Emma Smith: The Will to Survive


Edinburgh Book Festival

Garden Theatre, Charlotte Square


20 August ONLY



This was a fascinating session from one of the most un-Oxford-academic Oxford academics it’s ever been my pleasure to encounter.  Emma Smith, professor of Shakespeare studies at Oxford’s Hertford College kept us enthralled with her ‘biography of a book’ – the First Folio of Shakespeare.


“Books mark us in different ways”, and the marks we make in books say a lot about us, about what and how we read, and what we think of what we read.  Studying the different copies of the First Folio can give us a lot of information about the people who bought and read them.   “Books look their best when they’ve been well-used and loved”: for Emma Smith, a pristine copy is not a lovesome thing!


The first copies were published 1623, and the first known purchaser, in December 1623, was Edward Deering, who had to be in the forefront of fashion so that he would be noticed.   John Suckling had himself painted by van Dyck in the mid-17th century, not just richly clad and soulful-looking, but musing over a First Folio.   In the late 19th and early 20th century, there was widespread concern about the ‘Folio drain’ which symbolised for many the potential decline of English culture and its supplanting by American as US squillionaires bought up any copies that came on to the market and removed Our National Property overseas: this was illustrated by a cartoon depicting a tycoon making off with a First Folio under one arm and that quintessentially English painting, Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy” under the other.


Many ‘ordinary’ people made marks in their books, just as we do today.  They didn’t write their names on the title page but at some other place in the book – sometimes prominently, sometimes tucked away in a corner.  17th-century people read with a pen in their hand: they would mark the good bits, add commentary or interpretation, and were always on the lookout for ‘good bits’ to quote or use in their own writing.  They would correct things they thought were wrong – pagination, grammar and spelling; the table of contents; mark off the actors they had seen, or at least heard of; sometimes even censor the text and, if particularly erudite, correct Shakespeare’s Latin!  Some corrections are very subtle: some attempt to imitate the typeface: others are not subtle in the slightest.


All the evidence indicates that people would start off with good intentions, intending to read every word on every page – but few people made it to the end of the book.  One exception to this is the 17th-century Borders man William Johnston – of whom we know nothing more than that he had a First Folio.  He annotates every page, marking each line he has read and adding précis, commentary (at times in Latin), and ‘commonplacing’ – marking the bits he can quote or  make use of, showing how much more cultured and Euro-centric 17th-century  Scotland was than the rest of Britain.


A lovely slide showed us the houses drawn in a First Folio in the 18th century by the young Elizabeth Oakle.  It not only shows that children drew houses then in much the same way that they do today, but also that the book was not a sacred item kept locked away – the drawings were done with care, and must have taken wee Elizabeth a fair amount of time.   Some folios have ring marks from drinks, and stains or crumbs from food – again showing their owners were not precious about them.   It’s not till the 19th century that the veneration of the Folios begins, with special containers akin to reliquaries being constructed for them: now the majority of them are kept in glass cases, away from the profanity of human touch.


There was so much more – discussion of the ‘Folio drain’ as copies began to leave the UK, the sad story of the Bodleian Library’s ‘de-shelving’ and letting go of their First Folio in 1660s when they decided it had been supplanted by the 2nd and 3rd’superior’ folios only to realise their error and try to buy it when it came on the market againwhen they were outbid by Henry Folger, the American collector who was busily amassing his 79 First Folios; cryptography and the First Folios; a discussion of “value” as it applies to books and the First Folios in particular, why Shakespeare didn’t mention any books in his will – didn’t he have any? and if not, what were his source books?; ‘vamping’ and cannibalisation; the problem of preserving Shakespeare’s ‘value’ in an age where (at least in the UK) he seems to be disregarded in schools; and global Shakespeare being “the hottest property”.


All these topics could have been the subject of another hour’s conversation with Emma Smith: it was with great reluctance that we let her go and went out into the rain…



Mary Woodward