USTC Conference: Gender and the Book Trades Part II

Wednesday 28 July 2021

In this second instalment from our virtual showcase for the USTC Conference ‘Gender and the Book Trades’ we highlight some of the items from our collections which women have edited or illustrated.

Sometimes women play a silent, or forgotten, role in the editing of books. Henrietta Maria Bowdler (1750-1830) was a writer and literary editor. She edited Elizabeth Smith’s (1776-1806) Fragments, in prose and verse, which was popular in religious circles, and ran to several editions, including four in its first year of publication, in 1808. However, it was Henrietta’s Sermons on the Doctrines and Duties of Christianity, published in 1801, which established her literary reputation, and this work passed through nearly 50 editions in almost as many years.

Vol. 1 of the 1810 New Edition of Elizabeth Smith’s Fragments, in prose and verse (St Andrews lacks vol. 2). Elizabeth Smith was a scholar and translator. This work contains selections of Smith’s writings interspersed with an account of her life. For PR5453.S6.


Henrietta had a delicacy of mind – so much so that she never looked at the dancers in operas, but kept her eyes shut, as she found them indelicate – and it was this delicacy which led her to produce the work for which her brother, Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825), assumed the credit: The Family Shakespeare. Published in Bath in 1807 in four volumes, it contained redacted versions of twenty Shakespeare plays. As she wrote in the preface, “My earnest wish is to render his plays unsullied by any scene, by any speech, or, if possible, by any word what can give pain to the most chaste, or offence to the most religious of his readers”.

Excerpt from the preface to the first edition (as given in vol. 1, of the fifth edition) of The Family Shakespeare, with Henrietta’s comments upon the language used by William Shakespeare. s PR2753.B6.


The 1807 edition was published anonymously, but by 1809 her brother had taken on the mantle of editorship. After all, in the early 19th century an unmarried woman of her stature and beliefs could hardly acknowledge publicly that she knew enough about sexual impropriety to edit Shakespeare effectively! In 1818 Thomas Bowdler produced a fuller edition of his sister’s version, which was in many ways more faithful to the original, restoring the unobjectionable scenes, and confining himself to removing sexual and religious allusions. The later edition of the complete plays which Thomas produced reinforced the notion that he had originated the idea.

The fifth edition of 1827 was issued in eight volumes. Note the spelling of ‘Shakspeare’, which Thomas Bowdler introduced. s PR2753.B6.

Another woman who worked in the background was Leonora (Nora) Lang (1851-1933). An author and editor, she is best known as the translator, collaborator, and writer of The Fairy Books, a series of 25 collections of true and fictional stories for children published between 1889 and 1913. The authorship and translation of the 12 Coloured Fairy Books is often and incorrectly attributed to Nora’s husband, Andrew Lang (1844-1912), for it is his name alone which appears upon the title pages. Although Andrew is often credited with selecting the stories in The Fairy Books, most of the work was actually done by Nora. She and a team of other writers, who were mostly women and included the poet and novelist May Kendall (1861-1943) and author and literary hostess Violet Hunt (1862-1942), translated these into English and adapted them to suit Victorian and Edwardian notions of propriety. Andrew Lang does credit his wife as a translator in The Red Fairy Book (1890), the 2nd in the series, but it wasn’t until the publication of The Lilac Fairy Book in 1910 that he acknowledged in the preface “The fairy books have been almost wholly the work of Mrs. Lang”.

The final Coloured Fairy Book, published in 1910, in which Andrew Lang acknowledged that his wife had done most of the work. Lan PR4876.L5F10.


The 20th century Scottish author Maud Sulter (1960-2008) had a polymathic career, which encompassed editing, publishing, curating, visual art, education, cultural history, and activism, as well as poetry and photography. She was particularly active in black feminist and lesbian movements and was associated with the British black arts movement. In London in the early 1980s, Sulter wrote and performed poetry and contributed to feminist publishing initiatives such as Spare Rib and Sheba Feminist Press. With the photographer and artist Ingrid Pollard (b. 1953), Sulter founded the Black Women’s Creativity Project, which became an umbrella for a range of activities, exhibitions, and publications. One of Sulter’s projects in the 1990s was Significant Others; the 9 large-scale silver gelatin photographic prints are held by our museums collections, and you can read more about this series here.

Passion: Discourses on Blackwomen’s Creativity (Hebden Bridge, 1990) was edited by Maud Sulter. NX164.B55S8.


Women contributed to the illustration of books. Letitia Byrne (1779-1849) and her sister Elizabeth (1777-1849) were engravers, daughters of William Byrne (1743-1805) who was a landscape engraver, himself the nephew of an engraver of arms in Birmingham. Letitia was still a pupil of her father when she exhibited landscape views at the Royal Academy in 1799, after which she received numerous commissions for engravings and etchings. From 1799 until 1848 she exhibited views in Derbyshire, Wales, and France. Elizabeth resided with her brother John, and exhibited English and continental landscapes between 1838 and 1849.

Engravings by Letitia and Elizabeth Byrne for Edward Clarke’s Travels in various countries of Europe Asia and Africa (1811-1813). Some are full plates, but others were illustrative headpieces. s G463.C6, vol. 2.


Another means of illustrating works, from the mid-19th century, was by photographs. In the summer of 1874, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), asked Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879), one of the most celebrated women in the history of photography, to make images for a new publication of his poems Idylls of the King. Cameron produced over 200 prints, but the publisher chose only two to be reformatted as wood-engravings, which did not reproduce well in the final book. At Tennyson’s encouragement, Cameron produced a book of her own, Illustrations to Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, and other poems, with albumen silver prints interspersed with texts by Tennyson (lithographed from Cameron’s own hand-writing). You can read more about our acquisition of this work here.

One of the poems and photographs from vol. 2 of Julia Margaret Cameron’s, Illustrations to Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (London, 1875). Only a dozen or so copies of this work are known to have survived. Photo TR652.C2E75.


Last week we mentioned Two Stories published by Virginia and Leonard Woolf. These stories are illustrated with four small woodcut illustrations by Dora Carrington (1893-1932), a British artist who trained at the Slade School of Art under Henry Tonks. Carrington set the fashion of using her surname alone – for she considered ‘Dora’ to be “vulgar and sentimental”. Although a gifted artist and draughtsperson, she had a lack of confidence, which was shown in her reluctance to exhibit or to sign the work which she sent to the London Group. Virginia was pleased with the first artistic collaboration with Carrington on Two Stories, and determined that subsequent publications from the Hogarth Press should always include pictures.

Carrington’s woodcut of a snail, which appears at the end of ‘The mark on the wall’. r PR6045.O72T8.

This brings us to the end of our second instalment. Join us next time when we talk about some of the  female authors whose works are held in our collections.

Briony Harding
Assistant Rare Books Librarian

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4 thoughts on "USTC Conference: Gender and the Book Trades Part II"

  • julia Melvin
    julia Melvin
    Wednesday 28 July 2021, 12.59pm

    This last installment is captivating. Thank you for this work. I was brought up on the Fairy Books, but was always piously told that they were all the work of Andrew Lang, who fostered the belief that he was a genius!

    • Briony Harding
      Briony Harding
      Thursday 29 July 2021, 1.43pm

      I'm glad you're enjoying the series, Julia. I hope you continue to enjoy the Fairy Books, knowing that Lang didn't do all the work!

  • Lis Smith
    Lis Smith
    Wednesday 28 July 2021, 8.10pm

    This is fascinating, Briony. I, too, had not realised that Nora Lang had played such a large role in the production of the Fairy Books.

    • Briony Harding
      Briony Harding
      Thursday 29 July 2021, 1.45pm

      It's very easy to overlook when you just look at the books! Glad you're enjoying the series, Lis.


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