To understand the largely 19th and 20th century history of American women book collectors, it is helpful to know the standard by which they were judged. In 1906, the London Times declared Miss Richardson Currer to be “the greatest woman book collector.” The New York Sun sprang to the defense of American bibliophiles, claiming, “That title properly belongs … to Mrs. [Abby] Pope. Miss Currer formed an extensive library but not an important one.” The Publishers’ Weekly, covering the controversy, added the name of Cynthia Morgan St. John and concluded that “Each of these ladies deserves a fair and enduring place in the annals of bibliophilism as a well-informed and fearless book hunter.”
Frances Mary Richardson Currer (1785-1861) is often regarded as the first major female book collector. In Reminiscences of a Literary Life (1836), Thomas Frognall Dibdin wrote that she was “at the head of all female Collectors in Europe.” Seymour De Ricci called her “England’s earliest female bibliophile” in English Collectors of Books and Manuscripts (1930). While earlier women, mostly noble ladies, had collected finely-bound books as a pastime, it was often claimed that they did not do so from a true love of books. Miss Richardson Currer clearly loved books for their own sake. She inherited both the Richardson and Currer estates from her father, including a substantial library, to which she added greatly herself. It is also worth noting that she lived near the Brontë family and may have been the inspiration for Charlotte Brontë’s pen name of Currer Bell.
In 1820, the London bookseller Robert Triphook compiled a catalogue of her library, Catalogue of the Library at Eshton Hall. The revised edition, published in 1833, includes several engravings of the library. While Frances Currer took a great pride in her library, she declined the offer to have her portrait included in Dibdin’s Reminiscences. She wrote, “I don’t doubt the Book 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!” (Hunt, “Private Libraries in the Age of Bibliomania,” The Cambridge History of Libraries in Britain and Ireland, 2014). Despite her friendship with Dibdin and his obvious respect for her as a book collector, he did not invite her to join the Roxburgh Club, the bibliophilic society he founded. The first woman to join that group would be the great collector Mary Hyde Eccles in 1985.
Miss Richardson Currer was a close friend of Richard Heber, another ardent bibliomaniac whose own collection numbered over 100,000 volumes. In “Mighty Women Book Hunters,” (1929) A.S.W. Rosenbach recounted this possibly-apocryphal anecdote:
“Miss Richardson Currer owned a valuable library containing over fifteen thousand volumes, including a beautiful copy printed on vellum of the ‘Book of St. Albans.’ 1496, written by the first woman sports writer, Dame Juliana Berners. Richard Heber, probably the most enthusiastic book-collector who ever lived, tried to wheedle it out of her by hook or crook. Not succeeding by nefarious ways, he took the honorable method of proposing marriage. The lady, not caring to share the volume with a husband, indignantly refused. Good for her!”
Frances Currer had hoped that her library would remain in Eshton Hall after her death, but her family sold most of it at Sotheby’s in 1862.
“Frances Currer.” The Bookhunter on Safari, November 10, 2011. https://ashrarebooks.wordpress.com/2011/11/10/frances-currer/
Gawthrop, Humphrey. “Frances-Mary Richardson Currer and Richard Heber: Two Unwearied Bibliophiles on the Fringe of the Brontë World.” Brontë Studies 27 (November 2002): 225–34.
Lee, Colin. “Currer, Frances Mary Richardson (1785-1861), Book Collector.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004.
Lister, Anthony. “The Lady of Eshton Hall.” Antiquarian Book Monthly Review 12 (1985): pp. 382-389.