Collections of Distinction

Frances Wolfreston and ‘Hor’ Playbooks at the BPL

by jmoschella

Title page to East-ward Hoe (G.3962.2 no.1) with Frances Wolfreston's autograph and annotation.

Title page to East-ward Hoe (G.3962.2 no.1) with Frances Wolfreston’s autograph and annotation.

Boston Public Library Rare Books Librarian Jay Moschella in collaboration with University of Illinois scholars Sarah Lindenbaum and Lori Humphrey Newcomb would like to announce the recent identification of four playbooks in the Boston Public Library collection as items once owned by Frances Wolfreston, the best-known English woman book collector of the seventeenth century. Wolfreston has been of great interest to scholars and collectors since Johan Gerritsen’s 1964 essay “Venus Preserved: Some Notes on Frances Wolfreston” called attention to her remarkable collecting habits. The frequently cited 1989 essay “Frances Wolfreston and ‘Hor Bouks’: A Seventeenth-Century Woman Book Collector” by Paul Morgan includes an appendix of 106 books owned by the Wolferstan family, 95 of them bearing the trademark inscription “frances wolfreston hor bouk.” The most famous of these items is the sole extant copy of the first edition of Shakespeare’s poem, Venus and Adonis.

Yhe Sotheby's sale catalog for the sale of the Wolfreston library (G.314.2).

The Sotheby’s sale catalog for the  Statfold Hall library (G.314.2 no.2)

Frances Wolfreston was a Staffordshire gentlewoman, not titled; nothing in the basic details of her life suggests that she would have been a collector of drama. Born a Middlemore in 1607, she married landowner Francis Wolfreston in 1631 and moved to his family seat of Statfold Hall sometime after. Francis died in 1666 and Statfold Hall passed to the oldest of their six children, also called Francis, whereupon Frances Wolfreston moved to the town of Tamworth some 3 miles away, dying there in early 1677. During the 70 years of her life, she amassed what may have been the largest library collected by a 17th-century Englishwoman. Only Francis Egerton, Countess of Bridgewater (1583–1636), with a collection of 241 books and manuscripts, is known to have had a larger library.[1] An 1856 Sotheby’s catalog for the auction of the family library includes over 400 titles published within her lifetime. Lindenbaum and Newcomb are tracing the whereabouts of these volumes to see which contain her signature.

At least four of these books, all plays, found a home with the Boston Public Library. There is Thomas Heywood’s A Pleasant Conceited Comedy, Wherein is Shewed, How a Man May Choose a Good Wife from a Bad (1621) and Eastward Hoe (1605), a controversial play co-written by George Chapman, Ben Jonson, and John Marston. The two remaining plays are by none other than Shakespeare, A Wittie and Pleasant Comedie Called the Taming of the Shrew (1631) and The Most Excellent Historie of the Merchant of Venice (1637).

(Click to view digitized copies):

A Pleasant Conceited ComedyEastward HoeThe Taming of the ShrewThe Merchant of Venice

In addition to owning the only surviving copy of the 1593 Venus and Adonis, Wolfreston is also the earliest known female collector of the Bard, possessing no fewer than 13 of his titles. Next to playwright James Shirley and “Water Poet” John Taylor, Shakespeare is the author most prominently represented in her collection. Not since 1916, when Wolfreston’s copy of Othello was indexed in Henrietta Collins Bartlett’s and AW Pollard’s A Census of Shakespeare Plays in Quarto, 1594–1709, has one of her Shakespeare quartos been unearthed. At the writing of this post, the whereabouts of five of these quartos, including Romeo and Juliet (1637), are still unknown.

Wolfreston's annotation in The taming of the shrew is badly faded, but can be read under UV light. "a very prity mery one of a […?] begar found by a lord who persuaded him he was a lord, and this play was playd befor his new lordship”

Wolfreston’s annotation in The taming of the shrew (G.176.40) is badly faded, but can be read under UV light. “a very prity mery one of a […?] begar found by a lord who persuaded him he was a lord, and this play was playd befor his new lordship”

As more Wolfreston books have been uncovered, so have more annotations. Indeed, Wolfreston left commentary in each of the Boston Public Library playbooks, and also in many other books recently located by Lindenbaum and Newcomb. While the number of the annotations within her books is small, each one reveals something new about her literary life.

On the title page of Heywood’s A Pleasant Conceited Comedy, about a husband who doubts his wife’s faithfulness and worthiness despite her popularity with his friends and family, she has written “a exeding prity on[e].” Beneath the caption title of Eastward Hoe, she writes “a resnabell prity one” and also notes “pris 1s 3d”; in other words, that she paid one shilling three pence for the book. Finances also filter her response to the controversial climax of Merchant of Venice; she writes on that scene that “the rich jue would have a £ of flesh of his creditor,” using the abbreviation for the currency rather than weight. Her comment on The Taming of the Shrew singles out the opening scene that frames the main play: “a very prity mery one of a […?] begar found by a lord who persuaded him he was a lord, and this play was playd befor his new lordship.” Although this frame around the play’s better-known marriage plot is left incomplete in Shakespeare’s play, and often omitted from modern productions, Wolfreston plainly appreciated the nesting of a play-within-a-play.


The title page to G.3970.2 with Frances Wolfreston’s distinctive autograph

All four of these plays came to the Boston Public Library in 1873, when it purchased the collection of Thomas Pennant Barton (1803–1869). Barton acquired Eastward Hoe and the Shakespeare quartos through the 1856 Sotheby’s sale, and bought the Heywood volume the following year through the sale of J.O. Halliwell-Phillipps‘ books on May 21, 1857.

Barton’s personal library of 15,000 volumes, which he painstakingly assembled over the course of his entire adult life, reflects both his everyday interests and his bibliographical obsessions. He was, variously, an urbane man of means and a country gentleman; a scholar who married into an extremely well-connected family, an amateur botanist, an occasional diplomat, and a sophisticated bibliophile with a distinctive collector’s vision. The collection is most famous for its rare, early Shakespeare editions, as well as the many rare volumes of and related to early modern English literature. The collection is also particularly strong in French literature and philosophy, American and French jurisprudence, and botany, among other topics.

Portrait of T.P. Barton, by Etienne Bouchardy (1835)

An 1835 portrait miniature of Thomas Pennant Barton by Etienne Bouchardy (G. Cab 3.190)

Barton’s desire for completeness in the areas in which he collected was tempered only by his overriding insistence on purchasing books in the finest possible condition. In fact, we know a great deal about his collecting habits because the Barton Collection offers an additional treasure: 24 volumes of correspondence between Barton and his book dealers in both Europe and America. This collection of manuscripts, on its own, represents a trove of information on the 19th-century trade in rare books. In his correspondence, we find Barton placing orders, providing instructions for binding and conservation, arranging shipments, and instructing his dealers on how to evaluate the condition of books he wished to purchase.

After a lengthy negotiation, the Boston Public Library acquired the collection, in its entirety, from Barton’s widow, Cora Livingston Barton.[2] Along with the collections of George Ticknor, Theodore Parker, Nathaniel Bowditch, and Josiah Benton, Barton’s library forms part of the foundation of the BPL’s rare books collection.

To view the bibliographic records for each of the four Wolfreston books at the BPL, click the following links:

Heywood, Thomas. A pleasant conceited comedy . . . (G.3970.2)

Chapman, George, et al. East-ward hoe. (G.3962.2 no.1)

Shakespeare, William. The merchant of Venice. (G.176.18)

Shakespeare, William. The taming of the shrew. (G.176.40)


(This post was co-written by Sarah Lindenbaum, Lori Humphrey Newcomb, and Jay Moschella)



[1] McKitterick, David. “Women and Their Books in Seventeenth-Century England: The Case of Elizabeth Puckering.” Library (2000) 1(4): 363.
[2] Chase, Frank H. “Thomas Pennant Barton and his Library.” More Books: Being the Bulletin of the Boston Public Library. Vol.2, no.9 (Dec., 1927), 313-320.