Mary Roberts (1788-1864), Poet Naturalist

I discovered Mary Roberts while designing the website assessment test form for the Stainforth project website. I wanted to find an author whose first and last names were common to test our database search functionality, and I wanted to use an author who I was not yet familiar with. I was drawn to the title that Stainforth held, Conchologist’s Companion (1834), since Stainforth was also a conchologist. (He became the authority on a type of mollusk such that Lovell Reeve named it after him, called Mitra Stainforthii.)

I was surprised that Mary Roberts is not yet covered in Orlando since she has received some contemporary attention from the scientific community. Stephen Jay Gould writes about her in Dinosaur in a Haystack (1995), and Roberts is also the topic of Engines of our Ingenuity episode 1105 by John H. Lienhard, which is even available in audio. She also has an ODNB entry and a hefty presence in Worldcat, with 42 works in 147 publications in 2 languages and 1,041 library holdings.

In addition to the Conchologist’s Companion, Stainforth’s catalog lists Flowers of Song (1845) and Ruins + Old Trees. The full title for Flowers of Song is very different from what Stainforth lists in his catalog. It’s Flowers of the Matin and Even Song; Or, Thoughts for those who rise early. Here’s a Google Books digital edition.  Each flower has its own section in which the author describes associations with the flower, from feelings to seasons, describes the parts of the flower and its life cycle, and personifies the flower in an original poem. These sections are both scientific and contemplative. I think this flower book offers a lot to think about in the way of the intersections between nature writing, literature, gender and disciplinary knowledge, and bibliography. (I’m thinking of Kelli Tower Jasper’s scholarship, among others, on flower books.)

I found it interesting that Stainforth’s catalog does not indicate that he owned a copy of Roberts’ last book, A popular history of the Mollusca (1851), since it mentions “the superb Mitra Stainforthii, Stainforth’s Mitre,” on page 90.

Last, it looks like Dartmouth owns a copy of Ruins and old trees, associated with memorable events in English History (1840?). I remember searching for this title on the web and finding nothing, so I look forward to walking over to Rauner and seeing this book in person. More to come on Mary Roberts!


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