By Mark Empey and Martine van Elk
So far, on this blog we have only featured one example of a female-owned copy of a work by Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673), her Poems and Fancies (1653), which has two female signatures in it. Thus far, we have been unable to identify those two with certainty. Today, we are presenting another example, one that not only offers a fascinating insight into women who read Cavendish but also reveals an intriguing connection between the book owner and the author.
The popularity of Cavendish as an author is well established. The findings of the European Research Council-funded project RECIRC: the Reception and Circulation of Early Modern Women’s Writing, 1550-1700 show that of the 1,878 female authors in the database, Cavendish is in the top three most popular women writers. Even more revealing, the project’s research shows that The Life of the Thrice Noble, High and Puissant Prince William Cavendish, Duke, Marquess, and Earl of Newcastle received the highest number of receptions (8, see here). By Liza Blake’s count, no fewer than 99 copies of this book survive in libraries and private collections (Digital Cavendish–Locating Margaret Cavendish). All of the receptions traced in RECIRC were, curiously, attributed to male book owners.
This particular copy of the book has an inscription by Henrietta Holles. It is noteworthy not only because it shows evidence of women reading a work by a female author but also because of the family connection between reader and writer.
Henrietta Holles was born on the 11 February 1694. Her parents were John Holles, Duke of Newcastle-on-Tyne (1662-1711), and Lady Margaret Cavendish (1661-1715/16). Her mother was the daughter of Henry Cavendish, second Duke of Newcastle-on-Tyne (1630-1691), who was the son of William Cavendish and his first wife, Elizabeth Howard. In other words, Henrietta was the great-granddaughter of William Cavendish and related to Margaret Cavendish the author through marriage.
Thus, her interest in The Life of William Cavendish at the age of fourteen may have had as much to do with a desire to learn about her family’s legacy as with the popularity of one of seventeenth-century England’s greatest female writers.
By the time Holles signed the book, Margaret Cavendish had been dead for 35 years; it seems likely the book was passed down to her by her mother, who was herself only twelve when Margaret Cavendish died.
We know that Holles was a keen reader. At the age of twelve, her mother gave her The Causes of the Decay of Christian Piety by Richard Allestree. Two years later–the same year she read The Life of William Cavendish–she was given Richard Parr’s The Life of the Most Reverend Father in God, James Usher (Goulding).
As multiple posts on our blog show, Allestree was popular among women readers. However, Parr’s work is more striking in this particular context. An interest in the Irish archbishop’s distinguished career cannot be discounted. Yet it could also be suggested that Parr’s account was used as a manual to learn classical languages. Included in the book was correspondence to and from Ussher in English, Latin and Greek. In other words, Lady Cavendish seems to have used books to supervise and satisfy her daughter’s religious, linguistic and familial curiosities.
The personal relationship between the book and its book owner is not the only aspect of interest in this copy. As James Fitzmaurice has noted, in virtually all extant copies of the book corrections have been made, mostly in the form of inked out passages. In his essay on the hand-corrections Cavendish had carried out before giving away or selling her books, he notes that The Life of William features two main passages that are most frequently inked out. He found this to be true in 43 out of 44 volumes he consulted (the exception is in the Nottingham Central Public Library, 304). In highlighting both the Duke’s strategic capabilities and obedience to the Crown, Cavendish had originally included the observation that the king ordered her husband to command the royal troop “by none but himself.” To this she added “they remain’d upon duty without receiving any pay or allowance from His Majesty until His Majesty had reduced his Rebellious Subjects” (9). However, after having the book printed, Cavendish had the phrase “without receiving any pay or allowance from His Majesty” inked out.
A second passage, on p. 26, accuses Lord Goring and Sir Francis Mackworth of “invigilancy and carelessness,” an accusation that is also usually inked out. Fitzmaurice speculates that on the one hand, the deletion may serve the purpose of fulfilling the promise Cavendish made to her husband, according to a prefatory letter, not to “disgrace” any particular person but also notes on the other that these deletions in fact draw more attention to what is underneath; in some copies he has seen, “the inked out words are supplied in contemporary hands” (302). This is not the case in this particular copy. Cavendish’s precise motive for these deletions will remain a matter of speculation.
Meanwhile, Henrietta Holles would marry Edward Harley, Second Earl of Oxford (1689-1741) a mere five years after she put her inscription in The Life of William.
Edward Harley was an avid collector of manuscripts and a bibliophile, so he may well have had a keen interest in this book. Through his marriage to Henrietta, he also became the owner of Wellbeck Abbey, one of the two main homes in which Margaret and William Cavendish lived upon their return to England after the Civil War.
Like her husband, Henrietta collected books, in many of which she made careful note of when she read them. Richard Goulding provides a list of books given her by her husband, found in the Wellbeck Abbey library, which includes works by Shakespeare, Jonson, Katherine Philips, Spenser, Beaumont and Fletcher, and others. He also notes authors gave books to her. It is possible that many of these books are no longer at Wellbeck, given that portions of its collection were sold in the 1950s, which may well explain how her Life of William has ended up for sale. Henrietta corresponded with Lady Mary Wortley Montague, among others, and letters by her are part of the family papers, now housed at the University of Nottingham.
Henrietta had a bookplate made for her (seen here), which remains helpful in reestablishing her collection; the Folger has a copy show owned of a religious work entitled A Dissuasive from Revenge by Nicolas Stratford (1684), which contains with the inscription ‘Given me by my Lord Decr. 1731’ (Folger Catalog), and a copy of A Good Minister of Jesus Christ: A Funeral Sermon for the Reverend Mr. Richard Steel by George Hamond, with the same bookplate and “with manuscript note attributing the volume as a gift of ‘My Lord Sepr: 1739’ (Folger Catalog). After her husband’s death, Henrietta would sell his manuscript collection to the nation in 1753, creating the foundation of what was to become the British Museum, now known as the Harley Manuscripts.
Henrietta herself died in 1755 at the age of 61, perhaps leaving the book about her famous great grandfather to her daughter Margaret or her son Henry.
Source: Book offered for sale by Wisdompedlars, sold 9/27/2020. Images reproduced with permission.
James Fitzmaurice, “Margaret Cavendish on Her Own Writing: Evidence from Revision and Handmade Correction,” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, vol. 85, no. 3 (1991), pp. 297-308.
Richard W. Goulding, “Henrietta Countess of Oxford,” Transactions of the Thoroton Society, 27 (1923). http://www.nottshistory.org.uk/articles/tts/tts1923/oxford/oxford1.htm.