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Corvey 'Adopt an Author'

Mary Anne Hedge

The Corvey Project at
Sheffield Hallam University

Biography of Mary Anne Hedge by Michaela Rosenthall


Perhaps not unusually for the Corvey collection, no information at all is available for Mary Anne Hedge. She is not listed in the Royal Literary Fund, or in any of the writers’ anthologies currently available. The details of her life remain a mystery. However, three of the four novels we do possess contain either a dedication or an introduction, which could implicitly reveal a little information concerning the author.

In its advertisements of her previous publications, the front cover of Life; or Fashion and Feeling [1822] reveals that Mary Hedge appears to have predominantly written instructing and amusing books for the young. Her published works include ‘Affection's Gift’, ‘Twilight Hours Improved’ and ‘Juvenile Poems’, and a possibly historically based text 'Letters on History’. Unfortunately it is quite likely that many of her published works have not survived, and we are only able to speculate at the content of the above mentioned novels through their titles.

The collected contemporary reviews of her work reveal that she is an author who has received praise for her juvenile literature. The Literary Journal of 1819 for example, describes Affections Gift to a Beloved God Child as displaying ‘the best exertions and intentions of a sensible woman’, and advertisements to the rear of The Flatterer, confirm that Affections Gift ran to at least a second edition. The majority of the literature published outside the Corvey collection appears to be before The Retreat (1820) and concerns itself with the amusement and instruction of youth. It would appear that Mary Hedge ventured into juvenile literature before attempting a novel that could interest an adult readership, which was the usual course available to female writers of the period.

The earliest novel in the Corvey, The Retreat (1820), is dedicated to the author's father. The rather poignant dedication describes her father as a ‘faithful friend’ and ‘constant companion’. What is particularly interesting, and what the critical essay on her novels will discuss, is that The Flatterer and Life repeatedly stress the necessity of choosing a marriage partner who is also a constant and equal companion. If we therefore consider the language contained within this dedication in conjunction with the message she is attempting to impart to her readership, within her life, her father holds the same status as a husband. Also, despite Hedge’s insistence through her novels for the need and recognition of the good mother figure, none of the Corvey novels contain a reference to her own mother or any children she may herself have possessed. It is quite possible that mention is made of these personal figures in her earlier novels, which are not available.

An apology for her work is contained in the introduction to The Retreat which is quite typical in style of the period when female writers considered it necessary to apologise for their craft in order to remain socially acceptable. The influences of such an apology can be traced to the eighteenth century in such works as Fanny Burney’s Evelina. The apology extends to a personal explanation for her incentive to write the novel ‘as the employment beguiled a period of very painful retrospection to myself, I encourage the hope that perusal may suspend, at least, the pain and anxiety of others’. However, we must be careful to consider the implications of such a statement before accepting it as a truth. What appears to be a heartfelt admission direct from the author, could certainly be a calculated literary ploy intending to portray the author as someone who has suffered and is therefore in a position to give advice. This would increase both the moral worth of the novels and give weight to the warning contained therein.

The pious and morally didactic style of her prose certainly leaves the figure of the author with something to live up to. Her apologies for offering this work extend to acknowledging that it is ‘deficient in plot’ is similar to other works, (such as Fanny Burney’s Evelina and Mary Bruton’s Self Control) and although honest in its descriptions of scenery it is not particularly skilful in its composition. Like many female authors before her, Mary Hedge uses the introduction to apologise for her lack of skill whilst stating what her intentions of forming character are. Here she explicitly states that moral character is combined with religious feeling to produce a superior individual, which we suspect the contemporary reader of the period was to aspire to. The author also places an emphasis on the duty of women to act as the influence of good character and virtue to themselves and ‘man’. Her novels continually stress the importance of the role of woman and wife as companion and educator.

She acknowledges that novel writing has given her the opportunity to fulfil her role as educator, to allow others to learn from her mistakes and to obtain esteem from others who possess similar sentiments to those she expresses. Although it has not been possible to establish when her previously mentioned novels were published, she states that The Retreat is her first venture into a new form, therefore it is not unreasonable to speculate that her publications prior to 1820 may have consisted entirely of children’s tales and poems. Here, she was adopting a publishing pattern common with women writers of the period.

With her novel Man; or Anecdotes National and Individual (1822), she returns to a novel aimed at a younger readership which is indicated in the front page by describing the novel as ‘an historic melange for the amusement of youth’. If Man was the next novel to be published after The Retreat it is possible she returned to this style to please the critics. But as only one review was located as unfavourable, it is more probable she returned to a style she was more comfortable with or that she suspected would sell well.

At the beginning of this novel is a note from the author entitled ‘ advertisement’. Her intentions for the novel as an educator are clearly stated along with the acknowledgement, as with the introduction in The Retreat that ‘originality has not been attempted’ and she has 'borrowed freely from other sources’. Interwoven with the advertisement's conclusion is a moral warning on pushing imagination beyond truth, in keeping with Mary Hedge’s heavy religious influences.

A further intriguing dedication is to be found at the start of Life; or Fashion and Feeling, which is addressed to Miss Harris, who is described as the author’s ‘Faithful friend’ and ‘soother of her sorrows’. No other information regarding the exact nature of the relationship is forthcoming but one would assume she is not a relative or she would have been addressed as such. The exact details of Mary Anne Hedge’s circumstances, age and family are not revealed in the dedications and prefaces discussed. However, for speculation's sake, it could be suggested with her heavy religious overtones she wished to take orders and was unable to, leaving her with the option to practice religion as a profession by writing about it. Perhaps she was not particularly religious in her youth, yet after suffering misfortune, such as the loss of someone extremely close to her, turned voraciously to religion as a consolation. This could lead to the need to share her conviction with others. She speaks of loss within her introduction to The Retreat, and Life concerns itself explicitly with conversion to religion and the soothing consolations to be found in having a true belief in God. Whatever her circumstances, it is this reviewer's hope that a more substantial picture of the circumstances of Mary Hedge’s life will eventually be available.

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