Hannah Woolley’s The Queen-like Closet (1681)

One of the more interesting considerations as this blogging site progresses will be tracing the regularity of specific books that bear female inscriptions. Tentative research findings have found that religious works, particularly bibles but also prayer books, psalters, and sermons, feature prominently among female book collections [1]. In a world where faith and religious convictions were a central component of early modern life this is hardly surprising. Consequently books that are neither religious nor theological usually spike our interests because they offer different perspectives of women’s individual reading habits and preferences. When female-authored works come to light it raises equally fascinating questions about gendered reading practices and the reputation of women writers. (On this, a search through the RECIRC database is well worth your time!)

‘Ann Webb hur book’
‘Elizab Webb her book’

Of the female-authored works we might expect to find women’s ownership inscriptions are books by the noted English writer Hannah Woolley, who published on household topics such as recipes and domestic advice [2]. Sure enough, she is no stranger to this website featuring on two occasions already. Her Gentlewoman’s Companion; or, a Guide to the Female Sex – a hugely popular work published in 1673 that outlined how women should behave – was owned by Ann Starkey (you can access the post here). Another favourite among female readers was Woolley’s The Queen-like Closet, Or, Rich Cabinet; the sole illustration depicting six scenes of women in the kitchen serving as a clear reminder of its target audience. It recorded an impressive five editions between 1670 and 1685. A recent post (click here) has uncovered a copy of the first edition being in the possession of Thomasin Francklyn from Hampshire. But now we can reveal a third (and fourth!) female admirer of Woolley’s works.

The six scenes include a woman adding mixture into a three-legged pot over an open fire, distilling medicine, making bread, and cooking dinner using pots on a spit over a fire

Ann and Elizabeth Webb’s ownership of the fourth edition of The Queen-like Closet (1681) is striking for a number of reasons. First, it reaffirms the continued appeal for Woolley’s work on household management among women. The Webbs’ desire for a copy eleven years on from when it first went to press highlights Woolley’s increasing influence and the significant contribution she had on matters concerning domestic life.

Th fourth edition of Woolley’s The Queen-like Closet, published in 1681, owned by Ann and Elizabeth Webb

Second, the inscription marks left by Ann and Elizabeth leave tantalising questions about who owned the book. Do they indicate single or dual ownership? Could it be that it was initially purchased by Ann and subsequently handed down to Elizabeth? What might their relationship say about reading practices? If they were mother and daughter, or sisters, does this add to our understanding of the influence senior female figures had on the reading habits of younger kinswomen?

Third, while female ownership of The Queen-like Closet is unsurprising, the fact that Ann and Elizabeth stamped their names on their copy suggests they greatly valued the book. Furthermore, it builds on our expanding knowledge about how texts by women were circulated. Most important of all, it sheds further light on the reputation of early modern women writers [3].

Source: Huntington Library, Rare Books 424744. Photographs by Martine van Elk, reproduced with permission.

Further Reading:

[1] Marie-Louise Coolahan and Mark Empey, “Women’s Book Ownership and the Reception of Early Modern Women’s Texts, 1545–1700,” Women’s Bookscapes in Early Modern Britain: Ownership, Circulation, Reading, ed. Leah Knight, Elizabeth Sauer and Micheline White (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2018).

[2] Wendy Wall, Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern English Kitchen, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).

[3] For more on this visit RECIRC: The Reception and Circulation of Early Modern Women’s Writing, 1550-1700: https://recirc.nuigalway.ie

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