Book of Rememberance” (Princeton MS RTC01 no. 62) and a single folio of notes covering approximately forty years of Isham’s life (Northamptonshire MS IL 3365), prompts many questions, in part arising from my reading of early modern women’s diaries and autobiographies: How do these texts differ in circumstances of composition, intention, degree of personal revelation, or cultural grounding? When was each written, and in what temporal relation to the events recorded? Does the apparently more fully fashioned narrative depend on the “diary” for preliminary information? Does it reveal more of Elizabeth Isham’s life and thoughts than the folio record? Although the latter is extremely succinct, it includes information not found in the “Book of Rememberance” – details of illness, reading, forms of entertainment, needlework projects, even the name of Isham’s suitor. The restrictive form and the brevity of the Northamptonshire manuscript sometimes lead to odd juxtapositions of the momentous and the trivial: are these best understood in terms of individual psychology, cultural norms, or the material circumstances of composition?

The far more expansive “Book of Rememberance” at first gives the impression of a more complete representation of the author’s attitudes and experiences, and its structure reflects a number of Isham’s central concerns. Immediately striking are the extensive marginal notes, which sometimes add information and often supply biblical references, providing a kind of gloss on her life. To read Isham’s manuscript is to experience a dialogue between text and margin, to see an ongoing process of interpretation and reflection entirely different from the linear accounts to which we are accustomed.

Strong biblical influence shapes the “Booke of Rememberance” in other ways, as Isham alludes to “these places which my mother delighted in she wished me to writ downe for her.” We see how Isham, through reading, writing, and action, models herself on her mother and her grandmother; she recalls loving to hear the stories of her grandparents, “related to me by my Nurs.” Isham also engages in an exhaustive process of self-examination, subjecting her own actions and attitudes and those of members of her family to severe and ongoing scrutiny: her youthful love of fruit is understood as a temptation; the desire of her thirty-four-year-old mother for longer life may be an inappropriate clinging to the things of this world; and most interesting of all, Isham’s failure – or refusal – to marry becomes the intersection between conflicting concerns: about family honor, patriarchal authority, dowry and inheritance, the opinion of friends, self-determination, a desire to remain single, and devotion to God. While Isham’s “Booke of Rememberance” initially seems more self-revelatory than other life writings of the period (like those of Margaret Hoby or Anne Clifford), it is so strongly marked by her religious concerns that the kind of individual voice we might expect is hard to discern. Yet this is finally Elizabeth Isham’s Book, in which she uses memory, confession, and reflection to represent herself and her life choices, faithfully and deliberately, to future generations.