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Constructing Elizabeth Isham

Elizabeth Isham


Happy Birthday Elizabeth Isham!

28th January 1609

Click here to view the online editions of the Confessions and Diary

Constructing Elizabeth Isham 1609-1654


Director: Elizabeth Clarke

Co-director: Erica Longfellow (Kingston University London)

Co-participant: Nigel Smith (Princeton University)

Postdoctoral Research Assistant: Jill Millman

Postgraduate Research Assistant: Alice Eardley


Click here for abstracts from MLA 2007 session on Social and Material Genres in Early Modern Life Writing

The Edition

This edition s not pretty (yet) but at least it is mostly there, on Elizabeth Isham's 400th birthday! The edition of the 'Booke of Rememberance' (Princeton University Library, Robert Taylor Collection, MS RTC01 no. 62) can be accessed folo by folio. The glossary of medical terms has not loaded for some reason but should be up soon. The notes in the Northampton Record Office MS, IL 3365, can be accessed in three ways--by year, by person or by place. We hope that wll make it easy to cross-reference the manuscripts when reading the same year in the 'Booke of Rememberance',. It is also possible to check whether people or places mentioned there are also mentioned in IL 3365.Thanks so much to Jill Millman who worked above and beyond her paid hours to produce this, and to Rececca Laroche and Michelle diMeo who did the wonderful work on the medicinal content of the manuscripts.



This project (funded by the British Academy) seeks to throw new light on the study of early modern women's autobiography, by producing firstly a web edition of two partially concurrent manuscript diaries written by the same woman, Elizabeth Isham (1609-1654), and secondly a collection of essays on self-construction in life writing by women in the early modern period.

The eldest daughter and household manager in a prominent and literate family in Northamptonshire, Elizabeth Isham wrote two diaries: one, a vade-mecum covering the period from her early childhood to her fortieth year in 1648, now housed at Northamptonshire Record Office; the other, a fair copy 'Booke of Rememberance', concluding when she was thirty, which has recently come to light in Princeton University Library. As examples of life-writing by a woman in different formats from the early part of the seventeenth century, these documents make a rare and significant contribution to our knowledge of the autobiographical writings of the time. The web edition will bring them together for the first time, enabling direct comparisons to be drawn, so that scholars of the early modern period can study the relationship between the two manuscripts.

Constructing early modern women's lives

Early modern women’s autobiography has attracted scholarly interest since the publication by Elspeth Graham et al of Her Own Life: autobiographical writings by seventeenth century Englishwomen in 1989. Recently other collections have appeared, such as David Mullan’s edition of Women’s Life Writing in Early Modern Scotland (Ashgate 2003) which draws on newly uncovered women’s manuscripts. In late Elizabethan and early Stuart England, women’s autobiographical writings are represented by only a handful of surviving examples, including the autobiography of Grace Mildmay (c. 1617), and the diaries of Margaret Hoby (1599-1605) and Anne Clifford (1616-1619). The construction of the early modern self has been an important issue in early modern studies ever since Stephen Greenblatt’s 1981 Renaissance Self-Fashioning, a book which could be seen to have ushered in the dominance of historicist scholarship in literary studies.

Betraying Our Selves: Forms of Self-Representation in Early Modern English Texts, ed. Henk Dragstra, Sheila Ottway, Helen Wilcox (London: MacMillan Press, 2000) is a volume that updated and widened Greenblatt’s concerns in the specific context of early modern autobiographical writing, but it did not focus on women, nor manuscript writing. This project will yield insight into the complex question of how early modern women constructed their own versions of themselves.

The manuscripts

MS IL 3365 in Northamptonshire Record Office has been the authority until now for constructing the life of Elizabeth Isham (for example, Kate Aughterson in the New Dictionary of National Biography uses this manuscript in preparing the entry for her). It is a vade mecum divided into one section for each of 32 years of Isham’s life, and for each year she has listed episodes she thought worthy of record, including domestic activities such as needlework and reading alongside events of national significance. The changing manuscript hand suggests that the text was written over many years and served as a working document, a reminder to Elizabeth Isham of her own experience. Elizabeth Clarke studied this manuscript in 1999 as part of work on the AHRB-funded Perdita Project. Erica Longfellow came across MS RTC01 no. 62 in the Robert Taylor Collection at Princeton University on a short visit in 2004. It is a fair copy prose autobiography of 38 leaves (c. 1639) by Elizabeth Isham, bequeathed to Isham’s brother and his children, so it was composed for an external if limited readership. The two manuscripts, which appear to represent different stages in the recording of Isham's life, have never been studied together. The survival of two states of any manuscript text is extremely rare in this period, and we hope that the comparison will offer an insight into the process of the author’s self-construction in the fair copy autobiography. We believe that study of these two manuscripts, by the project members and by selected scholars in the field, will add considerably to our understanding of the nature of early modern women’s autobiography.

The web edition

Both manuscripts present difficulties for transcription. The Princeton manuscript is in good condition in a neat hand, but the size of the hand decreases towards the end of the manuscript, and the entire text includes marginal notes in a hand so tiny it at times requires a magnifying glass. The Northamptonshire manuscript is in much poorer condition (unacceptable for microfilming), in a variety of inks, some very faded. Again the hand is very small, and much of the writing is in note form and extremely difficult to decipher. A web edition is the only way that a wide audience will be able to access the documents. The complex inter-relationship of the two manuscripts makes them ideal candidates for our innovative web edition which will incorporate links between dates and events that are mentioned in both texts. For this we will use the Text Encoding Initiative's Document Type Definition. Jill Millman has now transcribed the Northamptonshire MS and Alice Eardley has transcribed the Princeton MS. With the completion of the transcriptions, the project leaders have begun work on examining the relationship between the two manuscripts, drawing on their bibliographical expertise as well as their knowledge of seventeenth-century women’s autobiography. Erica Longfellow has researched the considerable archive of the Isham family at Northamptonshire Record Office, setting the manuscripts in their context of a highly educated family with a tradition of life writing. She and Elizabeth Clarke will write the introduction and co-ordinate the contextual commentaries for the web edition.The web edition will be launched in September 2008.

Project workshop 7-8 September 2007

Click here for a summary of papers presented at the conference, along with some of the project's latest research on the Isham archive.



The British Academy 

Northamptonshire Record Office

Lamport Hall

Firestone Library, Princeton University