Rare Book of the Month: October 2019

The October 2019 rare book of the month is John Jortin’s Life of Erasmus, printed in London in two volumes in 1758-1760.

With the invaluable assistance of staff at Chawton House and local historian Jane Hurst, we have been able to provide some clues about the ownership of this volume, which has a decorative bookplate (or book label) of Ann Prowting.

Ann Prowting’s bookplate

I at first was tempted to believe that this could be Ann-Mary Prowting, a known friend of Jane Austen. After enquiring for help at Chawton House, the home of Jane Austen, Ms. Hurst pointed out that Ann-Mary was known as such, and thus this bookplate most likely belonged to the Ann Prowting (1737-1774) who married John Jortin’s son, Rogers Jortin, or possibly her mother, also called Ann. The latter died in 1780. Rogers Jortin was a member of Lincoln’s Inn, and thus the connection to Ann Prowting (junior) is more likely than to her mother. Ann Jortin was buried, and had a memorial tablet, in St. Dunstan’s in the East, alongside her mother and father, William Prowting. William established “St. Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics” according to his memorial stone. This hospital was established in 1750 in Moorfields and was closed in 1916. The records of the hospital and the charity have been digitised by the Wellcome Library: https://wellcomelibrary.org/collections/digital-collections/mental-healthcare/st-lukes-hospital/.  

John Jortin (1698-1770) was a literary critic and ecclesiastical historian and the son of a French Huguenot refugee. He became rector of St. Dunstan’s in the East in 1751 and archdeacon of London in 1764. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Jortin was influenced by Jean Le Clerc’s studies on Erasmus when publishing this work. Alexander Chalmers, in his General Biographical Dictionary, refers to the plan of the book as “highly objectionable” as it consists of a “vast mass of facts” and opinions simply listed in chronological order.

Portrait frontispiece and title page

Without further evidence of her book collection, it is difficult to know if Life of Erasmus was typical of her library. As she went to the trouble of placing her own bookplate into the work, it is safe to assume that she placed a high value on her books. The mid-eighteen century saw a rise in print runs and reduced production costs in the publishing trade. This combination meant that more people than ever could afford to buy books. The increased ownership of books led to larger “private libraries [that] stimulated informal education in the household, [and] regulated domestic stability.” (Mark Towsey, 2013)

The ownership of books by women was discussed in the July 2019 rare book of the month post, which discussed one of our incunabula. By the 18th century, book ownership amongst women was much more common and the details of their ownership, through bookplates, signatures and bindings more prevalent, yet still remains more difficult to trace and analyse than male book ownership. It is interesting that this bookplate shows Ann’s maiden name. Did she purchase the book before meeting Rogers Jortin? Was it a gift, potentially to woo her? Did she continue to use her maiden name to identify her books? How big was her collection?

In 1895 Norna Labouchere wrote a fascinating account of women’s bookplates, entitled Ladies’ Book-plates: an illustrated handbook for collectors and book-lovers. This was presumably published in response to the 19th century passion for collecting bookplates, and is a good resource for the study of women’s book owning history. It can be read online at the Internet Archive.

Renae Satterley


October 2019