Special Collections has acquired a copy of the scarce first novel of the Scottish feminist writer, Lady Mary Walker (1736 – 1822): Letters from the Duchess de Crui and others, on Subjects moral and entertaining, wherein the Character of the female Sex, with their Rank, Importance, and Consequence, is stated, and their relative Duties in Life are enforced. The novel, published in 1776, was written, according to Lady Mary, “in her nursery, surrounded by her children” in order to support herself after her first husband, Dr James Walker, abandoned her and their four young children. Later in life she elaborated on her situation, saying, “Notoriety to women is destructive . . . but with a family of young children left on my hands, abandoned by their father, I was necessitated to hazard the effronterie of publication to clothe, feed, and educate them!”
Letters is a novel of ideas rather than plot, though the Duchess’s correspondence relates the story of the cautiously feminist Lady Filmer, whose own letters also appear. The Duchess’s primary correspondent, Mrs. Pierpont, is, like the author, separated but not divorced from her husband. There are many side stories, references to both modern and ancient literature, as well as historical anecdotes.
The novel was well received by the critics. The anonymous reviewer in The Critical Review, or, Annals of Literature by a Society of Gentlemen proclaimed that the “letters in general discover the author to have great knowledge of the world, and that her observations have been made with much discernment. She seems to have improved a natural acuteness of judgment both by reading and reflection. Considered as a female writer, (we beg pardon of the ladies for this distinction) her acquaintance with ancient authors is extraordinary, and the solidity of her remarks might do honour to those of the other sex. From the approbation which this production will probably receive from the public, we cannot but entertain a hope of being soon informed to whom we are indebted for a novel in which virtue and good sense are so conspicuously blended, and where entertainment is so enriched with just and useful observations on human life.” It is interesting to note that in the same issue of The Critical Review that reviewed Lady Mary’s novel, there also appeared reviews of the first volume of Charles Burney’s History of Music, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
The library’s copy is the five-volume first edition published anonymously in London in 1776. It is bound in contemporary quarter calf, red morocco with contemporary ownership inscriptions of Anne Brodie (Who was Anne Brodie?).
There were two additional editions: the second edition printed in London in 1777 and the third edition published in Dublin in 1779. Both editions claim to have been revised and both appear with Lady Mary Walker as author. There were also a German translation, published in 1776, and a French translation published in 1782.
More information about Lady Mary Walker and her work may be found at Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present (http://orlando.cambridge.org )