“Romantic Women Writers and The Stainforth Library: ‘Making Women Writers Count'” (NASSR 2016)

[I delivered this talk on the “Panelists, Collectors, Archivists” panel on Thursday, August 11, 2016, at NASSR. Thanks to my co-panelists Lauren Gillingham, Thomas McLean, and Marc Mazur, to our moderator Eric Gidal, and to those who made Q&A a useful and energetic discussion to kick off the conference. I hope you will respond with questions or comments.]

Francis John Stainforth (1797 – 1866) was a British Anglican priest, a bibliophile, and a collector’s collector of shells, stamps, and most of all, books. He owned what we have so far found to be the largest private library of Anglophone women’s writing in the nineteenth century. His library housed over 8,300 volumes of poetry, drama, and nonfiction, written, edited, translated, and sometimes even printed by women. This was an enormous private collection in terms of the amount of women’s literature Stainforth managed to acquire, as he tried to create a comprehensive library comprised of copies of every edition of every title written by an American or British woman poet or dramatist that circulated in Great Britain in the mid-19th century. The earliest work in the collection is the 1546 edition of the Examination of Anne Askew, and the most recent works are those published in 1866, the year he died. The Stainforth library was and is a monument to the industriousness of women writers and the surprising abundance of their work that circulated in 19th century Great Britain and America. This library also defies most of the norms of the nineteenth-century gentleman’s library.

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Stainforth’s library gained a reputation with scholars in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for its grand scale and apparent completeness in terms of containing all of women’s poetry and drama in English. In 1883, The Woman’s Journal ran a cover story on the Stainforth library describing it as a “vast and singular monument of the literary industry of English and American women” (TWH 297). Later, in the early 20th century, bookman Henry Buxton Forman, who you may recognize as an editor of John Keats and Percy Shelley’s works, characterized the Stainforth library as “a collection reputed to have contained everything and anything in verse published by English or American women up to 1866” which he kept “always at hand” to research women writers (xv). The illusion of completeness was not unfounded: in number of volumes, Stainforth’s library was just a little larger than the 8,000-volume collection of books amassed and displayed at the 1893 World’s Fair in the Woman’s Building Library (Wadsworth 84). His library catalog provides a bird’s-eye view of Romantic-era women’s writing circulating in the nineteenth-century book market that no other source can provide. And, to my continued surprise, my work on the Stainforth library is the first thorough scholarship on this collection.

In 2015, Edward Potten, joint head of Special Collections at Cambridge University Libraries, admitted that “the landscape of the private library in the nineteenth century remains almost entirely uncharted” (73-74). We require new studies of private libraries in order to add nuance to stereotypes of bibliomania promulgated by bibliophiles like Thomas Frognall Dibdin and the story of the famous Roxburghe library auction of 1812. This talk provides a glimpse of a much larger study of Stainforth’s tremendously important private library. Today, I will share a data-driven introductory view of what we can learn about Romantic-era women’s writing by digitizing and analyzing Stainforth’s impressive library catalog.

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What the Stainforth library offers that no other source has provided to date is a historical and contextual view of massive numbers of American and British women writers. Nearly all of our large-scale women writers recovery efforts, both print and digital, have been assembled by contemporary scholars piecing together a mosaic image of literary history that is growing in complexity. These important projects include but are not limited to Stephen Behrendt’s Irish Women Poets of the Romantic Period; Susan Brown, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy’s Orlando Project; Paula Feldman’s anthology of British Women Poets of the Romantic Era, Julia Flanders’ Women Writers Project; J. R. de Jackson’s Bibliography of Romantic Poetry, Nancy Kushigian’s Scottish Women Poets of the Romantic Period, Laura Mandell’s Poetess Archive, and Charlotte Payne’s British Women Romantic Poets Project at UC-Davis, to name a few. In contrast to these projects, Stainforth built his library and catalog between the mid-1830s and 1866. His library catalog tells about the depth and breadth of women’s poetry, drama, and some prose in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—and even earlier—from his position on the ground among London literati just after the Romantic era. And the number of poets and editions Stainforth owned were roughly equivalent to the number of poets and editions J. R. de J. Jackson researched for his incredibly thorough Bibliography of Romantic poetry by women, though Stainforth also includes plays and some prose.[1]

NASSR 2016 Slides.005Inspired by the catalog’s power to uncover and recover so many writers and works at scale and, more importantly, in a nineteenth-century context, I direct a digital humanities project called the Stainforth Library of Women’s Writing. My team is building a publically accessible digital archive of Stainforth’s library based on his personal library catalog manuscript. We began transcribing and editing the 740-page manuscript catalog in 2014 and just finished that process in 2016. We will release a TEI-encoded digital version of the catalog with some visualizations of our data by December 31, 2016, when our grant expires. One of our primary goals is to recover women writers and their texts in a longer-lasting and accessible manner by using the affordances of XML encoding with the Text Encoding Initiative guidelines and by digitizing Stainforth’s catalog structures. His structures are important to preserve because they are feminist: for example, they value the prolific contributions of L. E. L. or rare books like Juliana Berner’s Book of St. Albans as no more important than those works by writers like Sarah Matilda Coombe who authored a single volume I will introduce shortly.

NASSR 2016 Slides.006 What this project does best for Romantic-era poets and dramatists in particular is contextualize the circulation of their work in Great Britain, where Stainforth was collecting in the mid-19th century. To be granular, Stainforth’s entire catalog names 7,726 editions (8,804 volumes), by 3,721 American and British women poets, playwrights, editors, printers, and even typesetters from the early modern through Victorian literary periods.[2] His catalog also includes 630 cross-references to clarify married and maiden names or pseudonyms.  Books published during the Romantic era comprise 31.8% or roughly one-third of Stainforth’s entire collection. Dating the period from 1780 to 1837, I count 2,471 editions (2798 volumes) in Stainforth’s acquisitions list with publication dates between those years. These titles are by approximately 940 different women writers.[3]

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Of these 940 authors with publications in the Romantic era, those with the most titles in the library include Hannah More (99), Hannah Cowley (67), Elizabeth Inchbald (67), Susannah Centlivre (42), Felicia Hemans (36), Elizabeth Rowe (31), Anne Plumptre (26), Anna Seward (23), and L. E. L. (Maclean) (22). Many of these same authors also have the most editions in the entire library, which contains titles from 1546 through 1866: Centlivre rises to the top, and she’s followed by More, Inchbald, Rowe, Hemans, Aphra Behn, Cowley, L.E.L., Seward, Lady Wortley, Cecil Frances Alexander, Margaret Cavendish, Plumptre, and Mary Sewell.

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We can hypothesize from this that in the mid-nineteenth century, when Stainforth was gathering his library, women poets and playwrights with editions published during the Romantic era tended to have the most editions in circulation and, perhaps, a wider footprint in the book market even than those who published poetry and plays in the Victorian era.[4] Furthermore, these results remind us that between 1780 and 1837, eighteenth-century writers like Inchbald, Rowe, Centlivre were being published and republished at least as often as Romantic authors.

NASSR 2016 Slides.010Of the writers with the most editions published during the Romantic era, I found Anne Plumptre and Elizabeth Smith to be salient surprises in this list of otherwise very familiar names. Plumptre is known as a British novelist—and Stainforth did not collect novels. She is also very well-known for her translations, and these are what Stainforth collected. Plumptre translated seven plays by the German author August von Kotzebue into English as well as letters, travel writing, and medical histories by writers including Thomas Gray and the physician Jean-Baptiste Bertrand. Her 26 translations in his library, most of them Kotzebue’s German plays, indicate that Stainforth saw translation as a kind of women’s authorship that was valuable to assiduously collect and catalogue. Elizabeth Smith’s entries in the catalog reinforce this. Like Plumptre, Smith was also known for her translations, and in four years, between 1795 and 1799, she taught herself Spanish, German, Arabic, Persian, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, some Syrian, and Erse. There are 19 editions credited to Smith in Stainforth’s library, including Fragments in Prose and Verse and her translations of the Book of Job.

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Smith and Plumptre teach us that Stainforth exercised a liberal definition of authorship, which extends even to editors, like L. E. L., and typesetters, like Mary Potter. Potter experimented with the potential for Caslon font to make poetry more visually memorable in her edition of Poetry of Nature, a collection of traditional Caledonian songs.

Stainforth gave equal archival care to those that have many editions published as those that just have one. For example, Sarah Matilda Coombe has just this one title in Stainforth’s library: Aurestine: A Tale of Fancy, published in 1829. According to Worldcat, this is the only book Coombe published. She has no authority record in the Library of Congress or any other major international library, and we know this by checking the Virtual International Authority File at viaf.org. I can find no scholarship on Coombe, peer-reviewed or otherwise, and she lacks entries in the Orlando Project, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and Wikipedia. However, her title does appear in Jackson’s Bibliography of Romantic women’s poetry, and to my great surprise Aurestine is available in Google Books!

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The poem is dedicated to Constantine Phipps, or Viscount Normanby, for financially sponsoring Coombe’s project. He was for a time the Governor of Jamaica, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and also, fascinatingly, an author of romance novels. Aurestine falls squarely within the gothic romance genre. On the supernatural-to-rational gothic spectrum, it is far more “Charlotte Dacre” than “Ann Radcliffe.” Written in heroic couplets, this 50-page tale follows a young man named Aurestine on his quest to find his birth parents. Disguised as a minstrel, he discovers that his father, King Vereleroy, is dead and his evil uncle has taken over the land. By his physical family resemblance and through the songs he sings, he immediately convinces some of the oldest members at court that he is the heir to the throne. I won’t spoil the plot. But I will advertise the poem as packed with traditional gothic romance sign-posts: a young man on a quest to confirm his royal lineage, sea voyages and shipwrecks, ghosts, minstrelsy, a lock of brown hair tied to an heirloom gemstone, disguise, a mysterious monk that doesn’t ambulate but glides, an imprisoned princess, serendipitous discovery of family members, and natural forces that reflect the psyche of protagonists. The story is not dull.

Though this poem will probably never achieve the status of a classic, it would teach very well. Students would enjoy the action-packed quest plot. In scholarship as well as the classroom, the poem lends itself to enquiries into gender, the supernatural gothic, and the home, as studied by Ellen Brinks and Diane Long Hoeveler. The two female characters in the poem play minor roles, but “mother nature” is fiercely influential, and the protagonist exhibits some stereotypically feminine behavior in his fainting spells. The poem’s subtitle also prompts lessons in and debates about Romantic fancy: Coleridgean readings of fancy as the mere “DRAPERY” of poetic genius, or fancy as the hallmark of the playful, experimental, and irreverent, as Jeffrey Robinson shows. Additionally, teaching and studying Coombe’s Aurestine provides an opportunity to look beyond the anthologized scope of women’s writing in the Romantic era and challenge students and scholars alike with the question of why this poem and its poet are nearly lost and others are not. What are the technics of the transmission of Romantic women’s writing?

NASSR 2016 Slides.013There are 773 authors like Sarah Matilda Coombes listed in Stainforth’s library catalog: they each published just one or two editions between 1780 and 1837, and nearly all will be new to you. That’s 82% of the total number of authors listed with works published during the Romantic era. Note this does not count the 1,172 editions with no publication date (“ND”), some of which are also Romantic-era publications. The importance of these 773 authors is that Stainforth did not merely collect the low hanging fruit, or those volumes and well-known authors that were flush on the market, in bookshops, and at library auctions. He also sought out rare but not necessarily valuable authors and texts that on their own represent a very small sample of what was in circulation. His scrapbooks at the British Library reveal that he even wrote to thinly-published authors whose works he could not find to see if they had any books to send to him directly. And writers did comply, sending him a copy, gratis, if they had a spare, as they saw value in the inclusion of their work in this exceptionally large library of women’s writing. Together, on his bookshelves and in his library catalog, these little-valued and lesser known works represent a huge contribution to literature and generate a bigger picture of the community and network of women writers.

In 1866, Stainforth suffered a long illness, was forced to stop collecting, and died. Sotheby, Wilkinson, and Hodge sold all 8,300 of his books during a six-day auction in 1867. The preface of Sotheby’s auction catalog describes Stainforth’s library as a recovery project:

THIS celebrated and unrivalled series of the Poetical Compositions of British and American Female Writers, exhibiting in a complete form the growth and progress of the genius of Woman in the department of Poetry, has been selected, with great zeal, industry, and toil, with a view to rescue our fair Poetesses from oblivion. (iii)

While directing the Stainforth Library of Women’s Writing digital archive, I find myself re-re-covering what Stainforth already recovered in 1866. And I’m invested in making recovered works and authors stick.

Margaret Ezell reminds us that Romantic-era and eighteenth-century women writers, in particular, require additional work to retain in literary memory. In her book Writing Women’s Literary History, Ezell describes how many of the authors we now strive to make room for in the canon were household names in the eighteenth century. However, the Victorians reevaluated their published female predecessors according to late-nineteenth century ideals of femininity. Those that were not the right kind of feminine, like Joanna Baillie or Aphra Behn, were not reprinted or never reached print at all. Furthermore, Laura Mandell has shown that even when women’s writing achieves print status, misogynist ideologies embedded in print culture render women’s texts, especially those from the Romantic period and earlier, as material instantiations of women’s bodies, “unchaste,” “monstrous,” “the reprobate” (516). This is in contrast with men’s writing in print, which is associated with immortality and immanence, a level of abstraction that protects them from the baseness of the human body. The dualism makes women’s writing disposable, and though we can recover authors and their works, they have to be rescued over and over again.

In a recent article, Mandell asks: Is there a way for digital historical archives to make women writers count more permanently? Both she and Christine Masters look to feminist data structures for answers. The bibliographical form and content of Stainforth’s 740-page library catalog manuscript, and my project’s digital edition of the manuscript, is an example of a feminist data structure, as opposed to the print edition of the library catalog published in 1866 to auction off his library. The bibliographic data Stainforth penned in his own library catalog manuscript has a feminist structure because in digitization it allows for fluid classifications and metadata standards, as Masters describes such a data set, and more so because it reveals the data as not static but a library growing and changing in the 19th century, and encouraging the continued search for works by lesser-known women writers. It is a corrective to the auction catalog of Stainforth’s library, which does not accurately represent his personal library catalog, collection, or values. Stainforth’s own library catalog also critiques the genre of the nineteenth-century library auction catalog that caters to what was a patriarchal domain and pass-time of private library building.

One challenge in trying to make such a massive new archive of women writers is that the size of the library—which is one of its most important attributes—could also be its downfall. Critics including Jacqueline Wernimont and Ellen Rooney are rightly wary of the additive model of digital recovery of women writers in which we collect and publish their names and works together without a clear key for how to make them meaningful. However, I have shown that we can leverage the historical context of Stainforth’s library and the context of writers within his library using computational analyses his catalog to study lesser-known women writers in ways that I hope make them more memorable and necessary for describing the full scope of their influence on literary history.

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The most impactful examples of this are found on Stainforth’s library wish list that he kept in the back of his catalog.[5] Stainforth’s wish list includes 162 author names and 227 editions with pub dates between 1780 and 1837. Of these, 133 are not struck out, meaning that he was not able to find them. These entries include 35 authors that do not appear anywhere else in the catalog, and they are mysteries waiting to be solved.[6] Here are two examples. NASSR 2016 Slides.016 The first is Emily Greaves, author of Amatory Poems, with Essays on the Passions and Affectations of the Mind. Both The New Monthly Magazine and Gentleman’s Magazine for January of 1817 announce that Greaves’ new book will be published that year, but I can find no record of the book or Greaves in any library database or periodical review. Perhaps it never went to press. NASSR 2016 Slides.017

The second example is the enigmatic entry under “Hacket (Mrs.)” for “Poems 1804.” It leads me to an entry in Jackson’s Romantic bibliography database for a “Mr. Hackett” who published Poems, Elegaic and Miscellaneous in 1804. However, the Edinburgh Review lists the exact same title by a Mrs. Hacket, just like Stainforth’s catalog entry.[7] But the Google Book file clearly displays “Mr. Hackett” on the title page. My team thrives on these enigmas: we call them “rabbit holes,” and they offer us game-like quests to zoom in on the people and titles in our data. Stainforth’s wish list writes the mysteries of Emily Greaves’ Amatory Poems and Hacket(t)’s authorial attribution in the 19th-century literary historical record. Studying women writers in the context of Stainforth’s library catalog—his own recovery efforts—likewise inscribes them in the histories of books, private libraries, and literature in the nineteenth century.

Works Cited

Brinks, Ellen. Gothic Masculinity: Effeminacy and the Supernatural in English and German Romanticism. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell UP, 2003.

Coombe, Sarah Matila. Aurestine: A Tale of Fancy. Portsea, UK: George Moxon, 1829. Google Books. Web. 11 August 2016.

Ezell, Margaret J. Writing Women’s Literary History. Johns Hopkins UP, 1996. Print.

Forman, Henry Buxton. Introduction. The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley. By Thomas Medwin. Ed. Forman. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1913. ix-xxxii. Google Books. Web. 11 December 2014.

H., T. W. “The Stainforth Library.” The Woman’s Journal 22 September 1883: 297. Nineteenth Century Collections Online. Web. 11 August 2016.

Hoeveler, Diane Long. Gothic Feminism: The Professionalization of Gender from Charlotte Smith to the Brontës. Univeresity Park, PA: Penn State UP, 1998.

Looser, Devoney. The Cambridge Companion to Women’s Writing during the Romantic Period. Cambridge UP, 2105. Print.

Mandell, Laura. “Gendering Digital Literary History: What Counts for Digital Humanities.” A New Companion to Digital Humanities. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2016. 511-523. Web. 11 August 2016.

Masters, Christine L. “Women’s Ways of Structuring Data,” 11.8 ADA (2015). Web. 11 August 2016.

Potten, Edward. “Beyond Bibliophilia: Contextualizing Private Libraries in the Nineteenth Century.” Library & Information History 31.2 (May 2015): 73-94. Web. 11 August 2016.

Potter, Mary. The Poetry of Nature. London: J. P. Cooke, 1789. Google Books. Web. 11 August 2016.

Robinson, Jeffrey. Unfettering Poetry: Fancy in British Romanticism. New York: Palgrave, 2006. Print.

Rooney, Ellen. “Introduction.” The Cambridge Companion to Feminist Literary Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006: 1-10. Print.

Stainforth, Francis John. Catalogue. [In a later hand:] of the library of female authors of the Rev. J. Fr. Stainforth. [Before 1866]. MS WPRP 290. University Libraries, University of Colorado, Boulder. CU Digital Library. Web. 11 August 2016.

Wadsworth, Sarah, and Wayne A. Wiegand. Right Here I See My Own Books. Amherst: UMass P, 2012. Print.

Wernimont, Jacqueline. “Whence Feminism? Assessing Feminist Interventions in Digital Literary Archives.” DHQ 7.1 (2013). Web. 11 August 2016.

[1] Jackson’s Bibliography lists 2,585 editions and “about 900” authors.

[2] Figures in this talk represent our preliminary data findings, and they made shift as we refine our archive for release later this year. There are an additional 1,067 editions listed in the Wants list, about half of which Stainforth acquired and added to the acquisitions portion of the catalog.

[3] Devoney Looser begins her volume Cambridge Companion to Women’s Writing during the Romantic Period by defining the Romantic era as “often defined as beginning in 1780, 1789, or 1798 and ending in 1830, 1832, or 1837” (xiii).

[4] Victorian era (1838-66) editions = 2246; Victorian era authors = 1239. Eighteenth-century (1700-1779) editions = 580; eighteenth-century authors = 163. Pre-1699 editions = 167; authors before 1699 = 67; Romantic era editions = 2471 (slightly more than the Victorian era); Romantic-era authors = 940.

[5] For a collector reputed to have collected “almost everything and anything by women poets,” as Foreman said, it’s probably fair to say that what titles Stainforth could not find in auctions, booksellers, or obtain directly from authors were indeed quite rare.

[6] It is possible that they appear elsewhere in the catalog under a different name. Our authorities research will reveal this.

[7] The British Library shelfmark in Jackson’s data leads to an old British Museum record for “Hackett” with no married prefix, male or female.


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