Frances Currer – not, I suspect, a household name – but (on safari for today in time rather than place) let me tell you. A book found on my recent travels – and (having seen it once before) I was delighted to see her name on a bookplate when I opened it.
To give her name in full – Frances Mary Richardson Currer (1785-1861) of Eshton Hall in the West Riding. She was, incidentally, a niece of Clive of India, but her real fame, both then and now, was purely and simply as a book-collector. Once so famed that the indefatigable bibliographer, Thomas Frognall Dibdin, placed her “at the head of all female collectors in Europe” and gave as his view that her domestic library was surpassed in early nineteenth-century England only by those of Earl Spencer and a brace of dukes (Devonshire and Buckingham).
To Seymour de Ricci she was “England’s earliest female bibliophile”, the library strong in natural history, topography, antiquities, the classics and illustration – mostly, according to her cataloguer, “in the finest condition, and not a few of them in the richest and most tasteful bindings”. And although sometimes capricious and unpredictable, sometimes shy and a little deaf, she was a thorough good egg too – “a heart as big as St. Paul’s dome and as warm as volcanic lava” (Dibdin). She was generous to local charities, not least the local school attended by none other than the Brontë sisters. Have you ever wondered about Charlotte Brontë’s odd pseudonym, “Currer” Bell? Well, yes – she was undoubtedly the “wealthy lady in the West Riding” who gave £50 to help pay the debts of the widowed Patrick Brontë.
She bought and evidently read new books too – the last time I saw her bookplate was on some very early Jane Austens. Rather more surprising to find it now on the first edition of Fenimore Cooper’s “The Two Admirals” (1842). Long lauded as one of the finest ever tales of the sea, of course, but quite what this middle-aged spinster may have made of the book is difficult to know. She neither could nor would have described it (as an Amazon reviewer now does) as “on any thinking man’s shortlist of great male bonding novels”. And I can’t imagine she would have thought much of the general soppiness of Cooper’s womenfolk – but then again I suppose that Austen’s women are often soppy enough.
But like it she evidently did – and here it is, surviving in a binding she must have had made for it at the time – delicately gilt with stylised lyres on those broad flat bands so popular in the 1840s, the compartments heavily worked in blind scallops; zigzag rules to sides and corners; the sides, edges and endpapers exquisitely marbled in the French-style shell patterns of the period. Restrained, elegant, and a tribute to the taste of a remarkable woman.
A pleasure to catalogue it – thank you to her (and thank you too to my old friend, Colin Lee, whose meticulous ODNB entry forms the basis of much of this).