16th century, Arts

A Renaissance Flâneur: Isabella Whitney’s willed urban self

By Alice Theobald

In executing a fictional will, sixteenth-century poet Isabella Whitney not only presented a defence of women’s legal legitimacy but also externalised herself into the city, channelling her personal impulses into the physical structures and material goods of her London. However, rather than reducing herself to a commodity, she uses her distribution of possessions as a means of substantiating and perpetuating herself, constantly injecting herself, her ‘Soule and Body’ into the poem to ensure that we receive not a document of her departure but in fact a reassertion of her intellectual worth. Furthermore, we come to scorn the worldliness represented by the capital altogether as we discover it to be bound up with sexual and financial corruption that ‘lures/to satisfye’ its inhabitants. Both a celebration and renouncement of her attachment to the city, Whitney’s ‘Wyll’ presents a self-willed declaration of her independence in her ‘owne hand’ that she personally ‘to London gave:/In witness of the standers by’.

Dürer's 'Saint Jerome in his Study' - did Whitney subscribe more to the contemplative life or the active one?
Dürer’s ‘Saint Jerome in his Study’ – did Whitney subscribe more to the contemplative life or the active one?

As noted by Wendy Wall, the ‘will’ genre centres upon a somewhat paradoxical interplay of self-assertion and negation, standing as ‘a strangely performative and self-constituting gesture dependent upon the erasure of the subject […] strangely present and absent’. It is only by looking beyond herself that Whitney can consolidate her personal identity and the respectable status she wishes to command even after death. Opening her poem as a kind of panegyric to London – using a pronoun of intimacy in her exclamatory ‘thee ah famous Citie’ – Whitney’s mock will claims to depict her passing as the opening line states that she ‘must departe’, however it in fact sees her subsume herself into the cityscape, reaffirming the two entities’ interwoven relationship as ‘I first of all to London leave/because I there was bred’. In this way, Whitney’s phrase that she will ‘leave two Streets’ becomes curiously ambiguous as while her will points towards a conclusive departure, her directions for the possessions she will ‘leave’ behind suggests otherwise. The references to specific locations such as the ‘Thames’, ‘Watlyng Streete, and Canwyck streete’ ensure that her memory lives on not only through the delegation of her possessions but also in the very streets of London themselves. The descriptions of her personal items such as her own ‘Hose […] in Birchin Lane’ are minimal (‘of any kynd of syse’) in comparison to the detailed geographical locations and ‘Ladies’, ‘M[e]rcers’, ‘Women’ and ‘Bookebinders’ in whom she secures her identity and posthumous repute.


Furthermore, the very format of the mock will places her in the tradition of writers such as Robert Copland (reportedly an employee of William Caxton) who penned the earlier ‘Jyl of Breyntford’s Testament’ that established the genre in characterising a ‘widow of a homly sort,/Honest in substaunce, & full of sport’. However, the poem is not only written by a man (therefore undercutting any autonomy ascribable to the ‘mery wydow’), but even the fictional female voice seeks a male ‘Curat’ to ‘wryte [her] testament’ on her behalf and further compromises her sovereignty in the sense of obligation accompanying her bequeathing her body ‘to the erth’ as a male entity: ‘It is his own; I can it not deny’. By contrast, Whitney proclaims herself to be ‘whole in body, and in minde’ and the fact that she is ‘weake in Purse’ does not hinder her from determining the fate of her possessions and the validity of her material and personal claims. Repeatedly affirming the merit of her ‘steadfast brayne’, Whitney ensures that her being considered ‘so weake’ is limited solely to her financial status that eventually seems inferior in value as ‘this vale so vile’ encompasses the earthly realm that she transcends both in her intellectual calibre and her ultimate reunion with ‘God’.

It seems that Whitney’s primary concern is to avoid any ‘shame’ that may linger after her death as a result of her rather controversial position – credited as the first woman to whom a complete, printed volume of original secular English poetry was attributed. Despite presenting a somewhat pitiful impression of herself as her ‘luck […] ever was too bad’, she nevertheless maintains a stoic front in ordering that people ‘cease/[her] presence for to mone’. A subtle pun on the term ‘end’ thus surfaces as her feigned will allows her to reflect upon the ‘end’ to which her actions have been directed during the course of her life. As the latter part of the poem dwells upon the ‘store of Bookes’ she has left, commending the ‘Arte’ of ‘the Bookebinders by Paulles’ and her ‘Printer’, we can deduce that Whitney’s greatest point of personal pride lies in her artistry and contributions to English verse. Although she may be ‘weake’ in pecuniary terms, she avows that ‘the Bookbinders […] e[ver]y weeke shal mony have’. It thus becomes the somewhat ironic case that her will seems to look towards its own demise (like the speaker portending her own death) in its concluding assertion that ‘mony’ is often ‘but lost’. Her ‘wysh’ for ‘good Fortune’ corresponds to an emotional and providential condition rather than any financial affluence. Moving from commercial matters to an almost homiletic mode, Whitney’s will outlines not so much her instructions concerning her material goods, but rather a tender commemoration of abstract values such as ‘trust’ and the simple felicity of ‘happy days and quiet times’ –  a perpetual state safeguarded in heaven.

Critique by Professor Jill Ingram: 

Jill Ingram is Associate Professor – specialising in Shakespeare and Renaissance Literature – at Ohio University.She has written extensively on the period and her publications include ‘Idioms of Self-Interest: Credit, Identity and Property in English Renaissance Literature (Routledge, 2006) and articles in journals such as Renascence, Early Modern Culture, and The Ben Jonson Journal. See http://www.english.ohiou.edu/directory/faculty_page/ingram/ for more details.    

Hilliard, Portrait of a Woman c.1590
Hilliard, Portrait of a Woman c.1590

Alice Theobald’s compelling commentary upon Isabella Whitney’s “The Manner of her Will” takes the view that Whitney’s primary aim in the poem is to assert the speaker’s spiritual wealth over her material conditions. Theobald says that Whitney’s “’wysh’ for ‘good Fortune’ corresponds to an emotional and providential condition rather than any financial affluence.” I like that reading and it makes sense that Whitney’s creation of an alternate universe within the body of the poem, which claims all of London as her possession which she can bequeath to whomever she pleases, should include a provision for her emotional well-being as well. And yet I don’t think we can read the poem as elevating abstract values above material ones, since the assertion of Whitney’s intellectual worth depends upon the very marketplace of print from which, Theobald claims, Whitney would like to be independent. Whitney’ mock testament is no diatribe invoking the (familiar sixteenth-century argument regarding the) stigma of print, where sales of pamphlets and broadsides debased the intellectual value or spiritual content of a written work. Whitney’s ideal readers, we deduce from her poem’s message, live in an inclusive London, not an exclusive, coterie-driven audience of the type from which she might be complaining she has been excluded at the poem’s opening. If there is any idealization suggested by the poem, it seems it might be an idealized vision of a marketplace in which Whitney’s poems and published letters sell so well that her printer sells out and provides the demand for more work from Whitney’s hand. Since Whitney envisions this sort of success in her poem, we might read Whitney’s felicitous “emotional and providential condition,” as Theobald puts it, arising from her own success in the marketplace. Such a sanguine reading perhaps belies the poem’s clear denigration of some vulgarizing aspects of the marketplace in London, and yet it seems the only conclusion to draw from the realities of commercial authorship as Whitney’s speaker experiences it herself in the body of the poem.

–Jill P. Ingram, Ohio University

Further Reading:

Renaissance Women Poets: Isabella Whitney, Mary Sidney and Aemilia Lanyer (Penguin: 2001)

Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt (1980)

Death, Religion, and the Family in England, 1480-1750, Ralph Houlbrooke (2000)

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