A “prity one”: Frances Wolfreston’s copy of Thomas Heywood’s The English Traveller (1633)

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 VeniceThe Taming of the ShrewEastward 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).

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By “prity,” Wolfreston may have meant something along the lines of cleverly done, ingenious, or artful (OEDadj. 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.”

 

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Some First Thoughts

Ciao, world!

Because this is my first post on this blog, I’ll establish some helpful facts about who I am, what I do, and what you can learn about from this website. From then, I’ll write an introduction of sorts.

Who I am. My name is Andrew. I live in Chicago and I am a doctoral student in the Department of English at Northwestern University. Before coming here to work with Northwestern’s Renaissance specialists, I lived and studied in Boston (where I earned my B.A.) and North Carolina (my home state, where I also earned my M.A.).

What I do. I often think about language and literature, but I really like to read and study old books. More specifically, I examine artifacts published in Europe between 1500 and 1700. I’ve been involved already in the “bookish” academic groups at both the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC and Rare Book School at UVa. Nowadays you can often find me propping up a seventeenth-century folio in the reading room at Chicago’s Newberry Library. (I’ve also begun a collection of unusual, autographed, or hard-to-find books, centered mainly around a few first-edition Hemingways – but nothing too rare, really.) In the spirit of my book-historical approach, I am also getting involved with a few online textual analysis tools (I’ll mention these later).

What you can learn, or find out. The title of this blog is “Vade mecum,” which is Latin for “go-with-me.” In that sense, this website is designed to be a handy and useful window into the wonderful world of rare books (mostly in the Chicago area, mostly at the Newberry) and the oddities I encounter there. I’m therefore writing somewhat in the tradition of the Folger Library’s blog The Collation (which I highly recommend). If you’re involved in an academic community somehow, then you might learn about a particular artifact that could be of interest for your research. If you’re simply a lover of books and curious about the mysteries (and often, headaches) associated with dusty, hands-on archival research, well, this place is for you, too.

Something of an introduction.  We live in a remarkable time as human beings. I’ll clarify with the help of Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“If there is any period one would desire to be born in, is it not the age of Revolution; when the old and the new stand side by side and admit of being compared. . . . This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.”

The “age of Revolution” is a very compelling idea. Elizabeth Eisenstein, a historian of early modern printing, commented on one revolution in particular, the “print revolution,” and suggested in her book The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (1979) that the invention of printing was responsible for remarkable and momentous developments in religious, scientific, and cultural history. However, as scholars since have noted, the introduction of moveable type did not fully supplant or render useless the “technologies” of manuscript culture. Scribal culture and print culture complemented each other in significant ways, no matter how important the introduction of moveable type was. Both of these communication “technologies” – and it is essential to think of them as technologies – had distinct characteristics that rendered them more or less private, authentic, or valuable, depending on the context at hand. My account here is heretical in its simplicity, but I only mean to show that during the Renaissance, print could be simultaneously praised as a heavenly gift from God and scorned as a promiscuous cheapening of the authentic. In Emerson’s words, it was a time when the old and the new stood side by side, an “age of Revolution.”

My reasons for keeping this blog call to my mind a number of similar issues that attended early modern writers and thinkers. In our own “age of Revolution,” the “Information Age,” as some have called it, we are witnessing our own historically contingent configuration of the Renaissance’s “stigma of print.” Except now, this time, the tension lies not between the manuscript and the printed book, but between the printed book and the e-book (or Nook, or Kindle, or iPad – the picture is obviously complex). Advertisements, conversations I overhear on the train, small-talk on frivolous TV morning shows – they all provide evidence that this is the case. 400 years after Shakespeare’s time, we are undergoing an important and uncomfortable change in communication technology. The president of the American Historical Association, William Cronon, recently published his anxieties about this transition on the AHA website. Cronon seems to join a number of scholars who have declared the physical book “dead” in an era that is increasingly digital, increasingly immaterial, and threatening to our sense of self. But – returning to Emerson – if we know what to do with the age of Revolution, it is a very good time to live in.

I hope it is a very good time to live in. I write from a somewhat vexed position as a graduate student in the humanities during a particularly challenging economic period in American history. The academy is changing, many think for the worse, into a neoliberal system characterized by videotaped lectures and adjunct faculty positions. I admit these frustrations, and I obviously do not approve of some of the truly shameful budgeting decisions in the public university system (If you’re interested in this, read Christopher Newfield’s book). But, if we know what to do, I think that there is a way to navigate a transition that is not an overnight change but a gradual movement. Things can change for the better in the academy, but we must first be vigilant and knowledgeable about the conditions of scholarly communication today (not in the sense that we must all become computer programmers – more on this later, maybe).

So, my decision to write this blog comes in part from a recognition that academic research, like journalism, is undergoing some important changes that, in a way, establish us as kindred spirits with writers of the Renaissance – men and women to whom the printed book was not an invisible container of authentic words, but a material technology with recognizable properties beyond the meaning of the words within. But if that seems too ambitious, I also want to use this space to share some photographs, thoughts, and suppositions about the dusty volumes in the archive in the hopes that someone might be as curious or intrigued as I am about that amazing technological device- the Renaissance book. Which, to me, is very much alive.

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