International Women’s Day 2022

A fashionably-dressed 18th-c woman sits in a chair reading a book.
The Studious Beauty. Printed for & sold by Carington Bowles, at his map & print warehouse, No.69 in St. Pauls Church Yard, London. Publish’d as the Act directs [Jan. 1, 1778?]. Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University
Today, 8 March, 2022 is International Women’s Day, and I’m therefore going to take the opportunity to reflect a little, both on the women writers and readers we find in our borrowing records, as I did last year and also on those we don’t see – the wives, daughters, mothers, sisters, cousins, nieces, friends, and servants – of the male borrowers whose lives leave far greater traces in the historical record. Kit’s blog on Elizabeth Montagu reminds us beautifully of the ways in which we might sometimes need to seek in the interstices of history for the kinds of connections that make up the warp and woof of everyday life. It’s certainly no secret that writing women’s history is a difficult job – as Virginia Woolf memorably wrote in A Room of One’s Own, women are almost invariably ‘absent from history’ when one goes looking for them:

A very queer, composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband.[1]

Woolf was right, of course, in many ways, and A Room of One’s Own remains one of the most powerful and eloquent calls to feminist scholars that I know. But happily great strides have been made since she gave her lectures on ‘Women and Fiction’ at Cambridge in October of 1928. We still don’t know as much as we’d like to about what Woolf termed the ‘infinitely obscure lives’ of ordinary women, but we do know a great deal more now than they did in 1928. We have excellent histories, not only of prominent women, such as Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, but also of the lives of more ordinary genteel women in our period, such as Amanda Vickery’s The Gentleman’s Daughter (2003), as well as of prostitutes and courtesans, maidservants, female convicts and asylum inmates, professional women writers and artists, and women scientists of our period, to name just a few subjects of recent popular books of women’s history. It’s painstaking work, rooting through what Woolf elsewhere called the ‘lumber room’ of history to find them,[2] but feminist scholars and writers have been doing stellar work in recreating the world of Georgian women for us for the past fifty years.

St Katherine contemplatively reads a book
John Smith (1652-1743), St Katharine. Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University
A topless Mary Magdalen reclines dressed in sheet while reading a book.
Francesco Bartolozzi (1727-1815), Diva Magdalena. Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University. Both saint and sinner are here represented reading books, a reminder of the ubiquity of the figures of the reading women in the iconography of our period.













Our own work on the Books and Borrowing project has reminded me of both of the difficulties of tracing women in the records, and the rewards of doing so. As noted in previous blogs, such as Alex’s on women borrowers at Westerkirk, Karen McAulay’s guest blog on women borrowers of music at St Andrews and Jacqueline’s analysis of the gender of the Water Drinker borrowers at the Leighton Library, as well as my own blog this time last year, there are plenty of women borrowers scattered across our different sets of records. Even in traditionally male bastions of learning, such as the universities, women crop up in the borrowers’ registers, while they are represented in force in some of our other sets of records. There are also, of course, very large numbers of women writers represented there. Cleo recently wrote about Mary Brunton’s forgotten best-seller Self Control (1811) while Alex earlier reported on the importance of Jane Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs (1810) at Westerkirk. Jacqueline reminded us of the predominance of female novelists at Selkirk. Elsewhere, Kit discovered female librarians and Karen a female cataloguer. The briefest search of translated works across those represented in our library’s catalogues demonstrates the prevalence of female translators in the period. Josh’s PhD research is showing that women regularly inherited (and used) membership of the Bristol Subscription Library, and the same is presumably true elsewhere. As noted in Jill Dye’s work, at Innerpeffray Library it is notable that in the timespan 1747-1855, the only period during that time that the Keeper of Books had a wife was also the period when the greatest number of women borrowers were recorded.[3] We know from anecdotal evidence (here collected in the Reading Experience Database) that books borrowed by men were also very often also read, or heard as they were read aloud, by women. The diary of John Marsh, gentleman composer, for example, records the following in November of 1787:

The “Lounger” a new publication being a book now pretty much read, we at this time got it from Humphrey’s library & Miss White and I began reading the diff’t numbers of it of an evening.[4]

By January of 1801, the family were still borrowing books from Humphrey’s library and sharing them in the family circle:

Having heard much of Miss Hamilton’s celebrated novel of the “Modern Philosopher” we on Wed’y 14th got it from Humphrey’s library wh’ch Edw’d & I afterw’ds read out on even’gs […] to Mrs M & were all very much entertained by it.[5]

Image of a woman with an elaborate headdress who is reading a book that is balanced on a globe.
The Library (1771). Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library

Such findings are, individually, interesting, but not terribly meaningful. Once we start to bring them together, however, what begins to emerge is a picture of the ways in which women accessed print culture in the period, and of the extent to which they participated in shaping and forming that culture. We are not yet at the point where we can engage in statistical analysis across all the data in our system, but by the time our database goes live to the public in May of 2023, we hope to be able to present some very exciting findings about the activities of women readers and women writers across the whole of our period.

Fashionable ladies make selections from a circulating library.
The Circulating Library Publish’d Octr. 1, 1804 by Laurie & Whittle, 53 Fleet Street, London,
[1 October 1804]. Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.
[1] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1929).

[2] Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader (1925)

[3] Jill Dye, ‘Books and their Borrowers at the Library of Innerpeffray, c 1680-1855’, pp. 94, 111-14, available at