One of the undoubted literary gems of the Bodleian Library is Jane Austen’s collection of juvenilia. Self-titled Volume the First, it contains sixteen of Jane’s earliest works including stories and verses, some of which were first written when Jane was as young as eleven or twelve.(1) While Volume the First reminds us that every author began somewhere, it also reminds us of how early or juvenile work can be treasured and preserved by its creators and their families alike, sometimes well beyond the lifetimes of the original intended audience. However, not all of the literary manuscripts at the Bodleian Library were created by world famous names and examples of juvenilia, shown here by two recent acquisitions, are no exception.
Around 1854, two children identified as S. Horn and Edward Woodall, living in the Mardol Head neighbourhood in central Shrewsbury, decided to set up their own miniature periodical which they called The Kingsland Mercury. Written by hand on tiny pieces of folded paper and sewn together, four editions and three ‘free’ supplements dating between March and October 1854 have survived in surprisingly pristine condition (with, alas, a few missing pages). The main topic of conversation and commentary was the Crimean War but The Kingsland Mercury also included local and ‘comic’ news alongside stories, poetry, riddles, and letters to the editor, all mirroring the grown up newspapers of the day.
The Kingsland Mercury Supplement, 9 April 1854, Bodleian Libraries, MS. 18763
One of the letters to the editor gives us a clue that this tiny homemade newspaper was founded sometime before the first surviving issue from March 1854 and also had a far wider circulation than just its immediate creators. The letter writer complained that:
…really the time which some of the Subscribers of the Kingsland Mercury keep that paper is almost intolerable. Instead of reading it at the first opportunity they have, they keep it in their pockets sometimes for a day or more. Now this is too bad, & it shews that they don’t care… when those whose names are last on the list get it.
It is also likely that there were other contributors to the paper beyond the named editors due to requests from the editors for ‘original pieces on any interesting subject’ and also the occasional change in handwriting.(2)
The emphasis on the Crimean War demonstrates an awareness by the child-editors of a world beyond their own immediate environs. This awareness is also demonstrated by the inclusion of an anti-slavery poem by Edward Woodall entitled ‘The negro’s wrongs’ strongly criticising the ongoing practice of slavery in the United States, emphasising the conscious denial of education by the slave owners alongside the physical brutality they practised. Such inclusions hint at the beliefs and understanding of the adult society in which the children were brought up.(3)
The second example of juvenilia also demonstrates an awareness of a wider, diverse world with multiple histories. The Lost Kingdom, a ‘mocked-up’ historical adventure novel set around the time of the Spanish conquest of Peru, was created by C.M. Carter at St Margarets in West Runton, Norfolk (Carter gives the location more specifically as ‘the Den’). The 422 page handwritten novel, which includes several full-page watercolour illustrations, was completed on 25th June 1922. The novel was then hand-bound with black thread between two paste board covers with bright watercolour paintings on the top cover and spine.
Front cover of The Lost Kingdom, by C.M. Carter, c.1922, Bodleian Libraries, MS. 17192
The action-packed narrative is an epic Indiana Jones-style adventure, reflecting the contemporary derring-do of Boys’ Own type publications and adventure fiction written by authors such as John Buchan. In The Lost Kingdom, the ‘hero’ of the story, Mr Bernard Morgan (a widower and one of the early New World settlers who lived in ‘what was to become New York’) is summoned by a letter from a friend to come to the aid of the Incas under the threat of Spanish colonisation.
Much of the story is centred around the adventures of his daughter Stella, conveniently being looked after by a family in Peru at the start of the tale, who is later joined by her two brothers during their school holidays. Whilst the gender of the author remains unknown, the use of a prominent female character alongside the Morgans’ attempt to help the indigenous population against colonising forces seem remarkable for something of this date (even if their representation is somewhat muddled to modern eyes).
Illustration of ‘The Gorge of Death’: ‘Poor Stella was sent shooting from the back of the llama and hurtled into the fear-full dephs [sic] below…’, from The Lost Kingdom, by C.M. Carter, c.1922, Bodleian Libraries, MS. 17192
The way the story keeps going throughout the 400 or so pages is also remarkable, demonstrating the author’s dedication to the work. Subtle changes in the handwriting suggest Carter had a little help now and then: a more in-depth inspection of the item might tell us how much of a collaborative effort it was – was it a collaboration between friends or siblings, or perhaps something which drew on a mutually imagined ongoing adventure?
The main story ends on page 402 with the return of the Morgans to the United States. This is followed by several more pages with commentary on the First World War (The Great War as it was then called) and a poem on ‘The Fall of Peru’ – an interesting and somewhat unexplained juxtaposition, perhaps an effort on the part of the author to make some sense of both the contemporary world and its history.
These items of juvenilia offer an interesting mix of fact and fiction presented through young eyes in a medium that was both familiar and grown-up. In each case, while we are lucky to actually have their names and locations, we know a lot less about the authors than we do about Jane Austen. What links them and the Austen juvenilia together however is a determination to put pen to paper – to amuse as well as educate, and to share stories.
- Bodleian Libraries, MS. Don. e. 7. The volume is available to view on Digital Bodleian and more information can be found on the Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts website.
- On 3rd April 1854, the paper noted a change in editors with J. Woodall taking over from S. Horn – perhaps a moving on or a falling out.
- It is likely that the Woodall family were clothiers: in an 1851 directory, a John Woodall is listed as a woollen draper and clothier in Mardol Head. Samuel Bagshaw, History, Gazetteer, and Directory of Shropshire (Sheffield, 1851).