Research Spotlight #4: Student perspectives on Cardiff Rare Books Collection

Over the summer vacation, two Cardiff undergraduate students had the opportunity to work with the Cardiff rare books collection. Emma Feloy and Lewis Coyne (pictured to the right) were appointed as research assistants to Dr Melanie Bigold’s project on Marginalia in the Cardiff Rare Books Collection. The posts were generously funded by the Cardiff Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme (CUROP), which provides summer placements for undergraduates in the university research environment, and supported by the staff in Special Collections and Archives (SCOLAR). Below are Lewis and Emma’s reflections on their placement and the material with which they came into contact.

The Restoration Drama Collection 

by Lewis Coyne

This summer I had the opportunity to work in Cardiff University’s Special Collections & Archives as an undergraduate research assistant. This post gave me a chance to undertake research with a unique range of seventeenth and eighteenth-century editions of British drama, and has helped to change my perceptions about literature in the period. Although the collection I worked on is known as the Restoration Drama Collection, the actual chronological range of the texts runs from the 1590s into the early twentieth century. However, the selection is overwhelmingly from around 1600 to 1750, and my impressions of literary activity in the period are therefore drawn primarily from these texts.

My research involved documenting the provenance details of every text and also detailing any evidence of marginalia. While searching through the texts for marginalia, they have revealed to me a culture of poets and dramatists who supported each other both financially and creatively, indicating a collaborative literary scene. What I found most interesting about these relationships is that the traditional notion of the Restoration canon is revealed to be something of an interpretive construction. For example, prefaces and commendatory poems reveal that, in the eyes of contemporaries, there was not a great divide between a serious tragedian like the poet laureate Nicholas Rowe and an essentially farcical writer such as Colley Cibber. Cibber is credited as the lead actor in the cast list printed in the first edition of Rowe’s 1714 The Tragedy of Jane Shore, while Rowe reciprocated by writing a prologue for Cibber’s 1718 comedy The Non-Juror. Similarly, many plays by various authors include prologues or epilogues by the endlessly prolific Dryden, who takes up almost two of the collection’s nineteen metres of library shelving. In most student anthologies Dryden is set apart from figures like Rowe and Cibber due to the importance which has come to be attributed to his work, whilst the latter are now considerably less read. However, this kind of elevation is a misrepresentation of the interconnectivity of literary figures of the era, and through examining how the writers of the day collaborated with one another this appears to be a largely subsequent distinction between members of the Restoration’s literary collective.

A sense of literary elitism is, however, confirmed by the provenance information we collated from bookplates and autographs. The contemporary provenance information provided in the texts has unsurprisingly revealed a readership initially drawn from the gentry and later the bourgeoisie, as the texts were seemingly owned by only those with the time and money to read. Indeed, what I found most interesting is that the later nineteenth-century owners were distinctly more middle-class than the ownership of a century or two earlier. This indicates that despite most copies becoming more valuable over time (many copies still contain their varying prices), the kind of person who could afford them was less upper-class than previously. One indication of this is that some Victorian owners were involved in trades, such as publication or antiquarianism. Another proof can be found in the number of later owners who suffixed their names with ‘M.A.’ or ‘M.D.’, in contrast with the prefixes associated with seventeenth and eighteenth-century owners: ‘Sir’, ‘Rt. Hon.’, ‘Baron’, and so on. Undoubtedly this is an effect of the Victorian era’s rising middle class, which seems to me to have opened the world of book ownership to broader sections of society. The one constant is the relative lack of female book owners, who seem to have been largely excluded from the privilege of book ownership throughout the collection’s historical period.

The Restoration Drama Collection has revealed many secrets about how certain playwrights were viewed in their day and how those dramatists viewed one another, but it has also revealed the changing fortunes of those writers and their texts over the years. The synchronic view of Restoration literary culture is enriched by the diachronic history of ownership, anthologisation, and canonisation – all of which makes this collection of rare books a wonderful acquisition for the university.

Bookplate of John Ashburner, MD (1793–1878?)


Women in Restoration Theatre

by Emma Feloy

Working through the Restoration Drama Collection as a research assistant this summer I had the exciting opportunity to handle some valuable and rare texts. The chance to work on these texts has been both interesting and rewarding; I have not only been able to access the works of great writers such as Dryden, Shakespeare and Jonson, but have also learnt a huge amount about the history of publishing, printing and the theatrical world. Most significantly, the chance to trawl through over 900 texts has revealed, very forcefully, the variable status of women in relation to Restoration drama. The collection as a whole does not contain a significant number of texts by Restoration women; however, it nevertheless revealed significant women writers who I would otherwise never have heard about. While my research involved marginalia, I was also overwhelmed by print conventions which visually marginalised female actors, and prefaces by women protesting about their marginalisation by critics and audiences. Therefore, while the collection includes works from many fascinating writers, it was the texts by women writers, and particularly Aphra Behn, that appealed to me.

Aphra Behn (1640?–1689) is often credited with writing the first novel and, according to Virginia Woolf, earned women the right to a life of writing. Unlike a number of contemporary women writers she was not of aristocratic lineage and, rather than writing for her own entertainment, she was a professional who supported herself through a prolific output of plays, poems and other forms of writing. Her personal life was equally remarkable, encompassing travel, espionage, debt and links to the libertine Earl of Rochester. The collection contains three seventeenth-century quartos of her plays, but she wrote at least nineteen. She does reappear in one of the slightly later collections, but the more popular eighteenth-century dramatist Susanna Centlivre appears more frequently. Unfortunately there was no significant marginalia in the Behn texts (though a contemporary did read her plays The City Heiress and The Young King carefully enough to correct some printer’s errors). 

Until the Restoration, female parts were performed by men. However, Aphra Behn’s emergence as a female playwright coincided with the reopening of the theatres that had been closed under Cromwell’s Protectorate and the arrival of the first female actors on the British stage. An ink note in  William Davenant’s play The Siege of Rhodes (1663) records that ‘The first woman who appeared on the English stage was Mrs Coleman who represented Ianthe in The Siege of Rhodes. Throughout the Restoration Drama Collection, there are also printed cast lists recording the appearance on stage of these female actors. These are nearly always listed in a separate paragraph after all male characters (including walk-on parts with no dialogue) have been listed, revealing the ambiguous position that these women occupied. While they were celebrated as stars of the stage, their moral character was also subject to scrutiny. Presumably, it is for this reason that every woman appearing in these cast lists almost always bears the title ‘Mrs’: marriage provided a shield of respectability as well as protection against unwanted advances.

An example of this is Elizabeth Inchbald, a writer whom I was unaware of before starting this project. According to the ODNB it was a love of the theatre that prompted her to marry her actor husband, rather than any feelings for the man himself. As an actor’s wife she was able to gain access to the stage and became a celebrated actor herself. She later became a writer and went on to edit a series of dramatic works and provide critical remarks for another. Both of these series are included in the Restoration Drama collection and provide a rare example of a woman who, like Behn, managed to live with an unusual degree of independence and yet (unlike Behn) avoided any scandalous rumours.

The collection to which Mrs Inchbald provided the critical remarks was owned by a Mrs Wallace, one of the twenty-four women who owned books in the collection. The notes these women made can demonstrate the changing nature of the English language, as in the case of ‘Mary Wright, Hir Boocke Jan: 18 1764’, or an intimate story of family attachment as we learn that a book was ‘left me by my Dear Mother’. In marking these books these women asserted their right to readership at an age when few of their sex were educated or literate. 

These women writers and actors shed light on the fascinating nature of the theatrical world during and after the Restoration period. It was a time of change, creativity and inspiration when women were finally allowed to appear on the stage; yet, at the same time, it countered this innovation with censorious demands for decency and respectability. The provenance information contained within the collection also helps to build an image of the development of women’s reading and the importance of familial ownership as books were read aloud in the evening, shared between sisters (as in the case of one of the collected works of John Dryden) or passed from mother to daughter. The closer study of this collection will surely reveal many more interesting details and important information for academic study.

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More information about visiting SCOLAR and the Cardiff Rare Books can be found here:

More information about CUROP can be found here:


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