Miss Elizabeth Foulis, an Invisible Borrower

Friday 5 February 2021

In this blog, student Emma Sibbald shares highlights from her research into the reading practices of Elizabeth Foulis, a regular user of the University Library in the 1800s.

In early-nineteenth century Scotland, there were a lot of men called James. So many, in fact, that in the borrowing ledgers of the University Library at the time, librarians didn’t bother to write the out name in full, abbreviating it to ‘Jms’ or ‘Jas’ instead as was standard at the time. William, or ‘Wm’, got the same treatment. I was transcribing and analysing the ledgers for an internship, exploring the presence of novels by women in the records of matriculated students, and so far, everything had been as expected. But under ‘F’, instead of another ‘Jms’ or a ‘Wm’, or a Duncan or a Malcolm or a John, I found a ‘Miss’. I was amazed to find that this Miss, Miss Elizabeth Foulis of Colinton, was easily the most active borrower in the ledger, with completely unique reading interests. Although women’s reading practises in the long eighteenth-century were often hindered and undermined, Miss Foulis needed eight pages to record her borrowing, the librarians often cramming entries into the page. She was clearly a singular figure, with a determined, able mind, and I was desperately curious about her presence in the library. I decided to use my fourth-year dissertation to research her life and reading practices more fully.

Ownership inscription in Les epistres spirituelles de Saint Francois de Sales evesque et prince de Geneve…, 1676 (r17 BV4833.F7E7C76)

I began by exploring the life and station of Miss Foulis. Miss Elizabeth Foulis was born on 24 October 1746, in London, the daughter of Sir James Foulis, 5th Baronet of Colinton, and his wife Mary. She had two surviving siblings; an older brother, James, the heir presumptive to the baronetcy, and a younger sister, Mary. Her father was an acquaintance of Johnson, Boswell and Sir Walter Scott, all of whom were complimentary about his mind, and all of whom thought he was a little… odd. Boswell, for example, described him in 1774 as a man with a “whim and want of dignity”, after visiting him at the family estate at Colinton, Edinburgh for breakfast. Elizabeth seemed to have enjoyed a close relationship with her father, both as a familial and intellectual companion, and it is likely he encouraged her education. In 1808, she is glimpsed in the minutes of the Senatus Academicus of the University, when she donated two shells brought by her father from India, as a result of which she received borrowing rights to the University Library, and evidence of her reading life in St Andrews began.

Ownership inscription in Callimachi hymni et epigrammata, [1741] (s PA3945.A2D41)
The number of books Elizabeth borrowed is nothing short of astonishing. Between 1815 and 1826, she borrowed 412 books, an average of forty-five books a year. In 1820, she borrowed ninety-eight books, often returning multiple times in a week to fetch more volumes. Most student borrowers filled up a single page in the receipt book with their borrowing records. Elizabeth easily filled up eight. Although we cannot assume she enjoyed or supported the views of a single text simply from her borrowing it, we can glean an understanding of her general interests from the genres of work most often borrowed. Examining her reading record in all its variety is also a thrilling window into a more unknown portion of society; we can view history without the benefit of hindsight, ignoring the canon for a more varied, and therefore specific, cross-section of eighteenth-century life.


Many of her choices of fiction remain familiar today: she read poetry and novels by Byron, Coleridge, Austen, Southey, Hume, Burney and Maria Edgeworth, as just a small sample. Her interest in travel reading knew no limits; she borrowed books on Russia, Jerusalem, Palestine, Spain, Corsica, France, India, Turkey, Brazil, Greece, Egypt, Hungary, Austria, Africa, Italy and Portugal, amongst others. Her borrowing highlights the existence of early women travel writers; Mariana Starke, who wrote indispensable travel guides of Italy, for example, and Sydney Owensen, who wrote a guide to France that was so politically controversial and critically panned, it prompted Sir Walter Scott to name his donkey ‘Lady Morgan’ after her pen-name. It is unclear if Elizabeth herself had ever travelled, so it is therefore more poignant that Elizabeth’s mind was able to travel vicariously and widely through her chosen books. The political landscape of the eighteenth century can also be glimpsed in her borrowing, too, she was moved by Ziluco: An African Tale, an abolitionist novel, so much so that she borrowed it three times over several years, and she read biographies of several prominent abolitionists. She also interacted with British history, theology, and philosophy, her choices often overlapping with the male student curriculum; fascinating evidence of her proximity to the University. She seemed interested in court scandal and society, too, taking out books on Emma Hamilton, Lady Russell, Horace Walpole and others. But her favourite and most-borrowed genre, however, was that of the popular romance novel, the books that critics of the era condemned as almost entirely worthless. With sensational titles such as The Wife of Fitzalice: and the Caledonian Siren and the gloriously emphasised Husband Hunters!!!, they were certainly novels of great excitement and emotion. But I believe there is something powerfully transgressive in her decision to use the library; a male-dominated, academic space; to read books that were purely for her own entertainment, rather than instruction. It’s also really interesting to realise that these types of books were available through the University Library!

Students’ receipt book, University Library, 1816-1825, ID: UYLY207/14, p513.

Conduct books of the era were clear on what could be considered ‘appropriate’ reading habits for women. For Sir John Gregory, for example, the ideal woman was well-read only in the privacy of her own mind: “But if you happen to have any learning, keep it a profound secret, especially from the men, who generally look with a jealous and malignant eye on a woman of great parts, and a cultivated understanding”. Susan Sibbald (1783-1866) recalled being shut out entirely from her father’s library, and that she was therefore forced to take books from her local circulating library and hide them. Subscription libraries often only allowed male subscribers, and the circulating libraries were often deemed inappropriate in their stock (due to the threats of the romance novel). Elizabeth Foulis is thus a rare example of a woman freely borrowing books for her own imaginative absorption, and most crucially, on her own behalf.

Inscription in Les œvvres morales, 1582 (TypSwG.B82EP)

My research also led me to discover Elizabeth’s collection of forty-one rare volumes, donated upon her death to the University Library. Several are still held by Special Collections. As far as we know, there is no remaining textual presentation of Miss Foulis in her own hand, except in the unusually scripted signatures and tantalising notes in the front of these personal books. She signs herself alternately as ‘Elizabeth Foulis’, and ‘EF’, drawing a distinctive flourish that curls around each letter, as if she were embroidering her name into the page. One flyleaf, perhaps tenderly, tells the reader the book is a “present from my Father”. In a valuable copy of David’s Psalms, we find a mysterious Latin dedication from Hugh Cross, a Glasgow landowner who built Claremont House in Kelvingrove Park, who, in 1801, wrote an inscription to Elizabeth in the frontispiece:

 “To the most honoured Lady Elizabeth (born to higher things), beloved daughter of the most illustrious man James Foulis of Colinton, Baronet, Hugh Cross gave these holy songs [i.e. psalms]. He also created a hallowed and ornate shrine [or mound] on the Clyde estate called Claremont (situated among the woods and the courses of the Kelvin river). And so as to endow it with the right aura (solemnly invoked), he called it Mount Elizabeth. Claremont 26 May 1801.”

Inscription in G. Buchanani paraphrasis Psalmorum Davidis poetica, 1797, (Buch BS1442.B8D97B)

Elizabeth Foulis died in 1827, at the age of eighty-one, and bequeathed her collection of rare books to the St Andrews University Library, perhaps in gratitude for the nineteen years of reading opportunity afforded to her by those borrowing rights. I like to imagine our existences in St Andrews overlapping. When I pick up my books from the Main Library, and walk to my flat on South Street, I picture Miss Foulis, walking from her little cottage on North Street to the King James Library. Braving the brisk Fife winter, we cross paths on Union Street, across the centuries, both of us holding our library books. For me, it is an easy privilege. But Miss Elizabeth Foulis entered an educational institution, seventy years before the first female student would matriculate at the university, and read for pleasure, for absorption, and for education, on her own terms. It is a quiet empowerment, but a vital one.

Emma Sibbald
MA Honours English, 2021

** Thank you so much to Dr Christine Rauer, who noticed the mistakes in my original translation and kindly re-translated it, and discovered the identity of ‘Hugo Cross’ in the dedication!

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9 thoughts on "Miss Elizabeth Foulis, an Invisible Borrower"

  • Nancy Gilmartin
    Nancy Gilmartin
    Friday 5 February 2021, 1.50pm

    Thank you for this fascinating read. Has made my day!

    • skr23
      Friday 5 February 2021, 1.55pm

      Glad to hear you enjoyed the blog!

  • Robin M White
    Robin M White
    Friday 5 February 2021, 5.10pm

    Quelle femme, hein?

  • C L Couch
    C L Couch
    Friday 5 February 2021, 8.18pm

    It's hard to imagine having the courage to get books and then to read them. Hers is an extraordinary story, and I appreciate your casting of her life and what was her unusual effort and accomplishment.

  • Cilla Jackson
    Cilla Jackson
    Friday 5 February 2021, 11.24pm

    Fascinating reading about this remarkable young woman. It would have been interesting to have met Miss Foulis whilst taking her exercise in the town. Thank you for introducing her.

  • Elisabeth Okasha
    Elisabeth Okasha
    Monday 8 February 2021, 11.31am

    An enormously interesting account of a remarkable woman. Are you now going to write her biography?

    • Emma Sibbald
      Emma Sibbald
      Monday 8 February 2021, 4.08pm

      Thank you for your comment, and I'm so glad you enjoyed the blog. The research was part of my undergraduate dissertation, but there is still much to be learned about her life so hopefully her story will be more fully told at some point!

  • Karen Nelson
    Karen Nelson
    Sunday 14 February 2021, 2.11pm

    I can well imagine your excitement and pleasure in your research! What a gem of a project!!

  • Liz Foulis
    Liz Foulis
    Thursday 15 June 2023, 2.52pm

    I love this story of the life of my namesake!


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