Mr. William Shakespear’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies (1685)

By V. M. Braganza

Title page of the Fourth Folio of Mr. William Shakespear’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies (1685), up for auction at Christie’s as part of the Theodore B. Baum sale in September 2021.

But this rough magic
I here abjure, and when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.

Shakespeare, The Tempest (5.1.59-66)

You are what you read—at least, that’s how I have always understood the feeling of dissolving into a book. Books absorb us into their pages: we feel our edges blur and disappear. The world goes away, until reality breaks the charm and we resurface and reappear among the living.

Except when we don’t. Sometimes, those who are forgotten by history live on only in the books they left behind, fathoms beneath our memory of the past. That is exactly what happened to Charlotte Rowe (1718-1739), daughter of Nicholas Rowe, England’s fourth Poet Laureate and the first editor of Shakespeare’s works. Charlotte Rowe was swallowed by a book. In fact, she disappeared into the Fourth Folio of Shakespeare’s plays (1685).

Rowe’s signature on recto of the frontispiece leaf. The shadow of the intaglio portrait of Shakespeare on the verso is visible to the keen eye.

Charlotte is concealed by Shakespeare both historically and literally. If there’s a place one would least expect to find her name inscribed, it’s in Poets’ Corner, the most iconic pilgrimage site for lovers of English literature—yet there she is. Anyone who explores Westminster Abbey in London will soon find themselves in an alcove in the south transept crammed with tombs and memorials to some of the greatest English writers. In this part of the cathedral, there’s hardly an inch of space that isn’t carved with famous names. A visitor can’t take so much as a step without trodding on Charles Dickens or coming nose to nose with Geoffrey Chaucer. Even after the inscriptions had carpeted the stone floor and climbed up the marble walls, names began appearing in the stained-glass windows too. Poet’ Corner is one of the most magical places a passionate reader can find herself. The stone itself is alive, and one of its most electrifying features is an elaborate monument to Shakespeare.

The monument to Shakespeare in Poets’ Corner. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Drawn in by the sheer prominence of Shakespeare’s statue, most visitors don’t notice what sits just a few feet away. Next door is the tomb of Nicholas Rowe, which includes a memorial to his daughter, Charlotte.

The most prominent figures in the Rowe monument are a bust of Rowe and a symbolic statue of a mourning woman holding an open book. A carving of Charlotte in profile in a round frame hovers diffidently in the background. Even though it sits directly within view, it would easily escape the casual observer’s notice.

This only surviving portrait of Charlotte reflects the apparent position of many women. They hover in the background, metaphorically and spatially. Where their names survive, they play second fiddle to men’s names and achievements. And, too often, we can barely get a clear enough view of them to put a face to the name. The tiny glimpse we get of Charlotte raises more questions than answers.

Charlotte was born in 1718, the same year her father died. She never knew him personally, yet she owned a copy of Shakespeare’s Fourth Folio. Nicholas Rowe based his 1709 edition of Shakespeare primarily on the Fourth Folio which, at the time, was the most recently published version of the plays. It was also highly inaccurate, containing substantially different texts to those published in Shakespeare’s time and the First Folio (1623). Modern editors, who regard Shakespeare’s language as almost sacred, aim to recover it as accurately as possible. Today, the Fourth Folio’s differences are damning.

But that’s not how many of Rowe’s contemporaries would have seen it. From the late seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, writers and editors often took a liberty that would horrify Bardolaters today: they rewrote Shakespeare. Unthinkable though it seems to us, it wasn’t uncommon for Shakespeareans to take it upon themselves to ‘improve’ the plays. Nahum Tate, the Poet Laureate before Rowe, was put off by the unbearably tragic ending of King Lear—so he simply rewrote the play to give it a happy ending. In fact, it was Tate’s version, in which Lear and his beloved daughter Cordelia survive, and not Shakespeare’s original which ends in both characters’ deaths, that was performed on the English stage from 1681 until the mid-nineteenth century. For more than a hundred years, Shakespeare’s King Lear wasn’t Shakespeare’s King Lear!

In some ways, Rowe was ahead of his time. He pioneered many editorial features of Shakespeare’s plays that we take for granted: he divided the plays into five acts each, added stage directions, and included a Dramatis Personae, or list of characters, at the beginning of each play. He also claimed that he had compared “several Editions” to reproduce as nearly as possible “the Exactness of the Author’s Original Manuscripts.” In reality, his edition shows that he simply followed the Fourth Folio, and even included several plays incorrectly attributed to Shakespeare. But, in a time of Tates who freely abridged Shakespeare’s works, it was the thought that counted. Rowe was the first to express a desire to recover the author’s own versions—and Shakespeare’s original words have been pearls which editors have sought ever since.

That the daughter whom Rowe never met owned a copy of the Fourth Folio raises some unanswerable questions. Was this inscribed book her father’s copy, perhaps inherited after his death? Did Charlotte long to know more about the father she would never meet? And how might such a desire have driven her interest in Shakespeare? How would she have read a play like King Lear, in which death thwarts a reunion between a father and daughter? And is there a copy of Rowe’s 1709 six-volume edition with his daughter’s signature still waiting to be found—or have these volumes been drowned in the tides of time if they ever existed at all?

On these questions, Charlotte’s copy of the Fourth Folio is as silent as the grave. The book contains no further substantial annotations beyond her signature. Charlotte herself died at the age of twenty-one, giving birth to a daughter, Charlotte Fane (1739-1762), who would die, in her turn, at the age of twenty-three. The bare skeleton of these facts survives to tantalize us with truths we many never conjure from the pages of books. Charlotte’s Fourth Folio whispers,

Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

The Tempest (1.2.474–479)

So Shakespeare seemed to Rowe—so Rowe might have seemed to Charlotte. So Charlotte appears to us.

The best historical writing makes the past and its inhabitants come alive. But what are we to do with those individuals who have undergone a sea change into something strange and elusive? Many women’s histories exist but remain undiscovered—but even more have been reduced to flickers and flashes, as indistinct as water is in water. In the face of large-scale social inequity and subsequent historical neglect, women have disappeared into the books they owned and read. As a result, rare books are some of the most evocative places we can look for and attempt to discover them. When we do so, whether as historians or curious readers, we seek the pearls of great price that humankind has unwisely thrown away: the books and people time’s tempests have submerged.

Many heartfelt thanks go to Rhiannon Knol for showing me this book and, as ever, to the members of the Books and Manuscripts Division at Christie’s, for their warm and wonderful support.

Source: Book offered for sale by Christie’s, September 14, 2021. All images reproduced with permission.

Richard Allestree, The Ladies Calling (1673)

This copy of a second edition of Richard Allestree’s The Ladies Calling has an interesting set of marks showing a rich history of ownership. Allestree’s books have been featured repeatedly on this blog, showing the special interest of female readers in his conduct manual with its sections on modesty, meekness, compassion, piety, and other feminine virtues as well as, in the second part, explanations of expectations for virgins, wives, and widows.

This particular copy was clearly a treasured book, as its beautiful morocco binding and gold decorations suggest.

The foredge features additional decoration with angels’ faces and flowers.

The title pages, endpaper, and flyleaves of the book show both women and men read it and wanted to mark their ownership. The title page has been marked by a woman named Elice Christmas, whose hand suggest a later date.

Inside the book, there are two male bookplates, the first of which tells us the book belonged at some point to Harry Lawrence Bradfer Lawrence (1887-1965), an antiquarian and book collector.

The page preceding and the page featuring the frontispiece provide us with names of three previous owners. The bookplate tells us it belonged to Sir Edward Wilmot (1693-1786), a physician and later baronet from Derby. A woman named Mary Pooley wrote her inscription above the frontispiece.

Perhaps most interestingly, the third inscription shows evidence of female gift giving: “Mrs Chathrine Orson her book Given her by Mrs Cathrine Buttler anno Domini 1698.”

The use of “Mrs” for both owner and gift giver hints at a kind of formality, perhaps indicative of their relationship. But it also suggests that this inscription serves less as a personal moment in that relationship, and instead hints at an awareness of the fact that others will read it. As the reader records that one “Mrs” had given the book to another, she seems to be making a public self-representation of her own status and that of her friend that can be read alongside the book’s content. Both she and her friend, the inscription suggests, meet the expectations set by Allestree for proper, married womanhood.

Book offered for sale by Wisdompedlars, sold on 11/29/2020. Images reproduced with permission.

George Herbert, The Temple (1633)

This copy of a second edition of George Herbert’s The Temple has a fascinating provenance, beyond what is usually our upper date limit of 1800, so I felt it was worth a post even though this is not strictly speaking an instance of early modern female book ownership.

Herbert’s book is signed on the title page by Rufus Greene, who helpfully added the date and place of acquisition, London, July 23, 1728. Greene (1707-1777) was a Boston silversmith whose works can be found today in museums, such as the Fitchburg Art Museum.

Image of a tankard in the Fitchburg Art Museum on Wikimedia.

1728, the date in the inscription, is both the year of his marriage and the year he started his business. A portrait of Greene’s wife, Katherine Stanbridge, by John Singleton Copley sold at auction in 2017 and is currently in the Young Museum. Their daughter, Katherine Greene Amory (1731-1777), is today well known for the journal she kept during the American Revolution. She and her husband, John Amory, were loyalists who departed for England, leaving their children in America.

Katherine’s son John Amory Jr married Catherine Willard and their daughter, Catherine Willard Amory (1794-1831) wrote her own signature in Herbert’s book.

Her inscription shows her desire to give us both her family history and the history of the book’s ownership: “Catherine W. Amory formerly belonging to her Great Grandfather Rufus Greene.”

One of her portraits, by Alvan Clarke, was painted in the year of her death and is currently at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Portrait at the Museum of Fine Arts; reproduced from Wikimedia.

While we do not know when Catherine W. Amory made the inscription, it skips over the generations between herself and her great-grandfather, creating a direct link between nineteenth- and eighteenth-century ownership of Herbert’s famous collection of poems and between the two of them as readers.

Source: Book offered for sale by Manhattan Rare Books, July 2021. Images reproduced with permission.

Ben Jonson, Workes (1616, 1640)

This set of Ben Jonson’s Workes includes a first volume printed in 1616 and a second volume printed in 1640. The first volume shows an interesting instance of use of an older manuscript as endpaper.

Pen trials appear on the flyleaf of the volume and a bookplate has been pasted onto the endpaper. The bookplate belonged to John Stackhouse, possibly the botanist, whose bookplate is in a collection in the British Museum.

For our purposes the second volume is even more interesting. The title page, which shows the book was printed for Richard Meighen, has several inscriptions on it that show women’s interest in displaying their ownership.

A “William Owen Esq” has signed the book twice, once around the word “Viz.” and his name appears again twice times before the list of plays, as if appropriating each title as his. At the very top of the page, a relative has written “Madm Elizabeth Owen her book.” The same name appears between the lines immediately below, and perhaps she is also the person who has copied the date, 1640, and the word “Printed” at the bottom of the page. The positioning of the “her book” phrase at the very top seems designed to override all other claims to ownership below.

Still, the name Elizabeth appears three more times on the page, twice crossed out, as is made visible by RetroReveal.

Although it is difficult to read the last name or other words that have been crossed out and we cannot tell whether these are by the same woman, it is clear that the female owner or owners of the volume wanted to mark their ownership on the title page. Title pages can, as in this instance, become spaces for competing marks and pen trials, as we have seen before on this blog.

Source: book offered for sale by Whitmore Rare Books, July 2021. Images reproduced with permission.

Book of Common Prayer (1676)

By Steve Murdoch

In the University Library of Uppsala University there is evidence of female book ownership. In this case it is a 1676 copy of the English Book of Common Prayer noted simply as an English volume from the seventeenth century on a library shelf-mark pasted on the inside cover.[1] There are several notable features about this book. The title page is missing, but otherwise the binding and remaining pages are in reasonably good order.

Ownership of this work is attributed to Anna Elisabeth Leyell (fl.1696), whose inscription reads:

Anna Elisabeth Leyell
Hir. Book. Borne
the twenty seventh
Day of Aprill
Anno Christi
1696

On the outer end-leaf a marginal note has been added. It has been struck out and rendered illegible although the initials ‘F.G.L’ remain visible (as you can see here).[2] To date, that is where the biographic interest in or knowledge of this work has ended.

However, we can certainly say more about owner of the book than the brief entry in the library catalogue allows and perhaps even speculate at the provenance of it. We are helped to some degree by a prayer found on the page opposite to the dedication to Anna Elisabeth. It is written in very clear English hand.

Photograph by Helena Backman.

O Holy and Eternal Jesus, who hast
begotten by thy word, renewed us by
thy Spirit, fed us by thy Sacrements
and by the daily ministry of thy word,
Still goe on to build us up to life eternall
let thy most holy Spirit be present,
with me and rest upon me in the –
hearing thy sacred word, that I may doe
it humbly, reverently, without –
Prejudice, with a mynd ready and desireous
to learnne and to obey, that I may be –
readily furnished and Instructed to Every
good work, and may practice all thy –
Holy lawes and Commandments, –
to the glorie of thy holy name, o holy
and Eternal Jesus amen –[3]

In 1694, the Swedish Crown and Church began to seriously clamp down on non-Lutherans in the country. The British Resident, Dr John Robinson, noted that foreigners were being forced to either embrace Lutheranism or “have no exercise of religion” at all.[4] New restrictions from the Swedish Church against Anglicans were certainly recorded by Robinson again in 1695.[5] However, as an ordained Church of England minister it is unimaginable that Robinson did not continue to preach to his countrymen thereafter in the sanctuary of the English Residence. This is where both the date and survival of Anna Elisabeth’s Book of Common Prayer is of particular interest.

The book was presented to Anna Elisabeth to celebrate her birth in the period immediately following the legislation designed to thwart any non-Lutheran confessional practices as observed by Robinson. Nevertheless, we know that the British community of resident Scots and English continued to hold services in private houses in both Stockholm and Gothenburg for this purpose.[6] Sometimes they were joined by French Huguenots and Dutch Calvinists. The fact that so many types of non-Lutherans could meet together in solidarity in spite of the persecution of their confession may well explain the language used on Anna Elisabeth’s book plate. We know for sure it was not her native language, nor that of her parents. Indeed, the Leyell family is extremely well known as Kathrin Zickermann (among others) has demonstrated.[7]

When looking into Anna Elisabeth’s heritage we can, thanks to her book ownership, expand on the brief information given in the library catalogue and point out, if not correct, some information about her in other sources. For example, in the Swedish peerage, Anna Elisabeth’s date of birth is given as 7 April 1696, some 20 days in error compared to the entry in her book.[8] She was born in Älvkarleö in the north of the Uppsala region and lived until 20 April 1762. Anna Elisabeth was one of ten siblings, all children of David Leyell and Margareta Lundia (aka Mörling). This is of great interest to historical linguists and scholars of language retention as both her parents were Swedish-born and educated. Her father was born in Stockholm in 1660, the son of a Scottish immigrant merchant, David Leyell of Arbroath. Her mother was adopted by her noble stepfather, Lars Månsson Mörling.

Photograph by Helena Backman.

And this brings us back to the question of who presented her with the Anglican Book of Common Prayer? The dedication and the prayer opposite are written in English and not the Scots of Anna Elisabeth’s migrant grandparents. It was certainly gifted by someone who was keen to maintain an Anglican association and British heritage. Given the date, the language and the book, and inscription, one could be tempted to speculate that it came from a friend of the family – perhaps even Rev Dr John Robinson himself. A comparison of Robinson’s contemporary diplomatic correspondence to the prayer reveals a close similarity in the clarity and style of language, but with too many small differences to persuade a seasoned paleographer to identify him definitively as the source.[9] He may have moderately formalized his style compared to that used in his correspondence given what he was writing and the book he was inscribing it in. More likely is that it was someone of similar education from among the wider English community. Nevertheless, we have certainly been able to flesh out the details of the owner and hope that the catalogue entry is amended to bring Anna Elisabeth Leyell back into historical focus.

We would like to thank Helena Backman from Uppsala University Library for providing us with digital images of the book consulted for this blog, and Emma Forsberg for facilitating our initial contact with the library team.

Source: Uppsala University Library. Images reproduced with permission.


[1] “Uppsala Univ. Bibliotek. Bokband 1600-t, England, I.” See Uppsala University Library, The book of common prayer, and administration of the sacraments, and other rites and ceremonies of the Church. According to the use of the Church of England; together with the Psalter or Psalms of David, pointed as they are to be sung or said in churches. London, printed by the assigns of John Bill and Christopher Barker, printers to the Kings most excellent majesty 1676. Cum privilegio, 1676.

[2] Speculatively Frederika Georgina Leijel (1835–1865), a member of the same Swedish Leyell family (though not a descendant of Anna Elisabeth). Further research will be required to establish this. She does appear to be the best fit of the Leyell family assuming that is what the ‘L’ stands for.

[3] The prayer is published in Rev Jeremy Taylor, The rule and exercises of holy living. In which are described the means and instruments of obtaining every vertue, and the remedies against every vice, and considerations serving to the resisting all temptations. Together with prayers containing the whole duty of a Christian, and the parts of devotion fitted to all occasions, and furnish’d for all necessities, Robert Vaughan, engraver. (Printed by R. Norton for Richard Royston at the Angel in Ivielane, London, 1650), p.373. Ad Sect. 4, “A prayer to be said before hearing or reading the word of God.” For more on Taylor and his works see John Spurr, “Taylor, Jeremy (bapt.1613, d. 1667), Church of Ireland bishop of Down and Connor and religious writer.” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. https://www-oxforddnb-com.ezproxy.st-andrews.ac.uk/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-27041.

[4] June Milne, “The Diplomacy of Dr John Robinson at the Court of Charles XII of Sweden, 1697-1709,” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 30 (1948), p. 77

[5] John R. Ashton, “Henry Maister of Gothenburg: His Life and Times,” Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 70 (1998), p. 99.

[6] Ashton, “Henry Maister,” p. 90; Frederic Bedoire, Hugenotternas Värld: från religionskrigens Frankrike till Skeppsbroadelns Stockholm (Stockholm, 2009), p. 217.

[7] Kathrin Zickermann, “Scottish Merchant Families in the early Modern Period,” in Northern Studies 45 (2013), pp. 100–18.

[8] Gustaf Magnus Elgenstierna, Den introducerade svenska adelns ättartavlor, 9 vols. (Stockholm, 1925–36), vol. IV, pp. 518–22.

[9] The National Archives of Great Britain, SP 32/10 f.172. Dr John Robinson to Lord Ambassador Williamson, 7 May 1698.

Roger L’Estrange, Seneca’s Morals (1682)

This book is a translation and abbreviated version (“by way of Abstract”) of Seneca’s Epistulae morales, originally published in 1678 by Roger L’Estrange. The man now known as a fervent royalist and censor of the press after the Restoration published a number of translations, but this was the most popular (ODNB). Interestingly, this edition of the treatise, with its explanation of stoic morals presented as a beneficial and conducive to a happy life, came out in the middle of a strong Whig propaganda offensive against L’Estrange and shortly after he had survived accusations of being a Catholic and of involvement in the Popish plot. From 1681, he began to publish The Observator, a periodical which was to become, as Harold Love notes, “the most powerful organ of tory propaganda” (ODNB).

It is difficult to imagine that the first owners of this edition of the book L’Estrange translated were unaware of his politics. Ownership of the book, in other words, provides some potential indication of the owner’s stance in contemporary controversy, even if the bulk of the book itself does not directly address it.

This particular copy was a present from a mother to a daughter. It is inscribed, “Margrett Lowther geven me by my Mother 1692” and underneath, there is another inscription that reads “Margrett Lowther her book.”

I have been unable to locate the Margaret Lowther in question (FamilySearch comes up with several possibilities). The other signature, both on the flyleaf and on the title page and possibly by Margaret’s mother or another relative, is not easy to decipher (“H. Lowther”?).

It seems Margaret practiced writing in two different hands, and the capital letter M also shows that this is both signature and an instance of a pen trial.

By 1692, four years after the Glorious Revolution and fourteen years after the book’s original publication, L’Estrange was politically powerless, plagued by ill health and other personal tragedies, himself probably much in need of Seneca’s advice. Margaret Lowther may not have known much about L’Estrange if she was young when she received the book from her mother, but L’Estrange’s epistle “To the Reader” makes ample mention of seventeenth-century politics and accuses the Whigs of being impostors and hypocrites. Politics aside, women throughout the early modern period were attracted to stoicism, and this maternal gift shows a desire to convey Senecan philosophy to a daughter in an accessible form. What is interesting about the book is that it is ostensibly directed at male readers, and Seneca’s advice is, unlike other advice books presented to early modern young women, not specifically geared to the female experience.

Source: offered for sale by Wisdompedlars, 12/10/2019, and since sold. Images reproduced with permission.

Further Reading

Love, Harold. “L’Estrange, Sir Roger (1616–1704), author and press censor.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. https://www-oxforddnb-com.csulb.idm.oclc.org/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-16514.

Richard Allestree, The Ladies Calling (1696)

Richard Allestree is a perennial favorite among early modern readers, and we have repeatedly featured books by him on this website. Among those books, The Ladies Calling seems to have been especially popular. This is the third time the book has come up on the blog, and there are certain to be more.

The book, with its impressive frontispiece, was recently sold along with the companion volume The Gentleman’s Calling, which features, as the bookseller notes, contains an owner’s inscriptions by William Moore, written when he was attending the university.

The Ladies Calling, in its fourth edition, was bound very carefully, with floral devices and, originally, gilt edges, showing a degree of investment in the book, which may be have been a gift.

The female ownership inscription reads “Ann Ambrose her book 1720.”

Ambrose2
Ambrose1

Source: Book offered for sale by Page One, Too on 6/10/19. Images used with permission.

Mary Collyer and Salomon Gessner, The Death of Abel (1776)

By Dylan Lewis

Fig. 1. Margaret Anne Dewes’s Her Book inscription in Mary Collyer and Salomon Gessner, The death of Abel. In five books. Attempted from the German of Mr. Gessner, 11th ed. (London, 1776). Eighteenth-Century Collections Online, link.gale.com/apps/doc/CW0111720250/ECCO?u=umd_um&sid=ECCO&xid=e6faa859.

This (Fig. 1) is Margaret Anne Dewes’s copy of The Death of Abel. It was a gift from her aunt, E. Eldridge in 1776, which we know from the Her Book inscription. I stumbled upon this book completely by accident while browsing the Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO) database one day for another project investigating Anglo-German print relations in the long eighteenth century. Because this inscription is not catalogued or tagged anywhere on ECCO, I have not been able to find more of her books in ECCO, and a short series of searches have not yielded information about her in any other online records or archives. I continue to know nothing about her other than that she owned this copy of The Death of Abel and that it was a gift from her aunt E. Eldridge in 1776.

Fig. 2. Sarah Smith’s Her Book Inscription in Salomon Gessner, The death of Abel : in five books. Attempted from the German of Mr. Gessner (London, 1790?). The British Library, access.bl.uk/item/viewer/ark:/81055/vdc_100044408121.0x000001.

I found another copy of The Death of Abel with a Her Book inscription recently, this time in the British Library’s online database instead of ECCO (Fig. 2). This copy is the twenty-eighth edition from 1790 [?], owned by Sarah Smith, and was a gift from “her Dearest mother Ann(e) Wright.” Like Margaret Anne Dewes’s book, it serves as an example of women’s book ownership inscriptions not being catalogued as part of the book’s provenance—I stumbled upon this one manually and accidentally too, so Sarah Smith’s ownership of her book remains obscured.[1]

But returning to Margaret Anne Dewes’s book, the text itself is the eleventh edition of The Death of Abel, an English translation of an epic poem written by Swiss author Salomon Gessner titled Der Tod des Abels, first published in German in 1758 (Fig. 3). Gessner lived in Zürich and was a painter, graphic artist, government official, newspaper publisher, and poet. He was also one of the first German poets to receive international fame.[2] He lived briefly in Berlin for an apprenticeship at a bookstore but stayed only for a year, deciding instead to move back to Zürich and dedicate himself to art and poetry. Gessner’s father, Hans Konrad Gessner, was a highly influential bookseller, publisher, and printer based in Zürich.

Fig. 3. Salomon Gessner’s Der Tod des Abels (Leipzig, 1764). Google Books.

The translation of The Death of Abel from German into English was done by a woman named Mary Collyer, who worked professionally as a translator and author (Fig. 4). This particular printing is the eleventh edition from 1776, as is proudly advertised on the title page of the book, and Collyer was the translator for nearly all of the many English editions starting in 1761. In fact, Collyer’s translation of The Death of Abel was one of the bestselling translated literary works during her life, evidenced by the extremely high number of authorized and pirated editions the work went through in a relatively short time span.[3]

Fig. 4. Title page to Margaret Anne Dewes’s copy of The Death of Abel.

Just the Gessners were right at the heart of the book trade, so, too, were the Collyers. Mary Collyer’s husband, Joseph Collyer Sr, was a publisher and translator and served as the publisher for Mary’s translations, which means he financed the project and worked with printers and booksellers to have the book produced. In this case, the printer was a T. Jones, who had a shop at Cliffords Inn Gate on Fetter Lane, where he also sold copies of the text. Their son, Joseph Collyer Jr, was an engraver, who eventually became the portrait artist to Queen Charlotte, and he did the engravings for his mother’s various editions of The Death of Abel.

Mary Collyer dedicates her translation of the text to Queen Charlotte, her patron, emphasizing the German connection between Gessner’s original poem and Queen Charlotte’s “Native Language” of German (Fig. 5). I have tried to do some research on why the Collyers were so specialized in translating from English to German, which was not common at all in the eighteenth century as Germany and its disparate kingdoms were fairly obscure in the English cultural imagination compared to more centralized “nations” such as France, Italy, and Spain, though I haven’t been able to find much.[4] Perhaps they learned German for commercials reasons, such as to secure steady patronage with Queen Charlotte who originally hailed from Mecklenburg-Strelitz, a small German duchy in the Holy Roman Empire.

Fig. 5. Two pages from Mary Collyer’s six-page Dedication in Margaret Anne Dewes’s copy of The Death of Abel.

Regardless, at the end of the text an advertisement is given for three other German translated works also published by Joseph Collyer Sr, but this time for works translated by Joseph instead of Mary. The titles listed are English translations of 1) The Messiah (orig. Der Messias) by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, 2) Noah by Johann Jakob Bodmer, and 3) The History of Sophia Sternheim (orig. Die Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim), which the advertisement lists as “attempted from the German of Mr Wieland” (Fig. 6)…

Fig. 6: Advertisements in the back of Margaret Anne Dewes’s copy of The Death of Abel.

… except this isn’t actually correct at all. Christoph Martin Wieland is not, in fact, the author of Die Geschichte des Fräuleins von SternheimSophie von La Roche, the first published German woman writer, is! Wieland, a German author and personal acquaintance of La Roche’s, served as the editor and publisher of the novel, and La Roche’s authorship of the text was continually questioned or erased in both German editions and English translations the entire time the book was available in print prior to the twentieth century. My ongoing work continues to explore the bibliographic connections between Margaret Anne Dewes, Mary Collyer, and Sophie von La Roche, as well as the multiple ways these women’s contributions to book production in the eighteenth century have been erased. Margaret Anne Dewes’s Her Book reveals the expansive possibilities of exploring ownership inscriptions by women.

Sources: Eighteenth Century Collections Online/The British library and Google Books. Images reproduced with permission.


[1] I note these absences in the catalog fully aware of the immense backlog and lack of resources that librarians and catalogers face. Since there is nothing particularly special about the texts or specific books I discuss in this post, it would be quite surprising if they had detailed catalog entries or information provided beyond basic bibliographic identification. However, I hope my work stresses the importance of cataloging ownership inscriptions as part of a book’s provenance, especially in the case of Her Books.

[2] Alessa Johns has explored Salomon Gessner’s international appeal in her book Bluestocking Feminism and British-German Cultural Transfer, 1750-1837 (University of Michigan Press, 2014). Typographically, Fig. 3 shows the printer’s utilization of Roman type on the title page rather than Blackletter in order to appeal to a more international (namely English and French) readership, despite the text’s German language.

[3] The bibliographic record for Collyer’s The Death of Abel is incomplete and fragmentary, but I have seen evidence of over thirty-five editions of the text produced between 1761 and 1800. Editions of the text continued to be published into the nineteenth century, often with newly appended material.

[4] The period of British history from 1714–1837 is called the Personal Union, which is when the kings of Great Britain were also the electors of Hanover in Germany. While the cultural and political impact of the Hanoverian kings and queens of Great Britain has been well-canvased by historians and cultural anthropologists, there is currently a severe lack of scholarship on the Personal Union from a purely book history perspective. As a result, we know little about Mary Collyer and Joseph Collyer Sr.’s work as translators from German to English and their relationship with Queen Charlotte.

King James Bible (1619)

This is one of many bibles we have featured on this blog, and like most of the others, it is an object that fascinating for the extent to which it bears the signs of usage by the family that owned it. This early seventeenth-century King James bible was printed only eight years of the appearance of the very first one; it is bound together with a 1673 copy of the Book of Psalms.

Throughout the book we find scribbling and handwriting, much of it not entirely clear, and some of it apparently by a young person or child. Much of the writing takes the form of conventional family history, noting births of the annotator and family members. As Adam Smyth notes, in his lovely newsletter on the bible of his own family and other early bibles, “These inscriptions represent a reader’s impulse to assert her presence, her place in time, her relationship to an important book, and that evidence of her aliveness is still legible today. These inscriptions have a kind of depth or texture because they record both an exact moment when the note was written (the I-am-here-ness), and immediately imagine a future when that record will be read as past (the I-was-here-ness).” Other inscriptions, if we can call them that, seem much less aware of future readers.

The page below shows that the bible is bound with the Book of Common Prayer. The inscription on the page begins “When the wicked man turneth…,” a quotation from Ezekiel 18:27, “when the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness that he hath committed, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive.” The inscription seems as much to emphasize the quotation as it is a pen trial, though the quotation itself does not appear on this page, so the writer is not simply copying.

Another hand is seen at the bottom of the left page below with a cryptic inscription. It seems to give an incomplete date, “17th 1542” perhaps followed by “J was buried 23 day,” so this may be an item of family history, but if so, only as a reminder to the annotator, not for any other reader.

On this page appear pen trials of numbers, some writing, and a drawing, along with further scribbling next to the dedication to the bible.

There is also the conventional listing of family members, including Mary Chide or Childe, Richard Webb, John Webb, and Mary Webb, along with further calculations, perhaps of ages. But the family history is not as neatly listed as in many other bibles that expect future reading by descendants and others–instead it appears to take the form of pen trials, with its repetition and combination of diagonal and horizontal writing.

Clearer birth dates for Mary Childe and John Webb are given below. Perhaps the writer was practicing for these inscriptions on the page above.

And a further list of family members with now faded dates of birth are given on the page below, some in a different hand. It includes another female member of the family, Ann Webb. A delightful animal of some sort appears among the inscriptions.

Yet another page lists a James Webb in a different hand, along with a location, Eynsford, allowing us to situate this family tentatively in Kent.

For this particular family, the blank pages of the bible, book of prayer, and psalms were a space to record family history, do pen trials, make calculations, and do drawings. The book was used by different family members, probably of different generations, and to different ends. Such scattered writing shows the degree to which the bible could be a book that was not only cherished but also actively in use in the household, open to appropriation and modification by all members of the family, male and female, young and old. We cannot know to what extent or which notations are by women, but their presence as members of the family is clearly marked and kept for posterity.

Source: Book offered for sale by moonlandingpro on 3/1/2020; since sold. Images reproduced with permission.

Ovid’s Epistles Translated by Several Hands (1680)

Also known as the Heroides, Ovid’s epistles saw their first print translation by George Turberville in 1567. The Heroides are made up of fifteen epistolary poems between famous lovers: Penelope to Odysseus, Medea to Jason, Sappho to Phaon, and so on. This 1680 edition is noteworthy for its preface by John Dryden. “[Y]et this may be said in behalf of Ovid, that no man has ever treated the Passion of Love with so much Delicacy of Thought, and of Expression, or search’d into the nature of it more Philosophically than he,” he writes (A3v).

This copy contains two early owner’s inscriptions. The first, John Sibthorpe, wrote his name on the title page. There were a couple John Sibthorpes of note, including the MP (1669–1718) and botanist (1758–1796), and either could have plausibly owned this book. The inscription that draws the most attention though, if only for its considerably larger size, is on the title page verso.

It reads in a neat italice hand: “Mrs Anne Ayssoghe / her Booke / Jan ye 26 / 1684.” Anne’s unique spelling of her surname has made it difficult to determine what the modern spelling may be (Assow? Eishow?) and thus her identity remains a mystery for now. What does seem to be clear is that she signed (if not acquired) the book on January 26th, 1684 and that she was married at the time she owned this text of romance, passion, and love spurned.

Source: Book offered for sale by Julian Roberts Fine Books in October 2020 and since sold. Images used with permission.

Thomas Fuller, The Historie of the Holy Warre (1651)

This is the third time our blog has featured a book by clergyman and royalist Thomas Fuller, showing the enduring popularity of his work among women readers. Our last post was about The Church History of Britain, a timely work with a historical account of the lead-up to the Civil Wars, owned by Arundell Penruddock, wife of the ill-fated royalist conspirator John Penruddock. The Historie of the Holy Warre had less immediate relevance, dealing with the history of the crusades.

It is easy to see why this book would be a favorite with readers, as it includes both an impressive frontispiece and a foldout map, indicative of a general readerly interest in maps and visuals in historical works of this kind.

The other copy of this work we featured on this blog included female writing that suggested possibly a younger owner. As in that copy, this particular copy features elaborate handwriting, but in this case it is impressive calligraphy, a favorite pastime of women, who could thus show their versatility with the pen.

What makes this copy particularly interesting is its apparent Anglo-Dutch provenance. Interestingly, a former owner with a Dutch name, Gaspar vanden Bussche, signed with the English phrase “his book,” dating his inscription 1673. Anna Dilbo, whose last name is English, signed with Dutch phrasing, “Anno 1662 Den 24 octobre in London.” The proximity in date of the two inscriptions and the evidence of the last names as well as the phrasing of the inscriptions (and the location in Anna’s) point to a family with a history of crossing between the two countries.

Source: Book offered for sale by Wisdompedlars, sold October 4, 2020. Images reproduced with permission.

Henry Isaacson, Saturni Ephemerides (1633)

Known today more for its distinctive engraved title page by William Marshall (the illustrator responsible for the frontispiece in Eikon Basilike of a kneeling King Charles I) than its content, Saturni Ephemerides, sive, Tabula Historico-Chronologica was written by theologian Henry Isaacson (1581–1654) and published in 1633. It was never reprinted, but judging by the high number of surviving copies reported to the ESTC, the print run seems to have been sufficient to meet public demand.

Writes Joel Faber of the Centre for Renaissance and Reformation Studies:

The six pages of “authorities” Isaacson references range from Ovid and Boccaccio to Bede and Holinshed. The first section offers an abridged history of the “Four Monarchies” (Assyria, Persia, Greece, and Rome) before moving to the chronology table which comprises most of the book. Isaacson begins this section with the biblical patriarchs and proceeds through to the time of the book’s composition with various European locations each receiving their own columns. Alongside each year Isaacson also includes noteworthy events such as the founding of cities, universities, and the births and deaths of famous figures such as Sir Philip Sidney and John Harington with notes about their accomplishments. Appended to the work is a Christian history of Britain that lists the successions of bishops and archbishops. At the end of the book is an index which organizes the “famous men” that Isaacson includes into categories such as poets, musicians, philosophers, mathematicians, painters, grammarians, and others.

This copy is noteworthy for the inscription on A1v, The Frontispiece Explained. Beneath the tailpiece, the former owner made the inscription “Wm Thompson booke / bought of mrs Susanna Pelham.” Thompson also signed the book at the foot of the title page.

Thompson’s hand appears to date from the seventeenth century. The intriguing inscription raises more questions than it answers. Neither William Thompson or Susanna Pelham can be easily identified, Thompson because his name is so common, Susanna because there are many possible permutations and spellings of her name, from Susan to Suzanne. It seems likely that she was a private seller, though how she came to signal that her book was for sale and how she attracted Thompson as a buyer is unknown. Was she a former owner and reader of the book? Or was the book one of many wares she was offering for sale, not necessarily a personal possession? At any rate, it was a transaction and not a gift, as so many books exchanged between women and men were.

Source: Book offered for sale by Forest Books in May 2021. Images used with permission.

Citations

Joel Faber (20 November, 2018). “New Acquisition: Saturni Ephemerides Sive Tabula Historico-Chronologica (1633).” Centre for Renaissance and Reformation Studies. https://crrs.ca/news/saturni-ephemerides/