Thursday, October 11th, 2018...6:00 am

Looking Beyond the Text in Frances Wolfreston’s Books

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By Sarah Lindenbaum

In the introduction of Marks in Books, Roger Stoddard’s catalogue of his 1984 exhibit on marginalia and other book traces, he writes, “As anthropologists have discovered, traces of wear can tell us how artifacts were used by human beings. Books no less than tools, apparel, and habits can show signs of wear, but their markings can be far more eloquent of manufacturing processes, specific of provenance, telling of human relations, and suggestive of human thought.”

Frances Middlemore Wolfreston (1607–1677) was a gentrywoman and lifelong native of the English Midlands whose private library of hundreds of volumes was broken up at various intervals during the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Her books drifted to libraries as far-flung as New Zealand, Denmark, and even Normal, Illinois, which is where I found her copy of Lady Mary Wroth’s romance The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania (1621).

The most well-known en masse drift of her books occurred on May 24th, 1856, when Sotheby and Wilkinson auctioned a substantial portion of the Wolferstan family library.[1] Since locating Urania in 2013, I have been using this auction catalog to track down more of Wolfreston’s  books, which frequently indicate, through “signs of wear” (to borrow Stoddard’s phrase), how she used them, where they came from, and what she thought of them.

With the generous support of a 2017–2018 Visiting Fellowship, I traveled to Houghton Library to examine books known to be previously owned by Wolfreston and search for untraced ones from the 1856 sale. I soon found myself in luck on the former point. On my second day at the library, I discovered that Houghton’s 1611 edition of Robert Greene’s Never Too Late (Houghton Library STC 12255.5) bore a washed and partially excised inscription: “fra[nces] […?] hor […?] my unke[ll?] […?].”

Robert Greene, Never Too Late (1611). Signed by Frances Wolfreston on folio A3r. STC 12255.5. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

I believe the last word to be “uncle” based upon Wolfreston’s renderings of the same word in her annotated Poor Robin almanacs, held at the Bodleian Library.[2] If this is the case, then the book was likely given to her by her uncle, which means that for the first time a male relative can be counted among the numerous friends and family who contributed to her library. This is significant because male authorities in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries chastened women not to read works of romance such as Greene’s because it was thought that romances would make them idle and lustful.[3] That Wolfreston may have received this book from an uncle suggests that whatever the prescriptions against reading romance might have been for members of Wolfreston’s sex, her male relatives and male friends did not find her love of literature problematic or unusual, and even encouraged it. In the same book, there is a seven-line Latin inscription on F3r, written in handwriting similar to her sons’. It reminds us that Wolfreston’s library was not private in the sense that she was the only reader, and that the annotations she left in some of her books may have been constrained as a consequence.

I also examined another Greene book owned by Wolfreston, Fortunes Tennis-Ball, or, The Most Excellent History of Dorastus and Fawnia (14455.74.25*), a verse adaptation of the author’s Pandosto. With the help of Houghton reference librarian Emily Walhout in September 2015, I had remotely identified the book as belonging to Wolfreston. Fortunes Tennis-Ball was published in 1672, just five years before Wolfreston’s death, and has the latest imprint date of all the known books bearing her ownership inscription. Wolfreston could have been no younger than 66 when she acquired it, which establishes that she continued to collect light literature into the final years of her life. The book was sold as lot 80 in the 1856 Sotheby’s auction to the London bookseller George Bumstead and later fell into the possession of Massachusetts historian J.P.C. Winship. The book also includes the bookplate of Frederick Locker-Lampson (1821–1895), who was probably its first owner after Wolfreston.

The other new Wolfreston books I identified are a 1622 edition of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II  (STC 17440) and a 1633 edition of Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (STC 17412). Together, the books encompassed lot 310 of the 1856 sale and were bought by bookseller Joseph Lilly. Wolfreston’s inscriptions in these Marlowe titles are washed and difficult to see upon first glance, which is likely why they went unrecorded in the bibliographic records.

Christopher Marlowe, The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Iew of Malta (1633), signed by Wolfreston on folio B1r.  STC 17412. Houghton Library, Harvard University. The digital filtering tool RetroReveal clarifies her inscription in the second image.

The Jew of Malta contains a heavily washed three- or four-word annotation from Wolfreston on the title page, which, like at least eleven other books she annotated, includes the word “prity.” Says Andrew Keener, referencing another similarly annotated Wolfreston book, “By ‘prity,’ Wolfreston may have meant something along the lines of cleverly done, ingenious, or artful (OED, adj. 1b) quite likely mingled with ‘pleasing; attractive or charming’ (adj., 2b).”

Christopher Marlowe, The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Iew of Malta (1633). STC 17412. Houghton Library, Harvard University. This annotation in Wolfreston’s hand, filtered through RetroReveal, appears to read, “a prity […?].”

In research involving the reconstruction of dispersed libraries like Wolfreston’s, it is vital to examine books in person for marks of previous ownership. Because 16th- and 17th-century books were so often altered by Victorian owners, as I recently explored in a blog post for the Folger Library, book traces like the ownership inscription of Frances Wolfreston are highly prone to being overlooked. Stoddard makes clear these traces can communicate a tremendous amount about their previous owners and allow us to understand the circumstances under which people collected, circulated, and read books centuries ago.


[1]Wolferstan” was the spelling settled upon by Wolfreston’s eldest son and subsequently used by all her descendants.

[2] My essay on these annotations and what they tell us about Wolfreston’s life and library is forthcoming.

[3] As Julie A. Eckerle notes, “[A] wealth of didactic texts discouraged all readers, but women in particular, from having any association with the [romance] genre.” Romancing the Self in Early Modern Englishwomen’s Life Writing (Burlington, VT: Ashgate 2013), 15.

Sarah Lindenbaum is Visiting Assistant Professor and Outreach Librarian at Illinois Wesleyan University and former Project Cataloger at the University of Illinois Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Any information about Frances Wolfreston and her books is highly welcome, and can be sent to Lindenbaum at You can follow her on Twitter: @wolfrestonward.

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