Contemporary Critical Reception of the Works of Hannah Maria Jones
Hannah Maria Jones wrote twenty-three novels during her career, which stretched from 1820 to 1850, yet despite her huge output and massive popularity, only a few reviews of her works have been traced. This fact, in itself, may suggest something about the reception of Jones' work, or rather how the editors of the journals perceived her novels. Jones was renowned as the '"Queen" of cheap fiction' (Sutherland, 1988, 340) and so it is perhaps for this reason that her novels were rarely reviewed, as their literary status did not merit them appearing inreview publications. Also, Jones was one of the most successful 'Penny Dreadful' writers during the period and her novels sold in their thousands, which suggests that there was no need for journals to review them as they already had such a wide readership. Jones was hugely popular, yet she had no status in the fashionable world and often moved house, apparently with no connections to make her stay in one area. Jones was a 'wanderer', like the heroines in her novels and the lack of reviews on her work suggest that the editors of journals had no interest in an author who had no fashionable social connections and did not produce anything that was particularly new or inspirational.
A review of Jones' The Wedding Ring; or, Married and Single. A Domestic Tale, published in four volumes in 1824 (Jones' fourth novel) appeared in the Monthly Critical Review in 1825. After summarising the main story, the critic states:
'The other incidents of this tale, and the other characters, are marked by no features of originality; but the style is better than that of the common class of novels, and it is commendably free from the cant of religion, which has of late so disgustingly obtruded in works of this description.' (1825, 281)
The review is fairly positive about Jones' novel. It also suggests that Jones was using a style that had been popular in the past and had often been repeated. In using such a recognisable template, Jones was able to guarantee royalties from the novel instead of trying something new which might not be as successful. The critic does rate Jones' style as 'better than that of the common class of novels' however, which suggests a reason why Jones was one of the most successful authors of the period.
A second review of Jones' work featured in The Literary Gazette; or, Journal of the Belles Lettres on Saturday 10 March, 1827, for Jones' sixth novel, entitled Rosaline Woodbridge; or, The Midnight Visit. A Romantic tale. The review was very short and read:
'This is a novel in three volumes, made according to the good old recipe, but we cannot say that it also combines the merits of the more modern productions of its class. '(1827, 153)
This review is much more negative than the previous one and the length of the review itself shows how highly this critic rated the novel. Jones' novels were often published in three volumes and sometimes more, which was very common for a novel in the early nineteenth century, 'especially when the aim is to get as much financial gain as possible from one storyline.' (Figes, 1982, 2) The 'good old recipe' that the critic refers to is presumably the predictable, romantic storyline that Jones adopted for a large number of her novels. As with the previous review, this statement also criticises the lack of ingenuity in Jones' work, in not meeting the same standard as the 'modern productions of its class.' However, a poem written by Jones herself, which was part of a letter to the Royal Literary Fund and entitled 'The Song of the Pen', suggests that this author could be inventive when the situation demanded it, as this poem parodies a more famous verse by William Hood entitled 'The Song of The Shirt', which was first published in 1843 in Punch magazine. (http://www.library.utoronto.ca.utwl/rp/poems /hood3b.html) One of the verses from Jones' poem is as follows:
Gain! What a word! What gain?
Poverty, rags and scorn Shattered mercies and scorching brain
Oh God that I'd never been born.
I have filled up sheet upon sheet
Volumes on volumes I've heap'd
And still to drag on from day to day
Is the rich reward I have reaped. (Letter no 23, RLF file 553)
This despondency and resignation perhaps suggests why Jones' novels were very similar, as Jones recognised a successful formula and kept to it, literally 'writing for bread' as another verse of this poem proposes.
Montague Summers also comments on the popularity of Jones' novels in the following extract:
' 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.' (1941, 81)
From the three reviews that I have mentioned in this biography, I suggest that, although Jones was not a particularly talented author (which she was the first person to admit in her letters to the Royal Literary Fund), her novels had characteristics which made them hugely popular to the mass reading public that craved 'cheap amusement' and mindless entertainment from the novels they read. As a result of the novels being labelled as 'cheap fiction' (Sutherland, 1998, 340), Jones was not reviewed in journals, but the popularity of her work speaks for itself and establishes Jones as one of the most popular authors of the early 1800s.
Anon, 1825, Review of "The Wedding Ring: or, Married and Single. A Domestic Tale. By Hannah Maria Jones - 4 vols. 12 mo. Il. 1s" Monthly Critical Gazette, Volume 2, pp 280-281.
Anon, Saturday 10 March 1827, Short notice for "Rosaline Woodbridge", The Literary Gazette; or, Journal of the Belles Lettres, p. 153.
Figes, Eva, 1982, Sex and Subterfuge: Women Writers to 1850, London, Macmillan.
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.
Summers, Montague, 1941, A Gothic Bibliography, New York, Russell and Russell.
Sutherland, John, 1988, The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction, Harlow, Longman.
Thomas Hood (1799-1845): The Song of the Shirt, ed. I. Lancashire, 2000, University of Toronto, 5 April 2001, online at http://www.library.utoronto.ca.utwl/rp/poems /hood3b.html