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Romantic Interests: The Ordinary Women

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The Pforzheimer Collection is a significant repository for the study of prominent British women of the ­eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and its materials by and about these women were spotlighted in a major 2005 exhibition at the Library, Before Victoria: Extraordinary Women of the British Romantic Era.

In the last 12 years the Pforzheimer Collection has accessioned yet more materials by extraordinary women. To name just a few: an album containing original watercolors  by the novelist (and, briefly,  a lover of Byron's) Lady Caroline Lamb; six manuscript letters by Mary Shelley; and what is very probably a holograph fragment of Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman. This post, however, examines three recent acquisitions created by utterly obscure British women of the nineteenth century. In providing a bit of biographical context for the making of these items,  we bring to light some singular aspects of the lives of these ordinary women.

Marianne Wing notebook of original poetry, 1834-1881

Drawing from the Marianne Wing notebook of original poetry.
Drawing from the Marianne Wing notebook of original poetry, probably done ca. 1834

Marianne Wing was born about 1819 in the agricultural and textile town of Braintree, Essex about 45 miles northeast of London. The Wings were a family of silversmiths and watchmakers; by 1851, Marianne's brother, William, had a London shop at 163 New Bond Street. According to the 1836 dedication in her notebook of poems and prose meditations, it was he who encouraged the "firstlings of [her] Fancy," inspiring her to write.

Wing's verses have quotidian subjects ("Home," "The Garden," "Friendship") and stale rhymes (shady hours/wildest flowers; beautiful earth/musical mirth), but are mildly interesting as original productions of a provincial English teenaged girl in the 1830s. In "The Forsaken," for instance, perhaps inspired by a real-life romantic rejection, her speaker, after swearing that all is forgiven, asks the reader to do her a favor after she dies: "Bid him glance o'er this face of paly hue / And whisper in his ear – She died for you."   

Accompanying the poems are several finely-rendered drawings, mostly of birds and flowers. Some are beautifully colored and heightened with gilt.  

The notebook was then laid aside for nearly 50 years before its writer, now the long-widowed Mrs. Abbott, added two final poems, dated 1880 and 1881, addressed to her grandchildren. These verses showcase her grandmotherly affection, but they are not entirely sweet.  She bids her eleven-year-old grandson: "Let duty stern for ever be / a guiding star through life for thee," and reminds her granddaughter, aged nine, that "Thy home is not here, / But waiting above."

In 1889, at age 70, Marianne Abbott married again to James Raper, a 69-year-old carpenter. Two and a half years later, she was admitted to Peckham House insane asylum in Surrey, where she died within two weeks.

Margaret Hudson receipt book, 1830-1950

Margaret Hudson receipt book.
Front cover of the Margaret Hudson receipt book.

Margaret Hudson of Calcutta began writing entries in her reverse calf-bound receipt book in September of 1830, well into the second cholera pandemic. Interspersed with recipes for Indian dishes  (Cashmerian chutney, Country Captain, fowl curry, kedgeree, etc.)  are four separate cures for cholera, and six  for dysentery. Also included are instructions for making ink, tooth powder, and furniture varnish; and cures for the cough, hydrophobia, snake bites, flatulence, and a mysterious ailment noted only as "Bleeding P---s."

Born Margaret Williams on April 6, 1800, in Calcutta, her father, Robert Williams, was a prominent merchant and auctioneer. He died at sea in 1813, leaving his wife with no means to care for Margaret and six other daughters; charitable subscriptions were taken up in India, and donations were solicited in London.

At age 16, Margaret married Nathaniel Hudson, a lawyer, with whom she had a number of children, the youngest being Emily (1836-1904) and Adeline Maria (1838-1911). The family moved to London sometime after Nathaniel's death in 1846.

Emily and Adeline Hudson never married and continued adding to their mother's receipt book after she died in 1860. It was probably they who tipped in the few printed late 19th century London food-related advertisements, one listing ice cream recipes for use with the American Freezer, "shown in practical operation at The Atomospheric Churn Company."

It is unclear who inherited the receipt book after Adeline died, but subsequent owners added a number of manuscript and printed recipes (from magazines like Woman's Own) dating between 1936 and 1950. The westernness and decadence of some of the 20th century recipes, three of which are illustrated with pasted-in photographic clippings (Coffee Nut Layer Cake, Chocolate Cake, and Roman Pie), provide a sharp contrast to Margaret Hudson's Bengali-influenced and survival-oriented entries in the early pages of the volume.

Achmed and Athene (London: John Bennett, 1828)

A scarce but not unknown book (Google Books version), Achmed and Athene; or, The Loves of a Turkish Youth and a Greek Maiden is an anonymous, orientalist Romeo and Juliet verse tale followed by nine shorter lyric poems. There are no solid textual clues as to the author's identity, though the speaker of the titular poem self-identifies as "Young – timid – inexperienc'd – and unknown." The Pforzheimer Collection recently acquired a copy of the book that has the following early penciled annotation, in an unknown hand, on the front free endpaper: The Author of this work was Miss Watson whose father was burnt in Plymouth Citadel.

On March 12, 1836, Fort-Major James Watson, in his 70's, died in a fire at the citadel at Plymouth, along with his two young daughters, Marion and Elizabeth. Their three bodies – "mere shapeless cinders," as newspapers reported – were found huddled together in the cellar, having fallen through the bedroom floor during the conflagration. Among the family members who managed to escape with their lives were Watson's son John, who was blind, and his twin sister, Anne. If we accept the note in the Pforzheimer copy of Achmed and Athene, "Miss Watson" must have been Anne Watson, who would have been about 20 when the book was published.

Lines from "To Ellen."
Lines from one of the poems "To Ellen" that follows "Achmed and Athene."

Anne and John Watson were born on the Channel Island of Guernsey. Five years after the fire, the twins were still living together in Plymouth, but  Anne married Thomas Manford, Esq., a clerk in the War Department in 1841. She apparently published no further books, and  died at Plymouth in 1874.

Of the shorter poems which follow "Achmed and Athene," the most compelling are the two addressed "To Ellen." The ungendered speaker expresses an unrequited desire for the subject that causes "mingl'd pain and shame." If Anne Watson was in fact the author, these verses are a remarkably forthright declaration of romantic love for another woman. 

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