Women's Writing Before Woolf: A Social Reference/Alexander Dyce
Born on the 30th June 1798 in Edinburgh, Scotland, Alexander Dyce was a literary scholar, historian and editor. His father, also known as Alexander Dyce, was a Major in the East India Company and married Miss Frederick Meredith Mary Campbell in 1797. Whilst evidence is scarce, they are believed to have had three children, all boys. Alexander Dyce went on to become the most successful of the siblings. Keeping with military pursuits, his mother’s brother, General Sir Neil Campbell served alongside Napoleon at Elba as a British Commissioner and went on to become the Governor of Sierra Leone. Dyce was also related to the Pre-Raphaelite artist, William Dyce, although no evidence survives to suggest they were in contact with one another .
When his parents and their children, including Dyce himself, relocated to India in 1799, two of his father’s sisters were assigned to care for him. When Dyce returned to Edinburgh to attend high school, a lady by the name of “Mrs. Smollett” became his main caretaker. Her influence was particularly profound as he mentions her many times throughout his ‘Reminiscences’. Theatre was a big passion of Dyce’s and he writes of Mrs. Smollett’s own interest in the theatre which must have created a dear bond between the two . These female influences in his life may have been the impetus for his later work with women writers.
This love of theatre, which continued throughout his whole life, is said to have interfered with Dyce’s academic achievements in high school. In 1816, Dyce commenced study at Exeter College, Oxford pursuing a Bachelor of Arts. After his studies, his father had expected him to follow in his footsteps by pursuing a position in the military particularly since military endeavours had been a part of both sides of his family. But there seems to have been some apprehension on Alexander’s part as his father ended up offering him an alternate pathway in the church. Alexander accepted this and subsequently served as an Anglican priest in churches in Cornwall and Suffolk for what is believed to be somewhere between 3-6 years before moving to London to pursue a literary career .
In London, Dyce mixed with some of the city’s best literary connections and talent, joining a group dubbed ‘Rogers Circle’ with English poet, Samuel Rogers. Here, he mixed with printers, poets, journalists, librarians, and even an Egyptologist. He also joined the novelist William Harrison Ainsworth’s literary circle where politicians, writers, and artists, including Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray and the painter, Daniel Maclise, were also said to have been regular visitors. Whether they crossed paths with Dyce is unsubstantiated, but it does point to the stature Dyce eventually achieved for himself. Notably, he also formed a friendship with William Wordsworth through mail correspondence, and in these letters, Wordsworth speaks highly of Dyce’s work. Dyce was also in close literary acquaintance with many female writers including Euphrasia Fanny Haworth, Fanny Kemble and Mary Russell Mitford .
Alexander Dyce edited and annotated the work of some of literature’s most profound novelists, poets and dramatists including William Shakespeare, Robert Greene, George Peele, Thomas Middleton and Christopher Marlowe. He was the first modern editor to work on many of these texts. Dyce is also known for his input into the biographies of Shakespeare, Alexander Pope and James Beattie . His works include William Gifford’s Dramatic Works and Poems of James Shirley (1833), John Skelton (1843), as well as his own Works of John Ford (1869) .
As Bartels states, a literary editor was a ‘compiler, organizer and shaper of texts, and indeed of the literary market itself’ . This was particularly true of Dyce in his inception of the anthology Specimens of British Poetesses (1825) in which Dyce meticulously compiled what he believed to be the best of women’s poetry up until that point.
Dyce’s work has been generally well received. As Schrader writes, “His confidence and self-satisfaction were found at times annoying, and the value of some of his work was questioned; but by and large the quality of his texts and the ultimate usefulness of his notes still command respect” .
Alexander Dyce's renewed interest in Shakespeare during the 19th century, sparked some of his best work with the texts of Shakespeare (Schrader). Dyce's reputation begins with what is perhaps his most progressive and important work is his publication of Specimens of British Poetesses (1825), an anthology of poetry by eighty-nine women writers. In the anthology’s preface Dyce writes, “the object of the present volume is to exhibit the growth and progress of our country-women in the department of poetry”, alluding to his genuine admiration of the work included in the volume and his desire to champion and uplift the work for wider recognition amongst wider society. While women writers, especially those from past centuries, were often left behind in history, Dyce’s anthology makes effort to include 29 pre-eighteenth century writers including Mary Wroth, Mary Sidney, Anne Bradstreet, Elizabeth Carew, Katherine Phillips, Gertrude Thimelby, Ann Collins, Elizabeth Melville and Anna Hume .
Dyce's reputation became more respectable after the anthology received a positive reception when it was released, notably by writers Leigh Hunt and William Wordsworth. In correspondence with Dyce via letters, Wordsworth explained he had wanted to compile a similar book but went on to suggest that Dyce’s work was in fact, superior to similar anthologies he had read and even offered his own help if future editions were to be compiled. The anthology’s value still continues according to Margaret Ezell in her work on nineteenth-century editions of early modern women’s writing .
- Bartels, Gretchen Christine. "The Editor as Producer: Nineteenth-Century British Literary Editors." UC Riverside Electronic Theses and Dissertations, 2013, pp. 1-260. eScholarship, http://escholarship.org/uc/item/6dw3b1qm [Accessed 27 April 2021]
- Salzman, Paul. "How Alexander Dyce Assembled Specimens of British Poetesses: A Key Moment in the Transmission of Early Modern Women’s Writing." Women's Writing, vol. 26, no. 1, 2019, pp. 88-105. Taylor & Francis, doi: 10.1080/09699082.2019.1534636 [Accessed 28 April 2021]
- Schrader, Richard J. ed. The Reminiscences of Alexander Dyce. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1972. https://kb.osu.edu/handle/1811/31712 [Accessed 27 April 2021]
- "Alexander Dyce: Scottish Editor." Britannica, 2021. [Accessed 7 June 2021]
- Beattie, James. ed. Alexander Dyce. The poetical works of James Beattie: With a memoir by Rev. Alexander Dyce. G. Bell, 1894. HathiTrust, https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/012189336
- Dyce, Alexander. Specimens of British Poetesses: Selected and Chronologically Arranged. J. Moyes, 1825.