A Bookcase

November 16, 2010

When I stepped into Nona’s office it seemed more light-filled and spacious. Then I realized that a bookcase was gone. And, though I know clearing the dross of multiple editions of Shakespeare or Marlow or Elizabeth was a necessary exercise, I felt a little sad. It wasn’t the contents or their container that I missed. It was the time we had spent in their company.

A few years ago, Nona invited me to help her edit a modern edition of a renaissance writer’s work. Lady Mary Wroth was the first known English woman to write both a novel and a  sonnet sequence. She also wrote a pastoral play.

My first task was to compare the manuscript facsimile to Nona’s transcription. I spent hours reading words written in Mary’s careful hand, wondering what books she had read from the library at Penshurst, the home of her Sidney relatives. I imagined her studying with a tutor; dancing at court as a young woman; and, later, her crafting her roman à clef as a young widow and the mistress of a negligent lover.

I’d carefully read Nona’s transcriptions, looking for where punctuation was needed or where Mary’s use of a backslash or a stylized S indicated something of which we should be aware. We discussed spelling choices, capitalization, and chose words for sidebar notes. These words were often the ones that sent us happily to the OED, where we’d wonder over etymology. Oftentimes, Nona would notice a turn of phrase or an allusion to another work, and she’d go to the bookcase to find just the thing she had in mind. That bookcase was where Nona went to find and read aloud Ben Jonson’s sonnet to Lady Mary, or Edward Denny’s harsh words against her.

There we were, two twenty-first century woman, worrying over authorial intent of a nearly voiceless woman from the 1600’s. It mattered to us, as we navigated and shared our own lives as friends, that this woman’s words were rightly put down. It mattered that she—a badly married and sadly impoverished woman, who would lose favor with the brief publication of her work, and who would eventually fade to obscurity—it mattered that she was heard. It mattered that we cared.

A nice thing… noting and wondering over every jot and tittle of the all but forgotten.


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5 Responses to “A Bookcase”

  1. Samantha said

    In five paragraphs you made me wonder about and care for a previously unknown(to me)woman and her work 500 years after the fact. Thank you.

  2. Mary-Ellen said

    I knew you worked with Nona on something but never really knew what it was. This is both a lovely tribute to Lady Mary and also one to Nona and the work you did together. Three amazing women sharing the opportunities to have all their voices heard together, centuries apart…yet another nice thing.

  3. I hope Lady Mary somehow knows she left her work – her life – in the perfect hands.

    I too, love the physical connectedness to books, and the power of reference books especially. I love all the knowing they hold.

  4. OwlSaysWho said

    It makes me wonder what we will have left to subsequent generations, in this digital age, with less physical artifact . . . Beautiful piece . . .

  5. catherine said

    Beautifully worded, evocative and memorable. Thanks again, Sarah, for transporting me through the Book Case into Lady Mary’s world.

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