A title is one of the most crucial paratexts a history book can have. In a few words a title captures the essence of a text – its topic and genre – as well as contextualizes and explains it. Without a title a text remains nothing but a text. A title is a fascinating paratext also because it lives a double-life. As Eleanor Shevlin has observed, titles are at the same time attached to the text and removed from it. It is the title that is used to refer to a specific text and it is the title that links the reviews, discussions, and comments in outside world to the book. Moreover, a title has contractual power in legal sense. In England, since the act of 1719, a title has been recognized both as a property and a legally binding marker of this ownership. Nevertheless, every now and then the unwritten rules of scholarly conduct have complicated the question of ownership making it nothing but a simple legal matter. In 1840, Agnes Strickland (1796–1874) argued for the moral right for a title even before a book was published as long as the expected title was communicated to the public one way or another. Strickland went so far that she publicly accused Hannah Lawarance (1795–1875) for stealing the title of her forthcoming book. Lawrance strongly disagreed with this interpretation and replied by staking her own claim for the moral right to the disputed title.
Agnes Strickland and Hannah Lawrance are today remembered for the biographies of queens and princesses they wrote. This was a popular and well-established genre and Victoria’s ascendancy to the throne did nothing to lessen the demand for the picturesquely written histories of prominent women. Strickland tapped this enthusiasm for royal biographies and sought a “gracious permission” from her Majesty to dedicate her first book to the Queen “with feelings of profound respect and loyal affection.” Women were considered highly suitable for writing such books. Their femininity helped them to connect with their subject matter, yet, by writing about women they did not compete with men who wrote about really important historical topics such as politics, wars – and kings who were the true historical agents. The queens and princesses, if they had had any impact on the progress of England, had exercised much softer influence focusing on education, charity, and culture – fields that were considered suitable for the nineteenth-century women as well. Hannah Lawarance, though, contested this model and introduced the women she wrote about as active historical actors and instilled her narrative with opinions about the contemporary debates on women’s education.
In 1840, Agnes Strickland’s Lives of the Queens of England from the Norman Conquest was issued with a preface where she claimed that someone had stolen the original title of her book. In 1837, she explained, she had informed Queen Victoria about her ongoing project. Moreover, the Literary Gazette plus “other leading periodicals of the day” had announced that she was working on to complete “Historical Memoirs of the Queens of England.” It was, then, well-known that she was preparing a book with a specific title. These notices granted Strickland the right to the topic – and as she believed – to its title as well. She was convinced that the tree-year long delay in the process, caused by a “long and dangerous illness,” should not have affected her moral ownership of the title. Hence, she was unpleasantly surprised to discover that while she was convalescing, her chosen title “was appropriated by another writer.” Discretely Strickland shunned from mentioning the unscrupulous writer by name, but anyone who followed the literary scene could easily identify the wrongdoer as Hannah Lawrence, the author of Historical Memoirs of the Queens of England which had been issued in 1838.
Lawrance did not take such a public charge and humiliation well. She paid back to Strickland in a vicious review that she submitted anonymously to The Atheaneum. She started by tackling the accusation, which “With all respect for Miss Strickland” created “an unfair prejudice against Miss Lawrance, whose laborious and interesting Memoirs” were referred to in the unpleasant preface. As so often in priority right disputes, Lawrance, too, set to prove that actually it had been her work – including the contested title – that had been publicly announced well before the papers had said a word about Strickland’s work-in-progress. Lawrance-the-reviewer explained how already in 1831 when Anna Jameson’s Memoirs of Celebrated Female Sovereigns had been published, it had been “heard that Miss Lawrance was writing ‘Memoirs of the Queens of England’.” As this was quite vague leaving it open to whom and how the news of Lawrance’s book was communicated, she added that “in 1832 we believe, but certainly when the [poet] Ettrick Shepherd was in London, for he and twenty other literary persons were present, this report was confirmed to us by Miss Lawrance herself.” For Lawrance this was enough to both prove her innocence and her right for the disputed title. Hence, it was not Lawrance-the-historian who was the villain in the story: “under these circumstances, it is a little too bad to insinuate that Miss Lawrance has, in some way or another, acted unjustly or ungenerously towards Miss Strickland,” Lawrance-the reviewer concluded.
It is not surprising that the publicly disgraced Lawrance, after quieting “our conscience” about the titular disagreement, went to great lengths to find every possible fault in Strickland’s book. Perhaps Lawrance-the-reviewer tried to conceal the reviewer’s true identity and therefore focused primarily on flaws that were considered feminine: uncritical evaluation of authorities, absurd simplification of complicated matters, inclusion of “antiquarian, and gossiping matter of the slightest interest,” jocular style unbefitting to a grave historical work, and the “besetting sin of female writers, a redundancy of adjectives and epithets.” She, moreover, suspected the feasibility of Strickland’s plan to produce a multi-volume work that contained “all Queens of England.” This was a bold venture for a woman for it required a consultation of sources that “a young lady would scarcely like to avow she had even read, much less have critically investigated and reasoned upon”.
Once a book was published, the nineteenth-century historians in general respected the right its author had for the given title. No one claimed to have a priority or ownership of overtly general titles such as “History of England,” which did little to distinguish one such work from another. It was the more unique titles that were considered as an author’s possession. The brief Strickland–Lawrance skirmish, however, suggests that the ownership of a title could be a complicated business and that that an ownership of title could pre-date a book’s publication with years. As long as the forthcoming title was publicly announced, both Lawrance and Strickland argued, the author had gained a moral right to use it in the expected book. However, as there was not any clarity on how and where the ownership should be declared, the risk to miss this vital information about priority was real.
Anonymous [Hannah Lawarance], “Lives of the Queens of England, from the Norman Conquest, with Anecdotes of their Court. By Agnes Strickland. Vol. I.” Athenæum, 15 February 1840, 123-125.
Lawrance, Hannah, Historical Memoirs of the Queens of England, from the commencement of the twelfth century (London: Edward Moxon, 1838).
Strickland Agnes, Lives of the Queens of England from the Norman Conquest; with Anecdotes of their Courts, now First Published from Official Records and other Authentic Documents, Private as well as Public, vol. I (London: Henry Colburn, 1840).
Dabby Benjamin, “Hannah Lawrance and the Claims of Women’s History in Nineteenth-Century England”, The Historical Journal 53:3 (2010): 699-722.
Shevlin Eleanor F. “’To Reconcile Book and Title, And Make ‘em Kin to One Another’: The Evolution of the Title’s Contractual Functions”, Book History, 2 (1999): 42-77.
Wilsmore S. J., “The Role of Titles in Identifying Literary Works”, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 45:4 (1987): 403-408.