In Virginia Woolf’s Shakespearean fantasy Orlando we follow the hero through historical time from the Elizabethan to the modern era. I’ve had the privilege of researching a similar story, where the hero is a book: Shakespeare’s First Folio. As this text is gradually transformed from a sheaf of unbound printed pages in Jaggard’s print shop into a book for reading and study and thence into a collector’s item or relic, it, like Orlando, gives us a window on the changing culture of the last four centuries.
I grew up amid the industrial architecture of Leeds, a city made great by cloth manufacture and tailoring, but which seemed a long way from the rare books libraries I came to love in Oxford and at the Folger. But in my research I discovered that there had been a First Folio only a couple of miles from my home. The Leeds wool magnate Benjamin Gott, who built a Palladian villa in the mid-nineteenth century on the profits of his factory, also gathered paintings, sculpture, and books as signs that he had made it. One of these books was a First Folio.
That book is now at the Folger, acquired from Gott’s grandson Bishop John Gott in 1906. Over the course of the nineteenth century, wealth, and cultural capital, moved westwards. America boomed, industrial England declined. First Folios followed. But it’s amazing to me to think that Folger copy no. 9 was once at Wyther Grange, now the dilapidated clubhouse for a municipal golf course – and that it is a part of Leeds’ industrial heritage just as much as the mill-house chimneys of the cityscape.