The scandalous Lady Blessington – a feminist pioneer?
Marguerite, Lady Blessington (1789 – 1849) certainly seems to have lived an interesting life. Born plain Margaret Power in Tipperary, she was forced into an abusive marriage at the age of 15, left her husband to return to her family and then went to live ‘under the protection’ of a certain Captain Jenkins, whatever that means. Through him she met the Earl of Blessington, a widower, who established her as his mistress, and then married her after the death of her husband in a prison accident.
In her new position as the Countess of Blessington, she seems to have developed extravagant tastes, become a noted London hostess and travelled widely. She became friends with Byron and recorded details of many of their conversations in one of her early books. She also developed a long friendship with the Count d’Orsay, who eventually married her step-daughter, although rumours persisted that his real relationship was with Lady Blessington herself.
To judge by her Wikipedia entry, the fame of Lady Blessington today is more the result of gossip about these various relationships than to do with her writing, but she was nevertheless a significant and popular novelist of her day, and has at least one major role in the history of publishing to her credit.
The series of books launched by Tauchnitz in 1841 was called the Collection of British Authors, but a more accurate description for the first 50 volumes would have been the Collection of White Male Authors. The first volume by a non-British Author was ‘The spy’ by J. Fenimore Cooper as volume 5, but it was not until volume 52 that the first novel by a female author appeared, and as for non-white authors, the wait was to be far, far longer.
The publication of ‘Meredith’ by Lady Blessington as that volume 52, in September 1843, coincided with the implementation of voluntary agreements that Tauchnitz had negotiated with authors in advance of copyright legislation. The first 50 volumes had been pirate editions, but from volume 51 onwards publications were sanctioned by the author in return for an agreed payment. Tauchnitz had received letters of introduction to authors including Lady Blessington and proposed an agreement to them. Lady Blessington wrote to him on August 11, 1843 – ‘I trust that long ere this you have received the agreement with my signature … Short as our acquaintance has been, it has inspired me with such confidence in your integrity and justice that I do not hesitate to fulfil my agreement being convinced that I shall have no reason to repent it.’
‘Meredith’ had only shortly before been published in the UK, and by October, the author was working on a new novel. She wrote again to Tauchnitz on October 21, 1843 – ‘ … I am now engaged in a novel … It will be entitled Strathern and shall be sent to you weekly.’ In the UK it was published in weekly serial parts, and the Tauchnitz Edition of ‘Strathern’, published in October 1844 as volumes 69 and 70 was the worldwide first edition in book form. It did not appear as a book in the UK until 1845.
By this time, she had already made her views known on equal pay for women. ‘ I hope you will not think me unreasonable in expecting the same remuneration for my works, that my friend Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton is to receive’, she wrote on April 15, 1844. Considering that Bulwer Lytton was perhaps the most popular novelist of his day, before the emergence of Dickens, and already had a string of bestselling novels to his name at this point, this might have been a bit presumptuous, but as the request is recorded in the Tauchnitz 50th anniversary history, I suspect it was granted.
Three other novels by Lady Blessington were published in the Tauchnitz series – ‘Memoirs of a femme de chambre’ as volume 104 in 1846, ‘Marmaduke Herbert’ as volumes 123 and 124 in 1847 and ‘Country quarters’ as volumes 183 and 184, posthumously in 1850, another novel that had been originally issued in weekly serial parts (in ‘The Lady’s Newspaper’). Her position as the first woman to be published by Tauchnitz was secure, but by the time of her death in 1849, she had been joined in the list by other female authors, starting with Lady Georgiana Fullerton in 1846, Mrs. Gore in 1847 and then most notably by Charlotte Bronte with ‘Jane Eyre’ in 1848. Within 20 years, women authors would be in the majority in the Tauchnitz list, but that’s another story.