On the face of it, Frances Wolfreston from Staffordshire looks like an unlikely literary star. She was born around 1607, had eleven children and lived in the manor house at Statfold near Tamworth, where her descendants still live today. But what she left when she died at the age of seventy was unusual: a library of several hundred books, dominated not by the standard theological works of the time but by an unmatched collection of what we would now call English literature. The most spectacular instance is the only surviving first edition of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, now at the Bodleian Library. ‘Frances wolfreston hor bouk’ is written in italics across the title page. Wolfreston owned twelve Shakespeare quartos, including editions of Hamlet, King Lear and Romeo and Juliet, as well as Marlowe’s Hero and Leander and The Jew of Malta, Donne’s Poems and Mary Wroth’s Urania among many other works.
She was also an enthusiastic tagger, recording not only her name but sometimes the hands through which a book had passed. ‘Frances Wolfreston her bouk geuen by her motherilaw mary wolfreston,’ she wrote in her copy of The workes of Geffray Chaucer. She had a habit of adding sharp evaluative comments to title pages, compacted literary criticism in five words or fewer: on her third quarto of Othello, ‘a sad one’; on her copy of James Shirley’s The Constant Maid, or Love Will Find Out the Way, ‘I doe not lik this.’ Across the start of Eastward Hoe, the very funny city comedy by George Chapman, Ben Jonson and John Marston, she wrote ‘prity one’, then crossed it out, substituting: ‘a resnabell prity one’.
In her will Wolfreston bequeathed her books to her son Stanford, on the condition that ‘he shall carefully keepe them together,’ which he seems to have done. According to the 19th-century bibliographer William Carew Hazlitt (grandson of the other William), ‘the books had lain in a corner of the library time out of mind, unnoticed and unheeded,’ until in 1856 the collection was sold off in parts at Sotheby’s. ‘The owner would have gladly accepted £30 for the lot,’ Hazlitt remembered, but the divided collection – featuring ‘startling rarities, some not even till then put on record by the learned in these affairs’ – realised £750. As a result, Wolfreston’s books are today dispersed across public libraries and private collections in the UK, Europe and North America, and perhaps further afield; there are particularly rich holdings in Austin, Boston, Oxford and Washington DC. Wolfreston has travelled further than she could have imagined, and the location of many of her books is still unknown: 235 volumes have been identified so far, but more are being found all the time, thanks mainly to Wolfreston’s annotations.
The four-act life story of Wolfreston’s books – accumulation, stasis, scattering, reconstruction – is typical of many libraries from the 17th century. David Pearson’s Book Ownership in Stuart England gives us a superlative tour of just about everything we might want to know about the early modern culture of book buying, borrowing, listing, shelving, storing and displaying. The ‘backbone’ of his book, Pearson writes, juggling his body parts, is ‘the Appendix’: a huge list of 17th-century individuals – 1374 of them – for whom we have some record of book-collecting activity, from the legal scholar John Selden’s eight thousand volumes, now part of the Bodleian collection, to ‘a trunk full of books’, in the words of Mary Marston, widow of the poet John Marston, ‘with lock and key and a book of martyrs [John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments] in 3 volumes not in the trunk’. The list gives us academics, architects, aristocrats, astrologers, authors, merchants, civil servants, clergy (a long roll call, covering everyone from the archbishop of Canterbury to the vicar of Snitterfield), engravers, gardeners, gentry (the biggest group, where Wolfreston sits among 275 others), heralds, lawyers, medics, painters, printers, booksellers, schoolmasters, scientists and two yeoman farmers. Pearson shows that the pool of evidence, particularly concerning women book owners, is much larger than historians often lament. He describes bindings, ownership stamps, signatures, bookplates, inscriptions, annotations, portraits, wills, diaries, letters, commonplace books and lists in probate and household inventories.
Pearson’s account, taken overall, is a narrative of ‘continuous growth’: libraries got bigger, book ownership became more widespread and the proportion of English language material increased over the course of the century, from a very low ebb around 1600, when libraries of any significant size tended to be dominated by books in Latin printed on the Continent. In the early 17th century libraries of more than a thousand volumes were rare: Richard Bancroft, archbishop of Canterbury between 1604 and 1610, had perhaps the largest of the day at around six thousand volumes. A hundred years later, John Moore, bishop of Ely, had more than thirty thousand books. Moore’s collection is now a star of Cambridge University Library.
This was the period in which institutional and civic libraries emerged after the traumatic dispersal of monastic libraries under Henry VIII: the Bodleian opened in 1602; Sion College was founded in 1630 for Anglican clergy; Humphrey Chetham’s public library in Manchester, which still bears his name, opened in 1653; and there were new town libraries in Ipswich (1599), Norwich (1608) and Bristol (1613). ‘Private libraries,’ Pearson writes, ‘were also the tributaries of the public ones,’ and you can often see the traces of these earlier lives in shelfmarks. Books classified by the Bodleian as ‘Wood’, for example, once belonged to the gossipy antiquarian Anthony Wood (1632-95); ‘Douce’ means Francis Douce (1757-1834), keeper of manuscripts at the British Museum, known for a bitter resignation letter of 1811 listing his thirteen reasons for leaving (number nine: ‘The want of society with the members, their habits wholly different & their manners far from fascinating & sometimes repulsive’). The great aristocratic library begun by Thomas Egerton, Baron Ellesmere and First Viscount Brackley (1540-1617) passed through the hands of his descendants and heirs until it was sold to Henry E. Huntington for a million dollars in 1917. It is now in the collections of the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.
A shared trait of many of the private libraries Pearson surveys – small or large – is their impressive breadth of coverage. He is keen to revise accounts by critics who read with what he calls ‘literary blinkers’, prioritising the odd edition of Sidney’s Arcadia over the books that actually filled the shelves: less Shakespeare’s Sonnets (one edition, 1609), more The Whole Duty of Man (eighty editions, 1658-1730). Many libraries had a core of theological works, then made a wide sweep of other subjects. It was a time when being interested in books meant reading history, theology, literature, geography, travel, the classics, natural science, medicine, law: scholarly generalists were everywhere. ‘Vicars didn’t own just divinity books,’ Pearson writes, and while George Abbot, archbishop of Canterbury from 1611 to 1633, naturally owned Bibles, liturgies, writings of the Church Fathers and biblical commentaries, he also had works by Edmund Spenser, Michael Drayton, Montaigne, Petrarch, Tasso and Boccaccio. The earl of Leicester’s library at Penshurst included books in many languages on the latest in beekeeping, drainage, poetry, forestry, military strategy, heraldry, optics and surgery.
Sometimes a collection of books meant volumes stored in boxes or chests. John Holles, second earl of Clare (1595-1666), composed ‘a note of my books at Haughton, in my upper closet and in an ould trunk in the great chamber’. But libraries were physical spaces, too, and in the houses of the wealthy might occupy rooms set aside for the purpose. John Aubrey described Walter Raleigh’s library at Durham House in London as ‘a little turret that looked into and over the Thames, and had the prospect which is as pleasant perhaps as any in the World’. Perhaps most intriguing, as described in Mark Purcell’s The Country House Library (2017), is the earl of Northumberland’s ‘Paradise’ room on the visitor-discouraging top floor of the Chapel Tower at Wressle Castle in East Yorkshire. Here the earl seems to have sat and read in something like an octagonal closet, nine feet across and painted green and white, with eight desks and drawers for books. By removing the drawers he could take the books with him from residence to residence, slotting them into other similar reading closets. Most early library rooms have been lost, but there are some jewel-like survivals, such as at Holcombe Court in Devon, where a richly panelled room above the gatehouse is connected by a spiral staircase to the great chamber, which has fitted shelves, and cupboards decorated with images of heraldry and flowers.
But it’s not all earls sitting in turrets. Pearson has a fascinating discussion of non-elite, provincial book owners: the weavers and the journeymen who vastly outnumbered the archbishops and lawyers but knowledge of whose identities and collections is harder to ascertain. Pearson tracks a single copy of The Soules Exaltation (1638), a collection of sermons by the Puritan Thomas Hooker, as it moves around the Lake District village of Thornthwaite (a 17th-century ‘back of beyond’, in Pearson’s words). It’s a ragged volume, torn and stained and battered, with the title page missing and original binding long gone. But the margins are alive with the names of its owners and readers, alongside scribbles and devotional jottings. Natalie Zemon Davis described books as ‘carriers of relationships’, and that’s exactly what we see here as we follow the signatures of Daniel Stanger, Edward Stanger, Jannet Thompson et al. On a blank page a note records that the book was given to James Stanger by Robert Fisher in 1662, ‘in steade of one that he had of mine when he went away from Thorntwhait’. Typically, it seems that The Soules Exaltation remained in the same village for centuries: books were mobile, passing from hand to hand, but they rarely travelled far.
What James Stanger or Jannet Thompson actually made of these Puritan sermons isn’t Pearson’s concern: he leaves that sort of thing to others. He complains that we have become ‘obsessed’ with books as texts that were read (he calls it ‘the “r” word’) at the expense of thinking of them as objects. His is a counterhistory of using rather than reading, of books as artefacts that might furnish a room or build a legacy, of armorial bindings as mechanisms of display, of the bookplates that flourished from the 1680s onwards as projections of status and wealth. Before the arrival of mass-production techniques in the mid 19th century, ‘every binding was an individually handcrafted product’, and Pearson is great at what we might call close looking, or (it’s a mouthful) a ‘whole-book material object approach’. Pepys would have liked that: he invested deeply, in every sense, in books as things to handle, dress up and display. In his diary for 15 May 1660, he records visiting ‘a bookseller’s and bought for the love of the binding three books’ – some French psalms, Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum, Thomas Farnaby’s Index Rhetoricus – and on 3 February 1665 notes with a mix of pride and guilt: ‘My bill for the rebinding of some old books to make them suit with my study, cost me, besides other new books in the same bill, 3l.; but it will be very handsome.’
If ‘reading’ is a tricky word for Pearson, so too is ‘collecting’, and he shows the ways in which early modern book owners confound modern expectations of collecting. As David McKitterick recently explained in The Invention of Rare Books (2018), it wasn’t until the 18th century that age and rarity began to be seen as marks of value. In the Stuart period libraries tended to be built around notions of utility. The value of Caxtons or early editions of the Church Fathers was understood, as Pearson puts it, ‘in textual rather than typographical terms’, and older editions were often discarded when a new version appeared. The Bodleian sold its copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623) when the Third Folio came out (1664); the library account book has the stylishly understated heading ‘Superfluous Library Bookes’. Seventeenth-century bindings of incunables (books printed before 1501) suggest that older volumes weren’t treated with any special distinction by virtue of their provenance or age, and it was only later that the kinds of bibliographical note that set a modern collector’s pulse racing – ‘printed by Aldus Manutius’, say – began to appear on spine labels and in auction catalogues.
A study like Pearson’s about books as objects will always be haunted by those that no longer exist: the lost or destroyed or ephemeral. This includes the flimsy, slab-stitched pamphlets in paper wrappers which were hugely popular at the time but usually survive now only if they were quickly bound into more permanent fixings. Sometimes we’re lucky. The Plume Library in Maldon in Essex – the former library of Thomas Plume (1630-1704), archdeacon of Rochester – has 1600 stitched pamphlets, most in their original form, bound in plain, coloured or marbled paper, or plain parchment, or waste parchment made from cut-up medieval manuscripts. It’s a raggedly magnificent collection, ‘precious as a snapshot of … the flimsy’.
There will always be new discoveries. Pearson has made sure he can accommodate them by setting up an open access website, Book Owners Online, effectively an ever-expanding digital version of his book. In 2010 the Bodleian acquired a run of printed almanacs owned by Wolfreston, with her brief notes on births, marriages, deaths and journeys written in alongside the astrological predictions for the months ahead: a kind of staccato, proto-life-writing. At the end of the 1670 almanac she includes a list of books she had loaned to a relative. ‘Thes plaie boucks [play books] I lent to cosen robart comarford,’ she writes, and mentions nine titles, among them ‘the foxe’ (Jonson’s Volpone), ‘a contention for oner and riches’ (Shirley’s Contention for Honour and Riches), and ‘vitto[ria?] corambona’ (Webster’s The White Devil, subtitled Vittoria Corombona). Wolfreston lent out her books but, the list suggests, she also wanted them back. We don’t yet know where the volumes her cousin borrowed ended up, but they’re probably out there somewhere, ready to be found, with ‘frances wolfreson hor bouk’ inscribed in black ink on the title page.