Yesterday marked the last class visit to the Archives & Special Collections for the Spring 2016 semester. The class was “Early Women Writers” taught by Amherst English Professors Amelia Worsley and Ingrid Nelson, and it was a great excuse for me to dig into our collections to see what we have in this area.
This rather plain looking four-volume set was one gem I was well aware of in our collections. Although it may not look like much from the outside, this is the original publisher’s binding on a completely untrimmed first edition of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. The Archives holds a complete set of Austen’s novels in first edition.
Austen died in July 1817. Even though this set includes a “biographical notice of the author,” he name still does not appear on the title page. By contrast, Charlotte Smith (1749-1806) does get her name on the title page of The Banished Man, one of ten novels she published in the late eighteenth century.
Curiously, we only hold volumes 3 and 4 of The Banished Man. Stepping back a little further in time, we have a copy of Sarah Fielding’s The Adventures of David Simple published in 1744.
I’m curious if the first edition of David Simple included the Preface by the author’s brother, and best-selling novelist of the age, Henry Fielding. The number of editions of a work is one way to gauge its popularity; the last two novels had at least two editions; this copy of Aphra Behn’s collected works — All the Histories and Novels — was in its sixth edition in 1718:
Behn died in 1689, so the demand for at least six editions of her collected works nearly 30 years after her death is an excellent indicator of her popularity.
The very earliest published book in the collection written by a woman appears to be Anne Bradstreet’s The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America published in London in 1650:
Our copy lacks a few pages at the front, which have been replaced by facsimiles, but the very last page of the book is very special:
I have not even attempted to decipher the handwriting here. Sounds like a good student project…
Jumping back to the Romantic Era, our copy of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark has the signature of its former owner on the title page:
This copy once belonged to William Wordsworth and is now part of the Cornelius H. Patton, Class of 1883 Wordsworth Collection.
We do not hold a copy of the first edition of Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (London 1773), I was pleased to learn we have this 1834 edition of Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley.
The title page dedicates this volume to “Friends of the Africans” and it was published the year after William Lloyd Garrison founded the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833.
A final gem in our collections is also authored by a woman of color: Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a Northern Slave (Boston: Printed for the Author, 1850).
Like many of the books in our collections, this one bears the marks of having spent part of its life in the Frost Library circulating collections:
We will leave the old library “tattle-tape” attached to the title page of this copy until we can pay for the careful conservation treatment it will require to remove it. At least our copy still has the portrait.
While we do not have a vast collection of women writers, it’s always rewarding to find out that we have some fascinating high spots. I’ll end with this example of provincial printing from the early nineteenth century.
Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple was first published in 1790 and was the best-selling novel in the United States until Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared in book form in 1852. This edition was published in Brookfield, Massachusetts. It’s likely E. Merriam & Co. printed up a couple hundred copies of this best-seller to satisfy local demand and make some easy money.