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Eighteenth-Century Studies 39.3 (2006) 411-414

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Before Victoria:

Extraordinary Women of the British Romantic Era

Barnard College, Columbia University
Before Victoria: Extraordinary Women of the British Romantic Era The New York Public Library, April 8 to July 30, 2005. Catalog by Elizabeth Campbell Denlinger (New York: New York Public Library / Columbia University Press, 2005). Pp. 188. $39.50

The remarkable Carl H. Pforzheimer collection formed the basis for a wide-ranging New York Public Library exhibition of documents and artifacts recording the lives of extraordinary British women active during the period between the French Revolution and Victoria's accession to the throne in 1837. As Stephen Wagner, the curator of the Pforzheimer collection and co-curator of the exhibition with Elizabeth Campbell Denlinger, notes in his afterword to the catalog, the collection—best known for its wealth of material on Shelley and his compatriots—continues to expand its holdings. These now include extensive materials relating to the women surrounding Lord Byron as well as documents relating to the French Revolution, publishing history, social reform, travel, and science and technology. The exhibition showcased the depth of these resources and the extent of the collection's materials concerning women during a period of critical interest for feminist studies.

The curators countered the difficulty of responding to texts adequately within an exhibition setting by featuring prints by Rowlandson, Gilray, the Cruikshank brothers, and less famous satirists, such as Charles Williams, as well as objects belonging to individual women, such as the ring and brooch Shelley gave Harriet Westbrook before their marriage. Among the most appealing of the printed materials on display were a series of children's books, including a manual for teaching needlework skills featuring miniature samples of various projects, a hand-colored volume of Mary Wollstonecraft's early stories, and a number of conduct manuals addressed to servants. Anne Wagner's exquisite "friendship album," compiled between 1795 and 1834 and containing ink, watercolor, and [End Page 411] collage illustrations, testified to the artistic proficiency of well-born young women, while a variety of illustrated texts—presented in the form of verse as well as letters—were created to introduce young women to botany, zoology, and astronomy, subjects that were not yet included in the university curriculum and could be studied easily at home.

The scale of the handsome Samuel and Jeane H. Gottesman Exhibition Hall on Fifth Avenue permitted the display of a generous arrangement of books as well as prints. Thematic sections devoted to education, "the modern Venus," female patriots, literary figures, and travelers were framed within a prologue devoted to Mary Wollstonecraft and an epilogue on the youngest romantic, Queen Victoria, that concluded with an example of her accomplished drawing by Queen Victoria. This division of materials differed somewhat from the thematic arrangement of the catalog, but it proved particularly effective for the section on publications for instruction of women of all classes, including the use of interactive technology to allow the viewer to turn the virtual pages of the beautiful friendship album.

An immediately previous exhibition at the New York Public Library, which was devoted to the reception of Newtonian ideas, also offered a section on women and science. Comparison between the two is instructive. Mordecai Feingold authored the catalog, entitled The Newtonian Moment: Isaac Newton and the Making of Modern Culture (2004) and reviewed by Jessica Hutchings in the last issue of ECS, as a contribution to scholarly interpretations of Newton's role in the Scientific Revolution. Denlinger and Wagner, on the other hand, chose to orient the catalog for Before Victoria toward a general audience, and the text assumes the reader possesses little knowledge of the period. As a result, the catalogs differ in tone as well as function.

In format, Before Victoria shares features of the 1996 New York Public Library volume written by Wagner and Doucet Devin Fischer, The Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle: A History, a Biography, and a Guide, which is organized around thumbnail portraits of individuals. The guide follows each of its...


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