The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

A newly uncovered presentation copy by Margaret Cavendish


The other day I received an email from the Conservation Lab with the subject line: “Annotation found on the verso of a lined frontispiece,” and a link to a couple of images, one taken under ultraviolet light. The conservators were preparing a book for the next Folger exhibition, Shakespeare’s Sisters: Voices of English and European Women Writers, 1500-1700, curated by Georgianna Ziegler and open February 3—May 20, 2012. The Folger copy of Margaret Cavendish’s Plays, never before printed. Written by the thrice noble, illustrious, and excellent princesse, the Duchess of Newcastle (London, [1668]) [Wing N867] was in poor condition, and part of the conservation work involved removing the heavy paper lining from the back of the frontispiece portrait of Margaret Cavendish since the adhesive had most likely caused the patchy staining and discoloration of the frontispiece.

This is the frontispiece: 

frontispiece and title page to Plays (1668)

And this is the top part of the back of the frontispiece, after the heavy paper lining had been removed, shown under regular light and ultraviolet light:

recto side of frontispiece
recto of frontispiece under UV light

As you can see, the inscription reads: “Mary [Sl….y] Her Book / Giuen by Her Grace / The Duches of / Newcastle.”

The book owner’s surname is partially obliterated, and there is another name, visible under UV light, below this inscription, that is rather difficult to make out [Bruce Le..?]. So this is a presentation copy from Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, to Mary somebody, who then wrote in this inscription to mark the gift.


When Heather showed me the inscription, I went hunting in biographies to see if Cavendish knew anyone named Mary S.  Then I found a Mary Slingsby.  She was an actress who debuted on the stage around 1670, two years after the publication of this book and four years before Cavendish died. Mary was originally married to an actor named Lee and then in 1680 was married to (or became the partner of ) Sir Charles Slingsby.  Is it possible that the inscription was written by herself and that she, or a subsequent owner, later obliterated her last name?  That makes a nice story, but we don’t know if or how she would have crossed paths with Cavendish in her younger days, nor does it account for the detail that she was known as Mary Lee when Cavendish was alive to have presented the book. But no other candidates have yet come up.


As James Fitzmaurice has shown, Cavendish took great care to correct printers’ errors in almost every surviving copy of her biography of her husband (The life of the thrice noble, high and puissant prince William Cavendishe, Duke, Marquess, and Earl of Newcastle, London, 1667) as well as in the presentation copies of CCXI Sociable Letters (London, 1664). This copy of her plays follows that trend, with roughly 17 handwritten corrections to the text, written in a neat italic hand. A quick glance at the Huntington copy on EEBO indicates that seven of the handwritten emendations are duplicated there as well, in what appears to be the same hand.

Here are just two of the emendations:

"flattering" emended to "fluttering"
"civil" emended to "cruell"

This copy also includes four printed strips of paper pasted onto three different pages, attributing certain passages to her husband (“Written by my Lord Duke”) 1. I’ve included one example below:

printed slip of paper pasted to page

We would welcome any thoughts on either of the names on the back of the frontispiece. When the book comes down from the exhibition, we hope that Cavendish scholars will come and have a closer look at the newly uncovered inscription.

  1. for more on this, see Jeffrey Masten, “Material Cavendish: Paper, Performance, ‘Social Virginity,'” Modern Language Quarterly 65 (2004)


  • William Cavendish wrote several letters to Guilford Slingsby, who died before the book in question was published (see the C.H. Firth edition of Margaret’s Life of William Cavendish, p. 182 ff). Guilford had a younger brother, Arthur, who was knighted by the King in 1657 at Brussels and made a baronet in 1658 in a patent dated from Bruge (DNB). The DNB makes no mention of a wife or daughter for Arthur, but he might have had one or the other. Margaret Cavendish almost certainly would have known Arthur as she was living in Antwerp during this time. The Cavendishes put on a huge ball in Antwerp for the King in the spring of 1658 and a great many expats/exiles in Flanders attended. I would not be surprised if someone named Mary Slingsby was among them. There may be a list of attendees somewhere. Anyway, I have looked at several biographies and will continue to see what I can find. Jim

  • Many thanks Jim! This definitely moves us along farther in identifying a Slingsby. The 1658 date may be a little early for the actress Mary Lee Aldridge Slingsby, but as you say, there may have been another Mary Slingsby in the expat group who attended the ball.
    We welcome further suggestions from yourself and other Cavendish experts!


  • What an interesting find! If Mary Slingsby the actress is the intended recipient, the scenario of Cavendish presenting her volume of plays to an actress is intriguing.

    Another Slingsby that the duke would have known is the royalist army officer Sir Henry Slingsby (1602-1658). His Diary provides information regarding the civil wars in northern England. Slingsby was executed in 1658. It could be that he had a younger relative named Mary.

    What is certain about the inscription is its claim that the Duchess gave a copy of her plays to a woman, which is interesting in the glimpse it provides of Cavendish reaching out to another woman.

  • Two other male Slingsbys are to be found in the index of the Diary of Samuel Pepys (Latham and Matthews): 1) Henry, Deputy Master of the Mint (1600), Master of the Mint (1662). Henry was a friend (it seems) of John Evelyn and so would have had a friend in common with William and Margaret. Margaret spoke of Mary Evelyn as a “daughter.” 2) The other Slingsby from Pepys is Col. Robert, Comptroller of the Navy 1660 – 1661. Alas, Robert’s wife was Eilzabeth, but he did have a daughter and a sister who are not named by Pepys. The Comptroller, according to Pepys (vol. 1, p. 290) in Limestreet. Maybe parish records would reveal something about the Slingsbys in Limestreet. Does anyone know if this material is in an electronic database?

  • This is a wonderful find indeed! I don’t think those are the same hands, though. It looks to me like “Given by her Grace / the Duches of Newcastle” was written first. There may even be three different hands there, and the second owner (Mary) crossed out the name of the previous owner. In any case, I don’t think it says “Slingsby.” I’ll look in my notes from the Clark, Huntington, and BL to see if I have any similiar inscriptions recorded.

  • Further to the above I have a copy of the book with 24 handwritten corrections and notations.

    Including and written on the pages themselves, these below.

    P146 P152 “what follow’s was written by my lord duke”
    P44 “& spend all”
    P13 under the word EPITHLAMIUM “by my lord duke”
    P38 P39 the convent of pleasure “written by my lord duke”

    Apart from the above which I consider wonderful to find in a book, the book itself is a delight to read.
    Why is Margaret Cavendish not as well known as Aphra Behn, and am I correct in thinking that Margaret Cavendish is really the first woman playwright and not Aphra Behn?

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