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(Re-)Creating Cambrian Pictures

From Minerva Press to Ann Julia Hatton/‘Ann of Swansea’

Photograph of daffodils and a copy of Ann Hatton's Cambrian Pictures (Honno, 2021), edited by Elizabeth Edwards

This post on the poet and novelist Ann Julia Hatton (1764–1838), better known in the Romantic period by her pen-name, ‘Ann of Swansea’, picks up several threads in the recent Romantic Textualities special issue on the Minerva Press (Summer 2020), edited by Christina Morin and Elizabeth Neiman. In the post that precedes this one, Colette Davies reviewed rising scholarly interest in the press, along with the challenges facing those researching the scope and complexity of the world of Minerva: ‘the narrative of the Minerva Press and its writers is obscured, opaque even […] polyphonic and complex’. This post attempts to reveal something of Hatton’s admittedly polyphonic but also theatrical and reflective first novel, Cambrian Pictures; or, Every One Has Errors, published in London by Edward Kerby in 1810, and reissued by A. K. Newman under the Minerva imprint in 1813.

The Romantic Textualities Minerva issue reflects a turn towards the period’s popular fiction, which made up such an important but neglected piece of the contemporary literary landscape. Recent academic publications, along with a growing body of current graduate work, are building on earlier bibliographical studies that mapped out the field of the Romantic-period novel. Though they are often easy to obtain online, these novels are not necessarily easy to read or use. Scans of original texts float context-free on platforms such as Google Books, consumed onscreen like backlit facsimiles. Although online databases in this way provide excellent access to so many Romantic-period novels, the scholarly industry building up around these texts is perhaps not well reflected by these raw digital copies. To date, few Minerva titles have been issued as modern reprints or scholarly editions. A notable exception is Valancourt Books, who have republished Minerva Press works such as Regina Maria Roche’s Clermont (1798) alongside contemporary popular novels such as Jane West’s A Gossip’s Story (1796).

Creating Cambrian Pictures

Newly available via the independent Welsh publisher Honno Press is Hatton’s Cambrian Pictures, the novel that in 1813 began her long relationship with the Minerva Press. The press, or its successor imprints, would go on to publish a novel a year for Hatton between 1814 and 1819, and some 13 novels in total up to 1831. Hatton herself is a fascinating figure, whose biography is as dramatic as the plot of any novel. Born Ann Kemble, younger sister to the future Sarah Siddons, she is said to have suffered from a disability that prevented her from entering the family theatre business. While still in her teens she married an actor who turned out to be a bigamist, and shortly afterwards in the 1780s she worked for the electro-sexual therapist Dr James Graham, attempted suicide in Westminster Abbey and was shot in a bagnio in Convent Garden. Marrying a William Hatton in 1792, she spent the rest of the decade in New York (where she moved in pro-revolutionary circles) and Nova Scotia, before returning to Swansea, where the Hattons leased the bathing house. The death of William in 1806 prompted Hatton to try her hand at keeping a school for girls, before reinventing herself as a novelist. 

Her first novel is at its simplest the story of two friends. This is, however, a crude simplification of a work comprised of multiple, parallel and nested narratives. As the title suggests, its major setting is Wales, though the action also moves at key points to Italy, Cumberland and a voyage by sea around the British coast, while London, Scotland and India hover on the horizons via several minor characters and subplots. The novel’s criss-crossing but wide-ranging narrative lines enable Hatton to play with a host of characters, from corrupt and/or lascivious aristocrats to servant girls, sailors, soldiers, drunken housekeepers, penny-pinching accountants, the fiercely independent Welsh gentry and an incoming East Indian nabob. Throughout the novel, this cast enables Hatton to show the range of her skills in voice and dialect, in a work full of the pleasures of language. But while its plotline is of its time, featuring both Richardsonian abduction narratives and silver fork-style sociability, the themes of Cambrian Pictures also feel modern and relevant. Hatton discusses rights and responsibilities (especially around gender, race and society) in her poetry and fiction alike, and the subtitle of Cambrian PicturesEvery One Has Errors—resonates throughout. Set in the context of family and friendship networks, the characters’ individual flaws enable Hatton to explore key ideas of love and/or obsession, power, coercion, toxic masculinity, personal freedom and sexual desire. Do what you feel, the novel seems to suggest, all the while demonstrating in a strikingly even-handed way that love is never free—that there are always costs and consequences.

Reissuing Cambrian Pictures

Strictly speaking, this book is a reprint, with a critical introduction, rather than a scholarly edition. The text of the novel was derived from an OCR’d scan of the 1813 edition, held at the National Library of Wales—a process that involved intensive checking and correcting. As part of that process, the text was lightly modernised (spellings that may seem confusing to modern readers, such as ‘staid’ for ‘stayed’, have been silently adjusted) and internal spelling inconsistencies were ironed out. As this isn’t a scholarly edition, there was however no space for notes to track these changes, nor to record variants across the 1810 and 1813 text (the 1813 edition loses, for example, its dedication to the manager of the Swansea Theatre, Andrew Cherry). The lack of notes also means that there was nowhere to discuss the novel’s intertextuality, the most obvious example of which will be found in the epigraphs (from Shakespeare and Milton to Ann Yearsley and Walter Scott) that head each chapter. While it would ideally have been possible to include these elements of the text, the result is an accessibly priced paperback (and cheaper e-book version) that makes this lesser-known novel available in a modern form. This matters, because reputations are often made, or recovered, by this kind of work.

Cambrian Pictures is part of Honno’s ‘Welsh Women’s Classics’ series, which aims to bring lost voices from Welsh women’s writing back into wider circulation for a new generation of readers. It’s the thirtieth title in that series, which until now has mainly focused on later nineteenth- and twentieth-century works, but further Minerva Press-associated novelists, such as the Merthyr Tydfil-born Anna Maria Bennett (c.1750–1808), edited by Mary Chadwick, are in the pipeline. Welsh (and Romantic) women’s literary history is lucky to have the opportunity to revive and reappraise these works with Honno.

Find out more about Honno Press’s ‘Welsh Women Classics’ series. 

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