Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Peacock in Love: Reminiscences of Cecilia Jenkins, an Unknown Victorian Novelist

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Peacock in Love: Reminiscences of Cecilia Jenkins, an Unknown Victorian Novelist

Article excerpt

An editor of literary letters sometimes needs a bit of luck, as well as the persistence of a detective, to track down a "missing person." When I began to collect the letters of Thomas Love Peacock, I naturally wanted to identify the Mrs. Jenkins mentioned by his granddaughter Edith Nicolls as "a very old friend" and as one of his few correspondents in his last years. (1) But how was I to find a lady with a common surname about whom I knew next to nothing? The case seemed all but hopeless until I came across a bookseller's catalogue listing, among other Peacock first editions, a presentation copy of his last little book, Gl'Ingannati: The Deceived ... and Aelia Laelia Crispis, inscribed to Cecilia Jenkins. Once I knew Mrs. Jenkins's given name, it was an easy matter, the next time I was in London, to check the indexes of wills at Somerset House for some twenty years following the date of the inscription. Of the two Cecilia Jenkinses listed, one turned out to be Peacock's friend, and her will enabled me to connect her with his early circle at Englefield Green. But the real payoff came when, to my surprise, I found her name in the index of applicants for assistance from the Royal Literary Fund, a charity for impoverished authors that still flourishes today. Cecilia Jenkins's case file in the Fund's archives not only contained details of her disastrous marriage but also revealed that she was the anonymous author of eight books, one of which proved to be an autobiographical novel in which she relates otherwise unrecorded anecdotes of Shelley and Peacock, quotes the full text of an otherwise unknown love poem that Peacock sent her, and even describes how, one summer day, Peacock proposed to her.

What began as a search for a missing person turned out to involve a case of mistaken identity. Not only have Mrs. Jenkins's books been forgotten, but her very existence as an author has been unknown to bibliographers. Prior to the indexing of Bentley's privately printed Lists by Michael Turner (2) and the cataloguing of the archives of the Royal Literary Fund by Nigel Cross, (3) Cecilia Jenkins's novels were attributed in a number of standard reference works, including the Supplement to Allibone's Dictionary and the British Museum's General Catalogue of Printed Books, to another woman writer with a similar Welsh surname: Henrietta Camilla Jenkin, whose novels were sometimes published under the name of Mrs. C. Jenkin. (4) The British Library has since corrected its listings for the novels, but the misattribution persists in numerous catalogues and reference works, including the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. The present article thus has two interrelated purposes: first, to provide an account of the life and writings of a hitherto unrecognized Victorian novelist whose work is noteworthy for its critique of the institution of marriage in early nineteenth-century England, and second, to examine the hitherto unnoticed passages relating to Shelley and Peacock in Mrs. Jenkins's three-decker Wedlock; or, Yesterday and To-day, which collectively constitute the only extensive personal reminiscence we have of Peacock as a young man.

Cecilia Jenkins was the second of three daughters of James Knowles and his wife Hannah Warren, of St. Agnes Cottage, Englefield Green, Surrey. (5) Although she did not give her year of birth on her applications to the Literary Fund, she was born at Englefield Green on 30 January, probably around 1792, though possibly as late as 1796. (6) Her older sister, Anna Maria Knowles, was born on 27 September 1789 and was married at Egham on 1 May 1809 to Joseph Gulston, a former schoolfellow of Peacock's who lived for the next few years at Poplar Lodge, Englefield Green. (7) A brother, Francis Edward Knowles, was born on 27 April 1794 and baptized at Croydon, Surrey, on 20 June of that year. (8) Cecilia's younger sister, Clarinda Knowles, was baptized at Sutton, Surrey, on 12 May 1797 and was married to the Reverend John Atkyns at All Saints, Southampton, on 26 August 1834. …

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