Levi Pawling was born in 1773, admitted to the bar in Norristown, Pennsylvania in 1795 and married in 1804 to Elizabeth Hiester. He was a career lawyer, and though his local government was largely run by Democrats, he also served as a one term senator as a Federalist from March 4, 1817 to March 3, 1819. Pawling wore many hats over the course of his life, from congressman to burgess of Norristown to president of the board of directors of the Bank of Montgomery County to father. Over the course of his marriage to Hiester, Pawling fathered seven children: Elizabeth, Ellen, Rebecca, Mary, Joseph H., James M., and Henry DeWitt. Ellen, born in 1816, married another Pennsylvania lawyer from Norristown, Henry Freedley, in June of 1845, just before her father’s death in September of that year. After Ellen’s own death in 1850, her sister Rebecca, born in 1815, married her widower. The marriage of Rebecca and Henry Freedley was even shorter than that of Ellen and Freedley, however, as Rebecca died in November of 1851, only eight months after her wedding. Though Freedley lived a much longer life, surviving until 1894, he, Rebecca, Ellen, and Levi are all buried in the churchyard of the parish that Levi founded and presided over as church warden, St. Johns Episcopal Church in Norristown, PA. Levi’s other daughter, Mary, born 1819, married yet another Pennsylvania lawyer, Sylvester Norton Rich in 1846. Their marriage lasted much longer than either of her sisters’, continuing until Rich’s death in 1893. Rich and Mary were both buried in the Odd Fellows Cemetery in Philadelphia.
But between that, between all of the marriages and politics and birth and death, Levi Pawling owned an edition of The Works of Laurence Sterne (1791), an eight volume collection of Sterne’s novels, letters, sermons, and various bits and pieces he had written for other publications. Levi signed his name in several of the volumes, with his name first appearing in volume three. The inscription reads: “Levi Pawling’s Oct. 1st 1800.” His daughter Rebecca’s name is in six of the eight volumes, sometimes written more than once. On a half title page at the start of volume one, Rebecca followed a similar inscription pattern to her father, writing: “Rebecca Pawling, January 6th 1836.” Her eventual husband’s name, Henry Freedley appears on the full title page in every volume in the exact same spot, as “Henry Freedley C.E.” is inked in between the words “COMPLETE IN EIGHT VOLUMES” and “CONTAINING.” Mary Pawling’s name appears only once, at the top of page 173 in volume eight, containing Sterne’s sermons. But whether these family members inscribed their names once or a hundred times, the inscriptions allowed them to generate a community of readers. As the lovers in John Donne’s “The Canonization” are immortalized and interred in the poem which acts as their urn, so are the Pawlings contained in these volumes, together and interacting for as long as the books continue to exist. Mary and her husband may have been buried in a different cemetery from the rest of the members of the family whose names are inscribed in this book, but in these pages they reside together, and the inscriptions help to create a narrative out of their relationships. Levi had the book first, obviously, as none of the others were born yet in 1800, the date of the first inscription. After that, perhaps, it passed to Rebecca, who would have been twenty one when she put her own name in the volumes. Or maybe Mary went through them first, reading and marking up the passages that mattered to her, and then passed it onto her sister. From Rebecca, they might have passed to Henry. (Could I construct a chart? A visualization/web of their relationships?)
In light, feathery pencil, someone has written “January 1832” on page 144 of volume seven. A similar light and feathery pencil has used the book as a sketch pad, doodling myriad birds and flowers in the margins, and sketching various ladies and gentlemen in many of the blank spaces left at the end of chapters. Someone has even taken the trouble to illustrate a scene from A Sentimental Journey in which a character name Maria sits with a dog in her lap under a tree. In this case, there not enough blank space to accommodate the artist, who instead composed her illustration on a small sheet of paper and attached it to the page with an actual pin, similar to the type of pin used for hemming clothing. All of the margin notes are also in pencil, though there is no telling whether the same hand made them all. It is possible that Levi Pawling, Rebecca Pawling, and Henry Freedley signed their names in ink at the start in order to make bolder and more permanent claims of ownership, while they made margins notes in pencil so as not to overwhelm the text. However, it is also possible that the pencil marks, the words written in the margins, and the sketches that might have been a product of the artistic component of the education of young ladies in the nineteenth century might have all been produced by Mary Pawling, whose name also appears in pencil and in the middle of a text, as if in the midst of reading she suddenly felt the urge to put herself in these pages and test out a signature. The placement of Mary Pawling’s name is more suggestive of usage than ownership.
On these details, I can only speculate, though that speculation itself results in more detail being added to the web of this family’s pattern of association as their names are brought into contact again and again in varying ways and orders. In fact, the speculation greatly expands the web, for now, I can add my own name to the web. Now I have had contact with Levi and Rebecca and Mary and Henry, similar to the way they had contact with each other. The community of readers has expanded, but both includes me and does not include me.