On the reading habits of canons

It is perhaps to be expected that the majority of the books that make up the Chapter Library of the College of St George should be serious texts, concerning the great academic and theological issues of their respective times.

More surprising to most people, in this collection of books belonging to a religious community, are the fictional tales and romantic novels. One such is the twelve-volume edition of seventeenth-century novel Cléopatre by Gautier de Costes de la Calprenede. Its author was a Frenchman, known for his sentimental, adventurous, pseudo-historical romances that were immensely popular – apparently even with the Canons of Windsor!

As a young man, Calprenede moved to Paris and entered the regiment of the guards. It is rumoured that he had such a humorous manner that when he was on duty at the palace he would tell stories so funny that the ladies of the court and even the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting would neglect their duties in order to come and listen to him.

Cléopatre, which was first published in 1648, tells the story of Cleopatra’s alleged daughter by Mark Anthony. It was nearly never finished because of arguments between Calprenede and his publishers. However, Calprenede fell in love with a rich young widow, Lyée Madeleine, Dame de Saint-Jean-de-Livet and Coudray, who was a great admirer of his novels. She agreed to marry him but only on the condition that he, in turn, agreed to finish Cléopatre. They were married in 1648 and the obligation to finish the novel became one of the articles of the marriage contract. As with many of Calprenede’s other novels, it found immediate favour and continued to be popular to the end of the 18th century.

The novel also seems to have proved popular in the here and now; almost all of its twelve volumes have been adopted as part of the Archives and Chapter Library’s Adopt a Book scheme. Doubtless in appreciation of the interesting story behind it, more than half of these have been in celebration of marriages or significant wedding anniversaries, but there are also some in memory of old friends and one chosen simply “because books are priceless”.

Kate McQuillian, Assistant Archivist

The Queen's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.