The early modern reader Frances Wolfreston (1607-1677) has attracted a considerable amount of attention from scholars in recent decades. “Frances wolfreston her bouk,” she often wrote in her copies of seventeenth-century publications. Intriguingly, Wolfreston sometimes left short critical remarks in her books, rare and invaluable assessments of literature from a woman in early modern England.
If you’re reading this, you might know that these books aren’t all in the same place, which poses a challenge (or travel opportunity) to those who want to know more about Wolfreston’s reading habits. Dispersed among many research libraries, her collection includes the only surviving 1593 copy of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, which Johan Gerritsen discussed in pioneering 1964 article, as well as a Folger copy of Chaucer’s Workes (which Sarah Werner discusses here), a UPenn Q3 copy of Shakespeare’s Othello (which Werner also wrote about here), a book called The Schoole of Vertue at the University of Illinois and a copy of Mary Wroth’s Urania at Illinois State (both of which Sarah Lindenbaum wrote about here), and Boston Public Library copies of The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew, Eastward Hoe, and A Pleasant Conceited Comedy, Wherein is Shewed, How a Man May Choose a Good Wife from a Bad (jointly discussed here by Lindenbaum, Lori Humphrey Newcomb, and Jay Moschella). In some cases, she indicates where she bought her books, or from whom. If you want to know more about these and other “bouks,” Paul Morgan’s 1989 article is an essential source, for it includes a list of 106 printed books owned by the Wolfreston family, with 95 of them inscribed by Frances.
This week, I came across Wolfreston’s copy of Thomas Heywood’s The English Traveller at the Huntington Library in San Marino, CA (RB 64122). The catalog specified that this particular copy featured the book plate of Robert Hoe and that its binding was signed “Matthews.” Upon opening it, however, I was delighted to find both an autograph and a brief critical assessment from Wolfreston, who was 26 years old when The English Traveller was published. This was two years after she married the landowner Francis Wolfreston (as many have noted, this story isn’t one without a little name confusion; the Wolfrestons had children named Francis, too). Lindenbaum has told me that this copy of The English Traveller was included in a Sotheby’s sale of 1856 and that there are several other Wolfreston-Hoe books at the Huntington Library, though this Heywood playbook’s whereabouts have been obscure. On the first page of the play’s text, you can clearly read “francis wolfrest[on] / her bouk” (sig. A4r), and below the play’s prologue on the facing page, “prity one” (sig. A3v).
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). To be sure, the fathers and sons in this tragicomedy ultimately reconcile, though a character named Mistress Wincott does die of grief after an secret affair with Young Geraldine’s best friend Dalavill (scandalously, Young Geraldine had been attracted to Mistress Wincott the whole time, with Mr. Wincott completely oblivious). Perhaps Wolfreston was won over by the comic subplot, which features – I kid you not – a scene in which drunken revelers collectively hallucinate a shipwreck inside another character’s home. Have I convinced you to read The English Traveller?
If you won’t take my word for it, know that Wolfreston generally had good things to say about Heywood’s works. She left an approving remark in the playwright’s Second Part of the Iron Age, and in her copy of A Pleasant Conceited Comedy, she wrote “a exeding prity on[e].” I should add that although scholars sometimes group Othello with The English Traveller on accounts of the plays’ common domestic themes, Wolfreston saw a distinction between them. Shakespeare’s play was “a sad one” and Heywood’s a “prity one.” (By the way, see Werner’s thoughtful reflections on Othello as, or as not, a “sad book.”) In this case, a reader’s annotations offer not only a declaration of ownership or a flash judgment, but commentary about tragicomedy, a dramatic genre that pointed in different directions. Following a thoughtful suggestion from Lindenbaum, I also was able to track down what could be Wolfreston’s copy of another Heywood playbook at the Huntington Library: The Foure Prentises of London (RB 54919). Its title page is missing, however, and though I looked carefully I found no inscriptions. Hopefully we come across more of this interesting woman’s “bouks.”