The issue of attribution in book catalogues is interesting not least because it compels historians to reflect more critically on the reputation both of the author and of his or her work. This can be particularly revealing when analysing works composed by women. One of the advantages of examining female-authored books in library collections prior to 1700 is that they are relatively small in number, thereby providing an attractively feasible case study for engaging with such challenges.
A key objective of my research on RECRIC is to investigate patterns of authorial attribution in Anglophone book-auction catalogues between 1550 and 1700. This is not simply a matter of calculating the ratio of books composed by male and female writers: my remit also assesses the proportion of attributed and unattributed items in each collection. By pursuing this line of inquiry one hopes to gain a better sense of the reputation of female authors.
This, however, is no straightforward task. Having examined over fifty auction catalogues, ranging from 250 to 4,000 items, understandable discrepancies inevitably arise when examining female writers as a distinct group. The prolific Margaret Cavendish, duchess of Newcastle, was always attributed. In contrast, cataloguers were inconsistent in acknowledging Madeleine de Scudéry. And were the focus to be confined only to Anglophone authors, even the distinguished playwright Aphra Behn occasionally went unmentioned. The library of a ‘deceased gentleman’ is a case in point.
So what does this mean? It would be tempting to conclude that Cavendish was held in higher esteem than her contemporaries. But the fact that Behn and Scudéry regularly appear in auction catalogues plainly shows their work was in demand. It is, moreover, possible that the compiler of the library of a ‘deceased gentleman’ saw no need to cite Behn because Love Letters between a Nobleman and his Sister was so well known.
When Thomas Scudamore’s library was advertised for sale in 1698 Dorothy Leigh was not listed as the author of The Mothers Blessing. Yet the popularity of her work is evidenced by the fact that it went through twenty-three editions over the course of the seventeenth century. This is corroborated by the fact that there was obviously a conscious attempt to cite authors in the catalogue. Unattributed works accounted for just 19% of more than 3,600 items.
Not all auction catalogues emphasised authorial attribution like the Scudamore library. Some had a relatively high proportion of works that omitted references to writers. The library of Thomas Britton had as many as 547 unattributed items (31% of the collection.) Likewise, James Partridge’s library catalogue in 1695 contained 1,468 books of which 29% had no author.
With this in mind it is easy to lose sight of the fact that these printed lists were compiled and marketed for the commercial world. So while the library reflected the tastes of the owner much of what he or she personally valued is lost from sight because the bookseller was focused exclusively on profit. Indeed it could be contended that there was a yawning chasm between the literary tastes of the owner and the manner in which the auction catalogue is likely to be presented by the bookseller. Of course there is an argument to be made that the catalogues mirrored the views and demands of the reading public. But if this were true then auction catalogues would surely have a recognised formula, not least because the majority of books were sold in or near Ludgate.
There is no doubt that auction catalogues in the late seventeenth century are a valuable literary historical source. Provenance and possession offer important evidence of a text’s circulation and shed light on how reception shaped ideas about authorship. However, historians need to be alert to the hazards of estimating the contemporary or near contemporary reputation of authors.
What might be interesting is to compare auction catalogues with manuscript book lists of the same period to see what patterns emerge. I’ll consider this in my next blog.