01 August 2013

'In Her Hand: Letters of Romantic-Era British Women Writers in New Zealand Collections'

[This was a project I was fortunate enough to be involved in before leaving New Zealand. Well done to Tom McLean and Shef Rogers (Department of English, University of Otago) for putting together such a great course based on primary material, and many congratulations to the students, who really took ownership of the assignment.]

Cover design by Elicia Milne and Jon Thom 
In Her Hand: Letters of Romantic-Era British Women Writers in New Zealand Collections
By the Otago Students of Letters
Published by the Department of English, University of Otago, 2013 

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, many female authors challenged societal expectations. Everyone knows about Jane Austen and Mary Shelley, but Austen and Shelley’s contemporaries included leading women novelists, poets, playwrights, essayists, historians and philanthropists. In Her Hand presents more than fifty previously unpublished letters written by eleven of these women: Anna Barbauld, Hannah More, Joanna Baillie, Jane Porter, Lady Morgan, Lucy Aikin, Amelia Opie, Lady Byron, Felicia Hemans, Anna Jameson and Maria Jane Jewsbury. Little known today, most of these women were household names to British readers two hundred years ago. 

But what also makes In Her Hand distinctive is the fact that these letters have been hidden away in public library collections in New Zealand—in Auckland, Wellington, Invercargill, and especially Dunedin. Had they been in US or UK collections, many of these letters would have been published long ago.

Furthermore, the authors of this book are not professional academics but rather eleven University of Otago English honours students who enrolled in the class ENGL404: Writing For Publication. The course was coordinated by Dr Tom McLean, who has published on many of the writers featured in the collection and thus could check the accuracy of students’ work; and Dr Shef Rogers, who edits the journal Script & Print and the New Zealand Colonial Texts series and oversaw the technical and editorial sides of the book’s production.

Over the course of a single semester, students examined the lives and works of their writers, transcribed the letters (often a challenge in itself), and identified important information relating to the letters. When their own research hit a dead end, McLean put the students in contact with expert scholars in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, who generously shared their knowledge of these women writers. Students also shared in the production work: choosing fonts, creating a cover, checking proofs, organizing permissions for images, assembling introductory material and creating an index. As a result, the “Otago Students of Letters” (as they call themselves) have had an amazing opportunity to work with rare, unpublished manuscripts, and to be involved in all aspects of book production.

In Her Hand is the perfect introduction to a group of remarkable and rediscovered British women writers. Each chapter offers a short biography, transcriptions of the new letters and a discussion of their significance. The letters range in theme from publishing and literary endeavours to spiritual and family concerns. Anyone interested in British literature in the era of Austen, Shelley, William Wordsworth and Lord Byron will find these letters fascinating.

In Her Hand is available from the Department of English (order form). Follow this link for a sample of the text.

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