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I have to confess that am I not a great fan of the Kindle or ibook, preferring instead to hold a book in my hands. Nothing quite beats the feeling of actually turning the pages over, or, dare I say it, folding the corner of the page to mark your place. Granted, it’s easier and more convenient when you are going on holiday not having to worry about the effect of the weight of your chosen holiday reads on your luggage allowance when you can load up your preferred e-reader, but I just can’t somehow quite lose myself in the same way as you can when you are avidly reading the book in your hand and flicking through the pages to see if you’ve got time to finish the chapter before a dip in the pool becomes an absolute must.

I’ve never really thought before about the number of female authors compared to male authors until reading of this exhibition being held by Peter Harrington Rare Books. But just glancing at that the highlights, it struck me just how many of the books listed I had actually studied in my school years – there can’t be many of us who didn’t read the Anne Frank diary, nor indeed any number of the Jane Austen masterpieces (Pride and Prejudice being among one of my all time favourites with the feisty Elizabeth Bennet). Likewise Testament of Youth is an absolute classic and staple of many an English exam paper over the years. It therefore begs the question as to why no-one has sought to put on an exhibition of seminal female writers before. When you think about classic authors, it would not be surprising if you listed Shakespeare, Dickens, Hardy first before moving on to the likes of Austen, Frank and Brittain.

The catalogue put together by Peter Harrington Rare Books contains some 180 remarkable rare books, manuscripts and ephemera and has been created in recognition of the growth of interest in works by women. It includes items by pivotal figures such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen, Marie Curie and Millicent Fawcett as well as seeking to highlight the work of lesser-known women who were instrumental in pushing legal, intellectual and physical boundaries: trail-blazing activists, mathematicians, economists, classicists, travellers, mountaineers and suffragettes.

Left: Het Achterhuis (The Secret) by Anne Frank (1947) £6,000
Right: Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain (1933) £5,000

Pom Harrington, the owner of Peter Harrington Rare Books says “Interest in women’s works is soaring and is starting to go well beyond the expected ‘big names’. As more work is undertaken uncovering pioneering women throughout history, more value is placed on the works of hitherto unrecognised female figures. It’s a busy area in collecting right now and we have seen interest from customers specifically focusing on works by women which has led to a rise in value of these works and we expect to see continued growth.” 

Highlights of ‘In Her Own Words’ include:

  • A first edition of The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank published in 1947 in Dutch (£6,000). Since then more than 30 million copies have been sold of this world-famous diary and it has been translated into 67 languages;
  • A first edition presentation copy of Jacob’s Room inscribed by the author Virginia Woolf to her sister Vanessa Bell who designed the dust jacket (£75,000);
  • First separate edition of the work containing what has been described as “the first computer programme” by Ada Lovelace, “the first computer programmer” (£200,000);
  • A presentation set of the four lifetime volumes of the ‘bible’ of the women’s suffrage campaign, History of Woman Suffrage edited by Susan B. Anthony (£18,750). Susan B Anthony played an important role in the suffrage movement and included lengthy and hopeful inscriptions to her cousin in each of the 4 volumes;
  • Rare, first edition of The Yellow Wall Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (£5,000) which is a highly influential and important early feminist work.
Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Luigi Federico Menabrea translated by Ada Lovelace (1843) £200,000 

It is also strange to think that even in today’s supposedly more enlightened times that female writers still consider it necessary or worth while to use male pseudonyms in order to increase the chances of their work being published.

Left: History of Woman Suffrage by Susan B. Anthony (1886-1902) £18,750 
Right: The Yellow Wall Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1901) £5,000 

It was not uncommon in the days of Mary Anne Evans (aka George Eliot) to employ such a ruse – the Brontes published works under the pseudonyms of Acton, Ellis and Currer because they felt ‘dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because… we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.’ But surely things have changed now?

Perhaps not as much as you would like to think. In 2015 Catherine Nichols wrote an article for Jezebel.com in which writes about her frustration at discovering that simply by changing her name to a man’s she received a significant number of more requests expressing interest in her manuscript:

Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf (1922) £75,000 

“I sent the six queries I had planned to send that day. Within 24 hours George had five responses—three manuscript requests and two warm rejections praising his exciting project. For contrast, under my own name, the same letter and pages sent 50 times had netted me a total of two manuscript requests…. I wanted to know more of how the Georges of the world live, so I sent more. Total data: George sent out 50 queries, and had his manuscript requested 17 times. He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book. Fully a third of the agents who saw his query wanted to see more, where my numbers never did shift from one in 25.”

Even JK Rowling was advised by her publishers to use her initials instead of her Joanne Rowling as they felt the intended audience of her books (young boys) may not want to read a book written by a woman – how wrong they were. As in so many other walks of life, the unconscious bias women face goes on but we shouldn’t let truth get in the way of a good story!

Established in 1969, Peter Harrington has become one of the leading rare book firms in the world.

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