At the bottom of her copy of Titles of Honor, Lady Anne Clifford noted that she finished reading the book on March 1, 1638.By Gail Kern Paster
We are fortunate that our founders, Henry and Emily Folger, were eager to acquire early books that bore marks of ownership, rather than unmarked, pristine copies that some collectors prefer. The Folger collection includes many early books with marginal notations, doodles, practice signatures and other evidence that tells scholars how readers in the 16th and 17th centuries used and loved their books. But some rare books possess a magic beyond graphic marks of ownership—a magic that involves who owned them and why. A great case in point is a recent acquisition that we could not resist purchasing, even though we already had two copies of the same book.
The book is John Selden’s Titles of Honor (1631), which concerns the titles and dignities of kings, emperors and men and women of rank. This copy—found in the basement of a London rare-book dealer—was irresistible because it belonged to Lady Anne Clifford (1590-1676), a noblewoman famous for having ferociously claimed her right to inherit her father’s title to the earldom of Cumberland even though it was supposed to pass only to male descendants. Her copy of Selden’s book provides a unique opportunity to look over the shoulder of an educated woman from the period and to “watch” her read, as we trace her folds, underlines and comments.
Lady Anne is careful to mark any references to women, especially to their hereditary rights. The book is filled with turned-down pages. Virtually every page is marked in pen or pencil. Perhaps more remarkable, on page 412, near a reference to the poet Ben Jonson, who had died the year before, she inserted a bay leaf to honor him—and our copy still contained the leaf, dry and brown but unbroken.
Though she was exceptional by virtue of rank and determination, Lady Anne’s habits as a reader may tell us a great deal about other book-owning women of the period. Curator of Manuscripts Heather Wolfe ’92 is compiling a database of 16th and 17th-century Folger books owned by women. So far there are 130 books owned by 135 women—and those numbers will grow. As James Gleick suggested in a New York Times Magazine essay, “a physical object becomes desirable, precious, almost holy, by common consensus, on account of a history … that is attached to it.” Lady Anne’s is such a book.
Paster is director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. The Folger opened with a gift from Henry Clay Folger, Class of 1879, and his wife, Emily, and is administered under the auspices of Amherst College.