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Shakespeare & Beyond

What were women reading? A dive into the Folger vault

Daniel Dyke
Daniel Dyke

Peer with me into the books left behind by women readers in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. What kind of books were they reading? What sort of notes did they write in them? What can we learn about their lives?

Using the Folger’s online catalog, I’ve been able to identify hundreds of women from the late 1500’s to the early 1800’s and the books they had in their possession. Some of the women who turn up are quite well-known, such as Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII’s fourth wife (“survived”). She left a Book of Hours (a Christian devotional book) that she had given to Henry, perhaps when she first came to England.

Book of Hours

Book of Hours, Salisbury. Paris, 1533? Folger STC 15982

Inside the back of the book she wrote: “I beseech your grace h[umble] when you look on this remember me. your grace’s assured anne the daughter of cleves.” (I’ve modernized spellings throughout this blog post.)

Many of the women and girls I’ve found, however, are not well-known, or not known at all, and in a way this makes them more interesting. They are the ordinary people, most of them middle-class, who collected books, or were given a book, or shared a book with their friends, or passed one down in the family, or just doodled their name on a rainy day when they were bored.

One of my most interesting discoveries was Rebekah Fisher’s Bible. Rebekah was born on January 7, 1660, and when she was eighteen, her father presented her with a beautiful copy of the Authorized Bible (also known as the King James Bible).

The Holy Bible, Containing the Old Testament and the New (London, 1676). Folger 265076
Folger 265076

He had it specially bound with her initials on the cover and metal clasps to keep it closed.

We know all of this because the book contains a special printed sheet recording her birth as the daughter of William and Mary Fisher, as well as her baptism 10 days later on January 17. When she was eighteen, Rebekah added an inscription in graceful writing saying that the book was a gift from her father in 1678.

Rebekah Fisher inscription

Folger 265076

Many of us have Bibles with family records that get passed down through the generations. Maybe we even have one owned by an aunt or cousin as enthusiastic as Elizabeth Boggis. She purchased an old copy of the Geneva Bible and wrote in it: “Elizth. Boggis, bought by her on 22 April 1787, being the day preceding this His Majesty Geo[rge] returned public thanks at St. Paul’s to God for his recovery from the [heavy] malady of insanity.” She refers to a thanksgiving service held at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London on April 21 honoring King George III’s recovery from one of his periodic bouts of illness. The inscription is hard to see because it’s hidden under part of the binding, but Elizabeth’s many notes are quite visible. She annotates the lessons used by various preachers in churches around London attended by herself or members of her household. Here she records Psalm 72 as the text for three ministers, Misters Scott, Knight, and Lovell, in 1794, 1795, and 1796, all at the “Tabernacle” church:

annotation under Psalm 72

Folger STC 2129

Although many of the books owned by women were religious in nature, they also read works of literature and history, dictionaries, books about plants, household books, guides for behavior, and others. Frances Wolfreston (1607-1677), who had one of the largest libraries known for a non-noble woman (over 200 volumes), claimed a copy of a romance novel titled The Famous History of Montelyon, Knight of the Oracle by writing her name at the top of a page—ironically the one dedicating the novel “To The Gentlemen Readers”!

To the Gentlemen Readers

Emanuel Ford, The Famous History of Montelyon (London, 1640). Folger STC 11167.2

Frances seems to have had a sense of humor because she also owned a Booke of Merrie Riddles (1617), and another book of “Witty Conceits” as well as one about the life of Will Sommers, jester to Henry VIII.

Women sometimes wrote witty sayings in their books similar to those they embroidered on their samplers. Here is an example from Elizabeth Benne, who scrawled in her copy of Dorothy Leigh’s The Mothers Blessing (1640): “Elizabeth Benne is my name and with my pen I wrote the same and if my pen had been better I had write every letter.”

Elizabeth Benne

Dorothy Leigh, The Mothers Blessing (London, 1640) Folger STC 15408

Another young woman embroidered a similar commonplace on her sampler, now at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England. “Phebe Bunn is my name and with my needle I wrat [wrought] this same 1658.”

Phebe Bunn sampler

Phebe Bunn, Sampler, 1658. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, Item 110570

We can also find fancy handwriting in women’s books that looks almost like embroidery. Ann Rediatt wrote her name with decorative flourishes in the front of a biography of Marguerite de Valois (1664): “Ann Rediatt/ Her Book/ 1706.” Because the book is small, she turned it sideways to get the most space.

Ann Rediatt signature

The Memorialls of Margaret de Valoys (London, 1664). Folger 140- 712q detail.

Arabella Weller boldly took over much of the title page of her folio-sized copy of Plutarch’s Lives to express her personal ownership of this book, which was Shakespeare’s major source for plays such as Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. She wrote: “Arabella Weller/ her Book/ Decem[ber] The/ Eighth One/ Thousand Seven and Sixty/Six [1776]”. She owned the book almost 200 years after it was published in 1595.

Arabella Weller

Plutarch, The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes (London, 1595). Folger STC 20067 copy 2

Unlike Ann and Arabella, other women practically hid their names inside the back cover or on an internal page of the book. What I find especially interesting, however, are the signatures written across from or on a page where the author (usually a man) has dedicated his book to a woman. In 1614, Jeremiah Dyke, dedicated his brother Daniel’s book, The Mystery of Self-Deceiving, to Lucy, Countess of Bedford (1580-1627), probably because she was known to be a generous patron to writers, including the poet John Donne.

Portrait of Lucy Russell

Lucy Russell, Countess of Bedford. Studio of Isaac Oliver, 1612. Cleveland Museum of Art 1949.547

Subsequently, four women owned the book: Mary Flemyng, Jeane Drummond (1635), Margarit Flemyng, and (another) Mary Flemyng (1684). All four wrote their names across from the dedication to Lucy, Countess of Bedford, placing themselves “virtually” in her presence.

Women readers leave their signatures across from the dedication to Lucy, Countess of Bedford

Daniel Dyke, The Mystery of Selfe-deceiving (London, 1614). Folger STC 7398 detail.

Women shared their books, but they also wanted them back. Anna Lloyd, who owned a copy of The Complete Gentleman, wrote in the back: “Anna Lloyd Her Book / I Write my name for to betray/ the Thief That steals my Book Away/ steal not my Book for fear of shame/ for Here Doth stand the owners name.” Could she have been afraid that a brother might steal her book to find out how to become a gentleman?

Henry Peacham, The Compleat Gentleman (London, 1627). Folger STC 19503 copy 2
Henry Peacham, The Compleat Gentleman (London, 1627). Folger STC 19503 copy 2 detail

We should not leave this discussion of women book owners without mentioning Shakespeare! Because the Folger has so many editions of his plays and poems we find women’s names not only in all four Folios (1623, 1632, 1664 and 1685) but also in single quarto editions. For example, Frances Wolfreston, whom we met earlier, owned a 1619 copy of Hamlet, while a 1695 copy of Othello is marked “Mary Smyth of Dublin.”


William Shakespeare, Othello (London, 1695) Folger S2942 copy 3 detail.

Who was Mary Smyth, and how did she get her hands on a copy of this play, printed as it was acted at the Theatre Royal (either Covent Garden or Drury Lane) in London? Did she visit London and see it performed? Did some family member bring the play back to Dublin? We will probably never know. Nor is it likely we will identify Hannah Jenkins, Sarah Rodwell, Elizabeth Gyles, Hanah Welford, or Rose Meeks, who among them owned three copies of Shakespeare’s Poems (1640) into the eighteenth century. But we can relate to them precisely because they were not famous. They read Shakespeare at home, not in school, they liked what they read, and they laid claim to his books. That’s what good readers have always done, and that’s why we feel that somehow we know these women.


Thanks, Georgianna. I love these and hope to see more of what you’ve found. Great work!

Elissa Weaver — January 25, 2020

Wonderful essay, Georgianna.

Sarah Lindenbaum — January 30, 2020

Great detective work. Thank you for this splendid post.

Janine Barchas — February 3, 2020

This is so great. Thank you!

Julie Eckerle — February 14, 2020