Curated by Rachael Isom and Kelli M. Holt & With Remarks by Paula R. Feldman

In keeping with the theme of this year’s British Women Writers Conference, the Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library will host a special exhibition of rare materials that seek to capture women as generators of literature and as members of a writerly community across generations. The exhibition showcases women’s authorship in diverse print forms and literary genres, and speaks to various other roles of women in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century as they engage with texts: roles as readers and critics of literature, as correspondents, and as biographers of other women, real and fictional.

Beginning with a collection of Aphra Behn’s poetry from 1684, the display traverses more than two centuries toward Virginia Woolf, who famously identified Behn as the grandmother of professional women writers. In between, the exhibition boasts first editions of texts like Charlotte Lennox’s Female Quixote (1752), Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814), and Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market (1762) alongside unique items, such as a manuscript letter by Maria Edgeworth and a heavily annotated presentation copy of Sara Coleridge’s Phantasmion (1837). Other volumes demonstrate women’s participation in alternative publishing mediums, such as Cheap Repository Tracts, pocket editions, and illustrated gift books. Moreover, a poetry volume and a broadside print demonstrate Phillis Wheatley’s transcontinental work in multiple formats. Finally, the exhibition includes iconic texts that reimagine women’s future and past lives. Wollstonecraft’s Vindication (1792) shares the table with Mary Cowden Clarke’s and Virginia Woolf’s fictional biographies of women actors and authors, speaking to British women’s interest in recording their own history of authorship.

Below is a description of all items on exhibit.

Aphra Behn (1640–1689)

Poems upon Several Occasions: with a Voyage to the Island of Love

London: R. Tonson and J. Tonson, 1684

Although she is more frequently noted for her drama and fiction, Aphra Behn here demonstrates her deftness as a poet, as well as her participation in female coteries. The first of only two poetic volumes published in her lifetime, Behn’s Poems Upon Several Occasions reflects her hallmark subversion of gender norms. Following Virginia Woolf’s directive to “let flowers fall on the grave of Aphra Behn,” we begin our exhibition with homage to one of the first known women to declare writing as her profession.

Childers Collection for the Study of English Literature

Rare Book Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill

Charlotte Lennox (1730–1804)

The Female Quixote; or, the Adventures of Arabella

London: A. Millar, 1752

With a dedication signed by “The Author?”, this first-edition copy introduces anonymously the novel that would become Lennox’s best-known work. The Female Quixote capitalizes on Cervantes’ renewed popularity but adapts Quixotic tropes for the eighteenth-century novel’s growing interests in social comedy and the female bildungsroman. In the displayed pages, Lennox previews some “extraordinary incidents” that befall her heroine, Arabella, and alludes playfully to the novel’s histrionic tendencies before beginning the tale of her own Quixote.

Samuel Johnson and James Boswell Collection

William A. Whitaker (Ph.B. 1904, LL.D. 1956) Fund

Rare Book Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill

Eliza Haywood (1694–1756)

The Female Spectator

London: H. Gardner, 1771

Eliza Haywood’s career had many incarnations: she was an actress and, perhaps most consequently, a novelist. Yet Haywood also wrote periodicals, including The Female Spectator, first published in 1744. These installments of social commentary were meant to be, as Haywood describes, “put under the Protection of a Lady…of an unblemish’d Conduct” and “whose Example may enforce the Precepts they contain, and is Herself a shining Pattern for others to copy after.” This title page’s sketch emphasizes ideas of exchange and “copy” among women.

Endowed by the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies

Rare Book Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill

Phillis Wheatley (1753–1784)

An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of . . . George Whitefield

[Boston? 1770?]

Penned by “Phillis, a servant girl, of 17 years of age, belonging to Mr. J. Wheatley of Boston,” this broadside elegizes minister George Whitefield in heroic couplets. The poem emphasizes Whitefield’s relocation to America, but Whitefield had formerly been chaplain to the house of Selina, Countess of Huntingdon. Her praise of this elegy enabled Wheatley’s entry into the London literary scene. The presence of a somber woodcut hovering above Wheatley’s verse makes this copy especially rare.

 Rare Book Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill

Phillis Wheatley (1753–1784)

Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral

London: A. Bell, 1773

British recognition of Wheatley’s early success as an elegist resulted in the London publication of her first poetry collection. Poems of Various Subjects had been rejected by Boston publishers but spurred her transcontinental popularity with resonant meditations on personal experiences and religious themes. Although she sits encircled by a declaration of her property status, the Wheatley of this frontispiece engraving appears triumphantly at her writing desk, a poet with quill in hand.

Rare Book Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill

Frances Burney (1752–1840)


London: J.M. Dent and Co., 1903

Burney’s epistolary novel was published anonymously, as few people knew that Burney was interested in writing—a scandalous endeavor for nearly any woman at the time, and especially for one whose family was already charged with instances of theft and debt. Yet Evelina’s author was eventually revealed, and Burney wrote several successful works afterward. Regarding this copy’s notable illustrations, the one titled “Who is that lovely creature?”—said of Evelina to Sir Clement Willoughby, whose name undoubtedly inspired Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility character—particularly complements the novel’s subtitle, “The History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World.”

William A. Whitaker (Ph.B. 1904, LL.D. 1956) Fund

Rare Book Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill

Charlotte Smith (1749–1806)

Elegiac Sonnets, and Other Poems

London: Jones & Company, 1827

Charlotte Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets, and Other Poems was first published in 1784, and this portable edition speaks to the work’s enduring popularity. True to its title and the illustrations here (including George Romney’s famous portrait of Smith), the collection details the writer’s melancholy poetic persona. Smith cultivated this persona throughout her career, one marked by financial highs and lows and the births and deaths of several children; Smith’s desire to provide for her children fueled her copiousness.

Rare Book Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797)

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: With Strictures on Political Moral Subjects

London: J. Johnson, 1792

Perhaps our exhibition’s most iconic text, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman represents a pivotal moment in gender debates of the eighteenth century. The treatise continues Wollstonecraft’s work on female education, formalizing her arguments for woman’s personhood and rationality in compelling sequel to her 1790 pamphlet on the Rights of Men. Temporarily hampered by the scandal of Godwin’s memoir, Wollstonecraft’s legacy inspired generations of women across the nineteenth century, establishing her as the foremost grandmother of Western feminist thought.

Rare Book Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill

Ann Radcliffe (1764–1823)

The Mysteries of Udolpho

London: G.G. and J. Robinson, 1794

Anna Laetitia Barbauld characterized Ann Radcliffe as “the first poetess of romantic fiction,” and Radcliffe’s mark on gothic literature inspired the praise and criticism of many. No matter her audience’s reaction, Radcliffe was an unprecedented success. The Mysteries of Udolpho, its first edition here in four volumes, is likely Radcliffe’s best-known work. The novel earned the author £500 when the average author received £80; Radcliffe went on to earn even more for The Italian in 1797.

William A. Whitaker (Ph.B. 1904, LL.D. 1956) Fund

Rare Book Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill

Hannah More (1745–1833)

The Story of Sinful Sally. Told by Herself

London: J. Marshall for the Cheap Repository, [1796]

Priced at one halfpenny, Hannah More’s Cheap Repository Tracts supplied Britain’s working-class readers with Christian doctrine, but also with cautionary tales for “all young Women both in Town and Country.” Here, the fictional Sally of the Green recounts her fall “to become Sinful Sally, and afterwards Drunken Sal.” The narrative poem blames Sally’s tragic descent on the evils of consorting with an upper-class man, wearing extravagant clothes, and preferring novels over scripture. Woodcuts depict the stages of her despair.

Childers Collection for the Study of English Literature

Rare Book Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill

Mary Robinson (1757–1800)

Memoirs of the Late Mrs. Robinson

London: Wilks and Taylor, 1801

Like Eliza Haywood, Mary Robinson gained notoriety first as an actress and later as a writer. But her celebrity both on stage and on paper was frequently controversial, as Robinson was known for her love affairs, political radicalism, and literary competitions. Unsurprisingly, Robinson infused her work with a dramatic, sometimes satirical, and often sympathetic flair. Robinson’s daughter, Maria Elizabeth, edited Memoirs after her mother’s death in 1800, a move to recuperate Robinson’s reputation as not only an accomplished author but also as, in the words of Peter Pindar evidenced here, a “DAUGHTER OF LOVE!”

William A. Whitaker (Ph.B. 1904, LL.D. 1956) Fund

Rare Book Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill

Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743–1825)

Eighteen Hundred and Eleven

London: J. Johnson and Co., 1812

Although Eighteen Hundred and Eleven is infamously known as the book that ended Barbauld’s poetic career, this copy celebrates her life and legacy. A brief memoir has been inked into the volume’s opening leaves, and the story of Barbauld’s niece, Lucy Aikin, was added in pencil. Additional marginalia on the final page vindicates Eighteen Hundred and Eleven: “An Inspired Poem,” this reader declares. Indeed, Barbauld’s apocalyptic meditations on nationalism and genius have compelled generations of readers in Britain and beyond.

Rare Book Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill

Jane Austen (1775–1817)

Mansfield Park

Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1866

This American edition of Jane Austen’s most provocative novel demonstrates the author’s transatlantic reach. Further, the text itself reminds readers that Austen frequently positioned herself among other early Romantic women writers, as Austen parodies Ann Radcliffe’s work in Northanger Abbey and features Elizabeth Inchbald’s Lovers’ Vows here. Note this copy’s accompanying review published by the British monthly periodical The Nineteenth Century, itself a provocative interpretation of Austen’s oeuvre.

 Ticknor and Fields Imprint Collection

Rare Book Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill

Maria Edgeworth (1768–1849)

Letter to Rachel Mordecai Lazarus, 1816

North Carolina schoolteacher Rachael Mordecai was an avid fan of Maria Edgeworth. In 1815, Mordecai wrote a letter critiquing the anti-Semitism of Edgeworth’s recent novel, The Absentee (1812). Edgeworth’s response, displayed here, prefigures the fuller apology that would emerge in Harrington (1817). The exchange initiated a 23-year correspondence between the two women, who shared ideas and the occasional botanical sample. The Mordecai papers reveal the importance of women as readers, as well as writers, in the nineteenth century.

 Mordecai Family Papers

Southern Historical Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill

Mary Shelley (1797–1851)

Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus

London: Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor, & Jones, 1818

Even as Caroline Frankenstein here expresses hope in future generations, her untimely death in the novel recalls the early departure of Mary Shelley’s own mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, with whom she shares today’s exhibition table. Perhaps the most widely read, taught, and adapted text here, Shelley’s Frankenstein offers myriad ways to contemplate “generations,” from Shelley’s own literary lineage to the ghastly creative act on which her first novel hinges. This particularly rare first-edition copy binds three original volumes singly in stunning red morocco.

 Rare Book Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill

Frederic Shoberl (1775–1853), ed.

Forget Me Not; A Christmas and New Year’s Present for MDCCCXXVII

London: Ackermann, 1827

Its decorative printed cover and matching teal box distinguish this volume as a member of the gift book genre popular among women writers and readers during the mid-nineteenth century. An embossed inscription plate names the book’s recipient, “M. Thornton,” and the editor’s preface notes the “mass of talent” collected in the volume. The list includes household names like Hester Thrale Piozzi, Felicia Hemans, Mary Russell Mitford, and Letitia Elizabeth Landon, whose poem “Love’s Motto” appears here with an accompanying engraving.

 Rare Book Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill

Caroline Halsted (1803/4–1848)

Investigation; or, Travels in the Boudoir

London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1837

This first-edition file copy chronicles a didactic mother and daughter who inspect and discuss the objects in their living room. Caroline Halstead, known especially as a botanist and biographer, wrote this tale in the fashion of a “grand tour”—a uniquely feminist take that highlights not only the restrictions of travel among women but also women’s ceaseless (and intergenerational) resourcefulness. 

Rare Book Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill

Sara Coleridge (1802–1852)


London: William Pickering, 1837

Sara Coleridge has often been noted for her family ties, but her Phantasmion proves her to be an important pioneer of fantasy writing. This unique copy serves as a record of female friendship and authorship. Inscribed in 1846 to her close friend, the Irish poet Aubrey De Vere, the volume contains extensive marginalia detailing Coleridge’s childhood memories in the Lake District, reflections on Phantasmion’s composition, and numerous meditations on the profession of woman writer. Her notes also transcribe several poems Coleridge never saw published.

Leslie Weil (Ph.B. 1895, LL.D. 1941) Memorial Fund

Rare Book Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill

Charlotte, Emily, & Anne Brontë

Poems. By Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell

London: Smith. Elder and Co., 1846

This famously underselling volume of the Brontë sisters’ poetry appears to have received new life after the publication of their more popular novels. While it does not reveal the novelists’ identities, the later advertisement facing Poems’ original title page speaks to their success in the fiction market and dispels the rumor that Currer Bell had also written Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey. The volume’s final pages include quotations from Jane Eyre, along with advertisements for titles ranging from “The Practical Sugar Planter” to “The Jesuit in the Family.”

William A. Whitaker (Ph.B. 1904, LL.D. 1956) Fund

Rare Book Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill

Catherine Crowe (1803–1876)

The Night Side of Nature

London: Routledge, 1852

Catherine Crowe’s most popular work, this collection of short stories resists Victorian religious orthodoxy in favor of humanity’s potential communion with nature and imagination. Crowe’s focus on the supernatural in her personal life garnered attention as well: two years after this edition was published, Crowe publically espoused the power of spirits to make her invisible, resulting in a stay in an asylum and a break from writing. (She returned to her craft after her release.) Notice this copy’s signed “CAC” inside the front cover. 

William A. Whitaker (Ph.B. 1904, LL.D. 1956) Fund

Rare Book Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill

Harriet Martineau (1802–1876)

A Complete Guide to the English Lakes

Windermere: J. Garnett, [1855]

Martineau’s Complete Guide to the English Lakes pays homage to a similar title by William Wordsworth and, in doing so, showcases women’s participation in nineteenth-century travel writing. Martineau reveres Wordsworth’s grave early in the text but here argues that his poetry overstates the grandeur of Duddon Valley. The facing sketch catalogues the region’s mountain peaks, and it joins several hand-colored plates boasted by this ornate volume in keeping with popular travel guide conventions.

Gift of Mark L. Reed, III

Rare Book Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861)

Aurora Leigh

London: Chapman & Hall, 1857

The feminocentric epic to rival Wordsworth’s Prelude, Aurora Leigh emerges in its early twentieth-century reception as a testament to Barrett Browning’s “[s]peed and energy, forthrightness and complete self-confidence” in presenting her heroine in Book I, displayed here. As this Times article attests, however, 1930s readers seemed less “enthralled” by Aurora than by the story of poet-lovers Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. The clipping acknowledges Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “decline” before she regained notice in recent generations.

 Rare Book Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill

Christina Rossetti (1806–1861)

Goblin Market, and Other Poems

Cambridge: Macmillan, 1862

Lauded by many as Barrett Browning’s successor, Christina Rossetti appears here in her best-known work. Goblin Market treats many conference themes, including the fallen woman and sisterly love, illustrated here by Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s famous rendering of Laura and Lizzie sleeping “golden head by golden head.” But this unique signed copy also marks one of Rossetti’s own female friendships; it is inscribed by the poet as a Christmas gift to “Miss Evelyn Bull” and her family.

Rare Book Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill

George Eliot (1819–1880)


London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1863

The only of George Eliot’s novels to bear the name of its heroine, Romola here presents a Miltonic father-daughter relationship. Romola serves the older generation as a dutiful reader and amanuensis, but the foregrounding of her own intellectual qualities in this passage maintains the novel’s feminocentric bent and links her to other strong Eliot heroines. Unlike those novels, however, Romola is set in fifteenth-century Italian setting, exemplifying many nineteenth-century women writers’ fascination with Italy.

Rare Book Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill


Mary Cowden Clarke (1809–1898)

The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines

London: Bickers and Son, 1884

After being introduced to Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare as a young girl, Mary Cowden Clarke dedicated her career to Shakespeare’s legacy, annotating editions of the bard’s plays and creating an influential concordance of his works. Yet Cowden Clarke is perhaps best known for this series of “prequels,” first published between 1850 and 1852, in which Shakespeare’s most iconic female characters are presented with intriguing (if problematic) psychological backstories. This striking edition’s binding blocked in black and gold on red cloth represents the best in Victorian bookmaking.

 Rare Book Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill

Elizabeth Gaskell (1810–1865)

The Life and Works of Charlotte Brontë and Her Sisters

London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1909

Upon the death of Charlotte Brontë in 1855, Patrick Brontë commissioned Elizabeth Gaskell to chronicle his reclusive daughter’s life. In the account, Gaskell famously glosses over Charlotte’s love for her married tutor, Constantin Heger, who nonetheless features prominently in this edition. Patrick Brontë later denounced Gaskell’s focus on Branwell Brontë, but the biography still stands as a testament to the sisters’ creative processes and attachment. Defending her characterizations, Gaskell once said, “I believe now I hit as near the truth as any one could do.”

 Rare Book Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill

Virginia Woolf (1882–1941)

Orlando: A Biography

New York: Crosby Gaige, 1928

In one of 800 signed first-edition copies, Orlando chronicles the protagonist’s time as an ambassador, one of the many roles s/he plays. Opposite an appropriately gender-ambiguous image, Woolf describes Orlando’s private writing in a book stitched with feminine silk but labeled in a schoolboy’s handwriting. Tipped in is a contemporaneous review; perhaps “the profoundest reality” Rebecca West observes in Orlando is what has made Woolf’s novel a bastion of gender studies and the inspiration for numerous stage and film adaptations.

Rare Book Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill


Rare Books Poster Draft