Monday 21 February 2011

The Secret Life of Books: Eliza's Betsy Thoughtless

Not Eliza Haywood's Betsy Thoughtless, but Eliza St. Aubyn's rather battered copy of Ab.67.5 Betsy Thoughtless, 3rd ed. (1762). Eliza who? Let me explain.

Elizabeth Wingfield, daughter of William Wingfield of Durham, County Durham, married, on 4 June 1756, Sir John St. Aubyn, fourth baronet (1726–72). Elizabeth had six children; 1. Elizabeth (1757), 2. John (1758), 3. Catherine (1760), 4. Robert (1761?), 5. Anne (1762), 6. Dorothy (1769). When her husband died, her eldest son, then 14yr old, inherited the baronetcy. Elizabeth remained her son's guardian until he turned 21 on 17 May 1779. Three and a half years later, on 5 October 1782, she married John Baker of Orsett, Essex. She died fourteen years later on 28 August 1796 at Orsett, Essex.

According to Wikipedia, the Baker estate at Orsett centred on the eighteenth-century Orsett Hall. In 1827, the house and estate passed from the Baker family to a nephew, William Wingfield (one of the children of a brother of Elizabeth's), who changed his name to Wingfield-Baker. The estate was inherited by his son, Richard Baker Wingfield-Baker and in turn by his son, Digby Wingfield-Baker.

In 1884 the estate was inherited by Thomas Whitmore as a "debt of honour." (Apparently, it was won in a game of cards.) The house was then passed on to Colonel Sir Francis Whitmore (1872–1962) in 1907. By this time the hall was described as "an uninhabitable shell, without light, water or sanitation"—not optimal conditions for people or books. The Colonel refurbished it—and Orsett Hall was the Whitmore family home for more than fifty years. The estate next passed to Sir John Whitmore who decided to sell up the estate six years later (in 1968).

The Hall then passed into that twilight world of "conference centre, hotel and wedding venue" before being burnt to the ground—the result of a kitchen fire. (Which was caused by "wooden beams, exposed for several years to heat from a grill, often for as long as 16 hours a day," which had turned the beams into charcoal—a great fire-starter.)

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So, what of all of this. Well, this set of Betsy Thoughtless must have been bought and signed by "Eliza St. Aubyn" between 1762 (when they were published) and 1782 (when "Dame Elizabeth St. Aubyn, Clowance, widow of Sir John St. Aubyn, bt. decd., guardian of Sir John St. Aubyn, infant under 21," remarried), most likely they were bought new between 1762 and 1768 when a new edition of Betsy Thoughtless was published. She must then have taken them to Orsett Hall, where they remained until at least 1962, more likely 1968.

During their two hundred years (give-or-take) at Orsett Hall, this set of Betsy Thoughtless passed down with whatever remained of Eliza St. Aubyn's library, and the library of her descendants until Digby Wingfield-Baker (aka Dingbat Wit-less-barking-mad) lost it (the Hall and the library) in a game of cards! The aptly named Whitmore family then restored the Hall (and the library it would seem, the Colonel pasted his bookplates into Eliza's Betsy Thoughtless) and passed the baton on until this family descended into imbecility as well (the final Whitmore used the grounds for go-cart and car racing and as a landing-strip his plane, before cashing in the Hall and the library).

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I have mentioned that this set of Betsy Thoughtless is rather battered. Actually it has suffered at the hands of an biblioclastic egomaniac. Because, someone—probably someone after 1968 (though it could have been the witless Whitmore who flogged off the Orsett Hall library)—has torn out all the title-pages, and at least one or two leaves either side, in their rush and impatient haste to destroy the evidence of their ownership. That is, having first scrawled their name into this set, they then tore their name out of the set, by grabbing a fist-full of pages and heaving. I am imaging them sitting cross-legged and probably cross-eyed and dribbling with a pile of centuries-old books on one side and a pile of title-pages, frontispieces and contents leaves on the other.

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But to return to Eliza St. Aubyn. This member of the aristocracy bought her copy of Betsy Thoughtless six years after Eliza Haywood died, so she may not be representative of her original audience, but she is close to being a contemporary. And, although I haven't been able to discover when Eliza St. Aubyn was born, it must have been about 1740, and so she certainly grew up in Haywood's world.

I have long been interested in Haywood's readers. We really don't know that much about them. In 1891 Edmund Gosse claimed that "Eliza was read by servants in the kitchen, by seamstresses, by basket-women, [and] by ’prentices of all sorts" and that Haywood’s novels were "very cheap"—all of which is pretty-much hogwash. In 1915 George Frisbie Whicher suggested "that no one of scanty means could have afforded Mrs. Haywood’s slender octavos at the price of one to three shillings" and in 1966 Robert Day agreed, concluding that this audience "would most naturally come by novels like Mrs. Haywood’s when they were discarded by the gentry, rather than by purchase."

The argument over the social and financial status of Haywood’s readers can only really be answered by a survey of the price of her books (which I examined in "Appendix I" of my Bibliography), through reception studies of individual titles (which I undertook for The Female Spectator in 2006), and through provenance research (such as I do here on this blog—inconclusively here, more conclusively here and here). The problem with provenance research is, as I said before, that it can end up focused on the few well-known or famous owners of not-so-ordinary books for the simple reason that we can rarely identify genuinely “ordinary” owners of books.

I am only able to trace Eliza Wingfield/St. Aubyn/Baker's set of Betsy Thoughtless thought two hundred years because (1) she recorded her name in the books, (2) her name was sufficiently unusual that I could easily identify her, and (3) because she was married to a member of the aristocracy, (4) her estate remained intact for two centuries, and (5) a late descendant also recorded his name in the books and (6) his name was sufficiently unusual that I could easily identify him.

Also, we can probably find out a good more deal about Eliza St. Aubyn because her first husband and her son fill out the record of baronets and MPs, and the St. Aubyn family were the sort of affluent patrons who tend to be recorded in archives, paintings, memorials and so on. (If this post wasn't already hugely long I would rehearse some of this information about Eliza, but this might have to wait for another day.)

Of course, it is possible that Haywood was largely read by well-known and affluent people, in which case a record of her readers will be a record of her well-known and affluent contemporaries. But we will only know if this is he case by investigating the provenance of as many copies of her works as possible, something—it appears—I am doomed to do.

[UPDATE: 2 July 2016: After all my pictures disappeared again I decided to give up on external hosts for large versions (1000px) of my image files and, for now on, will stick with the smaller images (500px), which Blogger is prepared to host.]

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