The Life, Voyages, and Surprising Adventures, of Mary Jane Meadows, a Woman of Uncommon Talents, Spirit, and Resolution
Publisher: Ann Lemoine
Publication Year: 1802
Book Dimensions: 10.5cm x 17.3cm
University of Virginia Library Catalog Entry, Sadleir-Black Collection: PZ2 .M43 L 1802
An adaptation of Charles Dibdin’s 1796 novel, Hannah Hewit, or The Female Crusoe, this 1802 chapbook features international travel, shipwrecks, a pet lion, and—shocker—a woman who wears pants!
The first thing you might notice upon looking at The Adventures of Mary Jane Meadows is that it lacks a cover. These pages are held together only by the remnants of binding on the spine. The page that suffices as the cover is completely blank and bereft of any information, such as title or author. This implies that there was at one point a cover, most likely paperback given the nature of the text being identified as a chapbook. The back of this text acts as the final page of this novel ending with a definitive “FINIS.” centered under the last line at the bottom of the page. Last page, in reference to this text, refers to the last page attached to the pamphlet itself, however, there are multiple pages that follow it. These are unattached to the whole text but connected to each other, completely blank, and falling apart. These pages are referred to as endleaves, and are not originally in the publication, but added by the bookbinder. While this copy was bound long ago and the cover has been thrown out, the endleaves remain in place, though unattached to the rest of the chapbook.
The information lacking on the outside of the text can be found immediately upon opening it. The first page comprises of an illustration of the main character on one of her many adventures, captioned “Mary attacked by a Baboon at the door of her hut on the uninhabited Island” with a page number (Page 36) that corresponds to the event illustrated. Notable about the illustration is its tropical setting, the presence of a baboon, and the fact that the lady depicted is wearing pants and a large, feathered hat. Given the genre and time period of this novel, these elements are very distinctive. The bottom of the page containing this illustration also states “Published for IRoe, 25 May 1802.”
The next page contains the long-awaited title of the novel: “The Life, Voyages, and Surprising Adventures, of Mary Jane Meadows.” The title depicted on this page, however, is not so truncated. It includes an extended title and subtitle that appear in varying capitalizations and fonts, written as follows: “The Life, Voyages, and Surprising Adventures, of Mary Jane Meadows, a Woman of Uncommon Talents, Spirit, and Resolution Who, After experiencing s series of extraordinary changes in Life, from the highest Splendour and Affluence, to the most abject Distress and Poverty; at last shipped herself for India, in the most unfortunate Grosvenor, and was Cast away on the dreary Coast of Africa; where, after travelling through vast Deserts and the kingdom of Caffraria in the most imminent danger, arrived on the borders of the South Sea, where she was again Cast away upon an uninhabited Island, and lived intirely by herself for several Years.” This expansively descriptive title is then followed by a statement that the text is “Written by Her Own Hand,” implying that the author (or the pseudonym of the author at least) is Mary Jane Meadows. Under this, publication information is given, including the place of publication, London; the printer, J. Bonsor, Salisbury Square; the publisher, Ann Lemoine; her address, White-Rose Court, Coleman-Street; and the seller, T. Hurst, Paternoster-Row. The last thing on this content rich page is the price of this pamphlet when it was sold originally, “One Shilling.”
Following these descriptive pages, the back of the title page is left blank and then the story begins immediately. The text is not split into chapters and therefore does not have a table of contents or chapter headings, with the first page simply being headed with an abbreviated title of the text: “Adventures of Mary Jane Meadows.” Page numbers appear on the top of the page, enumerating pages 4–72, as well as a heading identifying the pamphlet with “ADVENTURES OF” on the left-side of the page and “MARY JANE MEADOWS” on the right side. The thick, stained, and browning paper, while definitely showing signs of age, does not impede one’s ability to actually read the text. The font is small but also readable. “I” appears in bold in every instance that it is used, emphasizing the autobiographical narrative feeling of the text. The margins are fairly small, though not uniform with the text on page 42 going all the way down the page. This was a result of the binding method used and the inexactitude of cutting pages by hand. The chapbook itself is 10.5 cm wide and 17.3 cm long.
There are many poems separated from the rest of the text with indentation of the entire passage, but without quotation marks. For example, there are such passages on pages 32, 34-35, 37-38, 41, and 46. A passage was also separated in much the same manner, but was also made distinctive by quotation marks on page 51. A notable stain is also present on page 47, brown in color, yet somewhat translucent so it does not impede any of the words. There is also a semi-circular brown stain on page 60. There is a notable color change of the pages beginning at page 62, as they take on a much more yellow hue as opposed to white. The final page, which concludes in “FINIS.,” ends on the left side of the page, leaving the heading incomplete. It simply states “ADVENTURES OF,” with none of the subsequent unattached pages containing the missing “MARY JANE MEADOWS.”
The history of The Adventures of Mary Jane Meadows is one that depends on the actual facts of history more than originally expected. With the fantastical elements of this book giving the sequence of events a sense of improbability, the context of this chapbook is actually steeped in fact. The catalyst of the plot of this novel is a shipwreck of the Grosvenor with many unfortunates aboard, including our protagonist Mary Jane Meadows. This shipwreck was actually a widely publicized, historical event. In 1782, the ship that bore the same name as our fictional one crashed on the coast of Africa. The shipwreck of the Grosvenor bore the infamy and intrigue in late eighteenth- to early nineteenth-century Britain that the Titanic shipwreck did in twentieth-century America. It spawned many pieces of literature, factual and fictional, that exploited the nation’s rapture with trauma. Using this event, and the public interest in the fact that some of the survivors were women, this book participates in the female Crusoe genre that furthers the dynamic portrayal of literary women.
Given that this chapbook is actually an adaptation of a three-volume romantic work, we must first turn our attention to Charles Dibdin’s Hannah Hewit, or The Female Crusoe. Hannah Hewit followed closely on the heels of the 1782 shipwreck itself, being published in 1796. It not only took advantage of the audience captivated by the tragedy of the Grosvenor, but also tapped into a genre of female Robinsinades (characters paralleled to Robinson Crusoe) that was yet to be explored fully. Dibdin, Hannah Hewit’s author, wrote this “female Crusoe” in such a way that it was believed to be a satire of the capabilities of women inspired by the antifeminist wave that swept through Britain in response to feminist propaganda. He gave Hannah independence and ability, but stretched it to such a degree that it was laughable, as well as trivializing female authors by saying that they wrote merely because it was fashionable.
By recasting the author as the protagonist herself, however, The Adventures of Mary Jane Meadows, subverts the satirical agenda and makes the purpose more favorable to women. Rather than capitalizing on the public’s basest interests, this novel elevates the plot and story to one that has literary merit and cultural significance. Mary Jane also bears an important distinction from Hannah Hewit in that she is more realistically dressed for the circumstances in self-fashioned pants, dramatically viewed as cross-dressing at the time.
While critical reactions to The Adventures of Mary Jane Meadows are largely unknown, reviews of Hannah Hewit from the time period are largely negative due to its ridiculous nature. It was adapted into a two-act musical show that was also not well received. The legacy of Hannah Hewit, however, is not all negative. It inspired new, and the reissuing of previously written, female Crusoe books. In particular, this chapbook adaptation, The Adventures of Mary Jane Meadows, furthered the accessibility of the plot to the lower class and lower-middle class (with the price being incredibly low at one shilling) and arguably elevated the quality of the novel.
Carl Thompson discusses many of these points in his 2008 article on shipwrecks and their literary impact. His scholarly work on the Grosvenor and its literary impact as well as his subsequent high opinion of The Adventures of Mary Jane Meadows is particularly compelling. He even goes so far as to say it is “more credible (than Hannah Hewit)” and “animated by a distinctly feminist agenda” (Thompson 16). He also speculates about the author of The Adventures of Mary Jane Meadows identity, supposing her to be Sarah Scudgell Wilkinson—an editor and writer for the publisher Ann Lemoine. Ann Lemoine published many of the prominent books in the female Crusoe genre, including The Adventures of Mary Jane Meadows, and was presumably able to relate to the independent female characters as a female business owner. She tended to publish primarily “blue books,” or short Gothic romances.
With The Adventures of Mary Jane Meadows having only one edition, it is interesting to note that there are different copies in existence that have engravings or bookplates. An engraving by Isaac Cruikshank, a prominent artist at the time who frequently did book etchings, is found in a version of the book held at the Princeton University. Additionally, a copy with a bookplate of Sarah Herbert Williams is held at the Newberry Library in Chicago. This bookplate is a mark of ownership made in Williams’ copy of the book, which he acquired and branded most likely in the 1920s and which now resides in Chicago. Interest in Gothic literature as well as shipwrecks has held The Adventures of Mary Jane Meadows in academic circles, with copies being held at the University of Delaware, Harvard University, Princeton University, Newberry Library, New York Public Library, Cambridge University, the University of Oxford, the Library of Congress, and the University of Virginia. The copy held at the Library of Congress, however, was declared missing in circumstances as shrouded in mystery as the disappearance of Mary Jane Meadows herself.
Narrative Point of View
The Adventures of Mary Jane Meadows is distinct in narration as it is first-person and claims to be autobiographical. The narrator is portrayed as the author herself and is the protagonist in her story. The narration is succinct and factual. At times the narration of the plot is interrupted by poems that portray the emotion of the scene. The author of these pomes is unattributed, and it can be speculated that Mary Jane is the joint author and narrator of those as well. While the narrator’s language is representative of the early nineteenth century time period, it is also active in voice and clear in prose, making it easily understandable. This story is proposed to have been written in Mary Jane’s journal as she lives the events of the story itself.
In this manner I went on through the dreary rainy season, living mostly within, and keeping a journal against time, the common enemy of mankind. But I now met with some interruption, for I was seized with a vertigo and a slight fever; a temporary delirium took place, which kept me upon my bed near a week, at the end of which I tried to bustle about as well as my strength would allow. Could I have been comfortably situated, I have no doubt but I should have escaped the illness, or been well in a day or two; but owing to the great dampness and steam which surrounded me, for as the rain continued to fall, it penetrated the pores of the rock, which caused me one cold after another, till I grew so weak, and so reduced in substance, that I began seriously to think, that my unfortunate days were numbered, and would soon close without any witness to my departure. (38)
Despite the fantastical elements of the tale, it is clear by the factual and descriptive tone that the narrator is trustworthy, which casts an air of realism over the story furthered by its basis in an actual event—the shipwreck of the Grosvenor. The details she includes such as her “vertigo” and “slight fever” also depicts a level of specificity that enables the reader to believe a full account of the story is being given, with no falsities or omissions. Our narrator’s presence as the main character and author has the contradictory roles of supporting and subverting this realism. As the story is portrayed by someone said to have lived it, it seems as if it cannot be anything but true. It cannot be believed, however, that this story was once actually Mary Jane’s personal journals, and even if it were, her personal bias could make her narration unreliable. For instance, her proposition that she could have “escaped the illness” had she been “comfortably situated” may be her own egotism or self-delusion talking. While the realism of the fictional plot remains intact, the potential factuality does not. The other effect of the narrative being relayed autobiographically and supposedly from her own journal is that it is also personal, emotional, and has the feeling of being told to the reader individually. There is little reason to distrust the narration because the journals are Mary’s own personal log of history, in addition to the musings that help her pass the time. Though she supposes that her “unfortunate days were numbered, and would soon close without any witness to my departure,” the reader is in fact cast as the “witness,” bearing evidence to the story of Mary Jane. Therefore, while the narrator is trustworthy and the story she weaves realistic and portrayed as evidentiary, The Adventures of Mary Jane Meadows clearly cannot help but remind readers throughout that it remains a work of fiction.
The Adventures of Mary Jane Meadows begins with a backstory of Mary herself and how she came to be married to her husband, Meadows. Being a woman with few surviving family members, with parents being dead and a brother being absent, she married for the purposes of convenience and economy. With this in mind, she and her husband go directly into business. Her husband, Meadows, gets into hardware and both of them opening a “warehouse, wholesale and retail” in an upper scale part of England (4). With Meadows being the businessman, it is Mary that is the mechanism of innovation and fashion. Their wild success in this enterprise enabled Mary to spend money in ways “which frigid prudence might have called extravagance” (4). This carelessness with their wealth went so far as to lead them to make a bad business deal, and succeeded in landing Meadows in jail with Mary and her three children nearly destitute. After their scrape with the law, Mary and her family went on the run for nearly four years. Eventually their debts, being unfairly handled, landed Meadows back in jail where he happened upon Mary’s brother. Both Meadows and Mary’s brother were enabled to go free, but a bad bond purchase impelled Mary and Meadows to move to France with their children in the hopes of escaping more legal persecution.
Despite these unfortunate circumstances, Meadows had been a consistently well-tempered husband whom Mary loved to such a degree that she withstood their economic and legal troubles with the attitude that she “could not think of living any better than with (her) husband” (6). Things took a turn, however, when Mary bore another child in Paris whom Meadows inexplicably neglected. To Mary, “he was no more Mark Meadows, the affectionate husband” (13). Convinced that Mary had been unfaithful, with no evidence to that fact, Meadows flees to India, leaving Mary alone and accused of a crime of adultery which she did not commit. Knowing that her husband still loved her due to a note he had left her, Mary decides to voyage to India after having lived with a well-off family in the intermittent time.
Arriving in India and not finding Meadows to be there, she determines to take a ship back to England despite the admonishments of her brother, whom she was lodging with. The wiles of the tumultuous ocean, however, would not permit her safe return. Mary and the other passengers of this disaster-fated ship become deserted on the coast of Africa. Many treacherous circumstances and instances of barbarism, in the form of the uncontrollable wilderness and equally as tempestuous natives, cause casualties among Mary’s party of unfortunates. Mary, however, manages to survive the tempers of Africa until such a time came that a member among the natives, who was originally Dutch, had to save Mary from imminent danger. This imminent danger came in the form of the Caffre, a group of natives, that kidnap the rest of her party. Mary escapes this dangerous circumstance and Africa all together by receiving passage from the island with her native savior.
The ocean, once again proving itself to be a perfidious enemy, shipwrecks Mary on an island of an unknown nature and takes the lives of her saviors. This island, however, proved to be of a much more civilized nature, and Mary, being alone on it, was master of innovation enough to not only survive, but to survive in comfort. Her inventions sustain her life in the form of an extremely durable house that she crafted and many other useful tools she found need for. Forethought and resourcefulness engender the continuance of her life and strength of spirit, despite having to face wild animals, elemental demons (particularly that of torrential rain), and the unkind companion of illness. Throughout her time on this isolated island, Mary, being a woman of industry, writes a journal chronicling her time apart from society. These journals will manifest eventually into this book.
The continuity of Mary’s island routine is eventually interrupted by another shipwreck on the shores of what has been, up to this point, her island alone. Mary desperately tries to save the lives of the passengers aboard the ship as they attempt to make it ashore, but there is little she can do. To her horror and chagrin, all of the passengers appear to have died in their desperate attempts to live. After this horrific event, Mary boards the skeletal ship that is now but a graveyard and puts the remains of the once living to rest. Whilst on the ship, she scavenges for supplies and discovers a most unwelcome surprise—her husband’s chest of things. This discovery sends her into a state of shock and depression that almost takes her life as she considers the possibility that her husband has met his watery grave. Needing confirmation of this tragic fact she boards the ship once more and finds documentation in the form of work logs and forms of employment to the effect that her husband was in fact on the ship at the time of its descent. The despair she feels at this tragedy is only stemmed by the passage of time and the life of a lion cub, whom she cares for and who cares for her in turn.
While this lion becomes an important companion to her, she attempts to deal with the passing of her husband by way of reading his bible and writing away the passage of time in her journal. In another emotionally devastating turn of events, her only living companion, Leo the lion, dies in the very place she first encountered him. Before this event could take too much of an emotional toll, however, Mary is discovered by her very much alive husband. Instead of drowning within sight of his tragic wife, Meadows was rescued by the coincidence of a passing ship and managed to find his way back to her by way of even larger coincidences. He just so happened to cross paths with her brother and their friend, and find their way back to the island on which her husband had seen smoke signals, generated by Mary, emanating from.
The sharing of the histories of their time in separation, immediately told upon reunion at the island, finally reveals the origin of their unhappy situation. The original charges of infidelity that propelled this whole narrative into being were planted in Meadow’s head by a treacherous woman, Mrs. Wilson, that had designs upon Meadows. While she does not fulfil her plans due to the set of strange circumstances that come into play, she does separate the unfortunate couple for a significant amount of time filled with hardship. Wilson, an employee Meadows and Mary had helped out of a rough situation earlier on, also shares his story in the conclusion of this novel. While Mary was shipwrecked multiple times and Meadows too was failingly sailing the seas, Wilson fell in love with an Iroquois woman while he was deployed in the Americas. After their daring escape from the colonies together, his new bride then perished by the bite of a serpent upon their arrival in Canada. Her death propelled Wilson to abandon Quebec in favor of France—a country which held no sentimental grief for his young wife lately perished. There he met with Mary’s brother and subsequently Meadows. This group eventually found their way back to Mary in a reunion as joyful as the rest of the circumstances of the story are unhappy. Leaving the island and returning to London settles the unrest of the novel in a way most final, with the last sentiment of Mary that her story “might have happened to anyone” and that she was “born for an example and benefit to others” (72).
The Adventures of Mary Jane Meadows. London, A. Lemoine, 1802.
Dibdin, Charles. Hannah Hewit. London, Charles Dibdin, 1796.
Thompson, Carl. “The Grosvenor Shipwreck and the Figure of the Female Crusoe: Hannah Hewit, Mary Jane Meadows, and Romantic-Era Feminist and Anti-Feminist Debate.” English Studies in Africa, vol. 51, no. 2, 2008, pp. 9–20.