A rare book is seldom mute. If you know how to listen, it can speak volumes (pardon the phrase) about who owned it, why it was read and how often, where it was sold, what the purchase price was, when its binding was fitted, and so on. Take the Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s The Schoole of Vertue, and Booke of Good Nature (ca. 1640) by F. Segar, shelf-mark IUA11184. It is a slim, 48-page octavo bound in full blue morocco, with marbled endpapers and a bookplate from The Huth Library on the front paste-down. The binding is signed in small gilt letters by F. Bedford (1799–1883), indicating that the book was rebound sometime in the mid- to late 1800s. This is the provenance that talks the loudest. But there is a whisper, more intriguing, of somebody else: a woman reader from the late Renaissance by the name of Frances Wolfreston.
Wolfreston, who lived from 1607 to 1677, was probably the book’s first owner and would have been in her early thirties when it was published. Her inscription on the recto of leaf A3 reads “Frances Wolfreston hor bouk”. As the book is filled with prayers and instructions for raising children, we can surmise that she used it as a parenting aid. Some Non-Solus readers may find this information unsurprising, even typical. Wolfreston’s story is not one of a simple provincial housewife, however.
Just down the road from the RBML, at Illinois State University’s Special Collections in Normal, Illinois, is a scarce book by Lady Mary Wroth called The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania (1621). Widely considered to be the first English work of prose by a woman, Urania is a sprawling pastoral romance about two lovers, Pamphilia and Amphilanthus. Its author, Wroth, was a niece of Sir Philip Sidney and a member of Queen Anne’s court. Fewer than forty copies of the work survive–Wroth based the book’s characters on her contemporaries and some of the more unflattering portraits sparked an outcry. (For details of the feud, see Josephine A. Roberts’s 1977 essay “An Unpublished Literary Quarrel Concerning the Suppression of Mary Wroth’s ‘Urania’ (1621)”.) Under fire, Wroth rescinded her book and destroyed most of the copies. Her literary career was never revived and she died in debt thirty years later, out of favor with her former friends.Illinois State’s copy of Urania bears some interesting provenance indeed. In the course of my bibliographical research this semester (under the tutelage of professor emeritus DW Krummel), I discovered the ownership inscription of none other than Frances Wolfreston. “[H]or bouk / bot at London”, she had written next to her name. Wolfreston marked the book twice more, on the rear pastedown and the verso of leaf Mm1. This was the first time I saw her name, and the provenance struck me as remarkable for several reasons. Women readers of this era are difficult to pin down and not just because of the uneven ratio of literate women to men. Women’s libraries were frequently merged with their husbands’ when they married. Upon their deaths, their property–including books–usually passed to their husbands. And like many male readers, some women did not mark in their books at all. Yet Wolfreston had gone to the trouble of distinguishing “hor” book from her husband’s not once, but thrice.
I am not the first to be captivated by Wolfreston’s bold inscription; scholars have been writing about her for at least thirty years. The premiere article on the subject is Paul Morgan’s 1989 “Francis Wolfreston and ‘Hor Bouks’: A Seventeenth-Century Woman Book-Collector”. Morgan tells us that Wolfreston’s library, willed to her youngest living son Stanford, survived intact at the family seat of Statfold Hall for close to 200 years before being auctioned by Sotheby and Wilkinson in 1856. Though a full 960 of Wolfreston’s books went up for sale, the whereabouts of nine-tenths of her collection remain unknown.
Morgan’s essay includes an appendix of around 100 located copies of Wolfreston’s books. The School of Vertue is one, Urania is not, suggesting that many books from Wolfreston’s library have yet to come to light. Another copy not mentioned in Morgan’s appendix is Wolfreston’s copy of Chaucer, “given hor by hor motherinlaw”, featured in 2008 on the blog of Sarah Werner, Digital Media Specialist at the Folger Library. Werner has also highlighted Wolfreston’s copy of Othello, now housed at Penn State. It is a book which Wolfreston–not a habitual note-maker–has declared “a sad one”. (For more by Werner, visit her blog here: http://sarahwerner.net/blog/). The majority of Wolfreston’s books have ended up in the Folger, the British Library, The Huntington, and other academic libraries.
Unlike the thick quarto that is Urania, The Schoole of Vertue is a short, thin volume, a booklet really, that illuminates the domestic side of a literature-lover. The book was well-used; the pages are creased, smudged, and softly worn in the same manner as Urania‘s. Taken together, The Schoole of Vertue and Urania indicate that Wolfreston returned to her books again and again throughout her lifetime. Unfortunately, binder F. Bedford or another previous owner expunged Wolfreston’s trademark inscription from The Schoole of Vertue; only a faint blot remains, impossible to make out unless you’ve seen her hand before (and had the aid of Morgan’s helpful appendix). Still, it is worth examining the next time you visit the Rare Book and Manuscript Library–and has much to say about what you can learn from a book if only you listen closely.–Sarah Lindenbaum, GSLIS student and RBML volunteer