Sunday 15 August 2010

Mrs Sherwood: The Sequel

Soon after I first read The State of Mind of Mrs Sherwood, I came upon one of her books, for the first and only time in my life (it's surprising - or perhaps not - how little of her huge output has survived). I found it at a jumble sale, its leather boards detached and badly scuffed, the spine label barely legible, but a 'tight' (as they say in the book trade) copy, so perhaps less thoroughly and avidly read than its authoress envisaged. Invitingly titled 'Stories Explanatory of the Church Catechism', it was published by F. Houlston and Son of Wellington, Salop, in 1817, with a frontispiece engraving of The Captain's Bungalow at Cawnpore. 'The following Stories,' Mrs Sherwood explains in her brief Advertisement, 'were written for the use of the children of His Majesty's fifty-third regiment, at that time stationed at Cawnpore, in the East Indies [sic]' - which then, as Mrs S points out, had 'only been in the possession of the English a few years'. The Advertisement ends oddly: 'As these stories were intended for a particular class of children, there is, of course, a peculiarity in the style, which it would not be possible to alter without rendering the tales less natural, and producing a less accurate picture of the characters described in them.' Neither naturalism nor accurate characterisation, however, is conspicuous in the stories that follow, whose purpose is purely didactic, to inculcate the truths of the Catechism, as interpreted by Mrs S, then in the first flush of her evangelical fervour. This is a shame - some more earthbound account of life at Cawnpore at that time, by a writer of her abilites, would have been very valuable - but there you go, Mrs Sherwood's mind was on 'higher things'...
The volume belonged to one Mary Anne Portlock, whose name is inscribed first in a childish hand then in gradually increasing copperplate elegance - and, in her finest hand, she has covered several of the flyleaves with verse. Pope's The Dying Christian to His Soul ('Vital spark of heavenly flame!...) is copied out beautifully, though the 'where' is unfortunately omitted from the last line, 'O grave! Where is thy victory', and supplied in pencil. There is also a poem titled 'Written on a Blank Sheet of Paper' - 'Fair spotless leaf, thou emblem pure Of innocence - beware! Nor think thy Beauty lies secure, 'Tis dangerous to be fair...' This cheery item was printed in The Scots Magazine, though I've no idea who wrote it. A third poem, The Maiden's Wish, I've been unable to trace at all, and as it's signed off as 'written by Mary Anne Portlock', it might even be original. It begins 'Defend my heart, benignant power! From amorous looks and smiles, And shield me in my gayer hour From love's destructive wiles...' I bet she was a popular lass.

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