Scholars suggest that Isabella Whitney was the daughter of Geoffrey Whitney from Coole Pilate, Cheshire, and the sister of Geoffrey Whitney, who wrote A Choice of Emblemes in 1586. She was most likely born around 1540, and died sometime after 1580. Much of her biographical information has been inferred from references about certain people in the will of the younger Geoffrey, from his emblem book, and from Isabella’s book of verses A Sweet Nosgay (Travitsky). Ian Lancashire notes that she was a lady-in-waiting by occupation, and Michael Best conjectures that, because her verses suggest a familiarity with London, she might have lived there. Best also explains that the lack of historical record is due to the fact that she was of the middle class, and was not a noblewoman.
Although there is little factual information about Whitney’s birth and parentage, Travitsky credits her with "the distinction of being the first woman under whose name, or initials, a complete, printed volume of original, secular poetry appeared in English." Best similarly comments that Isabella Whitney "was a pioneering author" because she wrote poetry "designed to appeal to public taste at a time when devotional literature and translations of men’s work was considered to be the only proper literary work for women."
She published two works of poetry, The Copy of a Letter lately written in meeter, by a yonge Gentilwoman: to her unconstant lover (1566–67), and A Sweet Nosgay (1573). Both volumes were published in London by the printer Richard Jones. Her first work of poetry consists of "four jaunty love complaints," two of which have a female speaker, and the other two a male speaker (Travitsky). Wendy Wall suggests that The Copy of a Letter is both "a complaint about sexual infidelity and a warning to maidens about male flattery and deceit" (46). In the two poems with female speakers, Whitney likens the male lover to unfaithful men of mythology, "thus giving voice retrospectively to legendary abandoned women" (46). The remaining two poems, written in the voice of male speakers, address the infidelity of their female lovers.
Travitsky notes that Whitney’s second publication, A Sweet Nosgay, alters Hugh Plat’s "adages [. . .] on love and friendship" from his Floures of Philosophie (1572), and gives them a "proto-feminist" quality. The work concentrates on the speaker’s sickness and her consequent suffering, which is partially relieved by loving friends and family. The poems tell of a woman’s plight. She comes from a large but not high-class family; she is single and a poetess; and she had been employed by a woman but was let go due to her illness. It is from these possibly autobiographical details that scholars derive their ideas about Whitney’s family and origins. In the final poem—the famous mock "Wyll and Testament"—the speaker leaves London and its merciless economics behind.
In summarizing the life and work of this female poet, Linda Gregerson writes that "in a world that measured privilege by the power to withdraw from common public life, Whitney flaunted her immersion in the colour and noise of urban commerce. In a world that measure womanhood by its powers of modulated restraint, Whitney practiced exorbitant indecorums" (505). Travitsky describes her as being an unconventional woman for her time, and goes so far as to suggest that she embodies the qualities of the "’Judith Shakespeare’ whom Virginia Woolf posited as an impossibility." Although her use of allusions and poetic forms position her as similar to her male contemporaries, it is Whitney’s gender that makes her unique as a poet of the sixteenth century (Travitsky).
Isabella Whitney.Shakespeare’s Life and Times. Internet Shakespeare Editions. Web.
Isabella Whitney.Poetry 187 (2006): 502–05. Print.
Selected Poetry of Isabella Whitney.Representative Poetry Online. Department of English, University of Toronto, 2005. Web.
The ’Wyll and Testament’ of Isabella Whitney.English Literary Renaissance 10.1 (1980): 76–94. Print. Rpt. Wiley Online Library Web.
Isabella Whitney and the Female Legacy.English Literary History 58 (1991): 35–62. Print.
This project is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.
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