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The Collation

Written in the Margent: Frances Wolfreston Revealed

“And what obscured in this fair volume lies / Find written in the margent of his eyes” (Romeo and Juliet, 1.3.87–88)

Recently, two Shakespeare quartos held by the Folger Shakespeare Library were determined to likely be from the library of early modern reader Frances Wolfreston. The books themselves—copy 4 of the fifth quarto of Romeo and Juliet (1637) and a 1636 edition of Venus and Adonis—have been digitized through LUNA and are meticulously cataloged. Indeed, Wolfreston is listed as a former owner of twelve other books in the Folger’s collections, including a 1625 edition of Hamlet with untrimmed edges hailed in an 1895 bookseller’s catalog as “probably the finest copy known.” So how did her inscriptions in these specific quartos go undetected for almost 100 years? The answer lies in the considerable transformations that rare books can undergo when they pass from one owner to the next.

Over the past 30 years, Paul Morgan,1 Arnold Hunt, and others (myself included) have identified over 200 playbooks and works of literature and religion containing Wolfreston’s ownership inscription: frances wolfreston hor [or her] bouk. Around 85% of these traced books were first sold at a single-day auction by Sotheby’s some 175 years after Wolfreston’s 1677 death.

“I can just recall the Wolfreston sale in 1856,” wrote bibliophile William Carew Hazlitt in 1897. “I was not actually present, but I heard a good deal about it soon afterward. It was a small collection of early English books and tracts formed under the Tudors or early Stuarts; the copies were often uncut, and as often imperfect or dog’s-eared. But there were among them a few startling rarities—some not even till then put on record by the learned in these affairs. The owner would have gladly accepted £30 for the lot, and the day’s sale realised £750. . . .  One of the family—the Wolfrestons, not the Sothebys—dined with me years after, and told me how it was. The books had lain in a corner of the library time out of mind, unnoticed and unheeded, and it was thought as well to get rid of them. They should have marked the day with a white stone when a friend (he was a friend) recommended them to apply to Wellington Street.”2

It is difficult to know with certainty which books in this sale belonged to Wolfreston, since it encompassed books collected by her descendants into the 19th century. However, the 200 odd books that do bear her signature demonstrate that works like Shakespeare’s were the rule and not the exception in her expansive library. Drama by Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Nicholas Breton, James Shirley, Robert Greene, George Chapman, Thomas Heywood, and Richard Brome abounds. If frequency is the measure of favoritism, though, then Wolfreston especially loved the Bard.

The most famous Shakespeare quarto once in her possession is the sole surviving copy of the 1593 Venus and Adonis, now at the Bodleian Library. Less known is that twelve more Shakespeare quartos, dating from approximately 1600 to 1655, were sold at the 1856 auction. As of December 2015, seven of those twelve quartos had been located, each with Wolfreston’s ownership inscription and, in a few instances, her annotations. She pronounced Othello “a sad one”, and also made brief annotations in her copies of The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew. The five untraced quartos from the 1856 sale included the 1616 edition of The Rape of Lucrece and damaged copies of Richard II and Richard III, in addition to a 1637 edition of Romeo and Juliet and a 1636 edition of Venus and Adonis, which I now believe are held at the Folger.

Looking at the second leaf of Wolfreston’s copy of Hamlet, would you be able to tell who the book once belonged to?

Do you see the ownership inscription here? (Folger STC 22278 copy 2, A2r)

That smudge just above the title on the right-hand side is Wolfreston’s ownership inscription. When an image of the caption title page is uploaded to retroReveal, the inscription jumps out. retroReveal is an open source image-processing software developed by the University of Utah that reveals “lost / obscured content” in books, archival documents, artworks, and archaeological artifacts using multiple colorspaces (Their website explains more on how these colorspaces work.)

Leaf A1v-A2r of Folger STC 22278 copy 2, run through retroReveal.

Many 19th-century book collectors were possessed by a bibliographic phantasm called “the clean copy.” They wanted their rare books to look as pristine as the day they were printed, and if this dream could not be realized through happenstance, they paid bookbinders like the London-based Francis Bedford to lend the illusion of it. Bedford (1799-1883), whose name is discreetly stamped on the first front flyleaf verso of Hamlet, often washed the pages of books before rebinding them, which accounts for the fading of Wolfreston’s normally dark ink. The retroReveal image shows that Wolfreston’s inscription and the “TRAGED” scrawled in a juvenile hand are much lighter than the surrounding areas, speaking to the binder’s efforts to scrub them away. Evidence of so-called “ordinary” readers like Wolfreston was not valued then as it is today.

Over the course of the last four years, I have come across many apparent Wolfreston inscriptions that have been rendered almost invisible through washing, including two at the Folger: Saint Marie Magdalens Conuersion, inscribed on A2r, and Tom Tel-Troths Message, and His Pens Complaint, inscribed on A4r.

Top: Saint Marie Magdalens Conuersion (STC 4282, A2r); Bottom: Tom Tel-Troths Message, and His Pens Complaint (STC 15190, A4r). Both images via retroReveal.

Bedford was also the binder of these two books. Again, the inscriptions become visible with the help of retroReveal, and are close matches to Wolfreston’s unwashed inscription, an example of which can be found in Princeton University’s Firestone Library. Editions of both titles were sold at the 1856 auction, Saint Marie Magdalens Conuersion for £7 18s and Tom Tel-Troths Message for 5s. Tom Tel-Troths Message was damaged—“wants after F3,” the catalog entry reads—and leaf F4 in the Folger’s copy is in facsimile, suggesting that it is probably Wolfreston’s copy.

Identifying Wolfreston’s books beyond a shadow of a doubt is problematic when inscriptions are damaged beyond recognition. Such is the case with the 1637 Romeo and Juliet, copy 4 of six held by the Folger. Though nothing is visible to the naked eye, retroReveal exposes an effaced inscription at the top of the page in which the words “… bouk for a tragidy…” seem to be present.

The magic of retroReveal, well, revealed. (Folger STC 22326 copy 4, A2r)

I have contrasted it with examples of Wolfreston’s handwriting from Dorothy Leigh’s The Mothers Blessing (Bodleian Vet. A2 f.408) and her annotated Poor Robin almanacs, which I examined and photographed in November 2016. Still, the inscription’s condition is too poor to definitively link the book to Wolfreston.

The washed out inscription seems to be a good match, but it is hard to be certain.

Another clue to the former ownership of the book lies in Henrietta C. Bartlett and Alfred W. Pollard’s Census of Shakespeare’s Plays in Quarto, 1594–1709 (1916). Entry #828 reads:

FOLGER. Several leaves mended. Probably the Sotheby (May 24, 1856, No. 352), George Smith (July, 1867, No. 2584) copy. The Kalbfleisch (sold, c. 1900) copy. Bound in red levant morocco, uncut, by Bedford.

The details of Folger copy 4 match the above description. The book is bound in red morocco by Bedford, its leaves are untrimmed (i.e. “uncut”), and a Folger file calls it the Charles H. Kalbfleisch copy. Given that it is inscribed on the caption title where Wolfreston often wrote her name and that the provenance in Bartlett and Pollard’s Census links it to the Sotheby’s sale, which consisted only of books collected by Wolfreston and her descendants, there is a good chance that this Romeo and Juliet is Wolfreston’s copy.

The 1636 Venus and Adonis, the sixteenth quarto edition of the poem, is a trickier matter. When I examined it in person at the Folger in June 2015, I noticed what appeared to be a washed inscription on the title page. retroReveal establishes that an inscription was once present, but alas, it is too degraded for anything to be made of it.

Even the magic of retroReveal can only get you so far sometimes. (STC 22366, title page) Image via retroReveal.

Only two copies of this particular edition of Venus and Adonis are known to survive, one at the Folger and the other the British Library. A copy belonging to George Hibbert (1757–1837) came onto the market when he put his library up for auction in 1829, while another was sold as a single lot (#163) at the Wolfreston sale of 1856. In the British Library’s annotated catalog of the Wolfreston sale, the buyer of the book is listed as “Stevens” and the going price recorded as £49 10s. The following information from Sidney Lee’s 1905 facsimile edition, therefore, seems to authenticate the Folger copy as the one from the Wolfreston sale:

A better copy of the 1636 edition now belongs to Mr. Marsden J. Perry, of Providence, Rhode Island, U.S.A. It measures 4 3/8” x 3 1/32” and contains twenty-eight leaves, the last being blank, while some leaves are uncut at the bottom. This copy was purchased by Henry Stevens, the American agent in London, in May, 1856, at Sotheby’s, for £49 10s. 0d. Henry Stevens had it re-bound in blue morocco by Bedford, and re-sold it at Sotheby’s for £56, in August, 1857. It subsequently passed into the library of Brayton Ives, of New York, who paid for it $1,350 or £270. At Brayton Ives’ sale in 1891 it was acquired by its present owner for $1,150 or £230. (72–73)3

The Folger copy is bound in the blue goatskin described by Lee and, according to the bibliographic record, belonged to Marsden J. Perry and Brayton Ives. Both Lee and William Lowndes verify that the British Library copy came from the Hibbert sale. Additionally, curator Tanya Kirk confirmed for me in March 2016 that there are no visible inscriptions in the British Library copy.

If the 1636 Venus and Adonis at the Folger did once belong to Frances Wolfreston, it would have been the third version of the poem that she owned, the second being Henry Constable’s “The Shepherd’s Song of Venus and Adonis.” Constable’s poem was one of two that she apparently singled out in her copy of the 1600 poetry anthology Englands Helicon4, writing next to it “same tune.” (Alongside the previous poem, “Fair Phillis and Her Shepherd,” she had written “tune of crimson ueluet.”) It is interesting to note that the story of Venus and Adonis is one in which the woman, not the man, is the wooer. The eponymous goddess falls in love with the handsome hunter Adonis, whose one-track mind for hunting leaves no room for romance. The more ardently Venus pursues him, the more he resists.

Sometimes she shakes her head, and then his hand,
Now gazeth she on him, now on the ground;
Sometimes her arms infold him like a band,
She would, he will not in her armes be bound:
And when from thence he struggles to be gone,
She locks her lillie fingers one in one.5

The 1593 edition of Venus and Adonis, from which this passage was transcribed, was not sold at the 1856 Sotheby’s auction. Says Paul Morgan, “[I]t would appear that some [of Wolfreston’s books] had strayed or been sold long before 1856. Samuel Johnson, the lexicographer who died in 1784 and who hailed from the same part of the English Midlands, owned a Tyndale New Testament of 1556, now in the Widener Library at Harvard; while Edmond Malone bought for twenty pounds from William Ford, a Manchester bookseller, in August 1805, the unique Venus and Adonis of 1593 as well as Giles Fletcher, Licia, or Poems of Love (1593), both now in the Bodleian Library.”6

Seven of Wolfreston’s books at the Folger belong to this category: for example, a Catholic catechism written by priest Laurence Vaux and the matrilineal Chaucer folio described by Allison Wiggins.7 The Folger’s most recent Wolfreston acquisition, an English translation of Pedro Mexía’s miscellany Silva de varia lección, was purchased by the library in 2017 and nowhere to be found in the 1856 auction catalog.

We may never know the full extent of Wolfreston’s library, but books with her singular ownership inscription are sure to keep surfacing. One would be hard pressed, however, to name any that have the enduring popularity of Romeo and Juliet and other works by Shakespeare. Because later collectors of Shakespeare quartos so often had them altered in the rebinding process, early marks of ownership, much less annotations, are scarcer than they might have otherwise been. It is even rarer to be able to identify an early female owner. Of 509 pre-1769 works of Shakespeare surveyed by Kitamura Sae, “only 32 (6.5%) are associated with approximately 21 female names, including famous collector Frances Wolfreston.”8 Yet Wolfreston not only owned at least eight Shakespeare plays, she sometimes recorded observations about them, too. If copy 4 of the 1637 Romeo and Juliet at the Folger Shakespeare Library is hers—if the expunged annotation does read “… for a tragidy …”—then what she thought about the two luckless young lovers has been lost. That she owned these plays in the first place, though, says much about what early women could achieve in the face of limitations on education, property, and social participation.

  1. For more about Wolfreston, see: Morgan, Paul, “Francis Wolfreston and ‘Hor Bouks’: A Seventeenth-Century Woman Book-Collector,” The Library 11 (1989): 197–219.
  2. William Carew Hazlitt, Four Generations of a Literate Family: The Hazlitts in England, Ireland, and America (London and New York: George Redway, 1897), vol. 2, 326.
  3. Ed. Sidney Lee. Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis : Being a Reproduction in Facsimile of the First Edition, 1593, from the Unique Copy in the Malone Collection in the Bodleian Library (Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1905)
  4. Now held by the British Library and with the shelf-mark C.39.c.48.
  5. William Shakespeare, Venus and Adonis (London: Imprinted by Richard Field, and are to be sold at the signe of the white Greyhound in Paules Church-yard, 1593), C1v.
  6. Morgan, 202.
  7. Alison Wiggins, “Frances Wolfreston’s Chaucer,” in Women as Scribes and the Domestication of Print Culture, ed. Phillipa Hardman and Anne Lawrence-Mathers (Cambridge: Brewer, 2010): 77–89.
  8. Kitamura Sae, “A Shakespeare of One’s Own: Female Users of Playbooks from the Seventeenth to the Mid-Eighteenth Century,” Palgrave Communications 3 (2017).

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