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December 1, 2014

Dedications of books aren’t usually something I give much thought to, especially since the usual fashion is for them to be short, sweet and unrevealing. Seeing “To Jane Smith” on an otherwise blank page usually produces no reaction other than to turn the page as quickly as possible. “To Jane Smith, With Love,” might produce a nanosecond of hesitation while I wonder if Jane Smith will love the book back. “To Jane Smith, With Fond Memories Of Days On Pitcairn Island,” though — that’s where a dedication starts to get interesting; the point, in fact, where the dedication starts to become its own spare, allusive, and sometimes mystifying short story.

I’ll begin with an unofficial dedication. My Friend Anne(1900) doesn’t have one as such, but my particular copy does have a bookplate from the Bedford Street Sunday School proclaiming it to be the 1935 Stroud Prize for the “Sunday School Union Exam” — presumably the recipient got the highest score, though the label doesn’t say that explicitly. The recipient was a girl named Renee Hogg. I know absolutely nothing about her except that she was unlikely to have been older than her mid-teens when she was given this book, which had been published nearly forty years earlier and which featured Tudor characters in fashions of the sort her grandparents probably wore when they were young. The fact that the book is in comparatively good shape, and that the spine is completely sun-bleached but the boards are dark green, makes me guess that she didn’t open it all that often. I also wonder if this book has a history with enthusiasts for Anne Boleyn in pop culture, because while the bookplate is clearly referring to the date the book was given as a prize, rather than published, the bookseller I bought it from had the book incorrectly listed as having been published in 1935 — a mistake echoed in The Creation Of Anne Boleyn. Mine isn’t the only copy out there, of course, but the repeated mistake about 1935 is suggestive — unless, of course, Bedford Street Sunday School gave out multiple prize copies of My Friend Anne that year.

Anne herself is the dedicatee of Le Temps Viendra (2012) along with the one-word comment “INNOCENT”. It’s probably the most terse dedication ever received by a sixteenth-century aristocrat.

Anne Boleyn: A Tragedy In Five Acts (1861) is endearingly dedicated to “The Best Of Wives, The Dearest Of Mothers, And The Kindest Of Friends, This, The Amusement of a Vacation, from, HER HUSBAND.” It must have been an extremely intense vacation because the play is turgid, enormous, heavily if not always accurately footnoted, and is well peppered with denunciations of Popish error and superstition. Whenever I look at that book I always find myself wondering just what happened on that vacation to produce such an offspring. For some reason I keep picturing a thwarted tour of the Lake country, in which Mr. and Mrs. Terrell found themselves stuck in a fourth-rate inn while it rained for about two weeks straight.

Marital affection is also hailed in Ann Boleyn To Henry VIII: An Epistle (1743), though in that case the wife being saluted is not the author’s own. Instead, the poet turns his Epistle into a rather jarring wedding present to one “Mrs Wright, Of Romely In Derbyshire.”

If from the distant Wreck, while Tempests roar,
We feel our Safety and enjoy the Shore,
From foreign Woe some secret Transport steal,
And whilst we pity, find our Hearts rebell;
Accept, fair Bride, to make your Joys compleat,
The pictur’d Sorrows of the Fair and Great;
Whose Sighs shall echo thro’ your favour’d Groves,
And hail your happier Lot, and humbler Loves ….

You too shou’d then, without indulgence praise;
You too shou’d live recorded in my Lays,
And your Example, to fair Fame consign’d,
Form future happy Brides, and bless Mankind.

Even if Mrs. Wright never acquires a title grander than her current one, it’s also highly unlikely that Mr. Wright will ever behead her, so she’s still one up on Anne Boleyn. It’s a strange compliment, but well-intended at least.

Historic Tales, A Novel (1790) in which Anne is a supporting player, has a dedication both elaborate and mysterious — more mysterious than the author probably intended, since latter is anonymous to this day and the vague hints about being “allied” with the dedicatee are tantalizing without being illuminating. The dedication is “To The Right Honorable Lord Carbery.

My Lord,

Unused and averse to the language of flattery, or cant of dedication, I present this work to you, persuaded your Lordship disdains to receive adulation as much as I do offering it, and flattering myself you will not, though a nice judge of writing, view it with the eye of criticism — but with indulgence pardon the errors of a first essay, and the humble offering of one who, though unknown, has the honour of being allied to you.

I dare not beg your Lordship’s protection of my book. But should it be so fortunate as to meet the approbation of the public, in reward of my wish to amuse it, I shall receive added satisfaction from the idea of its then being more worthy of your notice and more assured, present it as a small tribute of the esteem I feel for your character.

I have the honor to be,

My Lord,

Your Lordship’s most devoted and humble servant


Lord Carbery seems to have been largely interested in boozing and hunting; whether he ever made his way through the involved mess that is Historic Tales is something we can only wonder.

Another mysterious person features in the dedication of The Anne-Queen’s Chronicle (1909) though in this case the mystery hangs not around the author but around the dedicatee. The book is dedicated “To Sara Priceless, My Constant Ghostly Comfort And Counsel, This Tragic Record Is Gratefully Offered By Its Compiler, Reginald Farrer.” The name “Sara Priceless”, while unlikely, is not impossible, but description of her as a “constant ghostly comfort and counsel” makes her sound less like an actual person and more like something either related to spiritualism or as a figure or symbol of some other kind. The only unambiguous other reference to her which I’ve found appears in The Rainbow Bridge, written by the same author ten years after The Anne-Queen’s Chronicle, in which he remarks to the reader that “the gift of transmundane letter-writing is not one possessed by many except Sara Priceless — and the particular Fair One I happen to be addressing at this moment.” In this context, “Sara Priceless” sounds like superannuated slang, its meaning long forgotten.

But the undoubted standout in the dedication field, both when it comes to length and unfortunate subtext, is the dedication of Vertue Betray’d (1682) to Elizabeth Percy, newly married to the Duke of Somerset. The author was clearly trying to get patronage from her, and if he didn’t succeed nobody could say he hadn’t tried hard enough. The dedication is four closely-printed pages, each more fulsome than the last. Elizabeth Percy was, of course, a collateral descendant of the famous Henry Percy, early beloved of Anne Boleyn, and the playwright reminds her of that on the second page.

Where cou’d I pitch upon an Hero more considerable, than out of Your Grace’s Family? What Chronicle cou’d I consult, that would have inform’d me of a Greater? The very Crown it self, oblig’d by so many gallant Supporters, wou’d have told me a Piercy — Piercy whose Illustrious Name and Blood, having for a long Series of years ran through the Persons of so many Earls of Northumberland: And if that inestimable Chain was almost broken, in the unfortunate Death of Your Father, it were never enough to be deplor’d, had not the Rich Treasure and Crystal Stream of all your Predecessors Blood and Vertues been stor’d in You, which (now You have submitted to take a Noble Partner, as Angels have delighted to converse with Men) may prove the second and more lasting Fountain, from whence shall spring as many Princes more …. There is so much of Divinity and Wisdom in Your Choice, that none but the Almighty ever did the like; and that was, when to the Solitary First of Men he gave a Wife, and with her, the World and Eden for a Dower: England adores You for it, the Protestant Religion blesses You; the Saints above You sing loud Your Praise …

So far, he’s been comparatively restrained. By the third page, he’s informing her that

You look as if You had nothing Mortal in you; Your Guardian Angel scarcely is more a Deity than You, and the bright Planet that shin’d with such amazing Influence at Your Birth, makes not a more glorious Figure in the Heavens, than You on Earth …. For Anna Bullen, though I drew her in all the nicest Ideas that ever my Pen or Fancy could be capable of; yet, I confess, she comes short of the Excellency of Your real Perfections.

On page four, the comparison between Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth Percy is expanded on; we’re left with the impression that had Elizabeth been so unfortunate as to live in Henry VIII’s time, he would have ravished her at first sight.

Though her Merits rais’d her to a Crown, and she was Queen, her Fortunes were less Miraculous than Yours. For Heaven, without a Diadem, never showr’d down so many admirable Blessings of Virtue, Beauty, Birth, Wit, and Fortune, upon any One of Your Sex before.

It’s an entertaining if overwrought read even by itself, but if you know a bit about the dedicatee it becomes morbidly humourous. Elizabeth Percy, Duchess of Somerset was, at the time the play premiered, fifteen years old and a newlywed for the third time. As the only surviving child of the eleventh earl of Northumberland — a descendant of Henry Percy’s brother — she was heiress to enormous wealth. Her first marriage, which took place when she was twelve, ended a few months later with the death of the thirteen-year-old bridegroom. Her second marriage, which was arranged by her grandmother and widely disapproved of, was to Thomas Thynne of Longleat Hall, who had thrown over another woman in order to marry her. Elizabeth Percy doesn’t appear to have found him particularly enticing, and preferred spending her time with a certain Count Koenigsmark, whose men just so happened to shoot Mr. Thynne to death a few months later (supposedly while in the course of a duel). Koenigsmark managed to get acquitted on a technicality, though his men weren’t so lucky, and he apparently hoped to marry Elizabeth Percy now that she was widowed once again. Whether or not she wanted to, either she or her guardians took note of the rumours flying around that she had known of the plans for her second husband’s murder, and so instead of Koenigsmark she ended up marrying the “Proud Duke of Somerset,” who was title-rich, cash-poor, a raging snob, and best of all had no involvement whatsoever with her second husband’s death. (If you want to read about Elizabeth Percy’s marital adventures in more detail, I got all of this from Antonia Fraser’s The Weaker Vessel, pp. 280-284).

It’s hard to imagine that John Banks, the playwright, didn’t know at least parts of the story; Elizabeth Percy was hardly an obscure character to begin with and her second husband’s murder attracted a lot of attention. So while Banks was lauding her noble ancestor to the skies and praising Elizabeth in terms Louis XIV might have found a bit overdone, the play he was dedicating to her featured not one but two incredibly miserable marriages (Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, along with Henry Percy and Diana Talbot) both of which ended with one spouse’s violent, blood-soaked murder. Either Banks had no sense of humour whatsoever or else he had one so wild that he should never have been let out alone. I would love to know which it was, and I’m sure Elizabeth Percy would have liked to know as well.

From → Essays, Miscellaneous

  1. Annalucia permalink

    I wonder if “vacation” had a different meaning in 1861? Because if Mrs. Terrell had to keep the kids occupied and quiet the whole time Dad was grinding away at The Tragedy In Five Acts…I can imagine what her reply would have been to his dedication.

    And “Sara Priceless” sounds like a spirit guide straight out of “Strong Poison,” though was spiritualism a thing in 1909? I thought it came in later, after the Great War.

    That “Pitcairn Island” dedication is a winner. Somebody had better write a book that justifies it.

    • sonetka permalink

      Depending on what social class Mr. and Mrs. Terrell were in, the servants could have been looking after the children at home the entire time. I’m thinking of a scenario where they decided to take a romantic second honeymoon for some significant anniversary, then found themselves trapped in a flea-ridden room at the Bell & Bull while the rain turned the entire area into a flood zone. Nothing to eat but terrible inn food, and nothing to read but the ancient copy of Bishop Burnet’s history of the Reformation which was forgotten on the bookshelf by some bored university student eighty years earlier and had never been cracked once since. Half-mad with boredom, Mr. Terrell decided to read a few pages and … a play is born!

      Spiritualism went through waves of popularity, but the table-rapping variant was certainly around long before 1909 — I think the Fox sisters began their act around 1850, and of course Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a famous believer (though not Robert, who once tried to throw a medium down a staircase and sadly did not succeed). I’ve read Farrer’s biography, as it happens, and there’s no hint that he was a spiritualist. He did like to write a very flowery way — appropriately enough, as he later became famous for his books on gardening — but unfortunately flowery language plus passage of time often produces something that’s indecipherable unless you get a lucky break somewhere.

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