Introduction to Mary Steele's Danebury

Background on the Manuscript and Publication History of Danebury

William Steele IV was not only the model for the poem’s patriarch but he was also Mary Steele’s agent when a decision was finally made to publish the poem. In August 1777, William and Martha Steele visited relations and friends at Pershore and Bristol, but before they went westward they traveled to London where they sought a publisher for a new volume of poems by Anne Steele, whose failing health (she would die a year later) provided the impetus for seeking publication at that time. William Steele also carried with him a manuscript of Danebury. Not even dinner with Charles Dilly, a prominent London publisher and friend of Samuel Johnson, could produce an agreement suitable to William Steele for the publication of either work. Dilly told Steele that “Poetry sells the worst of any works,” but after he “cast a cursory View over Danebury &c (for I wou’d not leave it with him),” Dilly

propos’d to print it for me while I am in Town on my saying I should Like to have it printed tho’ not for Sale, he said he cou’d print 250 Copies for 5£ on a small paper & offer’d to shew it to Mr Scott [John Scott, the Quaker poet] but I (you may be sure) declin’d it. He talks of Poetry like a Man of Trade that knows no more of it than belongs to his business, “there are pretty thoughts in it & tis above Mediocrity &c.” (William Steele to Mary Steele, August 14, 1777, NWW 3: 277)

Like his sister and daughter, William Steele viewed poetry as an artistic expression of mind and soul, and not, as Dilly put it, as “Trade” or economics, finding Dilly’s offer of a cheap printing on “small paper” offensive.

William Steele’s attitude toward publication (a “public”-action) was tempered by his immersion in the culture of coterie manuscript writing in which a group of writers, like the Steele circle, operate as an essentially private network with a controlled audience. When one of its members sought publication, the circle often offered assistance as editors, subscribers, or agents, a practice demonstrated in William Steele’s negotiations with Dilly. Steele’s letter reveals another fascinating aspect about the means of poetic production in 1777: Dilly’s rejection of the poetry of Anne and Mary Steele was not so much the result of their gender (his comments do not appear biased toward women poets) as it was the genre in which they preferred to write. To Dilly, publishing poetry, whether by a man or woman, was a bad business decision in the literary marketplace of 1777.[4] He did not necessarily dismiss women’s poetry as artistically inferior (though his comments do not speak well of his aesthetic acumen) or socially inappropriate (something women should not be doing), nor did he imply they should not publish their poetry. He simply chose not to undertake the risk of such an enterprise on his own, placing the full burden of the cost (£5) on William Steele. In fact, Dilly’s attitude toward the poetry of Anne and Mary Steele—“pretty thoughts in it & tis above Mediocrity &c”—is exactly what many “Trade” publishers thought at that time and may explain why so many women writers chose to publish their poems in magazines and miscellanies or through provincial printers rather than the London press—or not at all, merely circulating manuscript copies among a coterie of friends.

In the meantime, William Steele continued to promote Danebury, informing Mary on September 11 that he planned to read her poem that afternoon in Bristol before the famed Bluestocking “Poetess” Hannah More and her sisters during an afternoon tea at their residence in Park Street. Also present was More’s friend and literary advisor, Dr. James Stonhouse, accompanied by his wife and daughter, as well as some close friends of the Steeles, the Revd and Mrs. Caleb Evans and Mary Froud, a teacher at the Mores’ academy and a relation of the Steeles.[5] If he could, William Steele declares, he would read Danebury “before the Queen” (NWW 3: 284-85), another indicator of his private valuation of the poem as manuscript (worthy of the Queen’s ear) in contrast to Dilly’s market valuation of a cheap printed edition. William Steele eventually published his sister’s and his daughter’s poetry through the Methodist printer William Pine in Bristol, with Danebury appearing, along with two odes, in a paper-covered quarto edition, not between boards but not exactly the “small paper” Dilly had proposed. Danebury was sold in London by Joseph Johnson, Mary Scott’s publisher, the title page attributing the poem’s composition to “a Young Lady,” not a sufficient identification for later commentators and librarians but enough for literary circles in Bristol and Broughton where Steele’s identity was known. These were the poem’s previous hearers, readers, and critics operating within manuscript coteries grounded in sociable, conversable settings like those at Broughton House or Park Street in 1777.[6] Mary Steele rightly dedicated the poem to her father, by whose “command it ventures into the world,” she wrote in her dedication, and whose “approaching smile is the highest fame to which its writer aspires” (NWW 3: 34).

William Steele’s activities surrounding the manuscript of Danebury in the autumn of 1777 also illustrates the intricate interplay between what Margaret Ezell describes as “social, manuscript authorship” and “commercial print authorship” (Social Authorship 2) during the era of the second generation of the Steele circle, c. 1770-80.[7] His efforts reveal the symbiotic relationship that existed within the Steele circle, in which Mary Steele’ private, creative agency as a woman-poet merges with William Steele’s role as public patron, creating something closer to a partnership than a victimization of a female author at the hands of a patriarchal society. William Steele shared a collaborative interest in the poem, for he was carrying with him his own fair copy of Danebury, a copy to which he had made numerous editorial changes from Mary Steele’s fair copy, much like he had done with Scott’s Female Advocate.[8] More importantly, his presentation of the poem in two radically different settings—dinner with Charles Dilly in a London tavern in full homosocial conviviality, one gentleman to another negotiating in public the selling of a volume of poetry, and tea in Hannah More’s feminine parlor in Park Street in Bristol, in which both men and women shared a private reading of the manuscript—demonstrates the primacy of sociability and conversation (father to daughter, agent to publisher, speaker/reader to audience/hearer) in promoting and sustaining an imaginative literary culture centered upon an immediate interaction with the artifact, the poem itself. In this instance, the manuscript culture of the Steele circle embraced gender and genre without catering to the restrictive market-based utilitarian ideals derived solely from material print culture.[9] The progression of Mary Steele’s Danebury (and similarly Mary Scott’s The Female Advocate) from imaginative concept to printed artifact provides a salient example of how artistic creativity and authorial control within women’s eighteenth-century manuscript coteries ultimately merge, though not without resistance, with the typical protocols required of authorship in a mercantile print culture governed largely by a blind interface with an unknown, unpredictable public audience. Fortunately for Mary Steele, her authorial identity as “a Young Lady” in 1779 was preserved through a valuable collection of informal writings and manuscripts and one important annotation, probably by someone within or at least known to the circle, an annotation that left behind a permanent reminder that, at least within the Steele circle, anonymity was never synonymous with being unknown.


[1] “Danebury Hill” was used as part of the original title of Steele’s 1768 manuscript copy (STE 5/5/ii, Angus Library) as well as William Steele’s fair copy (STE 5/7) that he carried with him to London and Bristol in 1777. When and by whom the title was shortened to “Danebury” is not known. On top of Danebury Hill is an Iron-Age fort, much of which has now been excavated and restored. The outer defenses were reconstructed sometime in the fifth century, during a revival of Celtic culture in the region. Though battles were probably fought at Danebury (the name is a mixture of Celtic and Saxon, meaning “a fortified place”) and nearby sites during the Danish occupation, Steele’s poem is not based upon any known historical event. See Cooke 40.

[2] The same year Mary Steele completed Danebury her father remarried, an act she initially resented, but whether it led to Danebury remaining unpublished for the next eleven years is unclear.

[3] See Mary Steele’s note to Attwater (Attwater Papers, acc. 76, II.A.5, Angus Library, Oxford) (Nonconformist Women Writers, vol. 3, p. 390, n. 2) where she attributes to her friend the inspiration for the character of Emma in Danebury.

[4] William St. Clair contends that during the late eighteenth century “most authors were obliged to operate within a commercial system in which they, their advisers and their publishers attempted to judge what the market wanted and how best to supply it,” a system Dilly was not willing to override in this instance. See William St. Clair, The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 161.

[5] During the time that Mary Froud lived and worked at the Mores’s school in Bristol, Steele and her family visited her and the Mores on several occasions. Mary Steele corresponded with Hannah More and her sister, Martha, c. 1784-86 (Nonconformist Women Writers, vol. 3, pp. 284-86, 305-06), and in 1786 Hannah More journeyed to Broughton House, returning the favor of Mary Steele’s visit to Park Street the previous year. During her visit to Broughton, More and Steele climbed nearby Danebury Hill, prompting More to compose the following poem as a memorial of her visit:

Sylvia, forgive thy daring Friend,

And do not take it ill

That her presuming hand has plucked

A wreath from Danebury Hill.

Yet tho’ I much admire the gifts

Thy genius can impart,

Far rather, Sylvia, would I steal

One virtue from thy Heart!

And who, fair Sylvia, do you think

Could blame the moral theft?

One virtue you could scarcely miss,

You’d have so many left.

*the Author gathered a branch of juniper on Danebury Hill

wch she presented to my amiable Friend with ye above lines (Nonconformist Women Writers, vol. 3, p. 169)

[6] Danebury was reviewed in the Critical Review 57 (May 1779), 90-91, and the Monthly Review 61 (July 1779), 43-44. A copy of Danebury belonging to the collections of the Mills Memorial Library, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, provides further evidence for dating the poem as well as a striking example (like Sarah Froud’s copy of The Female Advocate or Jane Attwater’s copy of Elizabeth Coltman’s Plain Tales and The Warning discussed in Chapters 4 and 6) of scribal annotations affixed to anonymous publications by members of a women’s manuscript coterie, providing librarians and archivists with a means of proper identification. The McMaster copy bears an inscription on the title page identifying the author as “Miss Steel Hampshire” with a second inscription (“Mary Steele”) at the end of the dedicatory epistle on the following page, with an attached note, “Broughton Hampshire 1779 anciently stiled Brige.” The hand is not that of Mary Steele, but the copy appears to have been purchased in 1779 and inscribed by someone acquainted with Steele and her literary activities.

[7] The creative and social process involved in the composition, editing, transcribing, public readings, and eventual publication of Danebury offers fertile ground for Ezell’s call for “a history of authorship that is concerned with the author’s, not the printer’s or bookseller’s, experience of writing in the material conditions of the times,” in which the “relationship between the writer and his or her reader” is not governed solely “by commercial exchange or professional advancement” (Social Authorship and the Advent of Print [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1999], 12). Coterie authors (like Mary Steele) “controlled the production and circulation of the text and [. . .] used [their] writings to cohere social bonds among like-minded readers” (Social Authorship 42).

[8] For William Steele’s copy, see STE 5/7; for Mary Steele’s fair copy, see STE 5/5/ii, Angus Library, Regent's Park College, Oxford.

[9] Russell and Tuite argue that the parlor became a clear rival to the coffee house in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, a mostly feminine space competing with an almost exclusively male space. “[T]he reconfiguration of the public entailed in the move from the tavern room to the drawing-room,” they assert, “inevitably entailed a reconfiguration of the gender and class dimensions of that public,” the “active presence of women as writers and participators” exerting considerable pressure “upon this masculine and homosocial coffee-house model of Romantic literary sociability.” See Gillian Russell Clara Tuite, ed., Romantic Sociability; Social Networks and Literary Culture in Britain 1770-1840 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 18.