A Woman of Letters:Mary Anne Rawson’s Letter Collection and her Compilation of the Anti-Slavery Gift Book The Bow in the Cloud, 1826-1834

Bird, Eleanor (2021) A Woman of Letters:Mary Anne Rawson’s Letter Collection and her Compilation of the Anti-Slavery Gift Book The Bow in the Cloud, 1826-1834. Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies, 17 (2). pp. 1-30. ISSN 1556-7524

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Upon its appearance in 1834, the only known British anti-slavery gift book, The Bow in the Cloud, was advertised in the contemporary press as a suitable present for Emancipation Day on the 1st of August, when the Slavery Abolition Act came into force (Morning Chronicle, 30 July 1834, Sheffield Independent, 26 July 1834). Looking back from the present, it is easy to take this representation at face value and see the Bow as only a commemorative text to celebrate the successes of abolition, rather than an active political document. Moira Ferguson has claimed that the women-authored poems that make up part of the Bow are spiritually orientated and sentimental, and that the Bow was far less radical than the activism of other abolitionists such as the Leicester-based Quaker abolitionist pamphleteer Elizabeth Heyrick (265, 269, 91 – 112). The compiler of the Bow, Mary Anne Rawson, was a Congregationalist living in the rapidly urbanizing town of Sheffield, and was the Secretary of the Sheffield Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, established in 1825. Between 1826 and 1834, she solicited contributions in poetry and prose for her gift book and received over one hundred and fifty letters in response. Many of her correspondents enclosed contributions with their letters, sometimes writing them on the same pages. Rawson placed these letters and contributions in two manuscript scrapbooks, probably between the late 1850s and the early 1860s, and they now form part of the Bow in the Cloud Manuscripts (BM) collection at the John Rylands Library.(1) This article argues that to approach the gift book as the advertisements in the contemporary press framed it, or to focus on the sentimentality of some women’s poems in the Bow, is to depoliticize Rawson’s gift book project. To do so presumes as well that Rawson deliberately conforms to acceptable gender norms around women’s political engagement. This separates Rawson from contemporaries such as Heyrick, who is celebrated for having championed women’s participation in agitating for immediate and unconditional emancipation. This article demonstrates that Rawson should instead be recognized and understood as a leader of a politicized campaign for abolition.

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Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies
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16 May 2023 15:10
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18 Sep 2023 02:14