Biography of Hannah Maria Jones by Fiona Alexander
Hannah Maria Jones made fourteen applications to the Royal Literary Fund (RLF) between the years 1825 and 1852 and it is Jones' file in this resource (no. 553) that provides the most information on this author. There are also other letters in this file, written by Jones' acquaintances to recommend her for financial assistance, which are also useful in constructing a fuller biography of Hannah Maria Jones.
Although John Sutherland gives Jones' dates as 1801-1854, adding that some accounts have given them as 1796-1859, (Sutherland, 1988, 340), I believe that Jones was in fact born in 1784, after cross-referencing allusions made to her parents' as well as her own age in her letters to the RLF. In a letter dated November 1844 (letter no. 25, RLF File 553), Jones states that she is now 'sixty years of age', which suggests that she was in fact born in 1784. Jones writes in another of her letters, dated July 6th 1831 that her mother is 'aged nearly seventy', which means that her mother must have been born circa 1764. Therefore, had Hannah Maria Jones actually been born in 1801, her mother would have been almost 40 years of age when she gave birth, which seems highly unlikely, as opposed to twenty years of age, if Jones was born in 1784. Other references to the age of a 'close relative' in Jones' letters, which the reader can assume is also her mother, support the age of her mother and add weight to the proposal that Jones was born earlier than has previously been suggested. Hannah Maria Jones was therefore seventy years old when she died in 1854, as long as this date is also correct and not 1859 as other accounts may suggest. (Sutherland, 1988, 340)
It was not until the age of thirty-six that Hannah Maria Jones published her first novel, which was entitled Gretna Green. In one of Jones' first letters to the RLF (written when she was 41), the writer comments 'I have been for some years employed in various ways by various publishers'. It can be assumed that this reference alludes to the five novels published before Jones' first letter to the Fund - Gretna Green (1820), The British Officer (1821); The Wedding Ring (1824), The Forged Note (1824) and The Victim of Fashion (1825) - which were published by a variety of publishers. No information is available about Jones before this time however and the author's childhood, family background and education remain a mystery.
Hannah Maria was married to John Jones for several years. John Jones often suffered from debilitating illnesses and was unemployed from 1827-1831 when the firm that he worked for, Thomas White's the printers, failed as a business and Jones was made redundant. Despite presumably being employed for much of the rest of his working life, Jones' wages were described as being 'totally inadequate' (letter no 6, RLF file 553) to support his family and that he 'normally depended on rather than supported his wife.' (Sutherland, 1988, 340) Hannah Maria often mentions having to support three people, although the descriptions of these individuals are vague and change throughout the course of her letters to the RLF. The first mention of these dependants is in a letter dated 6 July 1831, when Jones says 'During the last ten years I have in a great measure supported myself and my husband and child by the productions of my pen'. (Letter no 9, RLF file no 553) In a later letter, however, dated July 1839, Jones states 'I have for more than twenty years supported myself and for the greater part of the time an orphan girl and another near relative by the proceeds of my pen.' It seems strange that Jones does not describe the two people mentioned in the second letter as her husband and daughter, but the descriptions may still refer to the same people if Hannah Maria and John Jones adopted a child rather than had their own children. However, this is only speculation and the inconsistency may also suggest that Jones was actually only exaggerating her situation for financial gain from the RLF.
Later in life, Hannah Maria also lived with the 'hack author' (Sutherland, 1988, 340) John Lowndes, whose name she both used on publications and in her signature. Lowndes and Jones were not married however and only lived together, although Lowndes tried to claim money for them as a married couple. In an undated letter to the Fund, Lowndes wrote:
'For the last 15 years myself and my poor Creature have been employed in writing works of Entertainment with a Moral Tendency, that Lady formerly writing under the name of Hannah Maria Jones.' (Letter no 9, RLF file 984)
John Lowndes was well known to the RLF however and in an undated note on the file of John Lowndes, Octavian Blewitt, Secretary to the RLF, wrote:
' I have ascertained that John Lowndes has been living for several years with Mrs Hannah Maria Jones, Case No 553, who through calling herself latterly "Mrs Lowndes", was never married to him, as she herself has admitted to me. They may have been working and writing together for the lowest class of Publishers, and have become well known to the Royal Literary Society as Begging Letter Writers.' (Letter no 7, RLF file 984)
It seems then that Hannah Maria Jones and John Lowndes were in fact unrelated and either one or both of them used each other to help their applications to the Fund. Lowndes was the last person to make an application on Jones' behalf before her death in 1854 and so it can be presumed that Jones remained with Lowndes until the end of her life. Jones lived in numerous places during the period that she was writing to the RLF, her first correspondence being sent from 15 North Street, Mile End Road in the Stepney Green area of London. Other addresses used by the author were Robin Hoods Court, Shoe Lane; No. 4 Mitchies Place, Lower Debtford Road, Rotherhithe; No 1 Seven Houses, Lower Road, Rotherhithe; Debnam's Cottage, St Helena Lane, Rotherhithe; 5 Anthony Street, Salisbury Street, Bermondsey and finally 17 Salisbury Place, which is mentioned in Jones' obituary in The Times. (Entry 31, RLF File 553) During the summer of 1828, Jones also spent some time in St Thomas's Hospital (Letter no 8, RLF File 553). This information suggests that Jones actually did suffer from a 'severe indisposition', as Mr Haskings-Purgson of Fleet Street had proposed in a letter to the RLF in April 1828 (Letter no 6, RLF File 553) and that for a time, Jones was in fact seriously ill. From the hospital, Jones wrote a letter to the Fund, thanking them for their help but seeming doubtful about whether she had 'any prospect of ever rising from a bed'. (Letter no 8, RLF File 553) Hannah Maria Jones often suffered from illnesses and in particular, a 'domestic affliction too painful for me to detail' (Letter no 9, RLF File 553) is often referred to by the author as one of her main reasons for not being able to support herself. Edward Bingham, a bookseller and librarian from Grosvenor Square, London, also proposed that Jones was unable to make a good living through 'the great competition in the Literary Market of Manuscripts together with a continuance of ill health.' (Letter no 18, RLF File 553). Sutherland further remarks that 'her work was ruthlessly plagiarised by hacks' (Sutherland, 1988, 340) and Montague Summers has written that 'her bibliography is made especially intricate and obscure on account of the plagiarisms, the unauthorised reprints and spurious editions of her work which swarmed even during her lifetime.' (Summers, 1941, 308) It seems then that Jones should have collected more royalties from her novels but suffered a 'cruel wring' (Summers, 1941, 308) by publishers who reproduced her work without consent. In February 1854, John Lofts, a publisher who was located at 262 The Strand, advertised The Gipsey Mother (written by Jones in 1835) with the statement:
' The publisher having published the copyrights of the most celebrated work of the above talented and popular authoress (who is still living) begs respectfully to inform the public that they will be reprinted in a handsome form, and profusely illustrated with beautiful wood-carvings, at a price hitherto unattempted.' (Summers, 1941, 308)
It seems likely that Jones should have had a much more comfortable existence but was cheated (although to what extent it can never be known) by reprints that she had not authorised. The letters to the RLF also portray Jones as quite a humble person and Jones often dismissed the idea that her novels were of any quality. Alison Adburgham proposes on the topic of women authors 'They were literally writing for their lives, and they neither expected nor received absolution.' (1972, 272) John Sutherland further comments that 'for all her popularity, she was the least proud of authors and claimed that no one could have a lower opinion of her works than she did herself.' (1988, 340) Jones was a shy author and seems to have been much better at communicating her thoughts on paper rather than in person, perhaps because she was not used to socialising and was inept at conversing with people. Jones wrote in another letter to the RLF:
'My heart would have prompted the most forcible expression of gratitude for benevolent exertions yet I quitted you without being able to give utterance to more than a few commonplace terms of thankfulness.' (Letter no 5, RLF file 553)
Perhaps Jones suffered from a similar affliction to Shakespeare's Cordelia in not being to 'heave my heart into my mouth,' (Shakespeare, 1997, 164) yet she continued to write to the RLF despite being refused on previous occasions. The authoress wrote 'it may be necessary to offer an apology for my seeming pertinacious in thus forcing myself upon the attention of those by whom I have already been refused' (Letter no 19, RLF file 553). These repeated claims on the charity of the RLF could be interpreted as those of an avaricious author trying to secure as much money from the Fund as possible, yet it does seem quite possible that Jones was actually in need of immediate financial assistance, as several of the recommendations made to the Fund by Jones' friends and acquaintances suggest that Jones was indeed, 'an object meriting …charity.' (Letter no 6, RLF file 553) Perhaps the epistle which most vividly describes the author's situation is letter number nine in Jones' file, which was written in 1831 and which contains a list of the furniture that Jones had in her apartment. Jones wrote:
'For the last five months a straw bed without even the common necessities of a sheet or blanket has been our only resting place, a box our table and the same a substitute for a chair.' (Letter no 9, RLF file 553)
These images seem to relate very closely to a poem published anonymously in Punch, in December 1843, which has been attributed to the poet Thomas Hood. (1) Hood wrote
A bed of straw,
A crust of bread--and rags.
That shatter'd roof,--and this naked floor--
A table--a broken chair--
And a wall so blank, my shadow I thank
For sometimes falling there!
The poem was a massive success and made such an impression on Jones, (who must have had access to the magazine), that she consciously drew upon the poem in a letter to the RLF, which was received by the Fund sometime between 1841 and 1844. Jones' poem is entitled The Song of the Pen and one of the verses reads as follows:
My head aches as if it were splitting
I'm worn down to mere skin and bone
Strange shadows around me are flitting
Not one is so gaunt as my own.
There are shadows of days long departed
When bright hope of fame filled my head
When heedless and young and light-hearted
I dreamt not of writing for bread. (Letter no 23, RLF file 553)
It is immediately obvious that Jones has used many similar images to those that Hood used in the original poem. The final two lines suggest that Jones had been writing for some years before applying to the RLF, although not perhaps saving any money in the process. This might perhaps explain Jones' lack of means, suggesting that the author did in fact receive some of the royalties from her novels but was not prudent enough to save them. However, it is equally possible that Jones was unfortunate in having a number of her works reproduced without her consent, which resulted in a huge loss of income for the writer.
Hannah Maria Jones wrote twenty-seven novels in total. Her final novel was Katherine Beresford; or, The Shade and Sunshine of a Woman's Life which was published in 1850. However, 'since many of Hannah Maria Jones' novels were published without a date the actual year of issue is in several cases extremely difficult to fix with any precision.' (Summers, 1941, 308) Jones novels were sold in '1d. and 6d. serial parts' (Sutherland, 1988, 340) and were exmples of the 'Penny Dreadful' genre (Sutherland, 1988, 340). Jones worked with various publishers during her writing career, including: E. Lloyd, Shoreditch; E. Livermore, Fetter Lane; George Virtue, Ivy Lane, Paternoster Row; J. and F. Tallis, 16 Warwick Square, Newgate Street; William Emans, 31 Cloth Fair and W. Caffyn, 31 Oxford Street, Mile End. Jones was a very successful author and her 'Gipsey' trilogy was hugely popular, comprising The Gipsey Mother; or, The Miseries of Enforced Marriage (1835), The Gipsey Chief: or, The Haunted Oak, a tale of other days (1841) and The Gipsey Girl; or, The Heir of Hazel Dell (1842) . (Sutherland, 1988, 340) Montague Summers writes 'her popularity was enormous, and continued so that until the end of the nineteenth century many of her romances were appearing in cheapest guise with crudest woodcuts, generally without date or printer's name.' (Summers, 1941, 308)
As much of this biography has been constructed from Jones' letters to the Royal Literary Fund, the fact that these were written as 'begging letters', with the intention of securing some money for the author, needs to be considered. This biography must necessarily remain tentative, therefore, and, as more information on Jones becomes available, it is quite likely that the true character of the author will be further exposed and facts as given here may alter if new material is uncovered. It was not unusual for writers to the RLF to exaggerate their circumstances or tell untruths in their attempt to secure financial support. This is demonstrated by a letter written by Jones' associate John Lowndes. Lowndes' attempts at deception were discovered by Octavian Blewitt who wrote a note on Lowndes' file, stating
'Mr Lowndes submitted for examination, among the serials which accompanied his application a work entitled "England and Wales Delineated by Thomas Dugdale" pubd. by Tallis - stating to the society that he was the author of it. In case no 611 is a letter from the publisher, Mr Tallis, distinctly affirming that Mr Thomas Jones was the author of this work. The only works to which the name of John Lowndes are attached are not a shade better, if indeed they are as respectable as those of Mr Pierce Egan who was not considered a proper object for relief.' (Letter no 7, RLF file 984)
In conclusion, Hannah Maria Jones, the 'Queen of cheap fiction', (Sutherland, 1988, 340) remains a figure of mystery despite selling works in the 'tens of thousands' (Sutherland, 1988, 340) and seems to have been relegated to the bookshelves of those dozens of unknown authors who played a part in the 'ceaseless tide of fiction' (MacCarthy, 1994, 284) during the early 1800s.
(1) I first noted the similarity between these two poems after happening to find a copy of Hood's poem on the Internet. A copy of the full poem can be found online at http://www.library.utoronto.ca/utel/rp/poems/hood3b.html which is maintained by the University of Toronto.
Adburgham, Alison, 1972, Women in Print: Writing Women and Women's Magazines from the Restoration to the Accession of Victoria, London, Allen and Unwin.
MacCarthy, Bridget, 1994, The Female Pen: Women Writers and Novelists, 1621-1818, Cork, Cork University Press.
Royal Literary Fund Files, File No. 553: Reel 16, 31 articles relating to Hannah Maria Jones/Lowndes. Microfilm, Sheffield Hallam University, Collegiate Crescent Learning Centre. Royal Literary Fund Files, File No. 984: Reel 32, 11 articles relating to John Lowndes. Microfilm, Sheffield Hallam University, Collegiate Crescent Learning Centre.
Shakespeare, William, 1997, The Arden Shakespeare: King Lear, Walton on Thames: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd.
Summers, Montague, 1941, A Gothic Bibliography, New York, Russell and Russell.
Sutherland, John, 1988, The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction, London, Harlow.
Thomas Hood (1799-1845): The Song of the Shirt, ed. I. Lancashire, 2000,
University of Toronto, 5 April 2001, online at