Reading Between the Lines

Detail of the list of books from the 1781 probate inventory

One of the most involved projects that we will be undertaking in the refurnishing of the Small Room is the effort to reconstruct Fielding Lewis’s library.  A list of titles appears at the beginning of the 1781 probate inventory.  All told, the list includes 42 individual titles (67 volumes), 11 magazines, and an assortment of “books and pamphlets” that were apparently too inconsequential to either count or value.  Altogether, this was a an impressive private library for 18th century Virginia.  Sadly, only a single volume from Fielding’s personal collection remains in our hands today (the family Bible).  We do have first editions of 2 titles in the list, but they were never owned by Fielding.  Other documents from the time period are silent on the disposition of the library.  The books do not appear in Fielding or Betty’s wills, they do not appear in Betty’s probate inventory, and they are not listed among the items sold at the 1797 estate sale at Millbrook.  What became of them? Where are they now? These are questions we would love to answer this year.

We may never be able to reconstruct the library using the books that Fielding once held in his hands, but our hope is that we can at least bring together a representation of all of the titles, using the editions he most likely owned.  As such, we are beginning the process of researching each title on the list.  Interestingly, when the inventory was taken, the person responsible for the library apparently did not take the time to write out the complete title of each book.  He used abbreviations, or sometimes referred to a book by its author, while in other instances he used a partial title, or re-ordered the words.  This unique system is making our task a bit more convoluted, but already we are learning some interesting things.

We have been referring to this collection of books as Fielding’s library, but in actuality there are several titles that most likely were not his at all.  The Compleat Housewife and Mrs. Glasses Cookery, for example,refer to indispensable guides for running an 18th century household and would have been for Betty Lewis’s particular use (they also happen to be the 2 volumes represented in our collection, and are currently displayed on Betty’s desk in the Chamber).  Additionally, there are several novels listed among the titles.  Generally speaking, in the 18th century, novels still tended to be considered “women’s literature”, often focusing on morality and marriageability.  These, too, were probably books belonging more to Betty than to her husband.  We have previously discussed in this post, the presence of Edmund Hoyle’s rule book for card games among the titles in the library, and that book was probably for general family use.  So thus far, our research tells us that Betty was well-read, and that she kept abreast of the latest in household management, and we know that the family were avid card players.  What we are really interested in, though, is what the list tells us about Fielding.  Over the last few years, we have come to know Betty’s personality rather well.  Fielding is still a bit one-dimensional.  We know what he did for a living, we know his pertinent life statistics, and we know a about his politics, in that he supported the Revolution.  But we don’t really know about what he was like at home, with his wife and children, or with his friends at the tavern.  Can his library tell us anything? It appears that it might.  If Fielding’s library could be broken down into categories, the most prominent topics would be travel, theology, and the ancient world.

Quite a few titles are accounts of ship’s captains who sail to exotic locations around the world, no doubt an interest developed in Fielding when he was still a young boy and being around his father’s fleet of trading vessels.  It is also interesting to note that several of these travelogues deal with England itself.  There is no evidence that Fielding himself ever left the colonies, or perhaps even Virginia.  Much like his brother-in-law George Washington, he may have felt some inadequacy about his lack of an English education and compensated by reading all he could about it.  The next category, theology, shows an interesting side to Fielding, as well.  While we have no documentation on what his personal thoughts on religion were, it has always been assumed that he was typical of his time period – a member of the local Episcopalian church, St. George’s, and a regular attendee.  He was a vestryman on several occasions, but that was often more of a political position than a religious one at the time.  Generally speaking, he did what was socially required but was not overly interested.  His library might tell a different story, though.  Many of the titles are on theological topics, but from a historical perspective – the history of organized religion, the historical origins of certain beliefs, and compilations of sermons by orators from previous centuries.  These titles start to blend into those associated with philosophy and the ancient world, including Homer and prophesies of the Oracle at Athens.  There is even a book on the lost world of Atlantis.  Altogether, these books paint the picture of a man with a curious mind, interested in a wide variety of things, who recognized a much larger world than the confines of Fredericksburg.

In the coming months, we will take some time to focus on several books in Fielding’s library as our research continues.  In the meantime, let us know if you happen across any old books with Fielding Lewis’s inscription inside the cover!

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