The Long View: ‘So very conspicuous!’ – Frances Currer, the forgotten Bibliomaniac

Currer, Acton, and Ellis Bell were the wholly masculine pseudonyms elected by the Brontë sisters to escape the gendered prejudices bestowed upon authoresses in the nineteenth century. We know very little about the origins of Acton or Ellis, Anne and Emily’s pen names, but historical details about the Brontë sisters’ early lives in West Riding shine a light on how Charlotte elected her writing name. Frances Mary Richardson Currer is undoubtedly the ‘benevolent individual, a wealthy lady, in the West Riding of Yorkshire’ who gifted £50 to the recently widowed Patrick Brontë to pay off his debts. Currer was patron of the Cowan Bridge School, attended by Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, and Emily. The impact Currer’s generosity clearly left upon on the Brontë family is just one example of her widely celebrated philanthropy. Despite this, Currer is remembered as a pseudonym only, and the real Currer’s significant achievements in a highly competitive and masculine playing field have failed to stick in the annals of history.

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Frontispiece of ‘Jane Eyre’, 1847

Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre opens with the eponymous heroine reading Thomas Bewick’s The History of British Birds. Academic Christine Alexander states that ‘the profound effect’ this history had on ‘the creative development of the Brontës cannot be overestimated.’ A first edition of this text came to light in 2015, valued at over £5,000, and within it was plastered a bookplate attributing it to the collection of Frances Mary Richardson Currer. Currer’s Eshton Hall library, to which some believe the Brontës would have had access, ran to over 15,000 works, and is one of the most celebrated and least documented libraries in the history of book collection.

Book collection as a hobby came to prominence in the latter half of the seventeenth century, booming across England and the Low Countries in the eighteenth century, and dominating lives to the extent that it became satirically criticised as “book sickness”, “book madness”, and “bibliomania”. These “bibliomaniacs” wore the name with pride, and books were produced recording their collections, and faces, including illustrations, catalogues, and anecdotes about their lives. These bibliomaniacs were as famed as their collections. A man’s library was widely thought to be the mark of his learning and finer breeding — an externalisation of his mental faculties. It was primarily a conservative practice, used to promote the preservation of history and tradition.

It was also a tool with which to showcase social status and financial standing. The possession of a grand library demanded enough property to house it, enough money to finance it, and enough leisure time to faithfully pursue the rarest of items. These necessities, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, very much defined bibliomania as a hobby belonging solely to men. Books were discussed, analysed, and traded in academies, coffee shops, and gentleman’s clubs — spaces from which women were frequently denied access. Bibliomania is described as a “masculine interest”, in James Westfall Thompson’s Bookhunting as a Sport. This emphasis on testosterone is reflected in reports of bibliomania as sport, and reports of bibliomaniacs being referred to, and referring to themselves, as “book hunters”. But where are the huntresses?

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Frances Mary Richardson Currer by John James Masquerier, 1807

Critic M. Porel describes book collecting as a ‘delicacy; but a delicacy belonging to men.’ If women were described as having books at all, they were not bestowed the title of bibliomaniac. Authors and historians Charles and Mary Elton state that ‘Marie Antoinette herself may have caged thousands of books at the Trianon likes birds in an aviary, without any real regard to their nature or the right ways of using them; that these devotees of the book-chase were like an invalid master of hounds, keeping the pack in a gilded kennel without any exercise or chance of practical work.’ Women’s libraries were depicted as inherited, small, or boudoir libraries of “scandalous” books. The pages within a woman’s library were frequently accused of being uncut. This infers that the pages were never opened or read, privileging covers over content. They existed for fashion, style — not for the worth of the content of the text itself, or its rarity or financial value. They were not for reading, or collecting, but for ornamentation.

Frances Currer’s library was inherited from her grandfather and father, so it would be easy to plaster the same assumptions onto Currer – that the library at Eshton Hall was a heirloom, a part of the furniture, as opposed to anything for which she much cared. As a woman of estimable name and status, one executing considerable philanthropic activities, where would she find the time to construct and care for a library? More than that, as a woman, there was no place for her amongst the ranks of bibliomaniacs. None of the many almanacs of collectors list her in their galleries of the famed bibliophiles of the time. There is little reference to her in many discussions and articles of book collecting in the period, whether contemporaneous to her, or retrospective. Yet the few mentions of her that have survived claim that she was the foremost female bibliophile in Europe. Thomas Frognall Dibdin (1776 – 1847) insisted her collection was one of the finest in the country. Seymour de Ricci referred to her as the foremost female book collector in all of Europe (which, unfortunately, wasn’t much of a contest). If this is the case, where are her listings, catalogues, anecdotes, and vignettes? If Currer had one of the most revered book collections in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, why is she now remembered as a pseudonym?

Mrs. Dorothy Richardson states, in one of the few brief biographies of Currer, published in 1815, that:

she is in possession of both the Richardson and Currer estates, and inherits all the tastes of the former family, having collected a very large and valuable library, and also possessing a fine collection of prints, shells, and fossils, in addition to what were collected by her great-grandfather and great uncle.

Her great-grandfather was a famed botanist, Richard Richardson, M.D., and not only did she work fervently to expand his library, but to publish his correspondence for the sake of future learning and research. Dibdin estimated her collection to be at around fifteen thousand. She commissioned two catalogues of the library, which she distributed only amongst friends, which were accompanied by etchings, demonstrating not only the magnificence of the space, but her pride in it.

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Engraving of Eshton Hall library from the Catalogue of Eshton Hall Library published by C. J. Stewart, 1833

The primary contradiction against the idea of Currer simply owning the library, as opposed to using it, is her significant correspondence with other famed bibliomaniacs of the period. The Bodleian library holds detailed letters exchanged between herself, and Thomas Phillipps, described by a one Mr Horne as ‘quite bonkers, I mean, he was completely barking’. It’s a fair description for a man who amassed the largest ever collection of manuscripts at the time, rounding out at around 60,000 items. Phillipps and Currer exchanged tips and tricks, subscriptions, reviews, and perhaps even social visits, with Phillipps stating that ‘few things would give me so much pleasure as a visit to Eshton Hall, for its library is as celebrated as the finest of good reputation.’ Currer, exceptionally for a lady of her time, was clearly using correspondence to market and sell items from her library, as well as her own catalogue. And it seems Phillipps wasn’t the only key member of the bibliomaniac society with whom Currer was in good report.

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A young Richard Heber, by John Singleton Copley, 1782

Evidence suggests that not only was she close friends with Richard Heber, one of the 18 founding bibliophiles of the first ever book club, the Roxburghe Club, but that she rejected his marriage proposals on multiple occasions. Heber had the habit of buying entire libraries, with one of his largest acquisitions being 30,000 volumes in one pop from Paris. In correspondence with Dibdin, another of the Roxburghe Club originators, she expressed distress that the portrait of Heber that Dibdin had selected for a new alamanac of bibliomanics was not quite reflective of the true nature of the man.

Dibdin was not only a famed collector in his own right, but a sort of collector of collectors. He produced significant almanacs detailing the habits and libraries of various celebrity bibliomaniacs of the period, contributing to the promotion and fame of their collections and their own noted personalities. All of Dibdin’s almanacs fail to list Currer amongst his glittering gallery of collectors, yet a series of letters between 1835 and 1837 suggest a relationship both warm and professional existing between the two. She complains to Dibdin, in the tone of a peer, the arduous process of purchasing and rebinding a long sought-after copy of Coverdale’s Bible, critiquing at length the different costs of ‘cleaning, sizing, and mending and binding in the old style.’ Dibdin and Currer exchange the virtues and miseries of different sellers and binders, comparing costs and services in a way not usually expected of women in polite circles, especially one possessing such an esteemed title and estate.

She assisted in brokering deals between her colleagues, telling Dibdin that ‘my friend Mr. Perring tells me he cannot get a copy of your Bibliomania under four or five pounds’, insisting Dibdin produce a third edition. Not only was she aware of Bibliomania (one of Dibdin’s collectors’ almanacs) but she was in dialogue with other bibliomaniacs, playing the role of a networking mediator: an active player of the sport. Currer hoped that Dibdin’s later work, Reminisces, in production at the time of their correspondence, ‘will fill up the chasm in the History of Books,’ demonstrating her wide reading of the history of book collecting, and her concern with book collecting as a mode of preserving history. Her passion clearly went beyond financial concerns, demonstrating a genuine enthusiasm for the scholarly value of texts. Currer’s collection existed beyond the archetypes of style and fashion expected of women of the period.

Currer went on to celebrate her new acquisitions to Dibdin, stating that she recently acquired 3000 new volumes (a huge purchase for the time), comprised of ‘most valuable books’ as well as books ‘mediocre’, and insists that ‘the best of these, I have here, are all the prints” and “a good collection of drawings by eminent masters, some first rate’, showing the sheer breadth of her collecting. Dibdin sent Currer embellishments he would not use in his Reminisces for her own collection. Many letters are cut short, as Currer points out she has “calls to pay and fossils to pack for a museum in our neighbourhood”, showing the diversity of her interests in antiquarianism, and her sense of community and philanthropy.

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Engraving of Dibdin by James Thompson (1876)

The relationship between Dibdin and Currer exhibited in their correspondence would occasionally deviate tenderly from the professional. Currer intimated that she was ‘very sorry to learn you have so much sorrow’ after being informed that Dibdin’s work into producing Reminisces had the sad consequence of documenting ‘the loss of many friends.’ This sense of closeness discloses a surprising intimacy between the bibliomaniacs, representing them as an affectionate and social circle as opposed to competing business and trade associates — a circle Currer was evidently entrenched within. Currer frequently insisted upon buying more copies of Dibdin’s work than she needed as an attempt to help him with his financial difficulties, and even sent him money upon hearing of his child falling ill. Dibdin was sending Currer work-in-progress extracts of his Reminisces for her review, showing a respect for her opinion and skill as critic, and acknowledging her as a specialist in their field. Currer expresses many of her personal tastes in her letters — she did not care for large paper (but makes an exception for Dibdin’s work), as it is uneconomical in terms of shelving space.

While there have been sparse references to Currer as the “exception to the rule”, how far does she actually serve as an exception? And why was she — and continues to be — so frequently occluded from the discourse? The assumption appears to be, as it so often is in the study of women’s history, that Currer was erased by a patriarchal system of historical documentation, and overshadowed by the more prolific and aggressive men in her bibliomaniac circle. But it may well have been that Currer’s exclusion was motivated by her own wishes.

Correspondence between Dibdin, the collector of collectors, and Currer, supposedly the curator of one of the finest libraries in Europe, suggests that Dibdin continually and fervently begged for permission to include Currer within his bibliomaniac publications. This desperation to have her listed amongst her fellows lead to Dibdin even attempting to trick her into agreement. In response to Dibdin’s claim that she had finally agreed to be included in his Reminisces, Currer protested, ‘I certainly do not remember having promised you my portrait to be enframed. However as you have my handwriting to produce to me, I must be silent.’ Not that she is, as ‘nonetheless I hope you will exclude me — it would be unpleasant to me.’ Nor was this Dibdin’s first attempt to lure Currer into the public sphere of bibliomaniac celebrity. Two years previously, Currer insisted fervently that ‘I don’t doubt the book [Bibliomania] will be an amusing one — and to have the Portraits of Gentlemen in it is very proper, but I don’t think it would be pleasant for me to be in the gallery — the only Lady — so very conspicuous!’

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Frontispiece of ‘Jane Eyre’, 1847

Thus it becomes apparent that Currer’s absence from bibliomaniac history is not so much a product of malicious or apathetic exclusion and erasure, but a result of Currer’s own efforts to preserve her feminine gentility and modesty in a competitive sporting arena. Dibdin’s continued insistence on her inclusion indicates both his passion for her collection, and his belief in her status as an esteemed collector. Whether this persistence was a result of Dibdin’s personal fondness for Currer, or his determination to have a complete record of book history, is impossible to determine. Nonetheless it is apparent that Dibdin considered Currer’s contribution to the bibliomaniac legacy to be worthy of recognition and documentation.

Currer feared fame, and protected her reputation, yet never shied away from using her name for leverage. In a series of 1823 letters to James Edward Smith, a famed botanist, she heartily promoted the botanical activities of her relation, Robert Kaye Greville. Currer used her network of contacts to further the ambitions of her own family, and frequently ends these promotional letters with the by-line ‘I have the honour of subscribing myself.’ That Currer knew the worth of her name, while protecting her modesty, shows a skilful juggling act that served to both protect her throughout her life, and obscure her achievements after her death. The success of her continued collection was dependent entirely upon her activity as a collector, binder, seller, buyer, antiquarian, correspondent, philanthropist, and estate holder. Her keen enthusiasm for preserving documentation did not extend to documenting her own life and achievements. Once the activity stopped, the memory of her faded away.

Currer became deaf later in life, and never married, rejecting proposals continuously throughout her life. Her will begged for her collection to be kept in its entirety, but her final wish was neglected as a result of severe financial difficulty befalling the estate. The collection (at least, those copies that retain their plates) are spread out all over the world. The possibility that Currer shared her library with the Brontë sisters shows not just a philanthropic spirit, but illuminates a potential realm of female networks surrounding book sharing and production that alters the hypermasculine discourse of literary production and collection in the nineteenth century. Currer certainly went elbow to elbow with the men, and the little writing we have from her far and away demonstrates her professionalism, dedication, passion, breadth of activity, and beyond that, her masterful control over her public image. Yet, in her view, the vignettes and biographies that cemented her peers into cultural memory would have been, for her, so very conspicuous.

Joan Passey

Joan Passey is an English PhD student between the universities of Bristol, and Exeter, Penryn Campus, under the AHRC South West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership. Her research looks to identify a Cornish Gothic literature in the late nineteenth century in relation to developing transport links and mining cultures. 

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