The gentlewoman’s remembrance

Patriarchy, piety, and singlehood in early Stuart England

Author: Isaac Stephens

A microhistory of a never-married English gentlewoman named Elizabeth Isham, this book centres on an extremely rare piece of women’s writing – a relatively newly discovered 60,000-word spiritual autobiography held in Princeton’s manuscript collections that she penned circa 1639. The document is among the richest extant sources related to early modern women, and offers a wealth of information not only on Elizabeth’s life but also on the seventeenth-century Ishams. Indeed, it is unmatched in providing an inside view of her family relations, her religious beliefs, her reading habits, and, most sensationally, the reasons why she chose never to marry despite desires to the contrary held by her male kin, particularly Sir John Isham, her father. Based on the autobiography, combined with extensive research of the Isham family papers now housed at the county record office in Northampton, the book recreates Elizabeth’s world, placing her in the larger community of Northamptonshire and then reconstructing her family life and the patriarchal authority that she lived under at her home of Lamport Hall. Restoring our historical memory of Elizabeth and her female relations, this reconstruction demonstrates why she wrote her autobiography and the influence that family and religion had on her unmarried state, reading, and confessional identity, expanding our understanding and knowledge about patriarchy, piety, and singlehood in early modern England.

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‘This is chiefly a searching analysis of a single text, the long-forgotten spiritual autobiography of the Northamptonshire spinster Elizabeth Isham (1609-54), and the window it opens on to 17th-century familial and gender relations and the religious spectrum of the period. Almost erased from memory by the male members of her family and by later male custodians of the family archive, for whom singlehood was at best an embarrassment, Isham's diary proves an immensely rewarding quarry for Stephens to mine. Its author, a 'Puritan Nun' and 'Prayer Book Puritan', compels historians to refine many accepted generalisations about women's history and religious history and recognise that 'exceptions' were often the 'norm'.'
R. C. Richardson, emeritus professor of history, University of Winchester
Times Higher Education – What are you reading?
November 2017

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