Philips (nee Fowler) was born in London, the daughter of a prosperous cloth merchant and was sent to a boarding school, Mrs. Salmon’s school in Hackney, where religion was the main subject of study. At the age of 16, Katherine married James Philips, a substantial landowner in Wales, and thereafter lived in Cardigan. She is best known for her poetry on the theme of friendship, but she also gained success as a translator: amongst others, she translated the French play ‘La mort de Pompée’ by Corneille, which was performed in Dublin, and subsequently published in Dublin and London. Philips died from smallpox at the age of 32 – before any authorised version of her poetry was published.
Philips turned out to be one of the very few women whose works were in wide circulation in the mid-17th century. This happily coincides with the time of Pepys’s diary writing, and she is duly mentioned in Samuel’s diary entry for the 10th August 1667: ‘and then abroad to the New Exchange to the bookseller’s there, where I hear of several new books coming out – Mr. Pratts history of the Royal Society and Mrs. Phillips’s poems.’ The bookseller Pepys is referring to is Henry Herringman, the publisher of Katherine Philips’s posthumous book of poetry, seen on the title page above. Herringman was surely attempting to be the persuasive salesman here and push his own publications ahead of others, though sadly Pepys doesn’t seem to have bought it – there is no copy of this publication in the Pepys Library. Fortunately, Magdalene does have a copy of this book in the Old Library, as depicted above.
Philips is represented in Pepys’s collection of engraved portraits, however, both under Pepys’s portrait categories of ‘Ladies’ and ‘Poets’ and labelled ‘Mrs Philips – Poetess’. She shares one of the ‘poets’ pages with Alexander Brome, John Dryden, and Aphra Behn. Pepys certainly held Dryden in high esteem, so the placement of Philips and Behn on the same page could demonstrate the regard he held for them. Philips certainly had an eminent literary reputation in the 17th century, though there were some male commentators who used her posthumous reputation of being ‘matchless’, as seen on the title page above, against her. She was only ‘matchless’ due to ‘the fact that a woman managed to put pen to paper was in itself worthy of praise’, as Chaernaik has described the opinions of some contemporary male commentators. However, Henry Herringman was one of the period’s foremost literary booksellers, and his support of Philips’ work would surely be due to its merits. Gilliam Wright argues that Philips’s work was given a respect and prominence not accorded to earlier women writers due to this association with Herringman.
Chaernaik goes on to say that ‘Philips’s name was often coupled with that of Aphra Behn as a model for prospective woman poets, the one chaste and respectable, the other talented but disreputable.’ It is therefore heartening to see both poets depicted in Pepys’s portrait album, in their ‘professional’ capacities.
By Catherine Sutherland
Deputy Librarian, Pepys Library and Special Collections
Pepys, Samuel (edited by Latham, R. and Matthews, W.).The Diary of Samuel Pepys: A New and Complete Transcription. London: Bell, 1971-
Loveman, Kate. Samuel Pepys and his books: reading, newsgathering, and sociability, 1660-1703. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Chernaik, Warren. Philips [née Fowler], Katherine (1632–1664), poet | Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (no date). Available at: http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-22124 (Accessed: 15 December 2017).
Poetry Foundation (2017) Katherine Philips. Available at: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/katherine-philips (Accessed: 15 December 2017).
Wright, G. (2013). Producing women’s poetry, 1600-1730 : Text and paratext, manuscript and print / Gillian Wright, University of Birmingham. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.