Written by Maureen Maryanski, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.
Among the uncatalogued treasures at the New-York Historical Society are two small, leather bound volumes I recently stumbled upon in the library stacks. Out of pure curiosity, I picked these volumes up and looked at the title page. The title read: The Life of Harriot Stuart, Written by Herself.
The first volume’s title page, as you can see, is torn in half, the bottom half containing publication and printing information lost to time. The title page of the second volume, however, is wholly intact and lists the place of publication as London in 1751. As the book was found in the biography section of the book stacks, I immediately was intrigued by this apparent account of an 18th century woman’s life, told from her own perspective. I whisked the books downstairs to my desk for further investigation. What I discovered was more remarkable than I had expected.
Mistakenly placed in the biography section of our library stacks, The Life of Harriet Stuart is in fact a novel written by the English author Charlotte Ramsey Lennox (ca.1729-1804). Although she lived most of her life in England, Lennox was most likely not born there. Her father James Ramsey was a member of the Coldstream Guards, and she spent the early years of her life traveling the world where ever he was stationed, including a posting to colonial New York from 1739-1743. After his death in 1743, Lennox traveled to England, settling in London in 1747, the same year she married “feckless Scotsman” Alexander Lennox.
In London Lennox began to write, producing collections of poems, novels, and plays. In addition, she gained a reputation as a “versatile woman of letters” through her translations of French texts. The N-YHS Library holds copies of two of these translations: Memoirs of Maximilian de Bethune, Duke of Sully (1751) and The Greek Theatre of Father Brumoy (1759).
Lennox also published a monthly periodical in 1760 and 1761 called The Lady’s Museum that argued the importance of women’s education, especially in history and philosophy. A contemporary and friend of such luminary men of letters as Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, and Samuel Johnson, Lennox was widely admired during her life time. Indeed Johnson praised her as superior to other female authors of the time, encouraging and supporting her literary pursuits.
The Life of Harriot Stuart is Lennox’s first novel and details the experiences and adventures of Harriot Stuart, a young woman in the 1740s, as she travels to colonial New York and England. Written as a memoir in the form of letters, the similarities between Lennox and Stuart’s lives have led many to believe that it is a partially autobiographical tale of her own life. Since 1940, claims have been made that Lennox was the first American novelist, as both The Life of Harriot Stuart and her last published work Euphemia (1790) are partially set in colonial New York. Indeed The Life of Harriot Stuart is one of the earliest literary references to colonial New York City, Albany, and Schenectady, including descriptions of colonial life and manners, relations between colonists and Native Americans, and impressions of New York City, described with an unfortunate lack of detail: “At last, after a tedious voyage of nine weeks, we came in sight of N——. That city making a delightful appearance from the water, I stood some moments contemplating it with great pleasure.”
According to the British Library’s English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC), the recently re-discovered N-YHS copy of The Life of Harriot Stuart is only the 18th known copy of the first edition, joining its fellows at the British Library, the Bodleian Library, Harvard, Yale, the University of Illinois, Indiana University, the Newberry, Princeton, and New York University. I’m still in the process of piecing together the provenance of the N-YHS copy, but luckily several ownership markings and inscriptions are visible on both volumes. What is known at the moment is that the book belonged to three generations of the Cox family in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in New York. The names of John Cox Jr.(1756-1825), John Palmer Cox (1794-?), and Emilie Aglae Cox (1821-1866) all appear in these inscriptions. It appears that the book passed from father to son, and then from father to daughter. Several other names and markings appear in the book that have yet to be deciphered and researched completely, but hopefully we’ll learn more soon about the extraordinary journey of these two volumes produced in London in 1751 which found their final home in the New-York Historical Society Library in 1925.
Eve Tavor Bannet. “The Theater of Politeness in Charlotte Lennox’s British-American Novels.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Autumn 1999), pp. 73-92.
Jerry C. Beasley. “Charlotte Lennox.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 39; British Novelists, 1660-1800. The Gale Group, 1985. pp. 306-312.
Judith Dorn. “Reading Women Reading History: The Philosophy of Periodical Form in Carlotte Lennox’s The Lady’s Museum.” Historical Reflections / Reflexions Historiques, Vol. 18, No. 3, The Eighteenth Century and Uses of the Past (Fall 1992), pp. 7-27.
Kimberly Dawn Lutz. “Charlotte Lennox.” American National Biography.