Whitney, Isabella (fl. 1567–1575)

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Whitney, Isabella (fl. 1567–1575)

English poet, considered one of the first women to publish secular literature.

Little is known of Isabella Whitney's life, yet she left her mark on English literature as one of the first women to publish non-religious writings. Her extant opus consists of two books of poetry. She is believed to have been the sister of another early English author, Geoffrey Whitney, who published a well-known book A Choice of Emblemes in 1586. Whitney belonged to a family of the minor gentry with a country home in Coole Pilate, near Nantwich, Cheshire. She had three sisters and two brothers. The sisters moved to London, and her brother Geoffrey attended Magdalene College in Cambridge. From her poems, it is clear that Whitney knew London well, and she also had something of an education, as she was evidently familiar with the classics, the Bible, and some contemporary literature.

Whitney's first book was A Copy of a Letter lately written in Meeter by a Yonge Gentilwoman to Her Unconstant Lover (1567). This consists of a long poem exhorting women to defend their chastity and virtue. It showed Whitney's knowledge of Greek and Roman literature in its many allusions to classical tragic heroines such as Dido, betrayed by Aeneas in Virgil's Aeneid, and Ariadne, left behind by Theseus after she helped him slay the minotaur in that Greek legend. Whitney drew parallels between these women's cruel fate and the perils attending modern women beset by men's lust-guided dishonesty.

Whitney's second book was a collection of poems entitled A Sweet Nosegay, or Pleasant Posye: contayning a hundred and ten Philosophicall Flowers (1573). These poems also contained a moral message, warning women of the temptations of worldliness, as particularly represented by the sinful city of London. Written in ballad meter, the poems were adaptations of maxims published in the 1572 book The Floures of Philosophie by Sir Hugh Platt. In her preface, Whitney acknowledged that she had borrowed her "flowers" from someone else's garden, yet the poems themselves were original. One poem included in the Nosegay was a "Wyll and Testament" addressed to the city of London, in which the author says farewell to the city, and describes in some detail its business district. Beyond her slim list of publications, Whitney remains a mystery. She may have married and had two children, and taken the name of Eldershae. Her importance remains in that she was essentially the first English woman to identify herself as a professional writer.


Buck, Claire, ed. The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature. NY: Prentice Hall, 1992.

Shattock, Joanne. The Oxford Guide to British Women Writers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Angela Woodward , M.A., Madison, Wisconsin

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Whitney, Isabella (fl. 1567–1575)

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