Patricia A. Matthew
Montclair State University
Before Victoria: Extraordinary Women of the British Romantic Era Opens April 8 at The New York Public Library
Diana, New York, March 17, 2005 --While the image of the woman as angel of the house, sexless and selfless, was already an ideal by 1789, there lived throngs of flesh and blood women who variously bent, broke, ignored, circumvented, and changed the rules of British (and sometimes world) culture during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The lives, works, pluck, and influence of the most formidable, famous, and infamous among them are the focus of Before Victoria: Extraordinary Women of the British Romantic Era, an eye-opening exhibition of rare manuscripts, letters, prints, paintings, memoirs, and other artifacts of the time, opening April 8, 2005 at The New York Public Library. The exhibition, co-curated by Stephen Wagner and Elizabeth Campbell Denlinger, is drawn from the Library’s Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle; the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs; the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature; the Spencer Collection; the Rare Books Division; and the General Research Division. Before Victoria will be on view April 8 through July 30, 2005 in the D. Samuel and Jeane H. Gottesman Exhibition Hall on the first floor of The New York Public Library, Humanities and Social Sciences Library, Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Admission is free.
Before Victoria: Extraordinary Women of the British Romantic Era presents a wealth of materials from its subjects’ own hands: first editions of Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus and Pride and Prejudice, of course, but also of Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, a much more popular novel in its time than Austen’s work. There is much of the writing of Wollstonecraft and examples of the moralizing books of her conservative counterpart, the abolitionist Hannah More. There is artwork by Caroline Watson, one of a very few female engravers, and by the painters Angelica Kauffmann and Maria Cosway. Representing the sciences are Anna Atkins’s Photographs of British Algae; polymath Mary Somerville’s On Molecular and Microscopic Science; a letter from the astronomer (and discoverer of eight comets) Caroline Herschel; and examples of science and mathematical textbooks written especially for girls. Also on display is the suicide note left behind by the poet Percy Shelley’s first wife, Harriet Westbrook Shelley, just before drowning herself in London’s Hyde Park; the serialized memoirs of courtesan (and blackmailer) Harriette Wilson; the prophecies of millenarian Joanna Southcott, who thought she was pregnant with a new messiah; and a letter to George III from Margaret Nicholson, who attacked the King with a dessert knife in 1786.
The exhibition also includes ample contextual materials from the Romantic era, much of it in response to these extraordinary women. As this was the golden age of British visual satire, a number of the subjects are seen pilloried in prints by Thomas Rowlandson, the Cruikshanks, and James Gillray (whose own publisher was a woman). There is Harris’s List of Covent-Garden Ladies, a veritable Zagat’s guide to the prostitutes of London; issues of the Crim. Con. Gazette, which published libelous gossip on criminal conversation (i.e., adultery) cases real and imagined; and a rare example of a private Act of Parliament for a divorce—the only means of obtaining one. And from the sympathetic Irish Economist William Thompson, there is Appeal of One Half the Human Race, Women, Against the Pretension of the Other Half, Men, to Retain Them in Political, and Thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery.
Co-curator Elizabeth Campbell Denlinger has written a vividly illustrated companion volume to Before Victoria: Extraordinary Women of the British Romantic Era. Published by Columbia University Press, Before Victoria features a foreword by Lundall Gordon and is available in paperback ($29.50) and hard cover ($39.50) at The Library Shop (www.thelibraryshop.org) and in bookstores nationwide.
Before Victoria: Extraordinary Women of the British Romantic Era will be on view from April 8 through July 30, 2005 in the D. Samuel and Jeane H. Gottesman Exhibition Hall of The New York Public Library, Humanities and Social Sciences Library, Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Exhibition hours are Tuesday and Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday, 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.; closed Mondays, and national holidays. (The Library will be closed on Sundays after May 22, 2005, through the summer; and on the Saturdays, May 28 and July 2, 2005). Admission is free. For further information about exhibitions at The New York Public Library, the public may call 212-869-8089 or visit the Library’s website at www.nypl.org.
Before Victoria: Extraordinary Women of the British Romantic Era was made possible in part by The Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation, Inc., and The New York Public Library’s Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle. Support for The New York Public Library’s Exhibitions Program has been provided by Pinewood Foundation and by Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III.