In my last blog I discussed the subject of attribution in book auction catalogues, particularly whether it is possible to gauge the reputation of female authors. The focus here aims to test this study by examining contemporary manuscript book catalogues or book lists. These sources are revealing because they shed light on how a private collection was documented. Moreover, they accurately represent the literary tastes of the owner as opposed to the commercial interests of the bookseller.
Two manuscript book lists serve the purpose of this exercise: Sir John Perceval (d. 1686) of Burton, county Cork, and Dame Bridget Bennet (fl. 1673-99) of Dawley in Middlesex. The Perceval catalogue was drawn up sometime before his death while the inventory for Bennet’s library was compiled in 1699.
Inevitable questions arise when comparing and contrasting printed and manuscript catalogues. Are there any trends or patterns that emerge in regard to the attribution of female-authored works? Does the inventory show a greater or lesser interest in works composed by women? And most importantly, is there any difference between male and female owned libraries?
The Perceval book list is a particularly revealing case study because it contains many of the popular female works that appear in contemporary auction catalogues. In the example above there are four items by women writers: Katherine Philips (no. 37), Elizabeth Villiers, Countess of Morton (no. 58), and two works by Madeleine de Scudéry (nos. 65 an 66). These works represent just 4% of the total collection.
The book list is striking for three key reasons. First, the number of unattributed items is noticeably higher than auction catalogues (37%), although it should be said Perceval’s library of 99 books is much smaller than the collections that usually went on sale in the late seventeenth century. Second, the seemingly low yield of four female-authored works is actually relatively high in percentage terms. By and large, women writers linger around the 0.5% to 1.5% mark in auction catalogues. Third, and perhaps more interesting, the catalogue attributes the work of British female authors while foreign authors like Scudéry are omitted. In this scenario, there are similarities with printed auction catalogues. Although there were inconsistencies in acknowledging Scudéry as an author the Perceval book list seems to follow a general trend where French female writers like Mesdames d’Aulnoy and Villedieu were not listed.
Bridget Bennet’s catalogue provides a valuable insight into the type of books women purchased and the extent to which they collected female-authored works. There are just over 200 books recorded and they cover a range of subjects including religious, historical, classical and literary books. Of these, only five are composed by women (representing 2.43% of the total library), although it should be noted that Edward Young’s Idea of Christian Love (1688) included poems by Anne Wharton. Female authors, moreover, are acknowledged on just two occasions: Hortense Mancini, Duchess of Mazarin, and Katherine Philips (under the pseudonym of Orinda). And following along the lines of auction catalogues, the French author Madame d’Aulnoy is not acknowledged while works by Aphra Behn and Mary Astell were also unattributed.
So what should we make of this? Three very tentative conclusions can be made. First, authorial attribution in manuscript book lists and auction catalogues generally follow similar lines. The ratio of attributed to unattributed books is usually 3:1 or 4:1 but could sometimes extend to as much as 5:1. Second, prominent female writers like Cavendish and Philips were virtually always acknowledged in catalogues in contrast to French female authors where attribution was patchy to say the least. And finally, female book owners showed no obvious bias or preferential treatment in terms of purchasing works by other women. If anything, there was little difference between male and female libraries. The composition was simply down to a matter of personal taste.