By V. M. Braganza
Rare books invite readings not only of their printed texts, but of their hidden histories and past lives. This copy of Samuel Daniel and John Trussel’s A Continuation of the Collection of the History of England (1636) conceals within its pages a surreptitious tie to a famous moment in early modern performance history.
The volume, bound in contemporary calfskin, bears an inscription on the recto of its initial endleaf (below) identifying its owner thus: “Ex Dono Honoratissima Socrûs | D[omi]na Arabella St John ./ | Eduardus wise”. 
This standard Latin formula identifies the book as “The gift of the most honorable mother-in-law[,] Lady Arabella St John” to Edward Wise (Suarez). The giver was evidently Arabella St John (née Egerton) (ca. 1602-1671). She was the wife of Oliver St John, 4th Baron St John of Bletso and 1st Earl of Bolingbroke, and mother-in-law of Sir Edward Wise (sometimes “Wyse”) of Sydenham, thrice MP for Okehampton and the recipient of the gift (Cracroft). This latter relationship narrows the date of inscription to sometime between 1651, when Arabella’s daughter (also named Arabella) married Edward Wise, and 1671, when she herself died. The lightly scrawled “Thom[a]s” in another hand below the closural mark of the inscription was probably the work of Edward and Arabella Wise’s second son – the giver’s grandson – Thomas Wise.
The existence of such a person as Arabella Egerton St John is unlikely to set off immediate bells of recognition in anyone’s mind today, but the surname “Egerton” ought to. In fact, Lady Arabella turns out to be lurking in the background – figuratively and perhaps literally – of a very familiar scene. The setting: a wild wood where two brothers lose and recover their sister, who finds her virtue tried by a sylvan tempter. The place: Ludlow Castle, Michaelmas 1634. The performers: then thirty-two-year-old Arabella’s younger siblings, Alice (aged fifteen), John (aged eleven), and Thomas (aged eight). The entertainment, of course, was John Milton’s Comus, written for her father, John Egerton, 1st Earl of Bridgewater, in honor of his appointment as Lord President of Wales.
Whether or not Lady Arabella was actually present to witness the first performance of Milton’s Masque Presented at Ludlow Castle is a matter for further investigation. However, this book has become, as such objects often do, a carrier of many converging histories. It bears witness to, but does not illuminate in any detail, Lady Arabella’s relationship with Edward Wise, who lived with his wife’s family at Melchbourne, Bedfordshire for the first two years of his marriage, from 1651 until 1653 (Radford 361). Perhaps it was during this time that Lady Arabella gave her son-in-law the book as a token of affection or regard. The gift, in any case, suggests a network of amicable family relationships, a stark contrast to the domestic violence at the heart of the Castlehaven rapes involving Arabella’s aunt, uncle, and cousin – which, some scholars believe, inspired Comus (Marcus 243). Through its Egerton provenance, this book brushes against the unrecoverable memory of that iconic performance, tantalizing us with its proximity.
I have expanded breviographs but otherwise transcribed faithfully. Many warm thanks go to Jason Scott-Warren, Gavin Alexander, and Raphael Lyne for weighing in on the transcription.
Source: book offered for sale on eBay on 26 February 2020. Images reproduced with permission from seller Marc-Antoine Leconte.
Michael F. Suarez, ed., “Ex dono,” The Oxford Companion to the Book (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010).
“Bolingbroke, Earl of (E, 1624-1711),” Cracroft’s Peerage: The Complete Guide to the British Peerage and Baronetage.
Mrs. G.H. Radford, “Sydenham,” Reports and Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, Literature, and Art, vol. 27 (Plymouth: William Brendon & Son, 1895).
Leah S. Marcus, “Milton’s Comus,” A New Companion to Milton, ed. Thomas N. Corns (Oxford: Blackwell, 2016).