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Isabella Kelly

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Sheffield Hallam University

Essay on the work of Isabella Kelly, by Iain Powell, May 2005

Critical Dissertation: Isabella Kelly – Genuine Gothic Genius?

A leading novelist of the Minerva Press, she was related to Elizabeth Isabella Spence, whose mother was a Fordyce, also an author of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (Blain et al, 1990, 1013). It is generally agreed by the limited biographies available that she was considered to be a moderately popular, and yet extremely prolific writer during a long career achieving not inconsiderable success. Indeed, until the middle of the Victorian period her novels were particularly enjoyed and widely read (Summers, 1969, 101). Having had poems published that were written whilst still a teenager (Todd, 1989, 381), Isabella Kelly described herself by 1832 as the ‘last survivor of all the authoresses’ of her era, in an application to the Royal Literary Fund. She also confirms herself as the author of ten novels as well as a number of pedagogical works. We do know that her poems were well subscribed to and were subsequently reprinted (Blain et al, 1990, 602-3). Her novels were issued through the circulating libraries and went to subsequent editions while The Ruins of Avondale Priory was published with six engravings by S. Fisher from 1815 to the late 1820’s as five single Six-penny Numbers, or 3 shillings for a complete volume, or board (Summers, 1969, 101).

The novels of Isabella Kelly were published with short subscriber lists, Joscelina having eighty names listed, including those of the Duchess of York, the Duchess of Devonshire, and her sister the Countess of Bessborough (Lonsdale, 1990, 482). The novel Eva was dedicated to HRH the Duchess of Gloucester while Ruthinglenne, issued through the circulating libraries, was dedicated to Lady Dalling with subscribers including HRH the Duchess of York, Lady Viscountess Melbourne, and one Matthew Lewis. Her later novel Jane de Dunstanville, written under the name of Hedgeland, was dedicated to HRH the Princess of Wales with subscribers including Matthew Lewis, and with multi-copies going to some householders we see that the Right Honourable Earl of Uxbridge ordered two copies ( Ruthinglenne was issued through ten of the nineteen circulating libraries that existed in the British Isles, including those in Dublin, Edinburgh, and London. The Baron’s Daughter was restricted to only five of these, with The Secret being issued through seven. Her final novel Jane de Dunstanville was confined to just Aberdeen, London, and Newcastle. Joscelina was dedicated to the Duchess of York in which Kelly writes of her ‘gratitude and reverence’ to her and of the ‘benignity and goodness’ of her Kelly, 1797, I, v). Kelly is clearly touched that her ‘Royal Highness has vouchsafed to patronize the…publication’, further clarifying that the work has been produced by a ‘trembling wife’, an ‘anxious mother’, in order that it ‘may extricate a husband from distress’ and prove to ‘preserve her infants’ (Kelly, 1797, I, vi). Desperation indeed!

She was widowed at least by 1802, when the ‘uncommonly beautiful girl’ was introduced to Matthew Lewis, author of The Monk, by William Lane, who ran a circulating library stocked by the Minerva Press (Summers, 1969, 263). Isabella had by this time seen herself established as a productive writer within the Minerva Press publishing house. Lewis later ‘recommended Mrs Kelly to Bell, the booksellers’ (Colburn, 1839, 276), personally introducing her to his own publishers who released The Baron’s Daughter (Summers, 1969, 265). Her novels were situated around such scenes as the London coffee houses, the Scottish borders, and the Barbadian plantations, while themes ranged from morality and sex, to agricultural labour unrest (Sage, 1999, 363). So, it appears she may have settled on a genre which allowed her to ally herself to a big name in the scene and to make money. Should Isabella Kelly have been remembered as a significant gothic writer or did she really just write to support her family and then cease once she was comfortably off? Was she embarrassed or was her son, and did Sir Fitzroy prevent her from writing as Lewis did with his own mother? Did Kelly play up her supposed gothic credentials and initiate the relationship with Lewis for her own ambitions? All these questions are valid. Kelly did not appear to have travelled outside the British Isles despite her family links to the army in India and mercantile trade in the Caribbean. Certainly, the gothic novels do revolve around the formerly disputed border areas of England, Scotland, and Wales, without trying her hand at foreign climes – the more traditional haunts, if you will, of the notable gothic writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as Lewis, Radcliffe, Stoker and Walpole.

According to Summers, Isabella Kelly had written four popular novels prior to meeting Lewis (Summers, 1969, 263) but I believe she was the author of no less than six. Despite her apparent popularity she was not in a position financially to fully support her children. In Madeline she had flattered Lewis and borrowed the suggestion for the novel from his work The Castle Spectre. Having been introduced by William Lane, Isabella Kelly requests that Lewis, in his position of employment within the War Office, investigates some money due to her deceased father who was in the Marines and was owed some pay by the Treasury. Lewis appears happy to do this, probably on account of having fallen in love with her son, William. There is an element of doubt in this regard as Peck claims the boy was ten or younger (Peck, 1961, 65) while Summers insists he was at least fourteen (Summers, 1969, 263). Lewis wrote to Isabella Kelly the following letter on 7 August 1802:

I have with much pleasure set your application before the proper authorities, and have great hopes that it will succeed.
                        I remain, Madam,
            Your obedient servant,
                        M.G. Lewis (Colburn, 1839, 273-4).

However, this confidence was short-lived and in his letter of 11 August he ‘grieves to tell’ her that the arrears of half-pay ‘had only one month before been paid into the office for unclaimed monies’ and was therefore irrecoverable. A subsequent letter was sent on the same day:

                        Dear Madam,
Your disappointment must have been severe; and I have been turning in my mind how I can possibly serve you. It appears to me that, as you have two young boys, to educate one of them, so as to enable him to become an useful and honourable member of society, will best benefit you; I will therefore do so; and, hereafter, I may have interest enough to place him in the War Office.
                                    I am, Madam,
            Your sincere friend,
                        M.G Lewis.

One suggestion is that while Lewis took on the tutelage of her son, it was through the pseudonym of ‘Matthew Monckton, Esq.’ and that he would not entertain any interview with her for any possible gratitude on the grounds that she was a fine person while he was very youthful and they would attract the inevitable slanderous public gossip (Peck, 1961, 62). It was well-known that Lewis was a homosexual and unquestionable that William Kelly was the captivating infatuation of his life. Lewis appears anxious to assist the family and through the developing relationship began to read several manuscript chapters for her, even giving her an entire plan for a novel (Summers, 1969, 263-5). Lewis confirms this in a letter to his mother on 18 March 1804 when he advises ‘I gave Mrs Kelly the plan of a novel, but she did not adopt it…at least I believe not; for I only read the first two volumes’ (Colburn, 1839, 279-80). A problem regarding artistic and personal integrity had by now occurred for Lewis as evidenced in his earlier letter of the 15th where he informs his mother:

that an advertisement appeared in the newspapers some time ago, stating that Mrs Kelly was writing a novel, in which I assisted her. I immediately wrote to her on the subject, stating that, in consequence, I declined ever reading her future works, previous to their publication (Colburn, 1839, 275).

The newspaper article suggesting a collaboration clearly annoyed her benefactor and despite protestations of innocence and him exonerating her, he had to quell the public gossip and refuse to assist her in a literary sense, as unwanted press attention and the public ‘newspaper animadversion’ that would ensue led to many letters to his mother, his mood not helped by her own mooted attempts to get published! Expressing his indifference on being called ‘Mr Monk Lewis’, he confirms:

It was merely on account of the advertisements that I declined seeing any of Mrs Kelly’s manuscripts, but into the bargain she had just published a novel in which there was a most flaming eulogium upon the author of “The Monk;” and the advertisement might have induced people to suppose that I had written my own praises! Now though I have no objection to other people’s trying to make me appear wicked or foolish, I do not choose to have it supposed that I have mad myself appear ridiculous; and, therefore, I immediately informed Mrs Kelly that I never could give any public patronage to a person who had published an eulogium upon me, and…I would have nothing to do with her writings. She wanted, too, to dedicate to me, but that I stopped (Colburn, 1839, 279).

I believe that Lewis is referring to A Modern Incident in Domestic Life but this does impact on the reprinted edition of The Baron’s Daughter in which Isabella Kelly has written in her preface of the fact that ‘the poetry promised for this, will appear in a future work…and that it will then prove more conducive to my interest’ (Kelly, 1805, iv). Lewis, in his letter to his mother described above, continues with the assertion that ‘I gave no poems for it, and mean to give none for any future work of hers’ (Colburn, 1839, 280). The preface does offer a slight note of indignation with the message that her novel ‘enters life unpatronised by greatness’ (Kelly, 1805, iii), and the coded message to Lewis ‘that her gleanings were considered too insignificant, they had been offered to one whose genius is only exceeded by his active beneficence’ (Kelly, 1805, iii).

It appears that Mrs Lewis was also close to Isabella Kelly and during this year the two women were on the verge of sharing a house together in Old Brompton, London. Mrs Lewis declined finally, with Isabella renting Cornwall Cottage as well as opening a school in Chelsea (Summers, 1969, 265). As time went by, Mrs Lewis was obviously in regular correspondence with Isabella (who later uses her married name of Hedgeland), although it remains unclear whether the two women were fully aware of the exact nature of the relationship between William Kelly and Matthew Lewis. The behaviour of William was of some concern to Lewis as he saw him lose his position in the War Office and start to incur debts which Lewis was forced to discharge and, as his apparent friend and patron, was called upon to extricate the young man from imprisonment on a number of occasions, (Summers, 1969, 265). A letter from Lewis to his mother in July, 1815:

I saw William Kelly on Thursday last, probably later than his mother’s letter to you…you may assure Mrs Hedgeland that I am not in the least offended with him…I am no longer disappointed with him in the least, and I wish you to assure his mother so (Colburn, 1839, 96-7).

Further, a letter addressed to William Kelly in August, 1815 has Lewis express his disappointment with his lover’s behaviour, his concern urges him advise the young man ‘to write to Mrs Hedgeland’ (Colburn, 1839, 101). Interestingly, Lewis reveals a real insight into the life of Isabella Kelly through the letter to his mother of 15 March 1804, in which he suggests:

The trade of authoress is not an enviable one. In the last letter which I had from poor Mrs Kelly, she said that if she could but procure for her children the common necessaries of life by hard labour, she would prefer it to the odious task of writing, which entailed upon its professors so much envy, slander, and malignity (Colburn, 1839, 277-8).

Regarding the link with Lewis, Lady Holland reported some gossip in 1845 pertaining to the rising celebrity Fitzroy Kelly, as follows: ‘It is said he is the son of my poor old friend Monk Lewis. His brother, by the same mother, is acknowledged as such in Lewis’s will, who left him a provision’ (Peck, 1961, 66). This is fanciful in some respects as Fitzroy was not included in the will and the parentage of neither boy was mentioned. However, one can see the possibility of these ideas having been put forward initially by Kelly in order to generate more interest in her works by association with the name and reputation of Lewis. In fact, in her work A Modern Incident in Domestic Life Kelly includes two stanzas from Lewis’ The Monk, which the governess reads to her young charge. It is this novel which has the eulogium which upsets Lewis so much, although as it could be seen as more ‘cloying than flaming, one can understand Lewis’ feeling that Mrs Kelly’s gratitude was getting out of hand’, hence the poetry refusal for The Baron’s Daughter (Peck, 1961, 64) The final recorded acts of Matthew Lewis with regards the Kelly family is his will. Originally, in the will, Lewis wishes to:

bequeath my five shares of 100l. in Drury-lane Theatre to Wm Martin Kelly. I also bequeath him 500l., to be paid him on…reaching twenty-one years of age…I add 500l. to the above legacy” (Colburn, 1839, 384-5).

Before his death in 1818, a codicil to the will was made so that ‘instead of the legacy to William Martin Kelly, I bequeath him 104l. yearly…that sum being paid him by weekly instalments of two pounds each’ (Colburn, 1839, 387).

She claimed she was born in Cairnboro’ Castle according to one source (Lonsdale, 1990, 481). This castle does not exist but my investigations have pointed to the possibility of this being more likely to be Cairnbulg Castle which did belong to the Fraser family, i.e. her mother’s relations, and conveniently for her storytelling, was reputedly the site of an attempted forced marriage between Henry VIII’s son Edward and Mary, Queen of Scots around 1545! ( This castle was rebuilt in the mid-nineteenth century and it is open to conjecture whether her claims are true or not. The gothic credentials are all there: the mystery of her parent’s marriage; the loss of fortune of both husbands, who both died; the Scottish highland background which still held some fears and superstitions for the British reader. Indeed, she drew heavily on these for her influences, adding the Catholic flavour to add a bit more interest. The persistent feeling one cannot help returning to is the idea that Isabella Kelly merely rattled off a few good yarns, made some money, having forced a liaison with Lewis, and then retired from the literary scene to live in the comfort that she had sought from the outset, having suffered the life of a gothic heroine herself to some extent.


Blain, V., Clements, P., Grundy, I. (eds.) (1990) The Feminist Companion To Literature In English – Women Writers from the Middle Ages to the Present, London: B.T. Batford Ltd.

Colburn, H. (1839) The Life and Correspondence of M.G. Lewis, Volumes I & II, London: Henry Colburn.

Garside, P., Raven J., and Schowerling, R. (eds.) (2000) The English Novel 1770-1829: A Bibliographical Survey of Prose Fiction Published in the British Isles, Volume I: 1770-1799, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kelly, Isabella (1797) Joscelina, or, The Rewards of Benevolence, London: T.N. Longman.

Kelly, Isabella (1805) The Baron’s Daughter: A Gothic Romance, London: Minerva

Lonsdale, R. (ed.) (1990) Eighteenth-Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Peck, L. F. (1961) A Life of Matthew G. Lewis, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Peterson, L. H. (1999) Traditions of Victorian Women’s Autobiography: the Poetics and Politics of Life Writing, Charlottesville: Virginia University Press.

Sage, L. (1999) The Cambridge Guide to Women’s Writing in English, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Shattock, J. (1993) The Oxford Guide to British Women Writers, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Summers, M. (1969) The Gothic Quest – A History of the Gothic Novel, London: The Fortune Press.

Todd, J. (ed.) (1989) Dictionary of British Women Writers, London: Routledge.