Poems By the Most Deservedly Admired Mrs Katherine Philips (1667)

By V.M. Braganza

The digital search for early modern women’s reading leaves one black and blue: the blue of an unclicked hyperlink, a potential lead that tantalizes with symbolic hope; more often, the black of unclickable plaintext—a definitive, de-legitimizing dead end. As an archival historian in the digital age, I find myself charting these errant paths like a manic cross between a Spenserian knight and one of Pavlov’s dogs. Armor dented but valor intact, salivating over every crumb of evidence that offers a clue to the burning question: Who was she?

I recently emerged, bruised if technically victorious, from another such adventure. The volume is a copy of the 1667 posthumous edition of Katherine Philips’ poetry in the Special Collections at Carnegie Mellon. It bears two competing ownership inscriptions on the opening flyleaf: the first, browned and bleeding with age, proclaims the book “Ex Libris | Henrici: Goughe”; a second, just below, rejoins, in a darker, sharper italic, that it is “Mrs Mary Gough. | Her Book. | 1700.” The binding is unremarkable, unadorned contemporary calf.

These squabbling signatures are reconciled by a marital union about which little information survives. While a variety of internet searches for “Mary Gough” prove fruitless on their own, a single search for “Henry Gough” produces a hit immediately. It details not only the arc of Gough’s political career from Staffordshire High Sheriff to a Tory Member of the House of Commons, but that he “married Mary Littleton, the daughter of Sir Edward Littleton, 2nd Bt. [likewise hyperlinked], of Pillaton Hall, Staffordshire in 1668” (Wikipedia). Gough must have bought the book sometime between 1667, when it was published, and 1700, when he either gave it to his wife or she claimed it for her own.

Here, the archival impulse bruises itself by repeatedly bumping up against the digital dead end of Lady Mary Littleton Gough (1651-1722). A renewed search for leads, revised to include the maiden name obtained via her husband’s Wikipedia page, yields nothing but a portrait and an incomplete genealogy.

Lady Mary, like so many early modern women, is unlinked. Meanwhile, her husband, a minor figure in Parliament, and her father, recipient of a title ranked below the peerage, are amply documented. What does this disparity mean? The experience of informational paucity in relation to early modern women in the context of today’s technologies makes a staggering impression upon the historian: it reduces so many women’s lives to unmoored names and biographical dates adrift in a sea of information, sometimes towed along by the reputational freight of a male relative, often a husband or father.

Although the world wide web is neither all-inclusive nor infallible, the slippage of many women’s histories through its titanic net conveys the vestiges and consequences of a social infrastructure which yokes women primarily to domestic roles and men. This infrastructure, of course, prevails across periods. The historic devaluation of women’s lives echoes loudest in the information age—a silence in the midst of a cacophony of data. Men’s lives, including those that are not particularly of note, are often well-documented by contrast—and, more fundamentally, presumed to be worthy of documentation. While we can recover Henry’s Parliamentary career in considerable detail, we know only that Mary bore sixteen children (Mimardière).

A counter-narrative to this digital pattern emanates from the object itself. This book’s unfinished dedication offers the most promising link between Mary Gough’s name and untold history, but it is a broken one. The dangling preposition “To,” evidently in her hand and smudged diagonally downward to the left (perhaps she was left-handed?) invites speculations that she may have stopped in the act of gifting the book to someone else. (One might alternatively entertain the idea that “To” is the first word of an unfinished epigraph or quotation, but the neatness of the entire inscription and the lack of stray marks elsewhere in the book advocate against it being an idle doodle.) The fragmentary inscription is evidently contemporaneous with Mary Gough’s ownership mark above, and the question of why she would mark the book as hers and simultaneously inscribe it to another recipient is answered by the need to identify herself explicitly as the giver, given her husband’s foregoing ownership mark. The lack of an ex dono formulation might be explained by supposing that she was not Latin-literate, consistent with her use of an English ownership inscription in contrast to her husband’s ex libris.

This speculative fantasy of gift-giving is catalyzed by the book itself. Katherine Philips’ poetry focuses heavily on bonds of friendship generally, and female friendship in particular—might the intended recipient have been a woman? Why did Gough leave the inscription incomplete? Was she interrupted, or did she change her mind? This volume is not only evidence of a woman reading a woman writer, but an emblem of women’s links to the wider world: their creation, loss, preservation, and attempted recovery.

It has been over a decade since William H. Sherman optatively coined the term “matriarchive” (53-67). Since then, passionate and innovative projects like the Early Modern Female Book Ownership Blog, the Perdita Project, RECIRC, and, for later periods, the Women in Book History Bibliography and Alison Booth’s tremendous Collective Biographies of Women, have gotten underway the project of uncovering and curating an impressive breadth of material. Also noteworthy is the Twitter hashtag #fembib, which has provided a means to link researchers studying women in the archive. This wave of groundbreaking work puts us in a position to re-evaluate the contours and meanings of such an archive. It circumscribes, as Sherman anticipates, presence and absence. The matriarchive today is a space where empty spaces are eloquent. It is defined by—and encodes—a view of the consequences of social choices regarding women’s lives: that is, how centuries of these choices and attitudes shape not only what we see of the past, but how we see it. This is true of how we imagine not only women, but non-white subjects, in British history.

On the one hand, there is enormous scope to “liberate … [many women] from their long period of textual house arrest” (Sherman 67). On the other, British societies from the early modern to the modern periods have colluded in creating an equally formidable graveyard, an elusive space which presides over the metamorphosis of women from participating (albeit second-class) members and potential archival subjects, into evacuated names appended to men’s histories. This haunted space now curates the present’s link with the past.

I owe a debt of gratitude to curator and colleague Samuel Lemley for his generosity in drawing my attention to this volume.

Source: Special Collections, Carnegie Mellon University Libraries, PR3619.P4 O637. Images reproduced with permission.

Further Reading

A. M. Mimardière. “Gough, Sir Henry (1649-1724), of Perry Hall, Staffs.,” in The History of Parliament: The House of Commons 1660-1690, ed. B.D. Henning (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 1983); also accessible at http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1660-1690/member/gough-sir-henry-1649-1724.

William H. Sherman, “Reading the Matriarchive,” in Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), 53-67


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