Women's Writing Before Woolf: A Social Reference/Isabella Whitney (fl. 1567–1573)

Isabella Whitney (1567-1573)Edit

Personal LifeEdit

Isabella Whitney is credited as the first woman in England to publish non-secular poetry under her own name. Whitney was born sometime in the late 1540’s into minor gentry, her family was descendent of the Cheshire family. They lived on an estate as Coole Pilate, near Nantwich. Isabella had an older brother, Geoffrey Whitney, who was also a successful published writer. Geoffrey Whitney wrote A Choice of Emblems in 1586. The majority of biographical information about Whitney is sourced from her writing, as little is recorded about her life.

There are a number of reasons why women’s writing was not published during the 16th century. There were restrictions on female education. Women of the time were usually denied education in rhetoric and were educated largely off religious writings. Public speech was associated with harlotry and women were often confined to the domestic sphere (references?).

Unlike other women writers during the 16th century Whitney was not a noblewoman. Whitney lived and worked in London until 1573. She most likely worked as an unmarried maidservant in London, as her published work would not have generated enough income for her to live off. In “A Sweet Nosgay (1573) she writes “whole in body, and in mind/ but very weake in purse.” Which scholars have taken to mean she was not wealthy and would have had to work.

While Whitney lived in London she wrote multiple works. All her works were published by Richard Jones. It was revolutionary for a middle-class woman to publish original poetry under her own name, and the acute political and social commentary expressed through the satirical tone of her writing establishes her pioneering accomplishments as a woman writer.

PublicationEdit

During the 16th century publishing a work meant the involvement of a third party. Editors, publishers and distributors had final authority on the production of published texts. They decided the font, lay out, publishing material, and distribution of the work to be sold. This impacted the publication of women’s writing, as this mediation and production facilitated censorship. All of Whitney’s writings were entered, edited, printed and sold by Richard Jones. Jones was not only responsible for the physical construction of Whitney’s writing, but also in creating a readership and market for the works. The first work to be published was “The Copy of a Letter” which Jones published under the title “The Copye of a letter lately written in myter by a yongue gentelwoman to hyr vnconstaunte louer”. By branding Whitney as a gentlewoman, Jones elevated her status to that of the university educated male contemporaries. Their relationship was flexible, and in the publication of A Sweet Nosgay Whitney took on editorial roles. She authored the dedication and the verse “Auctor to Reader”. Although Jones would have the final authority on the publication as a whole. Works

Whitney’s established oeuvre consists of two short anthologies. The Copy of a Letter (1567) and A Sweet Nosgay (1573). Most critics agree that Whitney’s writing contains a host of autobiographical information. Throughout her poems Whitney divulges her financial status and her critiques of social and class structures, including commentary on the oppression of women in the mid-Tudor England. These characteristics of her writing and the fact that she was the first female writer to publish non-secular poetry under her own name has led to her being recognised as a pioneer of women’s writing.

The Copy of a LetterEdit

Originally published under the title “The Copy of a letter, laetly written in meter, by a young Gentilwoman: to her unconstant lover. With an Admonitio to al Yonge gentlewomen, and to all other mayds in general to beware of mennes flattery”. This text consists of a series of complementary verse epistles; two from the perspective of a female persona, and two from the perspective of a male. The epistles form a literary debate between the sexes and explore themes of abandonment. Critics have noted that the two parts construct a dialogue between the sexes that reveals an “intense opposition in the ideologies of gender in the mid-Tudor period” The female love lament was popular following Turberville’s translation of Ovid’s Heroides as The Heroical Epistles, and Whitney’s iteration shows her critique of the gender expectations of her period.  

A Sweet NosgayEdit

Whitney’s second book of prose, Inspired by Plat’s Floures of Philosophie (1572)

And consists of a Compilation of epistles. They are divided into themes of friendship, love and dependence.

The body of A Sweet Nosgay is followed by “Certain Familiar Epistles and Friendly Letters by the Author: With Replies,”. Critics have used this text to source a significant amount of autobiographical information on Whitney. The piece shows that she has two younger sisters, who the epistles are written to. And also focuses on the illness that consequently forced her to leave London. Furthermore, Whitney emphasises her intent to publish and her desire for patronage. The speaker of the text longs for employment. She makes explicitly clear her financial reasons for writing and publishing, ,in “Auctor to Reader” she describes herself as “Harvestlesse,/ and serviceless also,”. She also comments on her lack of domestic comfort. “Had I a Husband, or a house, and all that longes therto/ My selfe could frame about to rouse, / as other women doo:/ But til some household cares meet ye,/ My books and Pen I wyll apply.” (lines 37-42) In an epistle to “her Sister Misteris A.B.”. Ann Rosalind Jones – says whitney’s epistles incorporate pleas to family members and friends and this demonstrates the networks of need and appeal of creative accommodation and subtle critique. This piece also includes Will and Testament which is a mock testament written in ballad metre which describes the city of London. It contained vivid and apt descriptions and commentary of everyday life. As scholar Betty S. Travitsky notes “the lively, sometimes even madcap, mock legacy brings contemporary London alive… her vividness, perhaps the more remarkable for its presence in a non dramatic poem, reminds one of the London of the city comedies that would be a feature of the early-seventeenth-century stage.”.

Working Women in the 16th CenturyEdit

Early modern women had few opportunities to create their own income and support themselves. The 1563 statue of Artificers led to the arrest of masterless women “living at their own hand” and ordered them to service. By 1589, no single woman could trade, sell ale, or keep a house or chamber. Single women in poverty often resorted to prostitution. Unemployed maidservants contributed to high numbers to this group since the swelling population of Elizabethan London made it difficult for a released domestic to find a new position. Mary Prince was another early women writer who wrote an account of her experience as a slave, during which she was also subjected to oppression and was unable to support herself.

Whitney's works and the ideas within this remain a continually discussed topic amongst scholars of the field, illustrating her continued legacy. Bartolovich suggests that Whitney's work to alter the patriarchal norms of gender and she seeks the idea of a utopia by altering social relations and issues of inequality (Bartolovich 428). It is asserted that these are critical ideas that are raised in her writing that still have relevance today (Bartolovich 426).

Works CitedEdit

Bartolovich, Crytsal ; “Optimism of the Will”: Isabella Whitney and Utopia. Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 1 May 2009; 39 (2): 407–432.

Ellinghausen, Laurie. "Literary Property and the Single Woman in Isabella Whitney's A Sweet Nosgay." Studies in English Literature, 1500 - 1900, vol. 45, no. 1, 2005, pp. 1-22,268.

Ellinghausen, L. (2018). Chapter 1: "tis all i have": Print authorship and Occupational Identity in Isabella Whitney's A Sweet Nosgay. In Labour and Writing in Early Modern England 1567-1667. Routledge.

Lawrence, D. (2018). Isabella Whitney's “Slips”: Poetry, Collaboration, and Coterie. In P. Phillippy (Ed.), A History of Early Modern Women's Writing (pp. 119-136). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781316480267.007

Marquis, Paul A. “Oppositional Ideologies of Gender in Isabella Whitney's ‘Copy of a Letter.’” The Modern Language Review, vol. 90, no. 2, 1995, pp. 314–324. Accessed 26 Apr. 2021.

O’Callaghan, Michelle (2019) “My Printer must, haue somwhat to his share”: Isabella Whitney, Richard Jones, and Crafting Books, Women's Writing, 26:1, 15-34,

Travitsky, Betty S. “Isabella Whitney (flourished 1566-1573).” Sixteenth-Century British Nondramatic Writers: Second Series. Vol. 136 (1994): 341-344. Dictionary of Literary Biography

Trettien, Whitney; Isabella Whitney's Slips: Textile Labor, Gendered Authorship, and the Early Modern Miscellany. Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 1 September 2015; 45 (3): 505–521.

Whitney, I. (n.d.). A sweet Nosegay, or Pleasant POESY, Containing a... Retrieved April 29, 2021, from Poetry Foundation

Whitney Trettien; Isabella Whitney's Slips: Textile Labor, Gendered Authorship, and the Early Modern Miscellany. Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 1 September 2015; 45 (3): 505–521.

Lawrence, D. (2018). Isabella Whitney's “Slips”: Poetry, Collaboration, and Coterie. In P. Phillippy (Ed.), A History of Early Modern Women's Writing (pp. 119-136). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781316480267.007

Ellinghausen, Laurie. "Literary Property and the Single Woman in Isabella Whitney's A Sweet Nosgay." Studies in English Literature, 1500 - 1900, vol. 45, no. 1, 2005, pp. 1-22,268.

Michelle O’Callaghan (2019) “My Printer must, haue somwhat to his share”: Isabella Whitney, Richard Jones, and Crafting Books, Women's Writing, 26:1, 15-34,

Crystal Bartolovich; “Optimism of the Will”: Isabella Whitney and Utopia. Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 1 May 2009; 39 (2): 407–432. doi:

Marquis, Paul A. “Oppositional Ideologies of Gender in Isabella Whitney's ‘Copy of a Letter.’” The Modern Language Review, vol. 90, no. 2, 1995, pp. 314–324. JSTOR, . Accessed 26 Apr. 2021.

Lawrence, D. (2018). Isabella Whitney's “Slips”: Poetry, Collaboration, and Coterie. In P. Phillippy (Ed.), A History of Early Modern Women's Writing (pp. 119-136). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781316480267.007

Whitney, I. (n.d.). A sweet Nosegay, or Pleasant POESY, Containing a... Retrieved April 29, 2021, PoetryFoundation

Ellinghausen, Laurie. "Literary Property and the Single Woman in Isabella Whitney's A Sweet Nosgay." Studies in English Literature, 1500 - 1900, vol. 45, no. 1, 2005, pp. 1-22,268.

Travitsky, Betty S. “Isabella Whitney (flourished 1566-1573).” Sixteenth-Century British Nondramatic Writers: Second Series. Vol. 136 (1994): 341-344. Dictionary of Literary Biography

Ellinghausen, L. (2018). Chapter 1: "tis all i have": Print authorship and Occupational Identity in Isabella Whitney's A Sweet Nosgay. In Labour and Writing in Early Modern England 1567-1667. Routledge.