Isabella Whitney, England’s first female professional writer

  • Themes: Culture

Isabella Whitney is remarkable as a pioneer woman writer, and her poems are finally beginning to gain traction.

Earliest printed map of London, 1574.
Earliest printed map of London, 1574. Credit: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

‘All women’, wrote Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, ‘ought to let flowers fall on the tomb’ of the first female author in England to make a living from her pen. Right instinct: wrong tomb. Woolf’s floral tribute landed a century too late, at the grave of the poet and dramatist Aphra Behn (1640-89). Isabella Whitney, who flourished as a writer between 1566 and 1577, has a strong claim to be the first English woman to write secular literature for publication. She deserves to be better known, not simply because she is a pioneer, but also because she is a poet of insight, irony, and unpretentious formal charm.

As the dates indicate, not much is known about Isabella Whitney’s life. She is generally assumed to have been born in Cheshire, perhaps the sister of Geoffrey Whitney, a minor writer who produced in 1586 an emblem book – a collection of symbolic or moralising images with accompanying poems. Isabella’s own literary output was much more original and unexpected. Her first poetry collection, The Copy of a Letterwas published in 1566-7 by the London printer Richard Jones.

Jones specialised in ballads and in vernacular poetry anthologies, rather than in learned or religious works, and he was unusual in adding to his authors’ works his own preliminary verses or dedications, suggesting a degree of literary, as well as financial, investment in their creation. Whitney’s literary instincts were on brand for Jones. Her book takes up a popular genre of ‘complaint’ – emotional poetry, often female-voiced, and associated with canonical male authors of the later Elizabethan period, including Edmund Spenser, Samuel Daniel, and Shakespeare. Whitney’s collection comprises two male-voiced and two female-voiced complaints, introduced by Jones.

The book’s long title emphasises gendered behaviour as its central theme: The copy of a letter, lately written in meter, by a young gentlewoman: to her unconstant lover. With an admonition to all young gentlewomen, and to all other maids in general to beware of men’s flattery. By Is. W.. Newly joined to a love-letter sent by a bachelor, (a most faithful lover) to an unconstant and faithless maiden. The book advertises itself as written by a woman for other women, to warn them of men’s perfidy. The second part suggests the opposite, supplementing a tale of male faithlessness with a gender-switch.

Some critics have imagined that Whitney could not have written the bachelor’s love-letter part of the book, but that seems to underestimate her capacity for inventive poetic role-play and ventriloquism. The phrasing of the title, ‘newly joyned’, may suggest that Whitney’s poetry had been previously published in a different form: if so, no copy of that edition survives, though it’s not impossible, since both of her extant works exist in single copies. Whitney’s poetry, now virtually unknown, was in its own time almost literally read to oblivion.

In the first poem, ‘To her unconstant lover’, the speaker addresses the man who has abandoned her for another, comparing herself with classical figures, such as Dido, and, more ominously, the revenging Medea, though the voice is jaunty rather than lamenting or self-pitying. ‘Wed whom you list’ (‘marry who you like’), the speaker declares, sharpening her good wishes for his future happiness with scepticism about his bride: ‘I wish her virtues to be such,/she need not be suspect.’ A finely-weighted comparison to Helen of Troy, legendarily both beautiful and promiscuous, does pleasing double duty as back-handed compliment: ‘I rather wish her Helen’s face/ then one of Helen’s trade.’

Another poem is titled ‘The admonition by the Author, to all young gentlewomen’, and has a similar bounce. The speaker is worldly-wise. Men pretend to emotions they do not feel; they fake tears according to Ovid’s seduction instructions. ‘Always try before ye trust’ is her top tip: suggesting that men need thorough road-testing before any thought of marriage. And while the end of the poem suggests the speaker has been hurt herself – ‘I who was deceived late/ by one’s unfaithful tears’ – the guidance to women readers emphasises their freedom to choose. What is so new and refreshing about Whitney’s poetic voice is that it is neither moralistic nor religious; instead, it is witty, uses its learning lightly, and is on the side of its imagined women readers.

Whitney’s second poetry collection, A Sweet Nosegay, was published in 1573. A dedicatory poem from ‘The Author to the Reader’ proposes its verses as a remedy for the ‘bruised mind’, just as a posy of flowers at the nose might guard against ‘stinking streets or loathsome lanes’. The poetic speaker across the collection is a young woman writer living in London, and it has therefore often been read autobiographically. The poet writes lovingly to her siblings, gives advice to her sisters, and revels in being unmarried: ‘Had I a Husband, or a house’, she writes, she would behave as ‘other women do:/ But til some household cares me tie,/My books and pen I will apply.’ Whitney recognises her single status allows her freedom and time to write, and anticipates what the 20th-century writer Cyril Connolly would dub the ‘pram in the hallway’ that is the enemy of art.

The verse letters that comprise much of A Sweet Nosegay establish her poetic voice in a nexus of relationships, and suggest that, for Whitney, writing is a form of sociability. The final poem in the volume is perhaps the most accomplished: if you’re going to read just one Isabella Whitney poem, read her satiric ‘Will and Testament’, addressed to the city of London. In this poem, Whitney produces a mock bequest, taking up the form of the will to subvert its pieties: ‘I whole in body, and in mind,/but very weak in purse’.

The speaker bequeaths to London its churches, first among them the imposing St Paul’s, and then offers to its people ‘Butchers’, ‘Brewers’ and ‘Bakers’ to provide them their food. Luxury items such as ‘Plate’ and ‘French ruffs, high pearls, gorgets and sleeves’ produce a gazetteer of London shopping, and a fantasy that all these desirables are free. ‘If they that keep what I you leave/ask money when they sell it’, no problem: the mint, full of coin, is also one of her lavish bequests. She leaves to poor maidens, rich widowers, and ‘wealthy widows will I leave,/ to help young gentlemen’. Further, at Paul’s Churchyard, the centre of the Elizabethan publishing industry, the speaker leaves gifts to booksellers and her printer, and books to refresh law students and ‘recreate their mind’.

Whitney’s ‘Will’ had immediate imitators – poetic mock-testaments by George Gascoigne and, later, Thomas Nashe, are its literary heirs – but in her depiction of a London bustling with commercial vitality, and in her eye for shopping as its common thread, Whitney also anticipates the energetic civic literature of the later Elizabethan and Jacobean period, particularly in the city comedies by playwrights including Thomas Dekker, Ben Jonson and Thomas Middleton. Whitney’s worldview is of the middling sort – neither rich nor poor – and in this, she is an exemplar for the educated, non-aristocratic professional writers, both male and female, who will follow her. Whitney is already a published poet in London when the men who have come to define the canon of Elizabethan literature are still in nappies, and they owe much to her trailblazing imagination.

Thomas Berry, writing a dedicatory poem to Whitney’s A Sweet Nosegay, anticipates Virginia Woolf’s praise of the woman writer and encourages the ‘happy dames’ who read it to bestow laurels on its writer. Isabella Whitney is remarkable as a pioneer woman writer, but her poems, rather than simply her place in a chronology, are finally beginning to gain traction. ‘In oblivion bury me/ and never more me name’, she urges at the end of her second collection of poems. For too long this has been the case, and Whitney’s poetry has been overlooked. Now, for reparation, forget the flowers: let’s all just read her back from the brink.


Emma Smith