Introduction to "Original Letters" by "Eminent Women," collected by William Upcott, by Cassandra McLean and Cassandra Reeves

Introduction to the album and its contents

“Original Letters” by “Eminent Women” was collected by a London librarian and self-professed sufferer of “autographic mania,” William Upcott (1779-1845). William Upcott’s album is a collection of letters written by 48 women during the early decades of the nineteenth century. While the album itself is dated 1824, the dates of the letters range from approximately 1790 to 1830. Many of the women whose letters are featured in the album were writers with a public reputation, though others were artists, educators, philanthropists, political reformers and celebrated society figures. The women represented in the album range widely in terms of how they came to public eminence and their class, religious and sexual identities. The album therefore reflects a period of rising opportunities for women in Britain, as their contributions to various fields began to be recognized. 

Their letters are most often written to friends, to publishers or printers, or regarding particular business arrangements. Many of the women in Upcott’s album are members of the bluestocking society, a group of high-class educated women who held intellectual discussions, such as Elizabeth Montagu, Harriet Bowdler, Elizabeth Carter, Hannah More, and Anna Letitia Barbauld, or the relatives of bluestocking women, such as Lucy Aikin (Barbauld’s neice) and Sarah Burney (France Burney’s half sister). Although the album is primarily composed of the women’s letters, it also features portraits of some of these notable women, such as Elizabeth Macauley, Anne Seymour Damer, and Mary Linwood. This practice of collecting letters, arranging them alphabetically, into thematic collections and illustrating them with portraits was a common method of the compiler, as we will see. A full list of the index to the album may be found here.

Who was William Upcott?

William Upcott was an antiquary and autograph collector who compiled “Original Letters” by “Eminent Women.” He was born on June 15, 1779, in London, and, in the same year, moved to Oxford with his mother. After her death in December 1786, Upcott lived with his grandmother and moved frequently, attending eight different schools. In 1797, he secured an apprenticeship with John Wright, a Piccadilly bookseller, then transferred to Robert Harding Evans’ shop in Pall Mall.

Upcott was invested in collecting from a young age, taking on items such as coins, trade tokens, and engravings. In March 1810, upon the death of his father, he inherited the latter’s paintings and correspondence. It was this inheritance that inspired Upcott to collect autographs with an intense single-mindedness, as he described to Dawson Turner in 1816, “the disease … that has the strongest hold of my inclinations, is the autographic mania” (GM, 2nd ser., ODNB). By the time of his death on 23 September 1845, at the age of 66, he had amassed astonishing collection of 32,000 letters, many organized into thematic, extra-illustrated volumes. The size of his collection may be estimated by the 11 days needed to sell it by auction.

In 1806, he was elected as Librarian at the newly founded London Institution, an educational institution that collected a library, with reading rooms, and held lectures. It was through his work at the library and his many literary and book trade connections that he acquired many of his specimens. Indeed many publishers made gifts of their correspondence. Upcott collected what other people did not think important, such as business letters and social notes, which would be thrown away after serving their purpose. Given that he wasn’t a particularly wealthy man, he tried to get what was free or cheap, and enlisted the help of his colleagues and friends (generally in the field of books) to acquire the letters. He probably made requests from the recipients to obtain many of his letters, which he then added to his collection.

Upcott organized these letters into many thematic collections, including those dedicated to men in the military, the clergy, statesman, and members of the nobility, as well as individuals who had excelled in different disciplines of knowledge, and collections related to literary men and women. (Levy). His album of “Eminent Women” is an example of this, being a collection of notes, letters, and signatures by women of many professions, extra-illustrated with portraits. Another similar three-volume collection of letters and portraits “Distinguished Women” is held by the British Library (British Library Ad Mss. 78686-78689).

Who are the women in the album and what made them eminent? 

While William Upcott’s album categorizes the women in a broader sense as eminent, a closer look at each individual reveals a diverse selection of talented artists, educators, writers, and philanthropists, to name just a few of their occupations. Many of the women dabbled in multiple professions throughout their lifetimes. Some are still well-known today, establishing themselves as pioneers in fields such as sculpting, travel writing, or children’s literature. Their bodies of work are immense, their work influential, and their biographies vast and detailed. Others, however, are virtually unknown, nearly nonexistent in historical records. For these women, we refer to what little we do know - the majority were writers and poets, such as Miss B and Mrs. Anne Baillie. This information comes from contextual evidence in their letters, where transcriptions reveal brief conversations from the women to their publishers or booksellers.

For those women where the letter provides no context or only signatures have been provided, their stories are more elusive. A Mrs. Beckerdorff sends a bill payment, Mary, Lady Evelyn writes directly to Upcott asking him to call upon her, Miss Hunter requests 12 copies of a book, Jane Parsons requires a Mr. Smith to send her the letter press of a text she identifies as "Beggars," and Miss Benson pens a note of gratitude to Mr. Henry Colburn, a well-known bookseller spearheading the publication of the silver fork (or fashionable) novel that allowed its audience a glimpse into the lifestyle of the aristocracy.

Colburn was the main force behind Lady Caroline Lamb’s novel Glenarvon (1816). Lamb was perhaps most well-known in her time for being one of the many mistresses of the famed Romantic poet Lord Byron, and was likely the origin of his infamous descriptor: “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” Her Gothic novel, the aforementioned Glenarvon, was inspired directly by and as a result of her passionate affair with the notorious writer turning sour, and included a quintessentially Byronic hero as its main love interest. Lamb and Byron would go on to have increasingly more and more tumultuous run-ins, providing scandalous gossip for the upper-class. In one incident in which Byron snubbed Lamb at a ball, she shattered a wine glass and attempted to slice her wrists. Each would write scathing poems about each other, concealing messages directed at the other in the text, and mimicking the other’s style.

Lamb was close friends with fellow eminent woman, Irish novelist Sydney, Lady Morgan, whose own work was regarded as being extremely controversial and was very often censored. Morgan was close to and had her work publicly defended by both Lord Byron and English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Perhaps her most famous publication is her 1806 epistolary romance, The Wild Irish Girl; a National Tale. Described as proto-feminist, this novel about a banished Englishman and the princess of a forgotten Irish tribe was an immediate success, and in only two years came out in seven editions. The heroine of the novel, Glorvina, became such a popular figure that fashion accessories created in the style of the character’s own items were produced and sold.

Another famed writer with an influential novel was Maria Edgeworth, known for her realist style and descriptions of Irish life and manners, often set in the recent past. Her most notable work is the historical novel Castle Rackrent (1800), the story of the Rackrent family through multiple generations as told by the family’s steward. Edgeworth’s realism extended into her work in children’s literature, used to convey moral and social lessons in a didactic way. Her children’s book The Parent’s Assistant (1796) included a short story titled “The Purple Jar” which has remained influential in children’s literature. Edgeworth also penned An Essay on the Noble Science of Self-Justification (1795), written in humorous fashion for female audiences, speaking upon women’s endowment of self-justification and its use to challenge the power of men. Alongside Edgeworth as a historical novelist is Jane Porter. Penning works of Scottish rather than Irish history, Porter is eminent for her novel Thaddeus of Warsaw (1803), set during the failed revolts against the Second Partition of Poland in the 1790’s. Porter’s 1810 novel The Scottish Chiefs was written as an early example of a historical novel. Translated into several languages and banned in France by Napoleon, it would prove to be controversial for the author.

Along with Edgeworth, many of the women in the album were pioneers in feminist literature. Charlotte Smith was a novelist and poet most eminent for her works Elegiac Sonnets (1784), The Emigrants (1793), and Beachy Head and Other Poems published posthumously in 1807. Her works helped to revitalize the sonnet and presented radical views on liberty, slavery, racism, and feminism. Elizabeth Benger, an English poet, writer, and biographer was known for her poem The Female Geniad (1791), an example of early feminist writing that celebrated women throughout history and was published was Benger was just thirteen. She was also known for a strong social commentary in her poems, notably her Poems on the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1809). Benger’s biographical works are largely female-focused and include Memoirs of the Late Mrs. Elizabeth Hamilton (1818), Memoirs of the Life of Anne Boleyn (1821), Memoirs of the Life of Mary, Queen of Scots (1822), and Memoirs of Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia (1825). Benger was close friends with fellow historian Lucy Aikin.

Aikin was a Romantic-era English writer, biographer, letter-writer and  editor of children’s literature. She was and remains eminent for her correspondence with other well-known personalities of the 19th-century and, like Benger, for her historical memoirs. Aikin garnered much acclaim for her publications from 1818-1843: Memoirs of the Court of Queen Elizabeth (1818), Memoirs of the Court of James I (1822), and Memoirs of the Court of Charles I (1833) . Aikin’s work with children’s literature focused upon education, particularly for young students and readers. Examples of her writing for children include 1811’s Juvenile Correspondence or Letters, Designed as Examples of the Epistolary Style, for Children of Both Sexes and her 1801 publication Poetry for Children: Consisting of Short Pieces to be Committed to Memory. Like her aunt Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Aikin had a keen interest in education for children starting at an early age.

Barbauld, in addition to being a poet and influential author of children’s literature, was also  an essayist a literary critic, an editor and a biographer. She founded Palgrave Academy with her husband in 1774, teaching in the school for over a decade. Her writing advocated for the philosophical movement of enlightenment and advanced the notion that women could participate in and shape public discourse and affairs. Her 1812 poem Eighteen Hundred and Eleven criticised Britain for its part in the Napoleonic Wars, resulting in damaging critiquest that tainted her public image. For many years, Barbauld was remembered only as a writer for children until the growing popularity of feminist literary criticism in the 1980’s shed a light on her work and reestablished her importance.

Barbauld was a member of the loosely organised group of literary women and men known as the Bluestockings who gathered to discuss literature, social issues, and education throughout the mid-18th century. The group beganin the early 1750’s with Elizabeth Montagu as one of its leading figures. Montagu was an English literary critic, writer, social reformer, aristocrat and philanthropist. One of the wealthiest women of her time, Montagu donated handsomely to the impoverished and to efforts to preserve and enrich Scottish and English literature. While noted for her criticisms and commentary on the writings of others, Montagu herself would publish two pieces of work, albeit anonymously: significant contributions in 1760’s Dialogues of the Dead, and 1769’s An Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespear.

One of Montagu’s closest friends and a fellow Bluestocking was poet, writer, linguist and polymath, Elizabeth Carter. Eminent for her translations of philosophical works and poetry and most notably her translations of the 2nd-century philosopher Epictetus, All the Works of Epictetus, Which are Now Extant (1758), it was the first time his works had been translated into the English language. She is one of the women in Upcott’s album for whom only a signature is included. Carter is included in Richard Samuel’s 1778 painting Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo, depicting nine of the most lauded Bluestockings of the time. Also included in this painting is Hannah More.

More, a poet, playwright, and philanthropist is now most known for her religious works on the subject of evangelicalism and her writings on conservatism and conservative feminism. But More wrote children’s writing, novels and poetry and was one of the most successful and prolific authors of her day. Her closest friends were fellow members of the Bluestockings and included  Montagu and Carter. In 1784, she would publish The Bas Bleu, or, Conversation, a verse to champion and pay homage to her circle. Between 1795 and 1817, More would publish Cheap Repository Tracts, perhaps her most well-known work. The Tracts, written to be given to the poor, consisted of over two hundred religious and moral tracts meant to be alternative options to the broadsides and chapbooks frequently in circulation which More thought to be unvirtuous.

Another religious author and rumoured member of the Bluestockings with her own strict moral code was Harriet Bowdler, known for her and her brother’s practice of expurgation, or “bowdlerization.” Bowdlerization is the name given toediting and censoring of literary works containing anything deemed offensive or disturbing for the religious and social morals and values of the time. This form of editing was brought to The Family Shakspeare (1807), the latter of which she worked on with Thomas but which was published under his name alone, in which Shakespeare’s plays had removed what was considered immoral. Bowdler also anonymously published Sermons on the Doctrines and Duties of Christianity. She maintained a close relationship with controversial figure, Lady Eleanor Butler.

Butler, who is eminent as one half of the famous and elusive Ladies of Llangollen alongside her companion, was known for being reclusive and private throughout her unconventional life. Refusing marriage, they left their families and settled in a home in Wales which they titled Plâs Newydd (or “New Mansion”), Butler and Ponsonby would become something of an attraction in Llangollen. While it was speculated their relationship was romantic, the ladies themselves decried this assumption and contemporary scholars have come to regard the pair as an example of “romantic friendship.” Their alternative lifestyle, which consisted mainly of renovating and maintaining their home and grounds and reading, was the source of much discussion, speculation, and gossip and ascended the ladies to something of an 18th-century celebrity status. The pair frequently hosted many visitors, from travellers to famous writers such as Byron, William Wordsworth and Shelley, and other women from the album, including Henrietta Bowdler, Lady Sydney Morgan, Lady Caroline Lamb, and Sarah Burney.

Burney was most known not for her own work but for her family, with her sister being famous writer, playwright, and Bluestocking Frances ‘Fanny’ Burney and her father, composer Charles Burney. Burney was, however, a writer and penned seven novels throughout her lifetime. Her first, Clarentine (1796) was criticised both by her father and by Jane Austen, who described the work as “foolish.” Her most popular novel was 1812’s Traits of Nature, published by the aforementioned Henry Colburn. The work acts as a commentary on life in the early 1800’s, finding fault with the Bluestockings movement her sister was a part of and criticising the writings of fellow eminent women Barbauld, Edgeworth, and Sarah Trimmer.

Trimmer was a writer, critic and educational reformer and editor offor the periodical she founded, The Guardian of Education. The work, which formally and thoughtfully criticised children’s literature, aided in the definition of the style and gave the first comprehensive history of children’s literature. Trimmer’s work is still utilised and has inspired writers from its publication to today, with her most popular book being Fabulous Histories (1786). Like many other eminent women, Trimmer was also a philanthropist, establishing multiple Sunday and charity schools.

Other notable philanthropists in Upcott’s album include Elizabeth Fry and Maria Hackett. Fry, who is known today as the namesake of the not-for-profit agency the Elizabeth Fry Society, was known as “the angel of prisons.” A prison reformer, Fry vehemently spoke out against the treatment and conditions of imprisoned women and co-founded the British Ladies Society for the Reformation of Female Prisoners. Her testimonies before a Select Committee in 1818 (the first woman to do so) and 1835 resulted in important legislative reform, establishing the Gaols Act in 1823 to ensure gender segregation for prevention of sexual violence against women, and the Prisons Act in 1835 to provide financial assistance and the initiation of annual prison inspections. Today, the Elizabeth Fry Society provides support for women and girls who have been involved with the Canadian criminal justice system, specifically those who have been or are currently criminalised or at risk of being criminalised. Hackett was, in addition to her philanthropic work, a writer and classical scholar. Eminent for her activism in seeking to protect and provide for young boys in the cathedrals and Anglican choirs of England, she published A Brief Account of Cathedral and Collegiate Schools, with an abstract of their statues and endowments (1827) which revolutionised the choir-school system throughout England and Wales, and A Popular Account of St Paul’s Cathedral (1816) which would go on to be reprinted in over 20 editions.

Another woman focusing on religion in the album is writer Sarah Wesley. Wesley, a prominent Methodist whose father  Charles Wesley was the founder of Methodism, shared her writing in manuscript form.  Wesley distributed her work and asked for feedback from her peers through their exchanges of letters.

Many writers in the album focused on multiple subjects and genres, such as travel writing, scientific writing, and further authors of children’s literature. Mary Pilkington's work was intended to instil morality and religious virtue upon its young readers. Her most notable works include A Mirror for the Female Sex. Historical beauties for Young Ladies (1798) and Memoirs of Celebrated Female Characters, who have Distinguished Themselves by their Talents and Virtues in Every Age and Nation (1804). Her work was didactic, with a focus upon female education. Maria Graham was eminent for her travel journals, including: Journal of a Residence in India (1812), Letters on India (1814), Memoirs of the life of Nicholas Poussin (1820), Three Months Passed in the Mountains East of Rome (1820), Journal of a Residence in Chile And a Voyage from Chile to Brazil (1824), and Journal of a Voyage to Brazil and Residence There (1824). Graham was one of the first to write about Chile in English so close to the birth of the young nation, and has since been called  “a friend of the nation of Chile.” Alongside her travel journals, Graham was the first woman to have her paper published in one of the Geological Society’s journals with her work “An account of some effects of the late earthquakes in Chili.

Mariana Starke was an English author, playwright and poet but was best known for her pioneering travel writings on France and Italy, Travels in Italy, Between the Years 1792 and 1798 (1802), Travels on the Continent: written for the use and particular information of travellers (1820), and Travels in Europe Between the Years 1824 and 1828 (1828). The works would prove to be invaluable and requisite for British travellers throughout the 19th-century. Fellow travel writer and friend of Upcott, Mary Holderness, is something of a mystery historically - her date of birth, date of death, and even her maiden name are all unknown. Holderness was known for her travel journals, notably New Russia. Journey from Riga to the Crimea, by Way of Kiev; with Some Account of the Colonization, and the Manners and Customs of the Colonists of New Russia. To Which Are Added, Notes Relating to the Crime Tatars (1823). Upcott had a hand in the publication and negotiation of terms with her publishing company, as documented by her letter in the album concerning the manuscript of New Russia and mentioning Mr. Sherwood of the publishing company Sherwood, Jones, and Co: “Holderness seems to have made business arrangements with a Mr. Sherwood that Upcott is involved in, and is passing along some information regarding both the deal itself as well as her thoughts on it.”

Philosopher and author Margaret Bryan was influential for her educational works, particularly her textbooks Compendious System of Astronomy (1797), Lectures on Natural Philosophy (1806), and Astronomical and Geographical Class Book for Schools (1815). Alongside her writing, Bryan was a schoolmistress at a school for young women and an educator. Alongside Bryan, another educator included in Upcott’s album is Elizabeth Appleton. An educationist and author, her Private education; or, A practical plan for the studies of young ladies, which was published in 1815 by Henry Colburn, detailed steps for governesses and parents on the education of girls in regards to subjects such as astronomy and arithmetic and was widely successful. Her 1816 novel Edgar: a national tale was likewise highly regarded and allowed her to open a school for girls in 1822, which Appleton would run for a decade.

Two of the album’s women were noted abolitionists, Amelia Opie and Helen Maria Williams, with the latter additionally a noted translator. Opie’s most famous work is her 1801 novel Father and Daughter, an example of early feminist literature. A few years later, Opie would publish Adeline Mowbray, or, The Mother and Daughter (1804) which commented on both women’s education and married life, and abolition. In addition to Adeline Mowbray, Opie’s poems The Black Man’s Lament and the Negro Boy’s tale were likewise outspoken in demanding the abolition of slavery. Williams was a writer, poet, and translator of works in the French language eminent for her Poems (1786). Immediately successful upon release, the work helped to solidify her place as a prominent writer and a prominent figure in highly regarded literary circles. Poems as well as her other works such as Poem on the Bill Lately Passed for Regulating the Slave Trade (1788) contributed to Williams’ reptutation - she was seen as having outspoken political views and was a controversial radical in England’s political divide, caused in large part by the ongoing French Revolution. Williams is also known for being the subject of Wordsworth’s 1787 poem Sonnet on Seeing Miss Helen Maria Williams Weep at a Tale of Distress. Another translator included in the album is writer Margaret Holford. Holford was eminent for her historical verse romance Wallace, or, The Fight of Falkirk (1809), with her work going on to influence Jane Austen.

Other women in the album were artists working in different media, and actresses. Elizabeth Macauley began as a theatrical actress with little success for two decades before transitioning to writing, her works are critical of her male peers and of the systemic discrimination within the theatrical profession itself. She had a reputationfor her outspoken and dramatic style and impassioned viewpoints, delivering speeches that would go on to turn into Jacobean sermons as time progressed. Eventually, Macaulay would lecture supporting the Owenist movement. Lady Barbarina Wilmot Dacre was a translator, playwright and poet, as well as a sculptor. She is most notable for her translations of sonnets by Greek philosopher Plutarch, and for her Dramas, Translations, and Occasional Poems By Barbarina Lady Dacre (1821). English novelist and sculptor the Honourable Anne Seymour Damer is widely regarded as the first female sculptor to come out of England. Known as the “Sappho of Sculpture,” it is Damer’s personal life that made her knownboth in her era and today. Widely believed to be a lesbian, Damer never remarried following the death of her husband John Damer. Controversial for an aristocratic woman at the time, she would instead act in amateur theatricals, use her social influence to become a prominent figure among the Whig faction of the aristocracy, pen her only novel in 1801 titled Belmour, and continue to sculpt. Rumours of Damer’s dalliances with various women followed her throughout her life, resulting in a long sojourn abroad. Damer and her long-time companion Mary Berry would reside in their London home for the remainder of her years, despite multiple publications that experssed outrage at the women for what was then called their “sapphism.”

Mary Linwood was eminent for her detailed and spectacular embroidery, particularly with needlework. Showcasing her art in exhibitions and notably for the Royal family at Windsor Castle, Linwood was known for her technique - painstakingly intricate and nearly lifelike, utilising fine materials such as wool, silk thread and fabric made just for her, her work would inspire amateur needlework artists both in her time and beyond. Though Olivia Serres was both a writer and painter, she is most known for her work as a con artist. Cited by Upcott in the index of the album as “The pretended Princess,” Serres posed as ‘Olive, Princess of Cumberland’ to British society in an attempt to gain notoriety, wealth, and status. Born to no noble blood, Serres was taken to court and her claims of royal blood proved falsified. Her attempts to assert her legitimacy as a princess failed, and she was written about extensively in papers and pamphlets.

A friend to fellow eminent woman Maria Edgeworth, Mary Leadbeater was an Irish author and diarist who was eminent for her poetry, life-writing, and political commentary. Her most notable writing is her large number of letters and her own autobiography, as well as her contributions in the 1790 anthology, A Collection of Poems, Mostly Original, By Several Hands and her first novel, Extracts and Original Anecdotes for the Improvement of Youth, published anonymously in 1794. Another woman known for her letter writing, Catherine Hutton, was most eminent for her correspondence with other authors, notably writer Charles Dickens and Joseph Priestly, the chemist who discovered oxygen.

Introduction to "Original Letters" by "Eminent Women," collected by William Upcott, by Cassandra McLean and Cassandra Reeves