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  • Elizabeth Kent’s New Tales of Botanical Friendship
  • Leila Walker (bio)

When leigh hunt finally arrived at livorno nearly eight months after setting out with his family to join Shelley and Byron in Italy, he took the earliest possible opportunity to write to his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Kent—better known as “Bess Kent” or “Bessy Kent.” It had been a terrible journey, and the bulk of Hunt’s July 2, 1822 letter describes the arduous sea voyage that frightened even experienced sailors, the lightning that bent like “the leg of a god,” and the turmoil of the Byron household upon the Hunts’ arrival. In a postscript, however, Hunt turns from his recent adventures to comment on Kent’s most recent literary effort: “I must not forget to say,” he writes, “that I liked your New tales extremely, & that they get better & better towards the conclusion.”1

For those of us familiar with Kent’s work, this postscript presented the kind of mystery that sends shivers down the spine, for Kent’s first known work, Flora Domestica, was not published until the following year. Although scholarly rumors of a collection of children’s tales can be traced back at least to 1930, the dismissal of this collection as lost or forgotten has followed nearly the same history. Now, however, I have been able to identify these “New tales” as New Tales for Young Readers, Elizabeth Kent’s first book, published anonymously in May 1822.2

Although Kent has received recent attention for her botanical works, her collection of children’s tales remained a scholarly rumor as efforts [End Page 329] to locate the book were hampered by longstanding confusion regarding the title and publication date. Most sources continue to rely on Edmund Blunden’s 1930 assertion that in addition to her to major works, Kent “prepared a book on British Birds, but I cannot identify it; and in 1831 she published a collection of New Tales for children.”3 Molly Tatchell takes Blunden’s description for the work’s title and accepts his publication date, writing that “[i]n 1831 [Kent] published a collection of New Tales for Children. But this, like her other works, is now forgotten.”4 Blunden may have taken the 1831 publication date from notices in the March and April 1831 issues of The Tatler directing “young ladies” interested in botanical lessons to inquire after Kent at her stepfather Mr. Hunter’s, “where may be had Miss Kent’s ‘New Tales for Young Readers.’”5 However, as Daisy Hay recently observed, Kent herself tentatively gave 1818 as the publication date in her application to the Royal Literary Fund in the late 1850s. Hay, who correctly identifies the book’s title as New Tales for Young Readers, surmises from an 1822 notice in The Monthly Review that Kent may have misremembered the publication date three decades later, but like Tatchell, Hay presumes the text lost to historical neglect. “This work,” she writes, “like many children’s books of the period, does not appear in library catalogues, and is unlikely to have survived.”6 At least one copy, however, did survive, and is held in the Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature at the University of Florida, allowing us to confirm Hay’s speculative 1822 publication date and make new sense of Kent’s literary contributions to the Cockney School.7

New Tales for Young Readers, “By A Lady,” must have been published in the first two weeks of May, 1822: after May 5, when The Examiner announced the publication “in a few days,” but before Leigh Hunt left England on May 13, bringing a copy with him. It is a slim book, numbering 117 pages, [End Page 330] printed by C. H. Reynell for Bowdery and Kirby.8 The printer helps confirm Kent’s authorship, as Carew Henry Reynell was related to the Hunts by marriage and was John Hunt’s regular printer. The subscription list provides further evidence of the book’s authorship. Major supporters include “Mrs. Hunter,” Kent’s mother; “Lady Knighton,” wife of Sir William Knighton, to whom Kent dedicated her Flora Domestica; “Mr. Kent,” Kent’s brother; and “Mrs. Novello...


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