Fake biographies, Welsh women writers and the Minerva Press
Collections - Posted 13-03-2023
Among the Welsh biographies recently digitised by the National Library is an 1817 biography of a Welsh orphan. The Life, Adventures and Vicissitudes, of Mary Charlton, the Welsh Orphan, Written by Herself and Dedicated to Her Own Sex, Whom She Hopes Will Honor Her Little Narrative, with a Candid Perusal (Rochester, 1817) is purportedly the biography of the early life of the bestselling late 18th/early 19th century author Mary Charlton. The biography covers Charlton’s childhood, the loss of both her parents, her attempted elopement with her first love, being tricked into an unhappy marriage, the return and loss of her first love, and finding redemption and happiness in a conventional bourgeois family life.
Part tragic romance, part tale of a young women’s triumph in the face of duplicity and adversity, and part morality tale warning against the dangers of elopement, the biography is most probably a work of fiction. Indeed, the consensus today is that Mary Charlton was almost certainly not its author. Now largely forgotten, Mary Charlton was a well-known author in her day, well-known enough for a publisher and anonymous author to publish a fake biography in order to profit from her name.
Mary Charlton, was a novelist, poet and translator who published 12 works with the Minerva Press between 1794 and 1813. Charlton also featured on the Minerva Press’ 1798 list of notable authors, a sign of the popularity of her novels with the general public. While the fake biography published in 1817 places her origins in the Abergavenny area, in reality very little is known about Charlton’s life, although her novel Rosella (1799) which includes an extended tour of Wales may indicate Welsh origins. However, it is just as likely that this Welsh setting can be attributed to the Celtic revival of the period.
The Minerva Press was a popular late 18th century/early 19th century publishing house, established in 1790 by William Lane. A by-word for cheap, popular fiction the Minerva Press specialised in the gothic novel, making great use of the circulating library in disseminating its works to the general public. The gothic novels published by Minerva Press also gave it a less than reputable reputation, most famously as the publisher of a number of the ‘horrid novels’ referenced in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.
While Mary Charlton’s Welsh connections are unverifiable, two other Minerva Press authors had definite Welsh connections. The first was Anna Maria Bennett (1750?-1808), best known for her novel The Beggar Girl (1797), a work Samuel Coleridge was particularly appreciative of. Born around 1750 at Merthyr Tydfil, Bennett published five novels with Minerva Press, between 1785 and 1806, two of which, Anna: or Memoirs of a Welch Heiress (1785) and Ellen, Countess of Castle Howel (1794), had Welsh settings.
A second Minerva author with Welsh connections was Ann Hatton (1764-1838), better known as Ann of Swansea, author of Cambrian Pictures (1810). Born in Worcester to the Kimble acting family, Ann had to follow a different profession due to a disability. Ann lived an interesting and sometimes turbulent life, which involved a bigamous marriage, an attempted suicide in front of Westminster Abbey, and modelling and lecturing at Dr James Graham’s notorious Temple of Health and Hymen in Pall Mall. Experiencing periods of poverty, Ann was eventually provided a £90 a year stipend from her more famous siblings, the actors Sarah Siddons and John Phillip Kimble, on the condition that she live no nearer than 150 miles from London. This was partly due to her sister’s annoyance at Ann’s tendency to use her sister’s name in appeals for financial aid and to keep her sister’s name out of the London newspapers. Ann remarried and after a period in the United States, where she mixed in radical political circles, she returned to the UK, settling in Swansea in 1799. Her adoption of the moniker ‘Ann of Swansea’ for her written work attests to her identification with her new home.
In their day these three women writers were bestselling authors. Sitting outside the literary canon, the popular novels published by these women authors, and by Minerva Press in general, nevertheless provide us with a reflection of the popular tastes of their day. These were the works that the reading public lapped up in droves. The same can be said of the popular novels, penny dreadfuls, and other forms of cheap popular literature published throughout the nineteenth century.
Dr. Douglas Jones
Printed Collections Projects Manager
Aaron, Jane – ‘The Rise and Fall of the ‘Noble Savage’ in Ann of Swansea’s Welsh Fictions’ in Romantic Textualities: Literature and Print Culture 1780-1840, 22, 2017, pp.78-88.
Blakey, Dorothy – The Minerva Press 1790-1820, London, 1934.
‘Charlton, Mary’ in Janet Todd (Ed.) – A Dictionary of British and American Women Writers 1660-1800, London, 1987, p. 83.
‘Charlton, Mary’ in Virginia Blain, Patricia Clements and Isobel Grundy – The Feminist Companion to Literature in English, London, 1990, pp 197-198.
Henderson, Jim – ‘Ann of Swansea: A Life on the Edge’ in The National Library of Wales Journal, XXXIV (1), 2006.
The Life, Adventures and Vicissitudes, of Mary Charlton, the Welsh Orphan, Written by Herself and Dedicated to Her Own Sex, Whom She Hopes Will Honor Her Little Narrative, with a Candid Perusal, Rochester, 1817.
Rhydderch, Francesca – ‘Dual Nationality, Divided Identity: Ambivalent Narratives of Britishness in the Welsh Novels of Anna Maria Bennett’ in Welsh Writing in English, 3, 1997, pp. 1-17.
This post is also available in: Welsh