Robert Southey’s ‘Cottonian’ books

Robert Southey’s ‘Cottonian’ books

Contributor: Nicola Lawson

Location: Keswick Museum, Keswick, UK

Description: These books in Keswick Museum’s collection were part of Poet Laureate Robert Southey’s Cottonian Library. The library is known for its fabric overcovers, which Southey’s daughters and their friends created, and the name ‘Cottonian’ – coined by the family as a pun on the fabric used and Sir Robert Cotton’s famous book collection – is how we now identify pieces from this library. Fabric and sewing have been traditionally associated with women, and the re-covering of books in recycled dress fabric is a perfect metaphor for how the women of Greta Hall subverted the dichotomy of public and private spheres.

The most striking examples in Keswick Museum’s collection are the three volumes of The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan by James Justinian Morier (1824), covered in red cotton with a black vine motif. This fabric was likely left over when making a dress. Sometimes the cotton would be sewn over the book covers, held on by corner stitches. The fabric on The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan has been glued to the inside of the book board. Someone has created a title label, handwriting ‘Hajji Baba’ and the volume number on red paper which has been glue to the spine. The spines are faded while the front and back covers remain a deep red; this is due to the spines beings exposed while displayed on a bookshelf, and the fabric here has been damaged by constant light. There are pencil notes in the back of the first two volumes which refer to passages in the book and their page number. We are not sure who made these notes; it could have been a member of the Southey circle or a subsequent owner.

At the time a private library like Southey’s was a symbol of masculine identity, education, and connection (Hughes, 2017). But the Cottonian Library has come to be defined by the cotton overcovers made by the women in his life, which makes it distinctly domestic. This seeming clash reveals much about the gender dynamics in the Southey circle. These women – Edith May, Bertha, and Katherine Southey, as well as their cousin Sara Coleridge, Mary Barker, and Dora Wordsworth – used binding as a way to actively engage with the works they covered.

While re-covering was a way of protecting the physical book, it also gave the women at Greta Hall a way of engaging with the texts and sometimes critiquing their contents. Charles Southey recalled that his sisters and cousin were very selective about fabric choice, often using it as a form of creative response to the text they were covering: ‘the ladies would often suit the pattern to the contents, clothing a Quaker work of book of sermons in sober drab, poetry in some flowery design, and sometimes contriving a sly piece of satire at the contents of some well-known author by their choice of its covering’ (Southey, 1850 : 17). At the time this would have been a safely domestic, almost hidden, way of engaging intellectually with these texts. But to us, now, it reveals the Southey women’s literary opinions which have otherwise been neglected by scholars.

Sara Coleridge, Southey’s niece, was particularly known for using the Greta Hall library, reading Virgil and Dante as she grew up. In adulthood, she became a translator and referred to the library’s Old French dictionaries for her work translating The Right Joyous and Pleasant History of the Facts, Tests, and Prowesses of the Chevalier Bayard, the Good Knight without Fear and without Reproach: by the Loyall Servant (Jones 2010 : 242). In 1832 she, along with her cousins, began cataloguing the library (Jones 2010 : 241).

The work of the Southey women has elevated the interest of these items, and possibly ignited an entire fabric binding trend by publishers across Europe. Michael Sadleir argues that the Cottonian covers were noticed by visitors to Greta Hall and that the library influenced publishers to introduce cloth bindings (Sadleir, 1930 : 48). This movement, which may have started in remote Cumberland, was carried across Europe throughout the 19th century (Gourlay, 2016).

The portrait that the Cottonian books reveal is one of a circle where the ‘separate spheres’ of public and private are entwined. Edith May, Bertha, and Katherine Southey and their friends used their creative skills to intellectually engage with, critique, and deconstruct the traditionally male library. Ironically, it is their domestic employments that have ensured the legacy of the Cottonian library, and their work may have even influenced 19th century binding styles throughout Europe.

Date: 6/6/2022

Creator: James Justinian Morier, Edith May Southey, Bertha Southey, Katherine Southey, Sara Coleridge, Mary Barker, Dora Wordsworth

Subject: Literature, Robert Southey

Media rights: Keswick Museum

Object type: Books

Related objects: A Remarkable Notebook: Coleridge’s Companion in MaltaA Mauchline Binding

Publisher: Keswick Museum (permission granted by the Curator, Nicola Lawson)

Catalogue number: KESMG : 2760.1=3


Gourlay, Catriona (2016). ‘Tradition and transformation in 19th-century bookbinding’, V&A blog:

Hughes, Corrie Ann (2017). ‘The Private Library: Cultural Consumption and the Fashioning of Gentlemanly Character in the Long Eighteenth-Century’, Virtual Commons – Bridgewater State University:

Jones, Kathleen (2010). A Passionate Sisterhood: The Sisters, Wives and Daughters of the Lake Poets, Appleby: The Book Mill.

Sadleir, Michael (1930). Evolution of Publishers’ Binding Styles 1770-1900, London: Constable & Co., Ltd.

Southey, Charles Cuthbert (ed.) (1850). The Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, vol. 6, New York: Harper and Brothers.