Letter from Mary Susanna Pilkington to Charles Sharpe, October 1810
By: Belle Eist
Pilkington’s letter is dated Saturday, October 20th and was written in 1810, a date corroborated by her references to the serious illness she suffered that year (“Pilkington [née Hopkins], Mary Susanna” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography). Pilkington refers to her addressee, Mr. Sharpe, simply as “Sir.” Her recipient, who she characterizes as a “Bookseller” in her address, is part of the publishing group Vernor, Hood and Sharpe, who were active (in that particular configuration of partners) from 1806-1812¹ (“Vernor, Hood and Sharpe” WPHP). Notably, Vernor and Hood (and later Sharpe) were the publishers of the Lady's Monthly Museum, a magazine that Pilkington wrote and edited for over the twelve years preceding this letter (ODNB). From 1797 onwards, Pilkington also worked with Vernor and Hood in the publication of some of her first titles for children and youth (such as Historical Beauties, which she references in her letter). This context elucidates an enduring business relationship between Pilkington and her recipient’s firm; however, the persistence of their business connection does not lend any degree of familiarity or informality to the communication in this letter.
¹ The British Book Trade Index is one of several sources to pinpoint Thomas Vernor’s death to 1793, but does not report any male successor to have replaced the firm’s founder (“Vernor, Thomas”). An insurance document held by the London Metropolitan Archives cites “Ann Vernor and Thomas Hood, 31 Poultry, Booksellers” as purchasers, implying that Pilkington may have worked with Vernor’s widow, alongside Thomas Hood and Charles Sharpe, throughout her years of publication with the firm (“Insured: Ann Vernor and Thomas Hood, 31 Poultry, Booksellers”).
The lack of a postage stamp, sender’s location, and recipient’s full address suggest the letter was hand-delivered within London. While the date that Pilkington provides at the end of her letter is somewhat illegible and could be read as either October 20th or 10th, only the former fell upon a “Sat[urday] morn” in October of 1810, enabling confirmation of the date. The letter is written in dark brown ink and is composed of a bifolium, a single sheet folded to create two leaves and four pages. Three of these pages are filled with correspondence in a sprawling and somewhat inconsistent hand, leaving comparably little white space. The final page contains her addressee's information. Although the letter’s mode of delivery allowed Pilkington to omit Sharpe's specific address at 31 Poultry, London, she still includes his business title and street name (WPHP). The lack of white space in her letter could reflect Pilkington's unstable financial position and may subconsciously mirror her waning respect for her publishers.
This letter is anchored in business matters. Pilkington requests access to the June 1810 edition of the Lady’s Monthly Museum to discern the compensation she is entitled to, an amount she is unsure of because of “the loss of several books during my illness.” Pilkington is politely apologetic for this records issue, which she attributes to her malady and a Mr. Henderson, who is credited with inadequately keeping track of the articles she had written for the magazine. Although Pilkington is remorseful and regrets her “second demand” (of an unknown but likely financial nature), she never directly apologizes or places blame upon herself for the issue; her refusal to find fault within herself could come from her sustained history with the publishers. It is worth noting that the letter is written in response to one first sent by Sharpe, which may explain why she specifically addresses him and not his more senior partners, with whom Pilkington had a longer acquaintance.
In her letter, Pilkington requests Sharpe’s examination to determine if she should be “[paid]...four instead of two guineas,” for her periodical contributions. Her courteous request to be paid for her work illuminates a larger trend within the publishing industry, particularly in terms of magazines, of not paying writers and contributors equitably. Volume II of The Oxford History of the Novel in English validates Pilkington’s claims of unfair payment and references the inequality of compensation between proprietors, who “could make a significant income from magazines,” and their contributors, who often received insufficient material compensation and acknowledgment for their literary talents (463).
By 1810, Pilkington was widowed, ailing, and acting as a caregiver to her mother. These fraught circumstances clearly influenced the financial focus of this letter and highlighted the important role that authorship played in Pilkington’s life, as essentially her sole source of income. Her Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry states that Pilkington was paid 24 guineas per year for her work on the Lady’s Monthly Museum and was never granted the raise she repeatedly requested. Evidently disappointed by Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe’s refusal to raise her salary, Pilkington began working for George Robinson’s Lady’s Magazine in 1810 (Oxford History of the Novel 463). This shifting of loyalties between two sets of publishers (and competing literary magazines) that each sought to exploit Pilkington’s talent, demonstrates that Pilkington was willing to forsake her small salary to exert her authorial agency and remove herself from a situation where she was undervalued. Even though Pilkington repositions to Robinson's magazine, she continues to work with Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe through 1811. It is in this year that Pilkington’s question to Sharpe, “whether I am likely to derive any benefit from Historical Beauties,” is answered, as a third and final edition of Historical Beauties is published by Sharpe’s firm (WPHP).
The Lady’s Monthly Museum provided Pilkington with moderate compensation and a place to exert her conservative beliefs about society and the education of youth; nonetheless, these benefits did not remove the barriers she faced as a female author within the book trades, a sector steeped in patriarchal tradition. Pilkington's written and editorial contributions to the Museum (and periodicals in general) would have been predominantly anonymous. Her request for Sharpe “to allow me to see the Museum for that month” highlights another vehicle for publisher success at the detriment of their writers. Cloaked by anonymity and not provided with copies of the periodical she contributed to, Pilkington was clearly vulnerable to exploitation as a woman writer without significant wealth.
Pilkington references two of her literary contributions to the Museum in her letter, writing, “Fitzmaurice & Highland Characters were amongst my compositions [submitted to the magazine].” These titles first appeared in the March 1810 and November 1808 editions of the Museum, respectively (see "Mary Pilkington’s Anonymous or Unattributed Periodical Contributions to The Lady’s Monthly Museum"). Both are anonymous, though a reference to “our friend Mrs. P” being the author of “Highland Characters; or, the Communicate Tourist” occurs in the “Answers to Correspondents” section of The Lady's Monthly Museum, Volume 6 (168).
I was extremely astonished
to find by the receipt of your letter
that my friend Mr. Henderson had
not paid attention to the different
articles specified upon the balance
of an account, for my own part at
the time I received it, I was much
too ill* to make any observation, —
you will however I am certain
do me the justice to believe that
had I had the most distant idea
of it being settled, I should not
have made a second demand.—
Had not the memory
proved unfavourable it was my
intention personally to have
explained this circumstance and
to have informed you upon pondering
over some papers I had found in
memorandum of some manuscripts
having been sent to the editor of
the Museum for June 1810, &
to have requested you to allow
me to see the Museum for that
month, as amongst the loss of
several books during my
illness I find the whole of the
numbers for the year 1810 are
I can not entirely
recollect which subject formed
the last numbers I had the pleasure
of contributing to, but I know
Fitzmaurice & Highland
Characters were amongst my
compositions, I therefore intreat
you will have the goodness to
[illegible] examine ̶l̶a̶s̶t̶ June
1810 & if you find my writing
continued to that period to
pay the [illegible] then four
instead of two guineas.—
I likewise intreat
you to inform me whether
I am likely to derive any
benefit from Historical Beauties.
I am Dear Sir
* The illness that Pilkington references in her letter marked the beginning of a series of ailments that would characterize the remainder of her life and impact her ability to care for her mother and earn an income through writing (ODNB).
Pilkington is presented in this stipple engraving by James Hopwood. Though Pilkington would have been fifty-one at the time of publication, her skin and facial features appear very youthful, suggesting that she may have sat for her portrait earlier than 1812. Pilkington’s portrait also features her right hand laid upon a book, a very suitable prop for a woman who focused her adult life on writing as both an exertion of her beliefs and an avenue toward emolument.
“Fitzmaurice. An Hibernian Tale.” The Lady's Monthly Museum, Or Polite Repository of Amusement And Instruction: Being an Assemblage of Whatever Can Tend to Please the Fancy, Interest the Mind, Or Exalt the Character of the British Fair, Series 2: Volume 9, July 1810, pp. 13-20, hdl.handle.net/2027/chi.74726179.
Garside, Peter, and Karen O’Brien, editors. The Oxford History of the Novel in English: English and British Fiction 1750-1820. Oxford University Press, 2011, google.ca/ books/edition/The_Oxford_History_of_the_Novel_in_Engli/2iRUBgAAQBAJ.
“Highland Characters; or, the Communicate Tourist.” The Lady's Monthly Museum, Or Polite Repository of Amusement And Instruction: Being an Assemblage of Whatever Can Tend to Please the Fancy, Interest the Mind, Or Exalt the Character of the British Fair, Series 2: Volume 6, May 1809, pp. 233-241, google.ca/books/edition/ The_Lady_s_Monthly_Museum/nolFAQAAMAAJ.
“Insured: Ann Vernor and Thomas Hood, 31 Poultry, Booksellers.” London Metropolitan Archives Collections Catalogue, search.lma.gov.uk/scripts/mwimain.dll/ 144/LMA_OPAC/web_detail?SESSIONSEARCH&exp=refd%20CLC/B/192/F/001/ MS11936/409/668341. Accessed 8 Oct. 2021.
Pilkington, Mary. A mirror for the female sex: historical beauties for young ladies: intended to lead the female mind to the love and practice of moral goodness: designed principally for the use of ladies' schools. By Mrs. Pilkington. The Women's Print History Project, 2019, title ID 10811, womensprinthistoryproject.com/title/10811. Accessed 9 Oct. 2021.
Skedd, S. J. "Pilkington [née Hopkins], Mary Susanna (1761–1839), educational and children's writer." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, doi-org.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/10.1093/ref:odnb/22273. Accessed 25 Sept. 2021.
"Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe." The Women's Print History Project, 2019, Firm ID 508, womensprinthistoryproject.com/firm/508. Accessed 26 Sept. 2021.
“Vernor, Thomas.” British Book Trade Index. 2015, bbti.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/ details/?traderid=71636. Accessed 7 Oct. 2021.