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Genre Trouble in Early Modern English Writing (1500–1800)

Matriarchal Exemplarity in Elizabeth Isham’s Booke of Rememberance

L'exemplarité matriarcale dans le Booke of Rememberance d'Elizabeth Isham
Emma Rayner


Le Booke of Rememberance (1638-1639) d'Elizabeth Isham est apparu au cours des dernières décennies comme l'un des exemples les plus aboutis d’un récit de vie du XVIIe siècle. Les chercheurs ont souligné en particulier la capacité d'Isham à se forger une identité relativement cohérente malgré l'hybridité générique de son journal manuscrit. Cette hybridité s’explique par l’appropriation par Isham des conseils et des modèles de conduite de sa mère, de sa grand-mère et de sa sœur. Ses héritages familiaux acquièrent une valeur posthume au fur et à mesure que le récit de sa vie progresse et que les cycles de maladie et de mort qu'il retrace intègrent les différentes femmes de sa famille. Cet article étudie l’emploi de l'exemple matriarcal dans la narration d’Isham en examinant le traitement de la mélancolie spirituelle de Lady Judith Isham dans le Booke. La rhétorique d’exemplarité utilisée par Isham autour de la maladie de sa mère prouve que c’est justement grâce à l'hybridité générique de son journal qu’une identité cohérente se constitue – non sous la forme d'un "moi" moderne reconnaissable mais sous la forme de vies multiples liées en une conscience matriarcale multigénérationnelle.

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I am grateful to the two anonymous reviewers of this article for their perceptive and helpful comments.

Isham’s Booke: The Intertexts and Intra-Texts of Selfhood

  • 1 Erica Longfellow rediscovered Isham’s manuscript diary, MS RTC01 no. 62, in Princeton University’s (...)

1Since its rediscovery in Princeton University’s manuscript collections in the early 2000s, Elizabeth Isham’s Booke of Rememberance (written 1638-9) has rapidly established itself in the (still-establishing) canon of early modern women’s life-writing.1 Born in 1609, Isham was the eldest child and first daughter of Sir John Isham (1582-1651), first baronet of Lamport Hall, Northamptonshire and Lady Judith (née Lewyn) Isham (1590-1625) (Clarke and Longfellow 2010). Isham, who never married and frequently defends her “single life” (fol. 23v) in her Booke, spent almost all 45 years of her life within the compass of the Isham household at Lamport Hall, taking over the role of domestic manager in her twenties. Her diary, numbering 38 leaves and some 60,000 words, offers a rare insight not only into the life of a single Northamptonshire gentlewoman from her birth through age 30, but into early modern women’s domestic reading and writing practices more generally in the lead-up to the English Civil War (Eckerle 2020, 98; Ezell 2011, 72). Isham – whose religious identity has been described by Isaac Stephens as a form of “Prayer Book Puritanism” – was exposed to a variety of religious texts, ranging from works of Puritan piety to the Book of Common Prayer, and she enjoyed access to secular as well as devotional poetry (Stephens 2011; Longfellow 2010, 125). The four dozen or so books to which Isham alludes in her diary help to create the self which emerges from its pages: hybrid, layered, and sometimes paradoxical (Longfellow 2010, 125).

  • 2 For more on how both fields have been following parallel trajectories rather than integrated ones i (...)

2Owing to the seemingly “modern self that it presents, Isham’s Booke has been taken up in equal measure by literary scholars and historians in the past two decades, with the former more likely to read it as an example of “autobiography” or “life-writing,” and the latter to examine it as an “ego-document” (Clarke and Longfellow 2010; Presser 1958, 208-10).2 Yet these are all generic classifications which the Booke, in its deeply hybrid form, resists (Eckerle 2010, 97-8; Cotterill 2010, 226; Stephens 2016, 45). On the one hand, the diary can be read as an extended exercise in prayer (Lake and Stephens 2015, 294). At the same time, Isham’s anthologistic method of organizing her thoughts and memories aligns her work with contemporary miscellanies and commonplace books (Cotterill 2010, 229; Ezell 2011, 80; Vine 2009, 226). Most pertinently to this article, the Booke has a marked rhetorical resemblance to mothers’ legacy books, as well as to texts designed to provide religious instruction (Dowd 2012, 447; Stephens 2016, 35, 71; Eckerle 2010, 101).

  • 3 On Grace Mildmay see Martin 2009; on Elizabeth Delaval, see Wiseman 2015; and on Katherine Austen, (...)

3In its mixed genres, Isham’s Booke is consistent with other examples of women’s life-writing from the period, including Grace Mildmay’s autobiographical papers, Katherine Austen’s Book M, and Elizabeth Delaval’s memoirs and meditations.3 The generic hybridity of such autobiographical works has implications not only for their formal and rhetorical make-up, but for the kind of selfhood or identity that they divulge (Marcus 1994, 15). This twinned malleability reflects the unfixed nature of both genre and the self in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Graham 2009) – and resists, in turn, twenty-first century readers’ desire to find within the pages of early modern life narratives either a coherent formal or generic vein, or a unified, confessional ego. Rather than attempting to “sort out” the unfixed form that was the early modern autobiography and, in turn, to put neat borders around the unshaped thing that preceded modern selfhood, Elspeth Graham has called for scholars to focus instead on the significances of fluidity – generic and subjective – itself (2009, 212). Responding to this call, the aim of this article is to extend observations about the Booke of Rememberance’s generic hybridity to encompass what might be termed its subjective hybridity.

  • 4 Specifically, feminist critics have “helped to expose the flaws in the traditional approach to male (...)

4Graham wrote at the turn of the present century of the “curious circularity” which tended to characterize discussions of life-writing: of the fact that scholars launched their most urgent campaign to define autobiography as a genre at precisely the moment when that genre’s key terms – that is, selfhood or identity – were brought into question (Graham 2009, 208). Two main developments, or entrenchments of existing developments, have marked the field of early modern life-writing studies in the two decades since. The first is the making-explicit of the ways in which modern readers impose coherence on early modern life-writing (Smyth 2010; Trettien 2011, 176). The second is a moving-away from the idea of singular, hermetic selfhood to a conception of the self as relational, multiple, and collaborative (Smyth 2010; Farr and Ruggiero 2022, 5-6). These advancements in the study of life-writing have been spearheaded by feminist critics, cognizant from the first that autobiography is underwritten by an androcentric history and thus androcentric interpretive frameworks, hence marginalizing gynocentric ones (Kadar 1992, 4; Eckerle 2010, 98-99).4 As well as leading recovery-adjacent work to bring female-authored work like Isham’s to greater attention, these scholars have been at the forefront of efforts to develop new hermeneutical frameworks for understanding women’s autobiographical writings.

  • 5 I use the online edition of Isham’s Booke of Rememberance edited by Elizabeth Clarke and Erica Long (...)

5When it comes to Isham’s Booke of Rememberance, however, the gender-conscious reader’s task is not quite so straightforward as rejecting androcentric frameworks outright in favour of mobilizing exclusively female paradigms. For as Julie A. Eckerle has pointed out, Isham’s diary bears the characteristics of both male- and female-authored autobiography (Eckerle 2010, 100). Isham explicitly models her own writings after the text which arguably inaugurated (masculine) selfhood in the West: Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions (c. 400 AD). Isham, prompted by “S Austin” to “[ex]a[mine?] [her] life” (fol. 33v), cites William Watt’s English translation of the Confessions over 20 times throughout her Booke (Stephens 2016, 11, 41).5 So even if Mary Mason is right that the Confessions is “inappropriate as a model for women’s life-writing” because it “simply does not accord with the deepest realities of women’s experiences” (Mason 1988, 22), it is also evident that Isham did not consider Augustine’s autobiographical writings as somehow off-limits simply because the life events – and most serious sins – they depict are vastly different to those which seem to have constituted her “privat life” (fol. 21r) in seventeenth-century Lamport. Work by Alice Eardley and Isaac Stephens has illuminated the ways in which Isham drew on Augustine’s writings “as a means of understanding and living through events she encountered,” showing the gynocentric and androcentric tendencies of their respective autobiographies in productive dialogue (Eardley 2010, 189; see also Stephens 2016).

6This intertextual dialogue notwithstanding, Isham records a very different existence to that of Augustine insofar as her methods for “call[ing] to mind” her remembrances were influenced by the exceptionally matriarchal habitus in which she spent her life at Lamport Hall. As Isaac Stephens and Peter Lake write, the young Elizabeth emerged “out of the largely intra-female spiritual transactions of the Isham household” – a household which presided over systems of instruction and knowledge transfer between mothers and children, mistresses and maids (Lake and Stephens 2015, 298). Importantly, this matriarchal habitus remained alive in Isham’s life and mind even after the female relatives who had governed the household of her childhood and youth – namely, her mother and grandmother – had passed away. There are therefore clearly gendered frameworks underpinning Isham’s self-construction in the Booke of Rememberance which should not be absorbed into the effort to place all early modern life-writers on the same “autobiographical spectrum” (Eckerle 2010, 114), even as we accept Erica Longfellow’s assertion that Isham displays in her diary “little awareness of gendered restrictions on women’s intellectual activity,” and frame gender accordingly as just one key (alongside faith) through which to understand the self-image it advances (Longfellow 2010, 125, 131).

  • 6 For more on Isham’s use of the phrase “call to mind” and its variations, see Ezell (2011), 75.

7The present essay is interested in the intra-textual (rather than intertextual) relationship Isham establishes in the Booke between her female relatives and her autobiographical ego. I propose a new formal framework for understanding early modern women’s self-writings by examining the way in which Isham incorporates matriarchal example into her manuscript autobiography. Exemplarity, as Kevin Sharpe and Steven N. Zwicker have demonstrated, was at the heart of early modern life writing (Sharpe and Zwicker 2008, 4). Renaissance writers’ consumption of exemplary lives from antiquity and medieval hagiography “as pedagogic texts, as counsel and guide, as models for the life of the mind and spirit” highlights how premodern individuality was in fact “fashioned out of collectives, typologies, and exemplars” (Sharpe and Zwicker 2008, 4). Just so, a principal source of the Booke of Rememberance’s hybridity (generic and subjective) resides in the advice and templates for conduct that Isham “calls to mind” from her mother, grandmother, and sister.6 These familial legacies – which gain a definitively posthumous currency as Isham’s life narrative progresses, and as the cycles of illness and death it traces subsume her female relatives one by one – are immortalized by the autobiographer’s determination to actively relive these inheritances herself, absorbing matriarchal example into the vision of selfhood that she presents to the world. It is largely thanks to these absorptions and re-performances of female counsel that a coherent strain emerges within Isham’s diary; if not in the form of a recognizable modern “self,” then in the shape of multiple female lives bound into one multi-generational consciousness.

Maternal Counsel: From Posthumous Voice to Self-Examination

8Isham’s incorporation and transformation of matriarchal example reflects the cultural importance of the mother or mother-figure in early modern England, which is in turn reflected in the rise of the mother’s legacy book through the first half of the seventeenth century (Heller 2008, 604). Mothers’ advice books were some of the bestselling works authored by women in the 1600s. Dorothy Leigh’s The Mothers Blessing (1616) went through over 20 editions in the space of a century, Elizabeth Jocelin’s The Mothers Legacie (1624) also enjoyed popularity in mid-century England, and Elizabeth Grymeston’s Miscelanea. Meditations. Memoratives (1604) cycled through several iterations in inaugurating the genre. Mother’s advice books were generically hybrid texts in their own right, the result of the gluing-together of tenderly penned dedicatory prefaces from the author-mothers to their children, followed by a dense and curiously impersonal body text full of biblical citations, templates for prayer, and instruction proper (Dowd 2007). Legacies gain their force of command, and their female authors the justification to put their works to print, through the posthumous maternal voice introduced in the aforementioned prefatory material. That is, mothers’ advice books deploy and depend on the rhetoric of the will, brought within grasp by the author-mother’s (metaphorical or real) proximity to death through the bodily undertakings of pregnancy and childbirth (Brown 1998; Feroli 1994; Heller 2008; Wall 1991). It is this voice’s predication on death that makes it possible for the mother’s legacy writer to engage – in a very public way – “in the generational transmission of educational principles, spiritual guidelines, and templates for private piety” (Dowd 2007, 128).

  • 7 Multiple scholars have noted that the use of the rhetorical figure of the example opens up a dialog (...)

9There is no evidence that Elizabeth Isham ever read contemporary mothers’ legacies, and somewhat surprisingly, her otherwise diverse record of reading does not include any conduct books for women or domestic manuals (Longfellow 2010, 125). Nevertheless, the formal and rhetorical parallels of Isham’s diary to the works of Leigh and Jocelin are striking, especially if the Booke of Rememberance is framed as a kind of response to the legacy’s demand. For the female legacy writer’s leveraging of death effects the forceful raising of the imagined, future “child-reader” who will action her commands (Heller 2011, 5). As Michelle M. Dowd writes in relation to Elizabeth Richardson’s A Ladies Legacie to her Daughters (1645), the mother’s legacy enables a discourse of maternal authority that stretches beyond its moment of composition, capable of “inspir[ing] other lived patterns of piety as it is rehearsed, revisited, or reimagined in the future” (Dowd 2007, 128). Mothers’ legacies can be seen to lay down a pattern (an exemplum) and demand its repetition, imitation, and enactment, partly on the basis of the mother’s self-sacrifice for her children. If the direction of instruction is, when voiced by the exemplary mother in the legacy text, always forward- or future-facing, then the movement of her child-reader’s recollection in imitating that example will necessarily be retrogressive, gazing backward, raising the dead.7 In her manuscript autobiography, Isham is both that imagined, future reader and the one staging a textual encounter with the past by parroting her female family members’ advice and exempla.

10Although Isham writes extensively of her grandmother and sister, it was clearly her mother who had the biggest influence on her life (Lake and Stephens 2015, 295). Early in her Booke, Isham feels compelled to defend to God and her reader why she writes so much of Lady Judith: “I am unwilling to omit many things conserning [your] servant my mother, because that my education, was much bettered by her meanes; I growing up with her as a branch with the roote” (fol. 10v). A strikingly similar moment occurs in the Confessions, when Augustine enters into a discourse dedicated to his mother, Monica: “omit I will not whatsoeuer my soule can bring forth concerning that Handmaid of thine, which brought forth mee: both in her flesh, that I might be borne againe, to this temporall light; and in her heart too, that I might bee borne againe to the eternall Light” (Augustine 1631, 522).

  • 8 Isham adds: “my mother taught mee my Booke” (fol. 3r).
  • 9 “I beseech thee, O my God, (for I would gladly know, if thou wert pleased to tell me) to what purpo (...)
  • 10 “For thus I conjecture (to my best remembrance) were the disposition of both my parents at that tim (...)

11From this point forward, however, Isham’s and Augustine’s life narratives diverge. Isham repeatedly suggests that Lady Judith’s active role in her spiritual development and education has bound them together in some subterranean fashion, making her “better able to brooke the many stormes to come […] being as I thought my selfe so thoroughly grounded” (fol. 14v).8 Augustine, however, insists that Monica did not give “education vnto herselfe” (Augustine 1631, 523) and underlines his mother’s inability to command him and form him as a child and adolescent. He blames his mother for the deferral of his baptism (which, he claims, would have speedily cured his concupiscence),9 and resents her for loosening the parental reins and committing him to a life of sin:10

[H]ow many, and what violent waves of temptation did seeme to threaten me after my childhood, those my Mother full well knew; and desired to commit, both those temptations by which I was afterward to be new moulded; as me also, the worke it selfe, unto thy disposing. (ibid., 37)

12Monica has much sensible advice to give to her young son – urging him, for example, not to commit adultery with a married woman – but Augustine is loath to follow her counsel: “These seemed to me no better than Womens advices, which would bee a shame for me to follow” (Augustine 1631, 75). It is interesting to note, in relation to the matriarchal exemplarity demonstrated in Isham’s Booke, that Augustine seems resistant to take seriously Monica’s advice because, being female-authored, it lacks the descriptive similarity required to foster a compelling link between the subject and object of the exemplum (Ullyot 2022). This stubborn resistance to heed matriarchal counsel and follow the patterns for Christian behaviour that Monica models leads Augustine to drift, both spatially and morally, from his mother and from faith, so that vast distances must be traversed (by Monica, ultimately) before he comes to recognize the value and virtue of her instruction.

  • 11 Isham recounts: “a lickorishnesse stole upon me to open my mothers cobord, she letting me have a ne (...)
  • 12 This apian metaphor for the collection of exempla very common in the Renaissance. Castiglione, for (...)

13Unlike Augustine, or even a medieval anchoress like Margery Kempe, Isham enjoyed no such mobility. Far from being carried from city to city on the violent winds of temptation, Isham’s youthful sins and misdemeanours (including a pear-stealing incident which parallels the famous orchard episode in the Confessions) are exclusively committed at Lamport Hall, before the watchful gaze of her mother.11 More even than God, Lady Judith emerges as the chief source of correction in Isham’s childhood and youth. This influence is driven, in the early years, by Isham’s “feare of the road” (fol. 3v), but softens after Lady Judith’s death into a profound appreciation of her maternal advice and example – an appreciation which permeates the textual fabric of the Booke of Rememberance, as Isham insistently draws her mother’s expressions, preferences, and experiences into the fold of her life narrative. This copying project is facilitated by Isham’s access to her mother’s own confessional writings, contained within a (now lost) “nots or table Booke” (fol. 11v) in which she “desired […] to make good use of all the Lords mercies and corrections to her writing thus to her selfe” (fol. 11v). Isham explicitly treats her dead mother’s diary as an advice book when recounting her own life narrative, drawing notes and examples from it like the industrious bee (Stephens 2016, 31).12 “I thought to make use of my mothers writings,” she explains, “wherein I might find many good instructions for the bettering of my owne life, for me thinks I enter in to her soule which tho her body be dead yet [she] speaketh” (fol. 34r).

14The remainder of this essay will be given over to illustrating exactly what Isham means when she says “for me thinks I enter in to her soule which tho her body be dead yet [she] speaketh.” This line can be read simply as a touching acknowledgement of the posthumous force that Lady Judith’s memory carries for her daughter – reminiscent, in that, of the mother’s legacy writer, whose advice resounds all the more loudly because it emanates from beyond the grave (Grant Ferguson 2017, 106). But I am more interested in tracing Isham’s visceral “enter[ing] in to” her mother’s soul in the process of “mak[ing] use” of her mother’s writings for instructional ends. As Isaac Stephens has suggestively written, the education Lady Isham administered her children “did not always occur through instruction, but also by example” (Stephens 2011, 41). Extending this observation, I show how Isham makes of her mother’s experience of illness and self-correction an exemplum, and succeeds in re-animating that example by narrating herself undergoing the same experience. This takes the act of reception always involved in the invocation of exempla – exemplary rhetoric reaching outward “to an agency of reception” with a pragmatic “goal of ethical transformation” (Ullyot 2022, 11; Gelley 1995, 3) – to an embodied extreme, and sees Isham move from mere imitation to a form of emulation.

Writing Exemplary Lives

  • 13 Hartog defines a “regime of historicity” as “a category (without content), which can elucidate our (...)
  • 14 See Rigolot 1998. Burke advises against using the dramatic word “crisis”, and rather proposes to sp (...)

15Exemplarity has been identified by François Hartog as a major feature of the first “regime of historicity,” a means of “mak[ing] the present intelligible through the past” (Hartog 2015, 38; Burke 2011, 54).13 Renaissance humanists plucked liberally from the vast repository of exempla that was history (inclusive of classical and biblical mythology) in order to promote particular ethical precepts or models for behaviour. The term exemplum carried two meanings in the Renaissance: that of an example recruited to support a generalization, and that of an action worthy of imitation (Burke 2011, 49). Beyond exemplarity’s utility for humanists, recourse to biblical exempla became an increasingly common rhetorical strategy for Christian rhetoricians and instructional writers in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as the Bible itself – long perceived as being composed of patterns upon which one could, and should, model oneself – became a candidate for widespread textual reproduction (Cox 2016, 469). The Christian example evades, in interesting ways, the much-remarked and perhaps overstated “crisis of exemplarity” thought to undermine the humanistic example in the seventeenth century14 – a crisis inherent in the tension between the rhetorical and moral expectations attached to ancient figures, and a new historical understanding of the contingent and non-mimetic status of such figures when recycled in contemporary discourse (Güthenke 2020, 52; Rigolot 1998, 558).

16Exemplarity was both an inclusionary and an exclusionary tool for women in early modern England. On the one hand, it allowed certain women’s voices and stories to pass into print under the proviso that they were “exemplary” enough to serve as appropriate models for female readers. This helps to explain the popularity of mothers’ legacy books in seventeenth-century England – presenting the paradigmatic mother-figure at the head of the Protestant household – as well as of those genres most directly concerned with the reproduction of exemplarity female lives: hagiography, biography, spiritual confessions, and the unique sub-genre of female worthies which was popular for a time both in the British Isles and on the European continent (Stephens 2016, 22; Burke 2011, 51). On the other hand, these blueprints for female behaviour were often stricter in their recommendations than were those for men, exacerbating the “problem of incommensurate subjects” that Michael Ullyot has argued is inherent to exemplary rhetoric (Ullyot 2022, 3). Positive exemplarity of the kind demonstrated by, for instance, the Virgin Mary was “ever susceptible to failure” since the receptor was categorically unable to perform the feats of ethical or moral perfection embodied in the exemplum. Only negative exemplarity, Ullyot claims, could succeed (Ullyot 2022, 15) – an idea I will return to shortly.

  • 15 On the M.A.R.I.A. acrostic in Dorothy Leigh’s Mothers Blessing as a “book of female worthies writ s (...)

17It perhaps goes without saying that Isham’s method in her Booke of Rememberance does not resemble that of exemplary rhetoric’s humanist practitioner, who lists figures from antiquity ad infinitum until these exempla become “a kind of discursive wallpaper” (Cox 2016, 471). Neither does Isham exercise exemplarity in the style of mothers’ legacy writers, invoking female biblical types to assemble mini-categories of female worthies.15 And yet multiple exemplary female figures emerge from her life-writings. That the most towering of these figures is Isham’s mother activates what Ullyot terms the “taxonomic decorum” of the example: promoting a resemblance between the subject and object of an exemplum – in this case, via a genealogical link – to make its ethic more compelling (Ullyot 2022, 12). In Isham, however, the genealogical link between the subject and object of the exemplum is not only ethically compelling. It also proves the hinge-point between a mechanical reproduction of exempla (which introduces the typical “fluidity” or hybridity of exemplarity narrative by navigating between the personal, historical event recounted in the narrative and the event’s broader ethical value [Taylor 2020, 255; Scanlon 1994, 34]), and an appropriation of those exempla in the service of self-construction. Isham, that is, is both writing and preserving the biography of her mother (and of other female relatives besides), and rendering their lives exemplary by going beyond imitation to re-enact the blueprints handed down to her. 

18Though her models may not be derived from antiquity, Isham participates in what Jeffrey Todd Knight terms “the essentially imitative nature of Renaissance writing” in her “appropriation and manipulation of existing models,” asserting her own writerly role through and against her sources (Todd Knight 2013, 7). Isham’s talent for absorbing patterns and speech manifests early. She describes being taught by her mother’s waiting woman as a child: “I know not what jenius led me to love it so well, that I tooke forth patturns of all or most I could doe of my selfe” (fol. 9v). The strength of Isham’s memory serves her well in her devotional practice, as well as in recalling the words of others for her Booke. One of the major teachings to emerge from the diary, however, inheres in its author’s realization that “the law must not onely be observed” (i.e. in doing lip-service to the ten commandments) but also “preserved” (fol. 4r). This maxim is specified by Isham to be “A not of my mothe[r].” What seems to help Isham move from observation (mere imitatio) to preservation of religious law is exactly this clincher of familial precedent and example, entering into her diary as a manicule from a past book owner directs the present reader to this or that passage of a text. This is the first indication that Isham understands the models offered in her mother’s confessional and instructive writings as what Baltasar Gracián calls “living texts” (textos animados) in his Oráculo manual y arte de prudencia (1647), sentient examples that demand active emulation (emulación) more than they demand rhetorical imitation (imitación) (77).

  • 16 See Rebecca Langlands on the site-specificity of each encounter with an example; “sites of exemplar (...)

19Isham expresses gratitude at several points of her diary “for the good example I had of others” (fol. 10v). When the going gets tough – for instance, when she struggles to find benefit in or apply her heart to the sermons she hears – she makes a conscious decision “not only to remember first my selfe but also according to my mothers way” (fol. 25r). Isham mines not only her mother’s “way” but her mother’s experience for comfort and precedent when she is herself at “the pitts brinke” (fol. 23v, 32r). As much as this kind of appeal to lived experience was part of the Puritan faith, scholars have also argued that it constitutes “an explicitly female claim to authority” in early modern discourse (qtd. in Rose 2002, xx). Just so, late in her Booke Isham calls to mind a touching conversation with her sister when the latter is besieged by grief and illness: “my Sister and I opening our minds one to another I told her that I thought she and I had as much experience of affliction both in my mother and our selves as but few had” (fol. 30r). The “experience of affliction” to which Isham refers emerges as one of the Booke’s “sites of exemplarity,” to borrow this terminology from Rebecca Langlands), and constitutes the basis of my own case study of the diary’s exemplary rhetoric in the context of this essay.16

  • 17 See e.g. fol. 8r: “before I go hence and be no more seene.” Fol. 7r expresses concern that she “sho (...)
  • 18 See e.g. fol. 18r: “I found my /selfe\ that mallancholy hath never don me much harme or wrot those (...)

20First it is important to contextualize the specific “site of exemplarity” that is Judith Isham’s spiritual despair. The Isham family’s “house of griffe” (fol. 34v) is defined by cycles of sickness and suffering, death and its aftermath. Isham’s Booke is, accordingly, a tale of physical maladies (colds, fevers, agues, brittle bones) as well as more abstract complaints (namely, the spiritual melancholy from which both Lady Judith and her eldest daughter suffered). As the years of Isham’s narrative pass, they swallow with them the lives of her grandmother, mother, sister, and sister-in-law. Indeed, the Booke seems to chronicle every female death in the family but Isham’s own – though the threat of this, too, hangs over the narrative, suspended there not only by periods of personal illness and an occasionally apocalyptic mood, but by thoughts of suicide.17 It does not help matters that Isham considers herself physiologically susceptible to melancholy, often drawing attention in the diary to her heavy and moist disposition, which her mother attributes to her being born on a Saturday (fol. 17v).18 Isham even speculates at one point of “a secret simpothise in nature which caused [her] to grieve more than others,” recalling how in reaction to her grandmother’s death, she felt a faintness or coldness in her stomach, which “proceeded not from defect of nutriment but from the abundance of ill humers, nature, being overburdened with ill juice and moisture” (fol. 17r).

  • 19 Katharine Hodgkin notes that “The distinction between the organic illness of melancholy and the spi (...)

21Isham remembers that when she was around 10 years old, her mother began “to be somthing sad” (fol. 10v). Whether Lady Judith’s illness is entirely attributable to spiritual suffering, rather than the experience of a more organic form of melancholy or depression, is left ambiguous in the Booke, but her despair does seem to manifest in religious terms.19 “I can no better express my mothers troubles,” Isham writes,

then out of the nots of her own hand-writing, which she keept (carrying about her) as remembrances and instructions to her selfe: how horribly low she was, the Lord leveing her, as it ware to her selfe the vile visions and outrages the sinfull words the which the tempter did assault her weaknes. (fol. 11r)

22According to Isham’s paraphrasis of her mother’s diary, “she much complaned of being temted with blasfem\o/s thoughts also of hardnes of hart in consealling her wickednes doubtings and great distruct of Gods mercyes, and want of reverent beleeving, that rejoyceing in Gods holy worde” (fol. 11r-11v). Lady Judith’s road to recovery as Isham recounts it is slow and mired with setbacks, but at its heart is a textual cure. John Dod (1550-1645), a Puritan minister to Isham’s father and overseer of the children’s religious education, enters with his “singuler gift in comforting afflicted consciences” (fol. 11v) and extends inestimable comfort to Lady Judith, primarily by reading and expounding chapters of the Bible at her bedside. To continue the cure, he appoints Elizabeth, her brother Justinian and her sister Judith to read to their mother two chapters of the Bible per day – “the one in the Old Testament in the morning and the other in the New at night,” Isham explains, “calling us to account what wee coud remember, and so somtimes \he/ expouned upon it” (fol. 12r). With the help of this Biblical treatment, Lady Judith is “mended by degrees, being much better then before” (fol. 12r).

  • 20 Isham believes she can support melancholy better than a “lightsomer” disposition (fol. 18r), but at (...)

23Isham’s own experience of spiritual melancholy and doubt punctuates the second third of the Booke, after her mother has died and during a period of severe illness for her sister (partly attributed to residual grief over Lady Judith’s death). Although Isham appears to have had several sources of inspiration for turning to autobiographical writing in response to her own suffering, including two devotional works in her possession, John King’s Lectures upon Jonas (1597) and Henry Mason’s The Cure of Cares, which encouraged stringent self-examination (Stephens 2011, 34-5), she had no exact model for doing so apart from her mother’s writings (Clarke and Longfellow 2010). As Anna Trapnel later would in A Legacy for Saints: Being Several Experiences of the Dealings of God (1654), and so too John Bunyan in Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666), Isham recounts the “conflicts of mind which I was then troubled with,” although she qualifies that these conflicts did not assault her “in that extremity as my mother and sister,” since she boasts “more health and strength of body to bare it” (fol. 22r).20 Yet still she begins to buckle, body and soul, under redoubling temptations, which lead her to and beyond the precipice of blasphemy:

Those temptations which I was before a litle troubled with did so increase upon mee which many times came suddenly. even like the arrowes of the Almighty, (and as deepe calleth unto deepe by reason of the water spouts so did thy floods and thy waves passe over me \psal [48]/ I was tempted divers times in my goeing to curse God. which tentations cam so thicke that I was not able (many times) to resist for the presant. (fol. 22r)

24The danger of turning against God is, in fact, acute – or it would be, if Isham did not have her mother’s diary to reference and keep her from sliding down the slippery slope of sin. Isham writes that she “was ready to fall from one mischief to another […] but that I had experience of my mothers affliction afore and was so well I thought my selfe furnished with comfort” (fol. 22r). A marginal note accompanying this passage further underlines the exceptional comfort supplied by Lady Judith’s lived experience: “for those which I chanced to here preach or speeke of this affliction aforded me not so much comfort as I already had.” Clearly, Lady Judith’s admissions of her “low[ness]” and “weaknes” in her “nots or table Booke” – as well as the reminders and corrections to herself which are less explicitly reproduced in the Booke – serve as consolatory precedents for her daughter. Although this acquired maternal melancholy may not initiate a reproductive loop of virtue in a manner that would win a contemporary conduct book author’s approval, it offers to Isham the cure that keeps her from total despair, and most importantly it prompts the generational refraction that is the Booke itself. In this, Isham’s relation of her affective troubles differs greatly to that of a female life-writer like Dionys Fitzherbert, who recounts her spiritual crisis of 1608 in the absence of a familial template upon which to base her experience, lacking “a ready-made confessional form in which to articulate her experience and situate it within an acceptable narrative framework” (Graham 2009, 225).

25Musing on the negativity or positivity of Lady Judith’s affective experience-as-exemplum in Isham’s Booke invites a more global consideration of how both error and suffering are conceived within the Christian practice of penitential confession. Isham has a Christian’s confidence in the educatory value of suffering, and of committing errors. Paraphrasing Proverbs 6:23 and still addressing herself to God, she writes: “It is good for mee that I have bene afflicted that I may learne thy Statutes. It is good for a man to beare the yoke in his youth corrections for instruction are the way of life whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth” (fol. 6v). Quoting Augustine in another passage, Isham observes that “the greatest joy is ushered in by the greatest painfullnesse” (fol. 13r). In a work of self-examination like the Booke, it is important that she relate the depths of this pain, the details of her afflictions and missteps – important, in other words, that she write to discover (and anatomize) her own sins (Foucault 1988, 34-5).

  • 21 This is particularly true of confessional, conversion or trial-by-faith narratives, which, as Mary (...)
  • 22 “For euen at vncleane thoughts, was I sometimes ouerioyed; which calling to minde againe, I now bot (...)

26But the paradox that lies at the heart of the practice of Christian confession (or exomologēsis) is that it rubs out sin at the same time as it reveals the sinner (Foucault 1988, 42). A kind of alchemy is performed in confessional narratives whereby the recollection of youthful sin or error by a subject who is older, more mature, or – in Augustine’s case – converted, succeeds in making those episodes exemplary.21 The very distance between the affective tone – of remorse, resolution, or recognition – which characterizes the speaker’s relation of such episodes on the one hand and the sin which occasioned them on the other speaks of change, of a Christianised kind of Bildung. More importantly, it extends to readers the paradigm of a negative exemplum turned into a lesson which they, as fellow sinners, are commensurate to imitate. Recall Ullyot’s phrase: “only negative exemplarity can succeed.” Augustine says as much in justifying his choice to recount his former sinful life in the Confessions, remarking that the virtuous “take delight to heare of their passed errours, (those I meane, that are now freed from them:) yet are they not therefore delighted because they are errors; but for that they having so beene, are not so now” (574). It is entirely possible, Augustine postulates, to remember sinful desire without feeling desire as one did in the memory – entirely possible, in other words, sinlessly to recount sin.22

27Augustine is here addressing the sin of the confessional ego, the errors and misdemeanours which the self has directly committed. But what about the sins of others who feature in the same narrative? Such a consideration is especially pertinent in Isham’s case because her “self” is inseparable from that of her mother, sister, and grandmother, them being “all members of one body” (fol. 6v). Isham’s affective actions or reactions are figured in her memoir not as original acts but as conscious repetitions, or perhaps re-enactments, of experiences her female relatives have lived before. This observation dovetails with Danielle Clarke’s conceptualization of memory as exemplarity in the early modern period; the idea that “copying – and by extension memorizing – aims at the reinforcement of virtuous, exemplary female conduct” (Clarke 2018, 88). However, there are two important differences. The conduct Isham imitates is not straightforwardly exemplary – it is not, for example, the kind of heroic action to which Graciàn refers with his textos animados – and she does more than just copy it. In something akin to a process of sanctification, Isham reproduces matriarchal experience and counsel in such a way that transforms what are, even when situated in a Protestant theological understanding of the devotional uses of despair and melancholy, quite viscerally negative affective examples (examples explicitly linked to religious doubt and atheistic thought) into defensibly virtuous ones.

  • 23 These three figures appear listed together in Gerbier 1651.
  • 24Elegir idea Heroica. Màs para la emulación que para la imitación” [“Choose a heroic ideal, more as (...)
  • 25 Translation mine.

28Exempla are usually thought to help universalize the particular (Taylor 2020, 255; Scanlon 1994, 34). In life-writing such as Isham’s, however, wherein object and subject are mirrored through the “taxonomic decorum” of a genealogical link, the exemplum does not function so much as an eminent model invoked to concretize the universal, but as a particular pattern which is itself rendered historical in the process of its reproduction and imitation. The invocation of a family member as a virtuous model requires that more alchemy be wrought on the object of the exemplum than if they were Zenobia, Judith, or even Dorothy Leigh, called down from the established pantheon of female worthies.23 Isham must reverse-engineer the example, transforming it from particular to universal, and in the process reorienting the example to reflect positively on both her mother and her self. This process is more accurately described as emulation than as imitation. Whereas imitation is the mere action or practice of imitating or copying, emulation is “[t]he endeavour to equal or surpass others in any achievement or quality” (OED Online, 2022). In his Oráculo Manual, Graciàn is careful to distinguish between imitación and emulación when he addresses heroic exemplarity.24 Graciàn clarifies that one should take up heroic ideals “no tanto para seguir, cuanto para adelentarse” (not so much to follow, as to go ahead of or surpass).25 Isham, of course, does not write her diary out of a competitive desire to best her mother’s life and accomplishments; but she does go ahead of or surpass her mother’s “nots or Table booke” by transforming the crude material of matriarchal experience found therein into something that will endure, into something exemplary.

Hewing a Self Together

29The melancholy suffered by Isham and her mother, as well as her sister, can be understood to take on the status of an associative (and associating) event in the Booke of Rememberance. Although this experience of spiritual melancholy is hybrid in the sense that it wraps multiple people into its sad fabric, it also acts as a unifying thread within the diary, fusing the Isham women together by blurring their bodily and psychological borders. This jibes with Alice Eardley’s argument that Isham “set about recalling episodes from her life not as a continuous narrative but as a series of events linked by some association within her mind” (Eardley 2010, 182). Evidence of this “systematic process of recollection” (ibid., 182) – by which some things are marked out as “unworthy to recite” (fol. 7v) – is found within the vade mecum ­­document left behind by Isham that precedes her composition of the Booke. This single folio sheet is divided into a series of categories, with events recalled and noted down for all 32 years of Isham’s life (Ezell 2011, 72; Eardley 2010, 180). The events listed in the vade mecum are more capacious and extensive than those selectively “called to mind” in the manuscript diary, and one difference highlighted by Eardley is especially remarkable in reading the Booke as an extended exercise in matriography and example. Isham mentions her father’s illness in the vade mecum document, tracing it to the year 1622, but the account of that year in the Booke is taken up entirely by her mother’s illness (Eardley 2010, 184). In sorting through what Augustine calls “the fields and spacious palaces” of memory (591), then, Isham seems purposefully to have isolated the precedent or example of her mother’s and sister’s troubles, weaving them into her hybrid narrative to generate an impression of “selfhood” which is decidedly multiple.

30The term autobiography derives its prefix from the Greek autos, meaning “of or by oneself, independently” (Kadar 1992, 4). Shattering this misconception, Adam Smyth’s work on early modern autobiography has reframed the act of writing about the self in this period in terms of a self-reflexivity of thought that is multiple and collaborative, but not fragmented. As Smyth writes – updating us, in turn, on the development of epistemological debates concerning the singular self since the 1990s – to term the indeterminacy and multiplicity of modes characteristic of early modern self-writing “a shattering […] or to detect an unrealised straining for coherence, is to misconceive the direction of change” (Smyth 2010, 54). The direction of that change, as Andrea Walken eloquently summarizes, is toward an appreciation of “the multi-threaded and tangled web of compositions that support the singular, spectacular text” (Walkden 2011, 991). Figures from premodernity appear to have conceived of the constructs and faculties which coalesce in this essay – the memory, the self, the self’s representation – with a similar aliveness to notions of variety, assemblage, and even infiniteness. For instance, towards the end of the Confessions, Augustine begins to wonder whether his vast memory, with its “profound and infinite multiplicity” (622), might actually compose his “minde” (622), his self. He puts the question to his divine addressee: “What am I therefore, O my God? What kinde of nature am I? A life various and full of changes, yea vehemently insatiable” (622-3). Augustine continues to muse on the “innumerable fields, and dennes, and caves of [his] memory, innumerably full of innumerable kinds of things” (623) – a multiplicity of memory, and so of the self, which he finds simultaneously wondrous and as begging the counterpoise of unity.

  • 26 To clarify, Mason’s own characterization of medieval and early modern women’s life-writings as othe (...)

31Augustine’s perception of multiplicity surely derives, at least in part, from the fact that one’s own memories capture the other lives which make up the unique, singular “self.” Early modern life writings vividly illustrate this apparent paradox of autobiography, revealing the manner in which such writings were “also a result of how that self identified and placed itself within broader social and cultural communities” (Stephens 2016, 25-6). This is especially true of women’s engagements with the genre. One (often quietly disapproving) critique of early modern women’s autobiographies has been that they present, evaluate and assert their female authors’ identities in relation to some other, such as God or their families (Mason 1988, 20).26 Linda H. Peterson, for example, states that the seventeenth-century female memoir writer’s focus on her place within the extended family unit tends “to make her […] the repository of [that family’s] significant accomplishments, more likely those of a husband or father than her own” (Peterson 1993, 88). This might explain why the twenty-first century reader feels more strongly drawn to Dionys Fitzherbert’s or Margery Kempe’s model of relational subjectivity – relational insofar as it is defined defensively against the “spiritual enemies” (The Book of Margery Kempe 16) who have wronged the self (Graham 2009, 226-7) – than to Isham’s other-centred selfhood.

32Although Isham defines herself relationally in her Booke, “thoroughly grounded” (fol. 14v) as she is in her familial networks, reflecting the “role of the family as a critical forum in which both historical consciousness and confessional identities were forged” in the early modern period (Walsham 2023, 1), this does not lead to her female identity being subsumed by patriarchal influence, nor to her diary becoming a mere “repository” for the recording of others’ significant acts. To be sure, one of Isham’s stated motivations in writing her life narrative is to save the memories of her family members from “oblivion” (fol. 30r). The emphasis she places on the physical and spiritual labour required to produce her diary, however, supports an understanding of the Booke as a painstaking memory project, intended in the first instance as an offering to the Lord:

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 requireth) 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. (fol. 7r)

  • 27 “And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lif (...)
  • 28 A medieval romance named Huon of Bourdeaux was adapted in 1593 by the Earl of Essex’s men, and is r (...)

33Alice Eardley has demonstrated that by comparing her work to “hewen stone,” Isham emphasizes the human labour and craft that has gone into its making, flipping in the process the negative connotation of “hewn stone” as it appears in the Book of Exodus (Eardley 2010, 177).27 But there is a further meaning to “hewen” which can be brought to bear on the Booke of Rememberance’s preoccupation with matriarchal exemplarity. The nominalized version of the term comes from the Old English “híwen” and the Middle English “hewenn,” both of which derive from “híw-,” meaning “family” or “members of a household, domestics” (OED Online, 2022). Although the OED lists the noun as obsolete by the end of the twelfth century, there is evidence of its survival into at least the late sixteenth.28 It is tempting to consider how this signification of “hewen" might endure in Isham’s use of the term to describe the carefully crafted nature of what can convincingly be classified as a familial memoir. Even without having to enter into consideration of whether Isham was conscious of the Old English provenance of the term, this meaning of “hewen” can be usefully leveraged to trace the conceptual shape of Isham’s memory project.

34John Willis employs the descriptor “hewen” in his seventeenth-century memory treatise Mnemonica, as he advances a kind of memory scheme or “repository” for improving memory: “A Repository is an imaginary fabrick, fancied Artificially, built of hewen stone, in form of a Theater” (1661, 52). Isham, by crafting her life narrative with such close attention to its structure and form – an attention which manifests, I have argued, in how she binds her “selfe” and her female relatives together through such rhetorical techniques as exemplarity – ensures that her Booke is made of crafted, solid stuff, not unlike the two stone tablets Moses is instructed to “hew” by God in preparation for re-inscribing the ten Commandments. Returning to Willis’s seventeenth-century image, Isham’s Booke is a kind of domestic “Theater” of memory in which familiar voices rebound and the Isham women’s story can be told, or rather remembered, in one fell swoop. It is a “Repository” which at every turn jogs the memory, the recitation of one family member’s illness or trial tugging on the thread which pulls up another’s exemplum or experience.

35There is a moment in the Confessions where Augustine reflects on whether “the perfected and already formed natures” were comprehended under the names of Heaven and Earth, at the time when those two names comprised only “the yet unshapely rough hewing of things, that Stuffe apt to receive shape and making” (854-5). These things, being eventually “digested into order” and distinguished “by their proper qualities and forms,” then came to be called Heaven and Earth – “meaning by that, all spirituall creatures, and by this, all corporeall” (845). This is precisely what Isham is doing in “bend[ing] [her] whole minde” (fol. 34v) to the work of hewing her Booke, spurred on by Augustine’s aide-mémoire in the Prayers that “the vertue of good werke is perseveren[ce] and my God thou has [quitt]ed me for this” (fol. 34r note; qtd. in Eardley 2010, 194). Isham is giving form, quality and property to things not entirely “digested into order” in life. That is, she makes visible in her Booke the invisible (perhaps even the artificial) threads of unity which bind the members of the Isham family into a unity, and which makes of the events which marked their individual lives a web of connected intergenerational happenings. In so doing, she attempts to effect a certain regeneration, reconfiguring – as Alexandra Walsham has recently argued of the religious and cultural upheavals of the era more broadly – “the relationship between the realms of the living and the dead and the nexus between memory, history, and time” (Walsham 2023, 13).

  • 29 This is the translation given in Wills’ 2008 edition of the Confessions (Augustine 2008, 220). Cf. (...)
  • 30 This is the translation given in Wills’ edition (Augustine 2008, 324). Cf. the same passage in Watt (...)

36Isham recounts at a late point of her Booke, following her accounts of the deaths of her grandmother, mother, and sister, that she has been tempted to “the disuniting of the Blessed Trinity […] to which before I much rejoiced to understand the unitie of” (fol. 35r). Finally, however – and this marks a turning-point in the Booke equivalent to that of conversion in the Confessions – Isham remembers that just as it is impossible to separate the Trinity, “so can you not have a separation of persons” (fol. 35r). Isham states that she found “much comfort” concerning the “blessed Trinity” by reading Augustine, who devotes the last three books of the Confessions to expounding the doctrine of the divine Trinity (Wills 2008, x-xi). Augustine’s takeaway is that peaceful comprehension of the Trinity, comprised in the triune activity of being, knowing, and willing, all split the being, giving rise to a miraculous blend of singleness and multiplicity.29 According to Augustine, that which contains or reunites the “scattered pieces” (711) of both the Trinity and the Christian self, is God’s love – and the enveloping structure afforded by his Word. Certainly for Isham, it is the divine authority afforded by the scripture which brings together the dispersed, multiple centres of self located in the various figures of the Isham women, acting as a kind of “broad skin covering”30 to give one master-form to their many forms. So it is that after the deaths of her closest female relatives, Isham’s belief that she has been elected by God to serve as a unifying figure among her remaining family members strengthens, showing her how she might be “a meanes and a member of unity” among them, the link which allows them all “to be of one mind in one house” (fol. 34r) – and, indeed, the mind who reconstructs that network, past and living, in writing.

37And what of generic hybridity? Joshua Lund, citing Michael Beaujour, states that the point at which a hybrid form becomes generic is precisely the moment it overcomes its hybrid status – i.e. when it starts to exist as more of one genre than of the sum of them (Beaujour 2008, 129). Yet in Isham, again, it is not quite so straightforward. Isham’s self eventually emerges as the sum of the other selves whose lives have touched hers, as the “member of unity” linking them all (so this is a kind of subjective unity); but it is the sustained generic hybridity of the narrative, its intermixing of voices and texts and lives, which gives rise to and which continues to support this multiplicitous subject position until the Booke’s last pages. Isham’s diary therefore pushes against the Bakhtinian notions of collision and shock between discourses, of contrafusion and disjunction, which the idea of generic hybridity tows along with it as theoretical baggage (Young 1995, 18). In Isham’s life narrative, friction and shock are largely banished: different genres and forms – largely because they are mapped onto different selves, or different subject positions – coexist under an authorial assumption of harmony and fluidity, fusion and assimilation. Exemplarity is the oil which assists this harmonious mixing of generic gears, as an inherently hybrid form which, when leveraged by Isham, does the work of fusing selves and genres into one subjective and generic superconstruction. Isham’s deft repetition-with-a-difference of the examples handed down by her female relatives ultimately gives rise to “the relatively unified self that emerges despite itself” in the Booke (Eckerle 2010, 102) – all while preserving the idiosyncratic aspects of these women’s selves and experiences, in life and in death.

38Having succeeded in transforming negative experience to exemplarity, Isham can send those matriarchal examples down to future generations. John D. Lyons writes that “The past per se is not the primary value. Rather the authority of the past becomes the raw material for the corrective genius of the writer in his [sic] quest to influence the future conduct of the reader or audience” (Lyons 1991, 14). Just so, Isham writes at the beginning of the Booke of her intention for the diary to be left to her nieces, whom she helped raise after their mother Jane died of complications following childbirth in 1638:

[…] not that I intend to have th[is] published, but to this end I have it in praise a than[k]fullness to God, and for my own benefit, which if it may doe my Brother or his children any pleasure I think to leave it them. Whom I hope will charitable censure of me[.] (fol. 2r)

  • 31 For more on early modern women’s “lateral” bequests in their wills – horizontal or latitudinal – se (...)

39With this gesture of intergenerational bequeathal, the diary emerges as the written repository of remembrance which traces the transmission and reception of matriarchal example vertically from grandmother to mother to daughter, while simultaneously passing those paradigms more laterally from Isham to her nieces – branching out still further from the “roote.”31 The Booke therefore imitates the action of God’s own “rememberance” as Isham references it in the last pages of her autobiography, a remembrance which moves (and therefore which “is”) “from generation to generation” (fol. 32v). There where it lands, Isham might hope that her own exemplary self – hewed together as it is from from the raw material of matriarchal example – will be taken up in turn by the subsequent generation of Isham women, the animated text advancing ever forward in history (or in herstory).

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1 Erica Longfellow rediscovered Isham’s manuscript diary, MS RTC01 no. 62, in Princeton University’s Robert Taylor Collection in 2004 (Constructing Elizabeth Isham).

2 For more on how both fields have been following parallel trajectories rather than integrated ones in their treatment of autobiographical documents, see Farr and Ruggiero, 2022.

3 On Grace Mildmay see Martin 2009; on Elizabeth Delaval, see Wiseman 2015; and on Katherine Austen, see Ross 2012.

4 Specifically, feminist critics have “helped to expose the flaws in the traditional approach to male autobiography, in part by drawing attention to this model’s assumption of a male writer, a public life, and notions of individualism and autonomy” which are more aligned with the Romantic vision of the self than with early modern notions of selfhood (Eckerle 2016, 11). See e.g. in the broader field of women’s autobiographical writings, Anderson 2001, Gilmore 1994; and in early modern studies, influential work such as Dowd and Eckerle 2007, and Seelig 2009; and on Isham’s Booke specifically, see Eckerle 2010.

5 I use the online edition of Isham’s Booke of Rememberance edited by Elizabeth Clarke and Erica Longfellow as part of the “Constructing Elizabeth Isham” project, hosted by the University of Warwick (see <>). For quotations from Augustine’s Confessions, I use William Watt’s 1631 translation, unless specified otherwise.

6 For more on Isham’s use of the phrase “call to mind” and its variations, see Ezell (2011), 75.

7 Multiple scholars have noted that the use of the rhetorical figure of the example opens up a dialogue with the past (Smith 2013, 184; Güthenke 2020, 52).

8 Isham adds: “my mother taught mee my Booke” (fol. 3r).

9 “I beseech thee, O my God, (for I would gladly know, if thou wert pleased to tell me) to what purpose was my Baptisme then deferred; whether it were more for my good that the reynes of sinne were (as it were) then inlar∣ged, or that they should not have bin inlarged at all?” (Augustine 1631, 35).

10 “For thus I conjecture (to my best remembrance) were the disposition of both my parents at that time. The reynes (in the meane time) of liberty to play were slackned towards me, beyond all temper of due severity, yea even to dissoluteenesse in whatsoever I affected” (Augustine 1631, 78).

11 Isham recounts: “a lickorishnesse stole upon me to open my mothers cobord, she letting me have a nether roome of it to myselfe, I longed to trie whether I could open it with my key, which when I had found the way of it I tooke fruite from thence, my mother having charged me with it I flatly denied it” (fol. 4r).

12 This apian metaphor for the collection of exempla very common in the Renaissance. Castiglione, for example, recommends that the courtier draw from a variety of human exempla just as the bee gathers pollen from various flowers and fuses its gatherings into honey (Cox 2016, 475).

13 Hartog defines a “regime of historicity” as “a category (without content), which can elucidate our experiences of time” (Hartog 2015, xvii).

14 See Rigolot 1998. Burke advises against using the dramatic word “crisis”, and rather proposes to speak only of a critique of exemplarity by figures like Montaigne, for whom an example is “an uncertain looking-glass, all embracing, turning all ways” (Burke 2011, 59; Montaigne 2004, 152).

15 On the M.A.R.I.A. acrostic in Dorothy Leigh’s Mothers Blessing as a “book of female worthies writ small,” see Gray 2007, 50-51.

16 See Rebecca Langlands on the site-specificity of each encounter with an example; “sites of exemplarity,” akin to lieux de memoire in memory studies (Langlands 2018, 174-5; Güthenke 2020, 49).

17 See e.g. fol. 8r: “before I go hence and be no more seene.” Fol. 7r expresses concern that she “should not have the time to accomplish [this worke] as I would doe” due to the “heavy stroke of […] pestilence being so neare us as a mile.”

18 See e.g. fol. 18r: “I found my /selfe\ that mallancholy hath never don me much harme or wrot those strong efects on me as in som of lightsomer dispositions.”

19 Katharine Hodgkin notes that “The distinction between the organic illness of melancholy and the spiritual suffering of religious despair [in the early modern period] is unstable and shifting, and the ability to distinguish between the two a matter at once of grave importance and of insuperable difficulty” (Hodgkin 1998, 70).

20 Isham believes she can support melancholy better than a “lightsomer” disposition (fol. 18r), but at the same time realizes that her affliction was not “any way comparable to my mothers and [sisters]” (fol. 33r note).

21 This is particularly true of confessional, conversion or trial-by-faith narratives, which, as Mary Morrissey writes, “are designed to be exemplary; they demonstrate to others the ways in which the Spirit can operate on the soul and afford a comfortable example to other afflicted saints” (Morrissey 2000, 2).

22 “For euen at vncleane thoughts, was I sometimes ouerioyed; which calling to minde againe, I now both detest and curse. And other whiles doe I ioy at good and honest thoughts, which I call to minde with some de∣sire, although they perchance present not themselues; and therefore againe sad at it, doe I call to mind my former reioycing” (Augustine 2008, 638).

23 These three figures appear listed together in Gerbier 1651.

24Elegir idea Heroica. Màs para la emulación que para la imitación” [“Choose a heroic ideal, more as something to emulate, than as something to imitate”] (Graciàn 1945 77).

25 Translation mine.

26 To clarify, Mason’s own characterization of medieval and early modern women’s life-writings as other-focussed is not one of these disapproving critiques; she argues that the recognition of, rather than deference to, another consciousness seems to have enabled women to write more openly about themselves (Mason 1988, 28).

27 “And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it” (Exodus 20:25; qtd. in Eardley 2010, 177).

28 A medieval romance named Huon of Bourdeaux was adapted in 1593 by the Earl of Essex’s men, and is referenced by Philip Henslowe in his diary as “Hewen of burdoche” (Henslowe 2002, 20). In another usage, Richard Hakluyt combines the medieval and early modern significations of the term to refer to the “homely and rough-hewen shape” of his Principal Navigations (Hakluyt 2014, xxxix).

29 This is the translation given in Wills’ 2008 edition of the Confessions (Augustine 2008, 220). Cf. the same passage in Watts’ translation: “But when once hee comes to finde any thing in these three; yet let him not for all this beleeue himselfe to haue found that vnchangeable which is farre aboue all these, and which IS vnchangeably, and Knowes vnchangeably, and Willes vnchangeably: But whether or no where these three bee, there is also a Trinity, or whether all three bee in each seuerall one, or all three in eue∣ry of them: or whether both wayes at once, in admirable manner, simply and yet manifoldly in its infinite selfe, the and vnto it selfe, by which end it is, and is knowne vnto it selfe, and that being vnchangebly euer the same by the abundant greatnesse of its Vnity, it bee all-sufficient for it selfe, what man can readily conceiue?” (Augustine 1631, 925).

30 This is the translation given in Wills’ edition (Augustine 2008, 324). Cf. the same passage in Watts’ translation: “BVt who except thou, O our God, made that Firmament (933) of the Authority of thy diuine Scripture to bee * ouer vs? as tis said, The heauen*shall be folded vp like a booke; and is euen now stretcht ouer vs like a skin” (Augustine 1631, 936).

31 For more on early modern women’s “lateral” bequests in their wills – horizontal or latitudinal – see Erickson 1993, esp. 213.

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Emma Rayner, « Matriarchal Exemplarity in Elizabeth Isham’s Booke of Rememberance »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 34 | 2023, mis en ligne le 30 juin 2023, consulté le 11 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Emma Rayner

The Australian National University

Emma Rayner is a PhD candidate in early modern English literature at the Australian National University, researching early modern women’s engagement with discourses of civility and conduct. She has published an article on poet Hester Pulter and dramatist John Webster in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, and has an entry on poetry and emotion forthcoming in the Palgrave Encyclopedia of Early Modern Women’s Writing. 

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