“The First Utterances of My Individuality”: Three Women Writers Who Shaped Literary Form

“The First Utterances of My Individuality”: Three Women Writers Who Shaped Literary Form

Books and manuscripts from Jane Austen, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Dora Wordsworth trace the rise of professional female authors.
Books and manuscripts from Jane Austen, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Dora Wordsworth trace the rise of professional female authors.

J ane Austen is now a household name, with her novels frequently adapted and still appearing on bestseller lists. However, when Pride and Prejudice was first published just over two hundred years ago, the titlepage simply read, “By the Author of ‘Sense and Sensibility.’” Two current auctions of books and manuscripts at Sotheby’s present a range of lots that speak to female authorship in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Through them, one can trance not only the rise of professional female authors, but also the manner in which these women helped shape their respective forms.

An Important Association Copy of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

This first edition of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, one of the most beloved novels in English literature, is made even more remarkable by its provenance. Once owned by the English novelist Sarah Harriet Burney, with her signature on the title page of each volume, the present copy of Pride and Prejudice represents a rare link between contemporary authors, as well as an important step in the evolution of the novel itself.

Sarah Harriet Burney was the youngest child from the second marriage of the musician Dr. Charles Burney, and the half-sister of Fanny Burney (Mrs. d’Arblay), who was the author of Evelina (1778), among many other works. Fanny Burney is now regarded as an important precursor to Austen. Blending the satirical comedy of Henry Fielding with the sentimental heroine of Samuel Richardson, Fanny Burney articulated a new form of novel, which prized the themes of women’s education and moral reform as viewed by female authors themselves. It would be difficult to overstate just how significant Fanny Burney’s contributions to British literature proved to be. Indeed, Austen herself declared her the very best of English novelists, and Austen’s indebtedness to Burney’s Cecilia (1782) in her drafting of Pride and Prejudice is well known.

While Fanny Burney’s work has garnered an increasing amount of attention over the intervening centuries, Sarah’s has inarguably been overshadowed. The events of Sarah Burney’s early life, however, are the stuff Fanny and Austen’s heroines are made of. From the moment of her birth, interfamily relations were strained in the Burney household, and Sarah was raised by her mother’s relatives in Norfolk until 1775, when she was sent to London to rejoin her parents and half-siblings. While Sarah Burney was just as affected by economic circumstances as Jane Austen, the former chose not so explicitly address these issues through her fiction. Austen was instead left to convey for an entire generation the societal factors that threatened to leave her gender voiceless. Through a seemingly — and deceptively — quiet realism, Austen gave the experience of womanhood in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century tangible form. And as Austen enchanted the society she sought to satirize and expose, her “domestic” novels have perhaps proven to be the most subversive of all.

An Autographed Working Notebook for Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s The Seraphim, and Other Poems

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s heavily revised autograph working notebook for The Seraphim, and Other Poems (1838) is the first book to bear the poet’s name. Extraordinarily, these pages contain drafts of all the major poems in The Seraphim, which was published by Saunders and Otley in 1838. Together “The Seraphim,” “The Poet’s Vow,” “The Romaunt of Margret,” “Isobel’s Child” and “A Romance of the Ganges” — along with numerous other verses — helped establish Elizabeth Barrett Browning as one of the most important poets of the nineteenth century. Nearly every poem in the present notebook has been extensively revised, with lines and entire stanzas deleted and reworked; scores of unpublished and unexamined lines are preserved, offering scope for new readings through the lens of early and amended material.

Seraphim was well and extensively reviewed in the principal literary journals of the period. Within two or three months, Elizabeth Barrett (she had yet to marry Robert Browning) went from being virtually unknown to one of the most promising English poets of her generation. “Poetry is essentially truthfulness,” she declares in the preface of the first published edition, “and the very incoherences of poetic dreaming are but the struggle and the strife to reach the True in the Unknown.”

In writing to John Kenyon, a wealthy family friend and patron of the arts, she declared: “With all its feebleness and shortcomings and obscurities,” The Seraphim was “the first utterances of my individuality.” Furthermore, she had “found it hard work to get into expression,” in part because her tongue “clove” to the roof of her mouth when she composed the poems in the present notebook. In the 1838 preface she also wrote, “I would fain hope to write hereafter better verses; but I can never feel more intensely that at this moment — nor can it be needful that any should — the sublime uses of poetry, and the solemn responsibilities of the poet.”

This working notebook — a rare and extraordinary survival — is evidence of Barrett Browning’s diligence, with the numerous revisions demonstrating the intensity of her process. It contains all of the poems in the published edition of The Seraphim, as well as eleven others that remain unpublished. This significant collection of drafts, along with the extensive additions, deletions and emendations, forms the first significant collection of the poet’s own work. As Barrett Browning sought and discovered the incipient strength of her developing voice through these pages, this volume represents an invaluable resource for scholars and is an essential link in the extant collections of the poet’s notebooks.

Dora Wordsworth’s Inscribed Set of Her Father’s Works

A truly remarkable association copy of the first collected edition of William Wordsworth’s entire works, this set features inscriptions to his daughter in each volume. Dora was profoundly important to William — he named her after his sister Dorothy, with whom he maintained an intense and intimate relationship his entire life, and her infancy inspired the poem “Address to My Infant Daughter, Dora. On Being Reminded That She Was a Month Old That Day, September 16.” He wrote of her again in adulthood, along with Edith Southey (daughter of Robert Southey) and Sara Coleridge (daughter of Samuel Taylor Coleridge), in his poem “The Triad.” He worked on the lines addressed to Dora with great care and intense focus, revising them numerous times, and indeed sent her at least two versions of the poem prior to its publication. Dora and William were exceptionally close and admired each other deeply — in an 1830 letter Coleridge’s son Hartley said that she “almost adored” her father. Dora herself had both literary ambitions and talent, publishing a travel journal in her lifetime.

Given their affinities and their relationship, the present set is truly magnificent. Just one month before her death from tuberculosis, Dora bequeathed this set to Lady Monteagle. The flyleaf of the first volume features a signed presentation inscription from Dora, dated 29 May 1847, that reads, “This copy of my Father’s Works, the first that was my own, is given to Lady Monteagle, in memorial of an inherited and life-long friendship.” Directly beneath this is an inscription from Lady Monteagle herself, on presenting the volume, “To Laura Cecilia Marshall as the representative of her Mother the dear friend and Contemporary of Dora Quillinan from M. Monteagle. Jan. 1, 1863.”

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