As this blogging site indicates the vast majority of discoveries tend to be inscriptions of a single owner. Yet bibliophilism was not always an individual hobby and book ownership was certainly not a private matter. Collective ownership involving women (wives, sisters or daughters) did exist and, crucially, plays a vital role in our understanding of women’s engagement with reading and books.
Thomas and Isabella Hervey’s copy of Thomas More’s Utopia is of considerable importance, not least because it adds to the relatively small number of spousal inscriptions. Together, the couple collected a moderately sized library of which 200 volumes are still at the family estate at Ickworth Hall in Suffolk. In addition, Emma Smith’s superb analysis of the Hervey collection has found more than thirty volumes with their name inscribed on title pages by exploring catalogues of rare book dealers and special collections. As a result, she contends that in excess of 240 extant books can be attributed to Thomas and Isabella. These were later handed down to their son John Hervey, who marked the majority with his bookplate when he was created earl of Bristol in 1702.
What is significant about Gilbert Burnet’s 1685 translation of More’s Utopia is that it does not feature in Smith’s assessment. The book’s presence on the Hervey library shelves should come as no surprise, however. Thomas and Isabella displayed an interest in philosophical writers and collected works authored by Erasmus, Montaigne, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Euclid, Seneca and Descartes.
The 1685 edition was particularly popular among late seventeenth-century readers, chiefly because of Burnet’s editorial changes. He made it more readable compared to the original translation by Raphe Robinson in 1551. In the preface, Burnet stated:
for as it is in the English of his [More’s] Age, and not unlike his Style; so the Translator has taken a Liberty that seems too great for any but the Author himself, who is Master of his own Book, and so may leave out or alter his Original as he pleases…
Burnet’s modernised text, together with the range of other philosophical works owned by Thomas and Isabella, tentatively suggests they intended to read Utopia rather than purchase it for antiquarian purposes.
It is not just the evidence of spousal ownership that is fascinating. In a radio programme for BBC (available to UK residents only: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b078658m, between 26-31 mins), Smith examines the signatures on their books. She contends that the use of first names indicate a specific form of intimacy. The preference of ‘Tho: & Isabella’ was more a declaration of the couple’s love for one another than a simple mark of ownership. In other words, there was a sentimental and emotional attachment to reading literary texts. As Smith argues it “seems to convey ‘we were here.’ Part of the work of the inscription is to acknowledge Thomas’s changed status as a married man, perhaps particularly after a wearyingly long courtship: ‘I’m married! Look!’”
Though the inscriptions are seemingly marked in Thomas’s hand it should not take away from Isabella’s love of books and her husband. Nor should we dismiss the role she surely had in the decision behind the rather unique inscription of “Tho: & Isabella.”
Emma Smith, “The Seventeenth-Century Library of Thomas and Isabella Hervey,” Early Modern English Marginalia, ed. Katherine Acheson (Abingdon: Routledge, 2019).