A Bardic review and performance.
Born sometime between 1546-1548, in Cheshire, England, Isabella Whitney, who had no formal education, became the first published secular female poet in England. Her work is considered proto-feminist, and ground breaking. Openly discussing broken romance, sex, and inequality between the sexes, Isabella discussed subjects in the well known classical conversational style, but for the first time the female voice was both penned by a woman, and the initiating party.
Isabella was the second of seven children of Geffrey Whitney and Joan Whitney (nee Cartright). While there is no record of her being educated, and in fact middling girls often were not, her written work has lead to researchers positing that she picked up on classical humanist education through her older brother, who was a student at a grammar school in Audlem, or that she was able to piggy-back off of the tutoring of other children of the Cheshire Gentry.
Isabella’s branch of the Whitney family was not political nor influential, and there may have been a falling out between her father and uncle, Sir Robert Whitney, which lead to the family moving and taking a leasehold at Whitewell Farm in 1558. It is believed that at this time Isabella was sent to London to live with her aunt and uncle Walter as a domestic.
Isabella the Maid servant
Isabella was sent to London at the age of 10-12. It was common for middling girls to be sent to work as a domestic servant, to learn how to keep a house or to help extended family who may have younger children. At some point Isabella became employed by a “virtuous lady” but for reasons unknown lost her position. It is possible that Isabella was either the victim of viscous rumor, or she was engaged in unbecoming behaviors. While it is not clear how she lost her position, it was a tenuous and illegal place for her to find herself, as Isabella would not or could not return to her uncle’s home, she would have had few options open to her. In 1563 the Statute of Artificers sanctioned the detaining of “masterless” women and by 1589 a single woman could not on her own engage in trade, sell ale, or keep a house. Due to a glut of domestic workers, many women found themselves turning to prostitution, for lack of any other opportunity.
Writing as a Means of Support
…in a world that measured womanhood by its powers of modulated restraint, Whitney practiced exorbitant indecorums, invented a public self and a mode of public speaking-on-the-page that England would not see again for nearly a hundred years…Gregerson, Linda.Isabella Whitney.Poetry 187 (2006): 502–505
It is generally accepted that The Copy of A Letter was written by Isabella while she was still employed, and thus not writing for monetary support; however, her second published work, A Sweet Nosegay, was written both after she had lost her employment, and during a time of illness. Her opening note to the reader states,
“This Harvest tyme, I Harvestless, and serviceless also; And subject unto sicknesse, that abrode I could not go.”
While her first work in The Copy may not have been autobiographical, it was seemingly based on her experiences with men. Based on her use of autobiographical details it is assumed that yes, she was let go from her job, unable to find another position in London, and in need of some form of employment and money.
A Sweet Nosegay, consisting of four separate sections, one of which is the self help advice type of writing that was accepted for a Tudor female writer, the remaining sections consist of letters to friends and family, and her “Will” to the city of London, written upon her departure.
My chosen reading is of: A Modest meane for Maides. This is one of Isabella’s letters providing advice to her family members, specifically her two sisters who are in service.
Note that part of the advice deals with behavior, and not behaving in a way that would rumors to spread about themselves, this has lead to the theory that Isabella was herself dismissed for her behavior or rumors thereof, but it could also simply be the type of advice any elder sister would provide to young girls just entering service.
I have only recently discovered the works of Isabella Whitney and will be expanding on my project throughout the year. I am open to any advice as to how to direct my presentation, with the goal that I will present one of Isabella’s poems as a bardic entry at Kingdom A&S.
A Modest meane for Maides In order prescribed, by Is. W. to two of her yonger Sisters serving in London.
Previous Bardic Performances
My final performance as An Tir Kingdom Bardic Champion. For context, I was to sing a song for their majesties, but after hearing the singing of our then fair Queen, Livia, I realized that I could not hold a candle to her. And so I was going to tell a story, but I lay awake all night unable to think of anything to tell. So finally I smelled coffee from the other side of the door, and I went into the hall where I saw Baron Dunstan and Mistress Gala having morning coffee and on my way to join them, I was stopped by a crone in a shabby cloak, playing dice on the floor. What follows is a true and accurate recounting of my morning at Collegium.
Thank you to Mistress Maricka Sigrunsdotter for stepping in as my mentor and to Baroness Zahra bint al Rammah and Mistress Disa i Birkilundi for their support.
- Main, Patricia, Isabella Whitney: A Truly Modern Woman: Her Life Story and an Evaluation of her Work, 2020
- Clarke, Danielle, Isabella Whitney, Mary Sidney and Amelia Lanyer: Renaissance Women Poets, Penguin, New York, 2000
- https://eebo.chadwyck.com for featured image of published works