115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Missing Pieces: Constructing the Story of Eliza Fenwick (1766-1840)

Lissa Paul, Brock University (Canada)

In composing the biography of British author Eliza Fenwick (1766-1844), I’ve negotiated with the fact that some of her manuscript letters have been deliberately cut or redacted. In my paper, I’ll explain how I navigated omissions to construct the narrative arc of her journey from 18th-century author to colonial teacher.


In the early spring of 1834 British author Eliza Fenwick (1766-1840) wrote from her home in Toronto to her New York friends, the Moffats, with the sad news that her two eldest grandsons, Will and Tom, had just drowned in Lake Ontario. The information was squeezed into a few lines at the end of an otherwise chatty note. But in the manuscript letter—held in the New-York Historical Society archives—there is a hole in the page, just at the point where Eliza is explaining why her grandsons were in a small canoe (dangerous in the icy early spring waters of the lake) rather than something more stable. “They applied for a boat, it appears” says Eliza, “but were refused, the owner perceiving . . . .” And then there is a gap. Some unknown hand has erased the information about what it was that the boat owner saw, what it was that made him reluctant to entrust his boat to two young men, just twenty-one and nineteen at the time. The mystery of  what the man saw is just one of the puzzling features of the letter. There are others, including the fact that Eliza describes the deaths of her grandsons as the “end” of her family tragedy.

This paper is about “ways of seeing” Eliza Fenwick, who was, in the 1830s, a long way physically, culturally, socially and economically from her life in the literary, politically dangerous London of the the 1790s. At that time Eliza and her husband John were among the inner circle of Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin and all of their literary and politically active friends. Eliza had achieved some success with her 1795 novel, Secresy, published just a year, incidentally, after a kind of anti-terrorism report, The First Report of the Committee of Secrecy of the House of Commons, had been released. She was working on another novel in the 1790s but had abandoned it, as she explains in a fragment from an 1832 letter, when “wealth had vanished.”

In the course of writing my forthcoming biography of Eliza Fenwick, especially in working with manuscript letters, I’ve had to negotiate between what other hands decided to retain and what they decided to cut. Sometimes there are hints, especially in the lines visible on the reverse sides of some the fragments in which the lines to be kept are obvious.

The letters archived in the New-York Historical Society library contain a number of fragments, many deliberately cut to reveal one kind of narrative and conceal another. As my example of the erasure from the 1834 letter indicates, the cuts raise questions about which parts of Eliza’s story were deemed worth telling and which were not. In my talk, I’ll show how I negotiated the construction of the narrative arc of Eliza’s story, as she moved from her life as eighteenth-century author (on the edge of poverty) based in radical London, to school owner and teacher in Upper Canada. In many ways Eliza became the “new genus” of woman Mary Wollstonecraft had imagined. In the end, as I’ll show, she was able to embed some of the radical tenets she had brought with her from the “old” world into the “new.”