Street art of author Virginia Woolf (2018).
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dispatch / culture

The Rare Women in the Rare-Book Trade

When most people hear the term rare books, they imagine an old boys’ club of dealers seeking out first editions, mostly by men.
Mrs. Dalloway, a book about an aging woman who is no longer valued by society, has increased in value as it has aged. The corrected 1928 typescript, with Woolf’s musings scribbled on its pages, now sells for £27,500. What is a woman worth as she ages? What is a book by a woman worth as it ages? The answers are braided into the realities of the book trade, which is still an old boys’ club. As you’d expect, the expensive books are by men: Joyce, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Hemingway. “No twentieth-century women command those prices,” said Heather O’Donnell, owner of Honey & Wax Booksellers. “Woolf tops out in the mid five figures, and Gertrude Stein and Zora Neale Hurston are relatively cheap.”

Although it’s true that old white men have always run the large, moneyed, century-old rare-book trade—buying and selling books for a living—women have made enormous inroads as private and institutional collectors. Things started shifting in the seventies. Second-wave feminism gave women a voice, and female collectors started patching the historical holes by seeing value and relevance in objects that men had ignored. When you put your gaze on a manuscript and call attention to it, you create value in the eyes of others. Curiosity creates a market. 

“It is a feminist act to preserve stuff that women have done and written,” said Elizabeth Denlinger, a curator of the Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle at the New York Public Library. The only difference in men’s and women’s collecting, she underscored, is money. She speculated that “when women became curators of special collections, many began buying books by and about women.” But what Denlinger collects is not only what sells. As an employee of a major research association, Denlinger’s overriding criterion for material is its research value. “I am filling in the historical canvas with people who weren’t there before,” she said, pointing to two lesser-known women who’ve made it into booksellers’ catalogues now, partly because scandal and sex sells and partly because decades of feminism have inspired enormous changes in the subject of scholars’ research: Mary Robinson, an actress-poet who had an affair with George IV when he was still prince of Wales and whose poetry, novels, and journalism have been the subject of study in recent years; and Helen Maria Williams, a salonnière who hosted a coterie of British and American writers and politicians in Paris during the French Revolution and whose books document her experience both in Paris and as a refugee from the Terror.
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