Life of Jemima

Life of Jemima, Or, the Confessions of an Unfortunate Bastard Who by the Antipathy of her Parents was Driven to Every Scene of Vice and Prostitution! Containing Some Particulars of Her Early Years; With General Remarks on Public Hospitals, an Account of the Interior of a Madhouse, and Its abuse; Her Escape Thence, and Voyage to America, Her Unhappy Marriage, and Final Settlement in England, as Nurse in an Hospital]

Author: Unknown [partially plagiarized from Mary Wollstonecraft]
Publisher: J. Bailey
Publication Year: 1800
Language: English
Book Dimensions: 11cm x 18.5cm
Pages: 24
University of Virginia Library Catalog Entry, Sadleir-Black Collection: PZ2.L549 1800



Material History

Life of Jemima, Or, the Confessions of an Unfortunate Bastard Who by the Antipathy of her Parents was Driven to Every Scene of Vice and Prostitution! Containing Some Particulars of Her Early Years; With General Remarks on Public Hospitals, an Account of the Interior of a Madhouse, and Its abuse; Her Escape Thence, and Voyage to America, Her Unhappy Marriage, and Final Settlement in England, as Nurse in an Hospital is a Gothic chapbook published in 1800. Life of Jemima is devoid of an author but credits J. Bailey for the printing and selling of the book. This remark appears on both the title page and the last page of the book. The chapbook is comprised of twenty pages, although the pages are marked up to the number 24, excluding the illustration at the very beginning of the book and the title page.

The very first thing you see when you open the book is an illustration portraying a woman who appears to have just sprung out of bed, with her breast exposed. In the illustration, she appears to have been caught engaging in sexual activities with her master, who drunkenly remains on the mattress. His mistress rages at the woman she caught with her husband. The illustration is captioned, “His extreme intoxication made him forget his customary Caution, and, my, Mistress entering, found us in a situation that could not have been more hateful to her than myself.” The text of the book itself is quite small and lettered close together. The book showcases the use of the standard long S. The margins are reasonably spaced out although there is a slightly large awkward amount of blank space at the very bottom of the pages in which more text could have easily been printed. 

The book is 18.5cm long and just under 11cm wide. Its edges are torn and a singular string, which appears to be hand-strung, binds every page together. Though the outermost page has separated from the rest of the book, it is still perfectly intact. The withered string is exposed at the very center of the spine of the book from excessive or indelicate use. It appears almost like a pamphlet. The book’s pages have turned brown and yellow with time although the text is very nearly perfectly preserved. Some mysterious stains which I can only assume to be water or mildew are scattered throughout the book. The pages are soft and feel almost cloth-like. Aside from its wear and tear, the book shows no marks of previous ownership such as names written in the book, annotations, stamps, or bookplates. While its contents are quite taboo (as indicated by the book’s title) by nineteenth-century standards, this centuries-old book is overall in fine physical condition.

Textual History

Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman is a novel written by Mary Wollstonecraft and posthumously published by her husband, William Godwin, in 1798 following Wollstonecraft’s death in 1797. Wollstonecraft died on the tenth of September of 1797, just after the birth of her daughter Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (eventually Mary Shelley) on August thirteenth of that same year. Wollstonecraft was and still is a highly respected, renowned author known for writing early feminist works. Wollstonecraft’s novels were known for centering around female characters and dynamics placing a large emphasis on female friendship. Maria tells the story of a woman who was committed to an insane asylum by her husband.

In Maria, an asylum worker named Jemima helps Maria and Darnford, the man Maria falls in love with during her time at the asylum, escape. Jemima’s life story is interpolated into the novel. The first half of this 1800 edition of Life of Jemima is verbatim Jemima’s story in Maria. The interpolated tale of Jemima’s life in Maria only extends up until the point in her life when she begins working at the asylum, yet the 1800 version of Life of Jemima continues the narrative of Jemima’s life past her escape from the asylum and beyond what is included in Maria.

The first half of Life of Jemima is blatantly pirated and plagiarized; as for the second half of the story, the author remains unknown. Many scholars have dedicated ample time to studying Maria and its history, including Jemima’s interpolated tale, yet there is no scholarship on the pirated and expanded chapbook of Life of Jemima. The chapbook’s author and illustrator remain unknown.

Narrative Point of View

Life of Jemima is narrated in the first person. Jemima narrates with an excessively somber tone, which may seem fitting considering the story she is relating. Not only is the story written in first person, but it is also written as a letter by Jemima while she is on a break during her time working as a nurse. Jemima tells her story in the past tense as she recalls the events that led to her leaving Britain, arriving in America, and then returning to Britain where she writes this letter. The story moves at a very fast pace; taking into account that the story is told in just about two dozen pages, every page is full of action.

Sample Passage:

My father seduced my mother, a pretty girl, with whom he lived fellow-servant ; and she no sooner perceived the natural, the dreaded consequence, than the terrible conviction flashed on her–that she was ruined.  Honesty, and a regard for her reputation, had been the only principles inculcated by her mother ;  and they had been so forcibly impressed that she feared shame more than the poverty to which it would lead.  Her incessant importunities to prevail upon my father to screen her from reproach by marrying her, as he had promised in the fervour of seduction, estranged him from her so completely, that her very person became distasteful to him ; and he began to hate, as well as despise me, before I was born. (Life of Jemima 2)

The way in which the story is written does not allow for different perspectives or for the reader to gain any insight into what other characters are thinking. The story is focused only on Jemima, just as the title would lead one to believe, and other characters in the book are not relevant for long. Significantly, Jemima is also the only named character in the narrative. Even characters that one might deem important, such as her husband, remain unnamed and are only mentioned for about one full page. The story is written in a way that makes it feel like the reader is getting to know Jemima in a highly intimate manner. Exceptionally descriptive language is used throughout the story to give readers insight into what Jemima is feeling at every point of her life.

Summary

Life of Jemima is presented in the form of a letter written by Jemima that begins with detailing her conception. Jemima’s mother was a servant to a sought-after young suitor. After being seduced by him, she became pregnant. Fearing the poverty her pregnancy would land her in and being ostracized by her community for letting herself be seduced, Jemima’s mother begged him to marry her, as he had promised her in the heat of the moment. Repulsed by her desperation to marry him, he developed a hatred for her and Jemima who was yet to be born. Left with no other option, Jemima’s mother birthed her out of wedlock and died nine days later. Jemima’s father was now burdened with having to care for her. He hired the cheapest nurse he could find and Jemima was sent to live with her.

The nurse had a child of her own and cared for several other children. Jemima described the nurse as having a “hardened heart” as a result of poverty and having to watch children suffer and die (Life of Jemima 3). Jemima’s father eventually married one of his servants and after some time, his wife became pregnant. She asked Jemima’s father to bring Jemima home so she could care for the new baby and no longer have to pay Jemima’s nurse. Jemima was sent back home shortly after the baby was born. Jemima was now home not as a daughter but as a servant. She was instructed to spoil the baby and attend to her every whim. Soon the young girl learned how to torment Jemima. If Jemima dared to fight back she would be beaten severely and have food withheld from her for the remainder of the day. Jemima grew strong feelings of envy and hatred toward the young girl. As the parents’ love for their new young daughter grew, their hatred for Jemima also grew. When she turned sixteen she was sent to serve another family and instructed never to return. 

Her life grew increasingly unstable after this and she was passed around from home to home. One morning while the family she was serving went to church, the master stayed at home and raped Jemima. Having nowhere to go if she left the family, she stayed quiet about what happened. Weeks passed and Jemima learned that she had become pregnant. She told her master who gave her a mysterious medicine (which she calls a potion) in a vial and instructed her to take it and not tell anyone about what had occurred. Jemima believed this potion would kill her, terrified of what would happen she wrapped the vial in a cloth and hid it. As any other Sunday morning, the family was at church, except for the master. Jemima knew what would happen and she was prepared, however, she was not prepared for the master to be drunk. As a result of his drunken carelessness the master’s wife returned home to find her husband raping Jemima. Infuriated, the wife beat Jemima ruthlessly and Jemima begged for mercy by revealing her pregnancy. She was immediately kicked out of the home and was forced to sleep on the streets.

A young boy heard Jemima’s story and told his master about this young girl in need of shelter. This new master helped Jemima pay for a temporary bed. Jemima returned to the house of the master who impregnated her and told her he would pay for a nurse to care for the child as long as he never saw Jemima again. Jemima returned to her old quarters and drank the potion in the vial which she had concealed. Immediately Jemima felt that she was carrying death in her womb, she fell incredibly ill and became bedridden for days. With no one to care for her Jemima became overwhelmed with guilt and sorrow of having had an abortion because she could not support a child. Without any income, Jemima was forced to leave her bed and resorted to begging on the street alongside another woman. The streets were not kind to Jemima she suffered from many abuses and began to steal from the men who abused her as a means to survive. She hated what she had become and reduced herself to “common property” (Life of Jemima ). 

Soon, the men she stole from were after her and she sought solace in the home of a master in Hampstead. Jemima first learned of this master from another woman on the street who spoke fondly of him. He gave her a place to stay and after a few days, she began to grow fond of him as well. She described him as a man of many talents, with wits and ingenuity. However, just like every man Jemima has encountered up until this point in her life, he began to show lustful desires for her. Considering him to be the kindest of all her masters so far, she submitted to his sexual desires to continue living with him. While recognizing she was not in the most ideal situation, she was grateful to her master for including her in conversations and sharing knowledge most women would be excluded from. Through these conversations, Jemima developed a thirst for knowledge and began to learn how to read. She hoped that by learning how to read she could acquire the skills that would help her enter a more respectable part of society. Jemima lived with him for five years and detailed this time as the happiest part of her life. Everything changed when her master died suddenly. Although he left a portion of his property for Jemima, the master’s son and his wife tricked her out of the property.

Destitute once again, Jemima returned to the streets. This time around Jemima felt much lonelier and depressed because she had grown to appreciate the company of her late master. She got a job as a washer for several families but did not make much money. One day she dropped a wash-tub on her leg and ignored the injury until it got so bad she could no longer stand. Jemima was admitted to a hospital and the families she worked for helped her pay for the expense. Jemima healed and was released from the hospital but was in no fit state to work. She resorted to thieving until she was caught and imprisoned for six months. After serving time, she became employed at a madhouse where she lived and worked for four years. While she worked there Jemima became close with two patients, a man and a woman. She could not justify to herself how they both ended up there, they were kind, gentle, and of sound mind. Jemima made many pleas for their release to her superiors by showing that they were sane. Her superiors insisted nothing could be done so Jemima devised a plan to help the two escape. They planned to leave the kingdom and Jemima agreed to help them if they let her come with them. The pair agreed to this, the night came and the three successfully escaped the madhouse. They hid in London for several days until the opportunity presented itself to leave England. Jemima was now a fugitive and there were rewards for her detainment. She avoided detection by coloring her skin and wearing men’s clothing, with this disguise Jemima and the two others successfully got on a ship to America.

The three arrived in New York and the pair soon married. Here a page is missing from the book, by reading the rest I can only fill in the blanks and assume what took place during this time. On the following page, Jemima is married and living with her husband and his parents. A gang of “brutes” invades their home one night and murders her husband’s parents (Life of Jemima 22). These brutes, as Jemima called them, were in fact English soldiers, as the revolutionary war was taking place. Jemima and her husband had escaped into the woods after the murderers had set the house ablaze. They hid in the forest for three days and on the fourth day decided it was safe to leave. After a two-month-long grueling journey the couple made it to Philadephia where her husband joined the army to exact revenge on the English. Jemima’s husband was unable to cope and he began to drink, which resulted in her becoming the victim of his rage. Time passed and his aggression toward Jemima only increased but she could not bear to leave him. Her husband eventually died in battle and Congress ordered for a pension to be given to every woman widowed as a result of battle. Jemima felt relieved to be free of her husband. Some days after the battle Jemima left with a group of several others on wagons. An opportunity presented itself to return to England and unable to get accustomed to this new land, Jemima took it. She had been gone four years, upon her return she learned of her father’s death and her stepmother wanting nothing to do with her pretended not to know who she was. Jemima has now found work in a hospital as a nurse and it is here during her leisure time that she writes the narrative of her life in hopes of making peace with it.


Bibliography

Unknown [partially plagiarized from Mary Wollstonecraft]. Life of Jemima, Or, the Confessions of an Unfortunate Bastard Who by the Antipathy of her Parents was Driven to Every Scene of Vice and Prostitution! Containing Some Particulars of Her Early Years; With General Remarks on Public Hospitals, an Account of the Interior of a Madhouse, and Its abuse; Her Escape Thence, and Voyage to America, Her Unhappy Marriage, and Final Settlement in England, as Nurse in an Hospital. London, J. Bailey, 1800.


Researcher: Brianna Lebron-Rivera


How to cite this page:

MLA: “Life of Jemima.” Project Gothic, University of Virginia, 2024, https://gothic.lib.virginia.edu/access-the-archive-2/life-of-jemima/