The Library of Congress’s reconstruction of Thomas Jefferson’s library now receives many visitors who wander through the remarkable library of a remarkable man, institutionalized at the very heart of the US government. The importance and preservation of the libraries of “great men” has been a part of our history for a long time; and most national, university, college, and other institutional libraries are based around those of white men.
Six weeks before Jefferson’s death a woman who was almost his exact contemporary also died: Lady Jean Skipwith. She and Jefferson had a lot in common: they were both born in Virginia in the 1740s, they both crossed the Atlantic, and they both lived on plantations and on profits from the labor of enslaved people. They were also both bibliophiles, and Lady Jean Skipwith’s library is thought to be the largest personal library of a woman in Virginia in the early republican period. After the death of her husband, Sir Peyton Skipwith, Baronet, Lady Skipwith ran his estate for the remaining twenty-one years of her life. She continued to buy books from America and Britain, and many of these books are now in W & M Libraries’ Special Collections Research Center, along with papers from several generations of the Skipwith family.
Elite women’s reading habits in this period were very different from those of elite men, and the Jefferson and Skipwith libraries tell two different stories. By examining Lady Skipwith’s library, we can gain some insight into the intellectual life of a woman of the same period and level of privilege as the country’s third president. However, unlike Jefferson, Lady Skipwith seems not to have read any other languages, and certainly the classical education that Jefferson received was not considered appropriate for women. When she died, Lady Skipwith left two hundred books each to her two daughters and her daughter-in-law, and so the books that had been in one woman’s library remained in the libraries of other women, as recorded in the ownership inscriptions and bookplates seen here.
By far the largest part of Lady Skipwith’s library was novels, as much as half of it. Although women did not appear frequently in other books, they were often the central characters in novels. Moreover, women were far more likely to be authors of novels than of other types of books, and female readers seem to have preferred female writers. Lady Skipwith’s library tells bears this out, as the author with the most titles in the library was the novelist Maria Edgeworth. Novels provided women like Jean Skipwith with shared experiences despite their physical isolation: like travel narratives, (which are also represented in this collection) novels allowed the mistress of Prestwould to connect to other people and places.
Lady Jean Skipwith and her library will be the focus of an exhibit in the Special Collections Research Center beginning in early April.