NEW YORK.- 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 Librarys 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.
Who Were These Unusual Women? - Everyone knows Mary Shelley as the teen-aged author of Frankenstein. Fewer remember Shelleys more radical mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, whose 1792 Vindication of the Rights of Woman reverberated through British culture for generations and whose egalitarian child-rearing theories were followed by the likes of Aaron Burr. And how well-known today is Lord Byrons daughter, Ada, whose keen mathematical mind devised an early computer programming language? Even less familiar are names such as: Mary Robinson, who lived as wife, actress, novelist, poet, and mistress to the Prince of Wales; Princess Charlotte, whose popularity equaled, and wisdom apparently surpassed that of the Windsors Diana when she went on the lam from the royal but loveless match made for her by her father, the future George IV; best-selling poet Felicia Hemans; and the cross-dressing Levantine exile, Lady Hester Stanhope.
Caroline Nortons impassioned writings and political machinations resulted in the passage of the first law enabling maternal custody of young children. Anna Atkins was a marine biologist and photographic pioneer. The eras most important stage comedienne, Dora Jordan, was also the mother of ten children sired by the Duke of Clarence, later King William IV. These are just a few of the women who sought self-knowledge and expression along improbable paths. While many are notable for their achievements, others are exemplary for their vices, desires, preferences, and dissent: gamblers, adulterers, female husbands, and prostitutes among them. And there are the women whose renown has never faded, including Jane Austen, Sarah Siddons, Mary Lamb, and Emma Hamilton.
Exhibition Materials - 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 Radcliffes Mysteries of Udolpho, a much more popular novel in its time than Austens 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 Atkinss Photographs of British Algae; polymath Mary Somervilles 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 Shelleys first wife, Harriet Westbrook Shelley, just before drowning herself in Londons 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 Harriss List of Covent-Garden Ladies, a veritable Zagats 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 divorcethe 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 Lyndall Gordon and is available in paperback ($29.50) and hard cover ($39.50) at The Library Shop (www.thelibraryshop.org) and in bookstores nationwide.