Louisa Egerton; or, Castle Herbert (Part 1)

I have previously discussed, with respect to Henry Savery and Mary Leman Grimstone, the difficulties associated with bestowing the title of “the first Australian novel” upon any one work.

While there is no doubt that Savery’s Quintus Servinton was the first novel to be published in Australia – and the first also have a significant part of its content set there – this work has a challenger for the title of first novel to be written in Australia, in Grimstone’s Louisa Egerton; or, Castle Herbert (also known as Louisa Egerton: A Tale From Real Life).

The matter is complicated, and has been the subject of much debate. Michael Roe, an Australian academic and historian (now retired), is the leading expert in this area. Roe’s own research, conducted while he was Professor of History at the University of Tasmania, was later supplemented by that of Peter Arnold, a Melbourne-based bibliophile. In 2016, Roe published what he called “Final Words On Mary Leman Grimstone” in Volume 63 of the Papers and Proceedings of the Tasmanian Historical Research Association, in which he summarised his own and Arnold’s conclusions.

According to the two men’s account of the matter, the success of Grimstone’s first novel, The Beauty Of The British Alps, in 1825, prompted a publisher (who they assume to be George Virtue) to contact her, requesting a follow-up work. Grimstone had been married and widowed in what seems to have been rapid succession, and may have written her first novel (she was also a poet and essayist) either to distract herself, or as a way of earning money. She appears to have begun her second work while still in England, but made so little progress that, when asked about it by her sister Louisa, she had not even thought of a title. (Is this how / why she named her heroine? – or because that Louisa was being left behind?)

In September of 1825, Grimstone embarked with her second sister, Lucy Adey, and her brother-in-law on the Cape Packet, bound for Tasmania, where Stephen Adey was an official with the Van Diemen’s Land Company. The novel that would become Louisa Egerton was written partly on board, but chiefly during Grimstone’s time in Hobart—and, it seems, in fits and starts. Having come into possession of a second edition of the novel, which was published in three volumes by George Virtue in 1830, Peter Arnold discovered that it carried a preface by Grimstone in which she states:

“…the volumes were written at very distant intervals and, as they were thrown off…were transmitted to England, and without my knowledge, printed as they came to hand… On my late arrival from a remote country, with the completion of my task, and purposing to review the whole, I found that all opportunity of so doing was gone bye…”

The publishing history of Louisa Egerton is therefore complicated in itself. Evidently, a first edition was published piecemeal in 1829, as George Virtue received Grimstone’s “transmissions”. It is not clear whether there was a misunderstanding between the two, or whether Virtue went ahead against her wishes and/or their agreement. However, when Grimstone returned to England in 1829, and discovered how her manuscript had been handled, she negotiated for revision rights, and in May of 1830, a second, revised edition of her novel appeared, carrying the explanatory preface.

But there is an additional, rather confusing aspect to the publication history of Louisa Egerton, which is that the copy of the novel held by most of those libraries that do hold it – and the source of the GoogleBooks ebook that is today the only practical (or semi-practical) way of reading it – is a two-volume edition clearly dated 1830.

So where did this come from? I’m inclined to wonder whether, confronted by an angry author (who, perhaps, he did not expect to actually return from Australia), George Virtue placated her via a limited, three-volume edition carrying her revisions—but made the book generally available via a less-expensive, unrevised, two-volume edition. The fact that the latter is available today, whereas only two copies of the former survive (one of them, that held by Peter Arnold), would seem to support this; and if so, this would have the side-effect of increasing the novel’s “Australian-ness”.

Now, unclear as some of this is, there at least seems no doubt either as to when Louisa Egerton was written—or, more importantly, where; and I am inclined to accede to Michael Roe’s description of the work as the first novel of Australian provenance.

It also turns out that a copy of the two-volume, 1830 edition of Grimstone’s novel is held by the Mitchell Library in Sydney—and the very fact that it is held further supports the “provenance” argument: someone, at some point, recognised Louisa Egerton as “an Australian novel”.

And these discoveries being made in those long-ago, fondly remembered days when it was actually possible to visit a library (sigh), I went in to take a look at the book for myself, to see if the text offered any more clues to its origins.

Broadly the answer is “no”; but three details are worth highlighting: (i) this version carries the second-edition title of Grimstone’s first novel, which was altered upon its re-release to Love At First Sight; or, The Beauty Of The British Alps; and (ii) it reproduces the illustrations included in the first, 1829 release, a frontispiece of Grimstone among them, which the three-volume version of the novel does not. (These also appear in the GoogleBooks edition.)

And (iii)—the book’s spine incorrectly calls its title / heroine Louise!—

 

  

   

 

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