by Eileen A. Horansky
The Lewis Walpole Library (LWL) copy of Hester Chapone’s Miscellanies in Prose and Verse (LWL 53 C365 775c) features unique evidence of book ownership and reading practices in the late eighteenth century. Hester Chapone was known as an author of conduct books, a genre that grew increasingly popular as instructional material for the edification of young women in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Following the death of her husband in 1760, Chapone had turned to writing to support herself. With the encouragement of her friend and fellow Bluestocking Elizabeth Montague, as Rhoda Zuk writes in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Chapone went on to publish Letters on the Improvement of the Mind in 1773, a series of letters to her niece on the subject of education, followed by Miscellanies in Prose and Verse, a collection of essays and other writings, in 1775.
The LWL copy is the third edition of Miscellanies, published with the newly appended A Letter to a New-Married Lady in 1777. It is inscribed “Catherine Tollet, her book, bought with her own money” on the front free endpaper. This brief inscription offers few clues as to the identity of Catherine Tollet. My preliminary research uncovered a woman named Catherine Craddock who married Charles Tollet of Betley Hall in Staffordshire around 1760, had two children (a son, Charles, and a daughter, Catherine, both of whom died young), and died around 1808. However, with no evidence other than a common name linking the Catherine Tollet of Betley Hall to the woman who inscribed this book, the actual identity of Catherine Tollet is merely speculation. Regardless of her identity, the Catherine who owned this book was clearly in possession of some financial means, whether through generational wealth or her own industry, and thus had some agency in her reading choices and the books she could acquire.
The LWL copy of Miscellanies in Prose and Verse also contains unique physical evidence of how the text was read. Besides Catherine Tollet’s inscription, there is evidence of the use of pins as markers throughout the text itself. Although the original pins are not present, the holes created by the pins are still quite distinct. The use of pins as aids in the reading, editing, and even repairing of books and manuscripts is a well-documented practice throughout the early modern period.
Although Chapone was known for her (at the time) unconventional attitudes towards the education of women and female relationships, the ownership marks and other evidence present in this volume provide interesting and important context for how female readers interacted with books in the late eighteenth century.
Hester Chapone, Miscellanies in prose and verse (1777). Held at Yale University, Lewis Walpole Library. http://hdl.handle.net/10079/bibid/1736162
“Chapone [née Mulso], Hester (1727–1801),” by Rhoda Zuk, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/5128
A History of the County of Staffordshire: Volume XI: Audley, Keele and Trentham. Edited by Nigel J. Trigham, Boydell and Brewer, 2013.
Photos by Eileen A. Horansky, reproduced with permission.