By Michael W. Harris
When the members of Team Stainforth discuss his library, we always like to say that it was one of the largest collections of women’s writing in the nineteenth century. But there is always the qualifier of “one of the” because we can never really say for sure.
The one library that the Team knew about and have always compared his library to is the collection assembled for the 1893 World’s Fair held in Chicago. At that exhibition, there was a “Women’s Building” that housed a library of works by women authors, representing twenty-four nations and included some 8,000 volumes, all arranged and cataloged by librarians handpicked by Melvil Dewey, he of the famous decimal system. (Read about that collection here.)
Recently, however, another library came to the attention of project director Kirstyn Leuner from an unlikely source: George Eliot’s Middlemarch.
Sometimes included in publications of Eliot’s novel is a copy of an essay written by her for the Westminster Review in 1854 titled: “Women in France: Madame de Sablé.” That essay begins with the line, “In 1847, a certain Count Leopold Ferri died at Padua, leaving a library entirely composed of works written by women, in various languages, and this library amounted to nearly 32,000 volumes.” This information elicited a similar reaction in Kirstyn and the rest of Team Stainforth: “I want to see that catalog!” This was quickly followed by, “Who is Count Leopold Ferri of Padua?”
Simple Google searches yielded mostly other books and sources quoting or citing the information contained in the Eliot text, including Jane Williams’ The Literary Women of England from 1861—a book held in the Stainforth Library. But none of these sources yielded any more information about our mysterious count, to say nothing of an actual library catalog.
A possible break in the case occurred when I came across another essay that predated the Eliot by seven years (found using library databases and the obtained via the magic of Interlibrary Loan). This essay was published in the 5 June 1847 edition of The Albion and was simply titled “Women’s Wit.” It begins similarly to Eliot’s piece: “In the Morning Post of February 26th, 1847, we see announced the death of Count Leopold Ferri at Padua. This gentlemen is described as leaving a perfectly unique library, composed of works written by female authors, amounting to nearly 32,000 volumes.”
This gave us a definitive date in 1847, plus a publication for the announcement, to begin looking for more information. And using a best guess that “Morning Post” referred to a London publication of that name, I took to the British Newspaper Archive to track down the correct issue. And while I was hoping for some kind of obit, what I found was not nearly as informative, but nonetheless fascinating: a single sentence buried at the bottom of page six (of an eight page publication): “On the 8th inst. died at Padua, Count Leopold Ferri, leaving a perfectly unique library, it being composed of works written by female authors, amounts to 32,000 volumes.”
It is almost exactly what was said in The Albion piece, and also the exact same information later used by Eliot. But none of these sources gave us any additional information about Count Leopold Ferri of Padua or his library.
My next step was to do a more general search around 1847 for more mentions of Ferri in the British Newspaper Archive, and what I found can only be described as the nineteenth century version of a story going viral: fifty-nine newspapers in the British Isles all carrying almost the exact same sentence (and sometimes the exact same sentence) about Ferri and his library. But even more interesting is that the Morning Post story seems to have been the first, followed by a mention that same day (26 February 1847) in the London Evening Standard.
From there, the story bounced around England, Scotland, and Ireland for about a month, before crossing the Atlantic to the United States by May of 1847, where both The Albion and Godey’s Lady Book mention it in June of 1847.
I am still uncertain of how or why this minor story came to the attention of George Eliot, the pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans, though both her essay for Westminster Review and the piece that appeared in The Albion, “Women’s Wit,” are not entirely dissimilar, both being essays about women authors in general. It also appears that the Albion piece might have first appeared in Douglas Jerrold’s Shilling Magazine, though I have yet to track down that publication.
Such are the rabbit holes that the Stainforth Library of Women’s Writing project affords, and I eagerly jump down them any chance I get.
But the outstanding question still remains: who was Count Leopold Ferri of Padua and what was in his “perfectly unique” library? I can find no trace of him in any source I can read, though I did spend some time figuring out that in 1847 Padua was part of the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia, which was a “crown land” of the Austrian Empire (which explains the “Leopold”). I also tried to find an organization chart of the Austrian Empire to figure out where a Count in Padua might fit in…which yielded some interesting results—mostly involving conspiracy theories, the Illuminati, and Freemasonry.
What I have found, though, is a reference in an article to a prominent and wealthy Ferri Family in Padua, which lessens my initial skepticism of it this person or his library existed. Because of the repetitive nature of what I was finding, both the Eliot piece and the original mention in the Morning Post, I have some concerns over the veracity of the claims. But at least there is some evidence of at least the family existing.
But this is where my trail of bread crumbs ends and I am not sure where I can go from here. If anyone reads Italian, I would be grateful for any searches of Italian language sources that you can provide.