OVERBURY, Sir Thomas.

His Wife. With additions

London, printed by Edward Griffin for Laurence L’isle, 1618


FIRST EDITION thus. 8vo.  pp. [296]: [par.] – 2 [par.], A-Q, R. Roman letter, some Italic. First line of title within woodcut border, fine engraved portrait of Overbury aged 32 (with verses alluding to his murder by Frances Howard and his false friend Robert Carr by the printer Lisle), woodcut initials and headpieces, typographical ornaments. Light age yellowing, title-page slightly dusty with minor stains, repaired closed tear at foot extending into imprint, minor marginal small worm holes and trails to upper inner corners, occasional soiling and marginal staining, closed tear in A8 touching ornamental tailpiece. A good copy, in handsome contemporary dark calf, covers bordered with a triple blind rule, large arabesque blind stamped at centres, spine with raised bands blind ruled in compartments, early printed waste,   with title “de temporibus ordinan”, gothic letter in red and black in double column,  used as pastedowns, remains of ties.

Excellent early and enlarged edition of this remarkable book of characters by Sir Thomas Overbury with additions by John Donne, John Webster, and Thomas Dekker amongst others. Sir Thomas Overbury (1581 – 1613) was an English poet and essayist, also known for being the victim of a murder which led to a scandalous trial. His poem “The Wife” which depicted the virtues that a young man should demand of a woman, played a large role in the events that precipitated his murder. Overbury was a close friend of Sir Robert Carr who had become James I favourite at court. After the death of Robert Cecil in 1612, Carr began a relationship with the married Frances Howard, Countess of Essex, and allied himself with the Howard family, all of whom Overbury violently opposed. He wrote his poem ‘A wife’ which circulated widely in manuscript at court, which paints a picture of the virtues which a young man should demand in a woman before he rushes to marry her. Lady Essex believed that Overbury’s object in writing this poem was to open the eyes of his friend to her defects. James offered Overbury an assignment as ambassador, probably to the court of Michael of Russia, in order to remove him from court, but Overbury refused. He was promptly sent to the Tower where Frances Howard arranged to have him poisoned. The details of the murder were only uncovered two years later by Edward Coke and Sir Francis Bacon who later presided over the trial of Frances Howard and Carr and who found them guilty of murder. They were sentenced to death but were merely detained in the Tower and later pardoned. It is clear that the printer Lawrence Lisle used the scandal of the murder and the subsequent trial to market this work, with the continued additions strongly reflecting the evolution of events surrounding the affair..

“Sir Thomas Overbury’s  ‘A wife’ .. perhaps did more to launch the vogue for characters and character books in the first half of the 17th century than any other single literary work  .. the vogue received its initial and powerful impetus less from an interest in the character itself, although such an interest was evident, than from the popular reverberations generated by a state scandal. The mysterious death of Overbury in the Tower, Frances Howard’s annulment suit, her marriage to Robert Carr, and their subsequent implication in Overbury’s poisoning inspired the enterprising London publisher and bookseller Lawrence Lisle to popularise a literary form well beyond the confines of wives and widows to a panoply of human types and characters from prisoners and parsons to bawds and booksellers” Bruce McIver. “A Wife Now the Widdow” Lawrence Lisle and the popularity of the Overburian Characters.

The work was enlarged by professional writers in consecutive editions; these include John Webster, the dramatist, who on good ground is now assigned 32 of the characters added to the sixth edition, and Thomas Dekker who is thought to have written the six pieces on the debtors prison added to the ninth edition. At the end of the work is printed “Newes from any Whence” which includes”Newes from the Very Country” by John Donne, which did not appear under Donne’s name until the 1650 edition of his poems as a prose piece.

A very good, unsophisticated copy of this rare work.

ESTC S113541. STC 18912. Murphy Character Books p.21.
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