By David Pearson
Up and down the country, in early modern Britain, the houses of the better-off contained books. Our knowledge of the ways they kept them, and how many they kept, relies more on various kinds of secondary evidence than on surviving examples; houses which have not been pulled down over the centuries have been remodelled, and libraries that were once together are long since dispersed. We used to think that the emergence of library rooms in houses was more an eighteenth- than a seventeenth-century development, but scholars like Mark Purcell and Susie West have pushed back the boundaries and we now realise that we could have walked into many gentry houses in the middle of the seventeenth century and found dedicated spaces where books were kept. They might be called studies, or closets, and the lady of the house often had her own where she could retire to read the books that might legally belong to her husband but were certainly regarded as hers.
We know, from inventories, the contents of some of these closets – Elizabeth Sleigh’s 1647 list has been edited for PLRE, and Mark Empey has published the contemporary book list of Lady Margaret Heath. There is a common profile to these kinds of gentry closet collections – something between 50 and 100 books, all in English, with a heavy preponderance of theological and devotional titles, alongside a sprinkling of practical, household, horticultural, or recreational books.
Shown here is what I think is a typical example of the kind of book we would find in a lady’s closet of this time. It belonged to Lady Elizabeth Brooke, whose epithet in her ODNB entry is “exemplar of godly life”; she was born in 1602 and died in 1683, after a long life spent mostly at Cockfield Hall in Suffolk, where her husband Sir Robert Brooke took her to live in 1620.
In her case, we don’t have a library inventory, but we know that she led a book-soaked life and wrote devotional works herself (which only partly survive). Her funeral sermon noted her piety, her charity, and her learning, particularly in theology: “she could oppose an Atheist by Arguments drawn from Topicks in Natural Theology, and answer the Arguments of Papists, Socinians, Pelagians, &c” (ODNB). That learning was clearly based on many hours in her closet, with books like this copy of John Preston’s Life Eternal (1631).
The text is a detailed guide to salvation, based on the moderated Calvinist philosophy that suffused the early seventeenth-century Church of England; I think it’s hard for us to really understand, today, how many hours ladies like Elizabeth spent pondering questions of election, uprightness of heart, and temporary faith.
The book is nicely bound, not ostentatiously, but suitable for a lady, and has clearly been well read, with manuscript numbering throughout added in the headlines to mark out the individual sermons and manicules here and there in what I would guess to be her hand.
Elizabeth Brooke had a long life and we might consider it a privileged one – she was born into a wealthy family, and her bread would have come more from servants than from the sweat of her brow. But by modern standards, it was also one with more than its fair share of tribulation. She spent the last 35 years of her life widowed, lost all but one of her 7 children at various ages between infancy and 30, and was said to have been so affected by the death by drowning of her last surviving son, in 1669, that her friends feared she would die of grief. Time and again, working on early modern book owners, of both sexes, the narratives we read are those of regular and multiple infant mortality, death in childbirth, lives cut short by smallpox, and a degree of uncertainty around death and disease that they coped with as a constant backdrop to their lives. In the current times, the reflections from this mirror of the past are perhaps particularly worth contemplation.
Source: book in private ownership. Photos by David Pearson, reproduced with permission.
Mendelson, Sara H. “Brooke [née Colepeper], Elizabeth, Lady Brooke (1602?–1683), exemplar of godly life.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2008. https://doi-org.access.authkb.kb.nl/10.1093/ref:odnb/3539.
 R. J. Fehrenbach, “Lady Elizabeth Ireton,” in R. J. Fenrenbach and J. L. Black (eds), Private Libraries in Renaissance England 8 (Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2014), pp. 281–92; Mark Empey, “Lady Margaret Heath,” Private Libraries in Renaissance England: A Collection and Catalogue of Tudor and Early Stuart Book-Lists, Vol. 10. Gen. Eds. R. J. Fehrenbach & Joseph L. Black (Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2020), pp. 263–85.