Survivors from an early 18th-century woman’s library

By David Pearson

I’m always interested to see unusual marks of provenance and I was struck when a bookseller on eBay recently posted an early 18th-century book with an owner’s name, “Jane Deane” tooled onto a label pasted onto the spine, just below the title label.

Label from binding on John Potter, A discourse of church-government, 8vo, London, 1711.

I must buy that, I thought—which I did—and when a week or so later another very similar example was put up by the same dealer, a trend was emerging. On contacting him and finding out that he had three more—after I’d bought the first two—we did a deal and I now have all five together.

It’s clear that this is a little fragment of what was once a uniformly bound and labelled library, that belonged to an early 18th-century lady. The very simple bindings suggest this wasn’t an aristocratic household, but labelling like this indicates some degree of affluence, perhaps a gentry household or one which aspired in that direction. This seems about right when we identify Jane Deane; she may be the lady of that name who died in 1729 or 30, a year or so after marrying Sir John Cullum of Hastede, Suffolk, 5th baronet (d. 1774). She was the daughter of Thomas Deane of Freefolk, Hampshire (1673-ca. 1718), and the granddaughter of another Thomas Deane (1640/1-86), sometime merchant in Boston, who returned to England and bought the manor of Freefolk in the late 1670s. Jane must have been born around 1700. Her mother was also called Jane, and I haven’t traced a date of death for her; she might equally possibly be the book owner. A portrait from St Edmundsbury Museum, purporting to be Jane the daughter, is posted on the web:

Gilbert Burnet’s An exposition of the church catechism, 1710, illustrating the rebinding to make it uniform for Jane’s library.

The books themselves are exactly what I’d expect them to be – mostly devotional, with a sprinkling of history, all in English. Apart from Gilbert Burnet’s Exposition, we have William Cave’s Primitive Christianity (1676), John Potter’s Discourse of church-government (1711), William Sherlock’s Discourse concerning the happiness of good men (1705), and (for light relief) Burnet’s Abridgement of the history of the Reformation (1705).  This kind of book selection—worthy, popular, mainstream theology—is found time and again in the closets of gentry ladies in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. I’m reminded, here, of the books which Elizabeth Freke (1641-1714) noted in her diary as being put into the deal box by her fireside in 1711 (Anselment 172–75), and I would guess that if we could find more of Jane’s library, it would fit a similar pattern. There would, probably, have been one or two titles that a 21st-century mind might find more approachable, but most of Jane’s reading would have been books we rarely read today.

Having said which, I’m not sure that Jane read them much either—the freshness of the bindings, and the crisp clean leaves, suggest to me that they may have spent more time on the shelf than in her hands. There are no internal inscriptions or annotations testifying to any interaction she had with them.  What’s really valuable about these books, I think, is their survival as a little group, representative of the kind of bookshelves which must have existed in lots of ladies’ closets in these kinds of households, up and down the country.  Quite how unusual it was to label them like this is a matter for speculation—it seems hard to believe that this group is unique, but I can’t think of having seen another example quite like it.  I suspect that time has swept others away, but the beauty of having this site is that others may know of, and share, more?

Source: books in a private collection. Photos by David Pearson reproduced with permission.

Further Reading

R. A. Anselment, ed., The remembrance of Elizabeth Freke 1671-1714, Camden Society 5th ser vol. 18, Cambridge, 2001.

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