Authors' unpublished letters collected

University of Otago students and their tutors involved in the In her Hand publication. Back row ...
University of Otago students and their tutors involved in the In her Hand publication. Back row (from left), Fiona Glasgow, Dr Tom McLean, Petra Westropp, Elicia Milne, Pippa Maessen, Dr Shef Rogers. Front row (from left) Virginia Sutherland, Dominic...

In just 14 weeks, 11 University of Otago students have written a book their tutor says will excite literary scholars across the world.

For their ''writing for publication'' course, the English honours degree students studied previously unpublished letters written by well-known British women writers held in archives in this country.

They transcribed the letters and wrote essays about the writers for the book In Her Hand: Letters of Romantic-Era British Women Writers in New Zealand Collections.

The writers, from about the same era as Jane Austen, include Hannah More, Joanna Baillie, Jane Porter, Lady Morgan, Amelia Opie, Lady Byron, Felicia Hemans, Lucy Aikin, Anna Barbauld, Maria Jane Jewsbury and Anna Jameson.

Although they were little known today, most were household names to British readers about 200 years ago, course co-ordinator Dr Tom McLean said.

Most had been studied individually by academics, who, as they learnt about the book, were excited to discover material about their subjects was ''hiding in New Zealand archives ... about as far away from Britain as it is possible to get'', he said in Invercargill on Sunday.

''Had they been in United States or UK collections, many of these letters would have been published long ago.''

About half the 50 letters had been found in Dunedin Public Libraries' collections and the rest had come from Auckland, Wellington and Invercargill.

The book had a private launch in Dunedin last month and was publicly launched at the Invercargill Library on Sunday.

Dr McLean said the Invercargill archive was the biggest surprise for him, as he did not realise the wealth of material contained in the Alex Robertson collection.

Robertson, like Dunedin's A. H. Reed, was a collector of autographs of well-known people. To researchers' disappointment, collectors often cut off the document which accompanied a signature, but sometimes interesting letters were kept.

The letters by the women writers contained information on topics such as their own health, family matters, the death of relatives and friends, travels, visits to friends, and dealings with lawyers and publishers which, he said, added interesting context to their life.

Two previously unpublished works were also discovered - a poem and an essay.

''These women were important literary and cultural figures of their era, so not only is this an interesting book about that era, but it is a book which is already thrilling scholars,'' Dr McLean said.

Four students were unable to attend the Invercargill launch. They were Veena Patel, Georgie Archibald, Jackie McMillan and Samantha McKegg.

allison.rudd@alliedpress.co.nz

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