Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene (1615)

In September 2020, we featured a guest post from Alison Fraser on a second edition of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene that showcased the remarkable early bookplate of early eighteenth-century reader Elizabeth Percival. As Fraser notes, Spenser wrote the work for Queen Elizabeth I. However, the romance had a wider appeal to other courtly women—and those who were not courtly at all. A 1615 edition now at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (SR/OS 95.2) contains veritable layers of women’s ownership inscriptions: Eustasia Trelawny, Mary Wentworth, Elizabeth Kelly, Catherine Powny, and the forenames Jane and Kate. A 1609 edition at the Massachusetts Center for Renaissance Studies (PR2358 .A1 1609) is signed by Frances Twysden Villieres, Countess of Jersey (1753–1821) and her youngest daughter Harriet Bagot Villiers (1788–1870), and also contains the earlier inscription of a reader named Elizabeth. The Folger Shakespeare Library holds a 1596 copy of the book (STC 23082 copy 1) that is signed by an Ann Stewart on one of the front endpapers. In 2012, Rachel Stevenson’s honors thesis centered on a 1679 copy of Spenser’s Works owned by Letitia Thomson. Writes Stevenson: “Thomson is especially remarkable in her attention to detail and cross-referencing, interacting with [Thomas] Warton’s footnotes, his text, and the text of The Faerie Queene.”

What is notable about these manifold signatures is that they span the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, speaking to the work’s continued popularity with a female readership. The owner of the featured book today appears to fall in the eighteenth century or the early nineteenth century based on her handwriting. An effaced inscription on the upper edge of A2r of her 1615 copy of The Faerie Queene reads: “Catherine C[…?] her Book and the gift of h[…?] […?] E[…?]. Beneath is another annotation in a minute hand, unfortunately too faded and crossed out to read.

There is enough here to say that Catherine received the book as a gift, but because her surname is too illegible to transcribe, the relationship between the giver and her cannot be ascertained. The word beginning with H may read “her,” which would indicate that she received the book from a friend or relative.

Source: Book sold by Michael Laird Rare Books LLC in February 2021. Now in the Rare Books collection at California State University Long Beach. Images used with permission.


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