Thursday, 19 February 2009

Louisa Comes Home

I've been totally spoilt this Valentine's with a remarkable gift - what's thought to be a first edition of Anna Seward's sentimental verse novel, Louisa, published in Lichfield in 1784.

Before I tell you the story of the book, allow me to do a quick recap. You'll remember that I wrote about Seward (above), who was a poet of some renown by the 1780s (dubbed The Swan of Lichfield, and credited by Erasmus Darwin as the inventor of a poetic form, the epic elegy). She lived almost her entire life in the cathedral city and knew many of the major artistic and scientific figures of her day, including Samuel Johnson (whom she thought 'an overrated ranter') and James Boswell ('nought but a Scottish coxcomb'). In fact, Boswell rather fancied her; she rebuffed his attentions twice but did give him a lock of hair tied with pink ribbon, which was found in his papers after his death.

We still have Seward to thank for preserving aspects of Lichfield which survive to this day: in 1773, she approached the town clerk with an idea to stop Minster Pool from silting up (she proposed it should be 'serpentined' by digging out certain areas), and she decried attempts by the church authorities to remove every other lime tree from The Dean's Walk, comparing it to 'removing every other tooth from a mouth'. The monument to her in Lichfield Cathedral (below) carries an epitaph by Walter Scott.

Anyway, my partner, knowing my interest in Seward, tracked down Louisa from a bookseller in Delanson, New York, who then shipped it back home to the place it was published over 200 years ago. When it arrived in Lichfield, he was surprised to find just a bundle of pages, so he contacted a bookbinder called Henry Mills, a family business since 1855, based in Aston, near Birmingham, and got it bound, complete with the beautiful marbled end papers (below). You can see that the pages are brown with age; I can't begin to describe the excitement of handling them.

But the biggest thrill was on the back page (see bottom picture), which Seward appears to have signed. Could this have been one of her own copies, kept in her house, The Bishop's Palace, just a stone's throw from where we live? I'd like to think so!

Photographs © Memoirs of the Celebrated Mrs Woffington.

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Blarney Girl said...

How awesome that you have a partner who knows and loves you so much! :)

My vote is that it was Anna's copy of the book. Who autograph's the back page of a book?

Mrs Woffington said...

I know, I'm very, very lucky! Anna kept copies of her own work at home to give to the throngs of literary types that came to pay their respects to her (she rarely left Lichfield). I'm thinking, surely she would have autographed them too?

Eliza Ward said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eliza Ward said...

So neat! I love old books, especially picturing who might have owned them before. I have a book of letters written and published by John Wilkes, and I like to think it passed through his hands at least once! I think feeling that direct connection to history is part of what makes antiques so wonderful.

PS I typo'd a moment ago, so I reposted, that's why there's a deleted comment :)

Mrs Woffington said...

Thanks Eliza - wow, to own some of Wilkes' letters is impressive. I also have a very old (possibly 19th century) copy of a biography of Garrick in two volumes, but this Seward book is the oldest one I've ever owned!

Eliza Ward said...

Yeah, I'm proud of my book! And I got it for $5 at a used book store in Boston! My oldest book is just a few years older, from 1763, and is some translated works by Voltaire (but not printed by Voltaire, so not quite as exciting). It's paper-bound in stead of hardcover like the Wilkes. I haven't actually read it though because it has never been read before--many of the pages haven't been slit open.

Mrs Woffington said...

It's rare to pick up exciting finds like that but amazing when it happens :)