The Grecians. A Tragedy, by Mrs. Vaughan (1824), with Stainforth bookplate

While fixing typos in our transcription data, I stumbled upon yet another Stainforth bookplate in Google Books in a digital copy of The Grecians, a play by Mrs. Vaughan (1824). The bookplate indicates that Francis Stainforth owned this exact copy of the book, and so far we have identified around 300 of these. There are thousands more out there. Here’s my roundabout path to finding it: We keep a list of transcription errors we’ve discovered in a Slack channel, and I’ve been working my way through the backlog for the last couple of sessions with our new wonderful SCU Stainforth RA, Danna D’Esopo. Faith, an RA at CU-Boulder, had posted that we mis-transcribed Mrs. Vaughan as Mrs. Vaughn. It seems like a small mistake, but it could make it difficult to find and correctly attribute Mrs. Vaughan’s work in the future, especially considering that she is not a well-known author.

I toggled over to see the manuscript page 469 and discovered that Faith was right, as she so often is. Directly in our database, I made corrections to the author name in our entry transcription table, in the “Names” table, and double checked that the entry in the “Person” table was also correct.

I might have stopped there and moved on to the next error to fix, but I got a little sidetracked, as we do. The manuscript page shows the full entry to read: “E5 Vaughan (Mrs) The Grecians 1824. Tr”, and I wanted to know what “Tr” meant. Did it mean translated? Or Tragedy? Or something else? It’s important to me to continue to look closely at entries and puzzle over them, since in this way I continue to learn new things about our data set. And who knows, I might have caught another error.

To find out about whether “tr” meant translator or tragedy, I searched in Google Books on the title, author, and publication date. I found a digital copy of The Grecians without any trouble whatsoever.

While scrolling backward through the frontmatter to answer my question about “tr,” which I found means “tragedy,” I discovered Stainforth’s bookplate just inside the cover. It looks the same as it always does when I find one: a knightly hand on a sword hovers above (or presses down upon?) the “Non Deficit Alter” seal with Stainforth’s name in sweeping cursive below it. Even though I found this one myself, I used our proper online submission form to record my find so that it goes into the correct repository and collects with all the new bookplate data I have to input and map. (There is a little backlog there, too, that I am working through.)

Again, I could have stopped there, but the Advertisement drew me in. It revealed that the play, published in 1824, is about the Greek Revolution, which had been underway since 1821. By 1823-24, when Vaughan was most likely writing the play, a second civil war had begun in Greece, and Egyptian forces had been sent to aid the Turks (Brittanica). In other words, Vaughan decided to write and publish a play on a controversial political event happening nearby in Europe.

Her advertisement boldly states:

THE following play, written with a view to inspire a love of liberty where it does not exist, and to strengthen it where it does, is written by a female, who, conscious that much must be allowed to the feebleness of her pen, yet ventures to throw herself on the indulgence of her candid readers, with a full confidence that the favour which perhaps her work may not merit, will nevertheless be bestowed upon her intention.

She makes this appeal with the greater certainty that it will not be in vain, being made as it is to the descendants of those who have themselves fought and bled in fields not less famous than those of Marathon and Plateae, for rights such as the Greeks of our day are now contending for : nor is it entirely new, that the lyre which is to infuse a spirit in the combatants, is struck by a female hand: yet with much diffidence she mentions these circumstances, to mitigate the severity of criticism, convinced as she is, that whatever little merit her performance may contain, it is indebted for it to the inspiration of her theme, and not to the talent of the Author.

It is, perhaps, unfortunate for the Author, that her Work appears at a time when the minds of her readers are so full of the enthusiasm of those events which are at present passing on the spot which she has chosen for the scene, that any attempt at inspiring a vivid impression in the minds so pre-occupied, must suffer much: this also she only mentions with the intention of placing her effort in a fair point of view, and now has only to beg that favourable indulgence of her Readers, which she asks from their kindness rather than their judgments. (5-6)

I found it interesting that despite the opening customary apology for having a female author, her second paragraph conveys relative certainty that her appeal for the reader’s attention will not be in vain since she names her audience as liberal descendants of those who have “fought and bled in fields not less famous” than Greek fields, and for liberties similar to the Greeks’. Her third paragraph feigns retreat under the guise of femininity: she claims it to be unfortunate that the Greek revolution is still pulsing, and the “minds of her readers are so full of the enthusiasm” for the revolution that her play cannot possibly add another vivid impression. Of course, the revolution makes it easier and more politically relevant than ever to imagine the Greek scenes in her play. This play and publication were well-timed.

David Roessel’s In Byron’s Shadow claims that Vaughan’s play was one of the earliest plays about the Greek Revolution for a British audience (89). The tragedy of the play is not only the Greek struggle for freedom, but its representation of women as the oppressed. Ali, Commander of the Turkish Army, captures Victoria, the wife of Ypsilantis, the Greek leader. He claims that she “must bow to my will, / And minister to my pleasure” (9). While the Greeks rescue Victoria, there is yet another female character sacrificed: Menonia, daughter of the Greek prince Antrobus, who loses her sanity and dies with her lover.

In this brief perusal of The Grecians, which I look forward to reading more slowly, I hypothesize that not only was Vaughan writing about the Greek revolution underway but the revolution of women’s authorship that had been ongoing for much longer. While it was hardly new in 1824 for a female hand to “strike” the lyre to inspire battle tales, her own attempts, she says, “must suffer much” while trying to carve out among her readers “a fair point of view” (my emphasis on the pun). Are we still talking about Greece? And if not, why did she choose Greece’s civil wars as the vehicle for her complex complaint about women’s authorship? To be continued …

 

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