Books and Borrowing 1750-1830

The Bancroft Chronicles

In November, I was lucky enough to spend a month working as a Visiting Scholar in the English Department at the University of California, Berkeley, as part of my PhD. Whilst there, I spent some time at the Bancroft Library, which is home to the University’s special collections. Established in 1859, the Bancroft Library (pictured below) is named after the American historian Hubert Howe Bancroft, whose book collection was purchased by the University of California in 1905.

The main entrance to the Bancroft Library, located next to UCB’s main library, the Doe Library. Photo credit: author.

Today, some of the library’s most notable assets include the Mark Twain Papers and Project, the Rare Book Collection, and the Latin Americana Project.[1] Upon perusing the library catalogue, I was pleased to note that the Bancroft’s special collections also include first editions of several of the novels on which my PhD thesis centres, including Susan Ferrier’s first novel, Marriage (1818), and Mary Brunton’s second novel, Discipline (1814). I therefore decided to take the opportunity to spend a day in the Bancroft’s reading room, working my way through these first editions in the hope that I might find some interesting examples of marginalia, or other evidence of reading (and, in some cases, borrowing).

In addition to being of great personal and academic interest to me, this exercise also provided a useful opportunity to get a headstart on and brief insight into the sort of PhD thesis research that I’ll be moving onto in the New Year. Having written the first four chapters of my thesis, each of which focuses on a different iteration of improvement within the early-nineteenth-century Scottish novels of Brunton, Ferrier, John Galt, Elizabeth Hamilton, James Hogg, and Walter Scott, I will soon be turning my attention to writing the final chapter of my thesis. Instead of centring on evidence from the novels themselves, this final chapter will interrogate evidence of people reading these Scottish novels, in order to analyse the discussions of improvement that appear within this evidence. Sources will include reviews of the novels, readers’ diaries and correspondence, and also, where possible, examples of marginalia.

Portrait of Richard Bentley by Charles Baugniet (1844). Photo credit: National Portrait Gallery. For a full list of the titles included in Bentley’s Standard Novel Series, click here.

During my visit to the Bancroft, I looked at the first editions of Marriage and Discipline and also a copy of Ferrier’s second novel, The Inheritance (1824) in the Richard Bentley edition of 1841, published as part of his Standard Novel Series.[2] Each text provided something different in terms of book history and marginalia, prompting me to start thinking about the various insights into reading practices that these evidence sources can provide, and how I might apply my knowledge of these insights to steer and inform my research for my final thesis chapter. I should note that the Bancroft Library’s regulations preclude me from sharing photos of my findings; I hope, therefore, that the following descriptions will nevertheless be of some interest and enliven your imaginations!

Marriage was the first text that I looked at. Its three volumes proved immediately noteworthy due to the borrowing records that were inscribed on each of the inside front and back covers, detailing who had borrowed which volumes and when. The majority of these records appeared inside the covers of the first volume, with proportionally fewer inscriptions appearing in the latter two volumes.

Insofar as I could tell, every borrower listed on the inside covers of Marriage carried the title ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’, with the exception of one ‘Lady Brooke’, indicating that these specific volumes had a predominantly female reading (or, at least, borrowing) audience. This is not to say, of course, that men did not also read these specific volumes, but certainly their names do not appear on the inside covers.

Title page of a first edition of Marriage. Photo credit: the National Library of Scotland

These records therefore tell a different story to the one that appears if one conducts a quick search of all the borrowing records of Marriage that are available in the Books and Borrowing database, the results of which show that the number of male borrowers is exactly four times that of female borrowers (48 male; 12 female). The majority of these borrowings (60 out of 65 borrowing records) take place at Wigtown Subscription Library, in Galloway; 4 take place at Chambers’ Circulating Library in Edinburgh, while the final, somewhat outlying, borrowing takes place at St Andrews University Library. It is possible, therefore, that the higher number of records by male borrowers, relative to female borrowers, is a reflection of the ratio of male and female borrowers at each library.

I could find no evidence of which library this particular edition of Marriage might have belonged to, though an inscription inside the back cover of volume one indicates that these volumes were at one point sold to Bernard Quaritch Ltd., a rare books and manuscripts seller, established in 1847.[3] It is therefore also possible that this edition, instead of being owned by a library, was a personal copy of someone who then lent its volumes to their female friends.

Moving on to the Bentley edition of The Inheritance: this specific edition can be traced back to Omagh Library in County Tyrone, Ireland, evidenced by a plate inserted on the inside front cover of the book. This plate sets out some of the rules for the library subscribers, including the rule that ‘in no case can more than the number of Works subscribed for be given out, nor can a second set of Books be given, until the former are returned’.[4]

Unlike the classic, three-volume first edition of Marriage, Bentley’s edition of The Inheritance was published in a single volume, which Ferrier herself revised, in order to make novels such as Ferrier’s more affordable to a larger reading public. Throughout this volume, examples of marginalia proliferate across the pages, many of which were unfortunately too faded to decipher, though the different hands tell us that these comments were not all written by the same reader.

Often, too, passages within The Inheritance have been underlined, spontaneously, perhaps, where a particular passage resonated strongly with a reader, or perhaps to enable that reader to return more easily to that passage at a later date. Use of both pencil and pen indicates again that at least two different readers contributed to these marginal comments. While one reader underlined in particular passages to do with love, another had marked out several passages in which the word ‘jealousy’ recurred. These patterns may or may not be coincidental, but in any case they do speak to the subjective experience of reading.

One reader, writing in pencil, underlines a passage in which the novel’s heroine, Gertrude St Clair, is lamenting the behaviour of her rakish lover, Colonel Delmour. The passage reads: ‘Who ever loved so fondly, so truly, as I have done? – and men never love with the devotion of women’, next to which one reader wrote ‘vice versa’, providing a brief, slightly comic, glimpse into marginal responses by readers of Ferrier’s novel.[5]

While the lack of any borrowing records in this particular edition makes it difficult to know when these marginal comments first appeared, I did find a small newspaper clipping inside the pages of The Inheritance, acting as a sort of bookmark. The newspaper clipping dates to Monday 5th March 1866, providing a rough indication of when this particular volume was in circulation, presumably (though not necessarily) amongst the members of Omagh Library.

In 2018, a new edition of Discipline, edited by Olivia Murphy, was published as part of the Chawton House Library Series of Women’s Novels. Photo credit: Routledge

Passing, finally, to the edition of Discipline: this first edition was published in three volumes, like Marriage, and for me these volumes yielded the most intriguing evidence of reading and of book history. On turning the front cover of the first volume, not one but three bookplates were revealed. The Bancroft Library’s own plate was, of course, hardly a surprise, but either side of this plate were two further plates. The first belongs to one Robert Palfrey Utter (1875–1936), complete with a picture of an otter’s head, presumably a play on his surname. Utter was a Professor of English at UC Berkeley, whose most famous work, Pamela’s Daughter’s (New York: Macmillan, 1936) was completed just one month before his untimely death.[6]

Pamela’s Daughters (1936), which Utter co-authored with Gwendolyn Bridges Needham, Professor of Eighteenth-Century Literature at UC Davis between 1937 and 1973.

The second plate belongs to Sir Charles Cockerell Baronet (1755–1837) and features an illustration of two figures either side of a shield, underneath which is written in Latin ‘sapere et fari’. Cockerell was a British politician and an East India Company official.[7] While Utter’s plate appears in all three volumes of Discipline, Cockerell’s plate appears only in the first two. I could find no evidence that indicated when these volumes might have changed hands between its various owners, but in any case these plates provided an unexpectedly personal insight into these volumes’ history.

Throughout the volumes of Discipline, marginal comments were extremely limited, with the exception of the title page of the first volume, on which one reader had written Mary Brunton’s name in pencil underneath ‘BY THE AUTHOR OF “SELF-CONTROL”’. At the very back of each volume, however, was a list of page numbers with accompanying notes and reflections on these pages, and this is where things became especially interesting for me.

Instead of spontaneously underlining passages or writing marginal comments as they went, this reader clearly chose to limit their marginalia to a blank page at the back of each volume, noting down their reflections carefully, in chronological order (excepting volume 2, where a note on page 154 appears after a note on page 204 – perhaps the result of a second reading), on pages they presumably planned to return to at some later date. Given the presence of the aforementioned bookplates, it seems plausible that these notes (which were all written in the same hand, in pencil), might have been written by Utter, either for his own research or in preparation for teaching Brunton’s novel.

The reflections themselves vary in both nature and in length. In some cases, they are descriptive of what is taking place in a specific scene: for example, ‘[p.] 194 [vol. 1] – rehearsals of vanity’. In other cases, they refer to other novels, introducing an element of intertextuality: for example, ‘[p.] 42 [vol. 1] – De Burgh – of Pride and Prejudice’, or ‘[p.] 197 [vol. 1] – Otranto’, in which the reader is of course referring to Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (published exactly 60 years before Discipline, in 1764). Other notes, meanwhile, were slightly more playful in nature: page 50 of volume 3 is described as ‘luxurious writing’, while, on page 57 of the same volume, the reader identifies a ‘sentence of unjustifiable coquetry’. In like manner, I shall refrain from revealing which sentence the reader is referring to, leaving it up to readers of this blog perhaps to read Discipline for themselves and to come to their own conclusions.

Between them, these three texts made for a formative day of reading, during which I was able to reflect on and to think ahead to the sorts of things to look out for when researching for my final thesis chapter. They also provided an excellent opportunity to make the most of the rich resources available at UC Berkeley. I’d like to conclude by thanking my PhD funding body, the Scottish Graduate School for Arts and Humanities (SGSAH), my three supervisors, and my host at UC Berkeley, Professor Ian Duncan, for making my trip there possible, in the first instance, and so enriching whilst I was there.

[1] For more information about the Bancroft Library, click here.

[2] For more on the Standard Novel Series, see my blog post on Brunton’s first novel, Self-Control (1811), in which I outline the premise of Bentley’s series. For more on The Inheritance, see my Forgotten Best-Seller blog post.

[3] To learn more about Bernard Quaritch Ltd., click here.

[4] Susan Ferrier, The Inheritance. Revised by the Author. London: Richard Bentley, 1841.

[5] Ferrier, p. 374.

[6] For more on Utter’s life, click here.

[7] For more on Cockerell’s life, click here.