Suggested words

Mary Lloyd, the first woman to publish a book about Brighton

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Many men have described Brighton in the Georgian age, but what about the female voices? A small volume of poetry by the elusive Mary Lloyd evokes Brighton in the time of Jane Austen.

While in lock-down during the Corona crisis I started looking at my small collection of early books about Brighton and came up with the idea to create a list of the earliest descriptions of the Royal Pavilion and the surrounding area. As in most areas of life and culture, there is a huge imbalance between male and female voices, so there are precious few women in early Brighton literature. As luck would have it, I remembered one of the first books I bought in a little antiquarian bookshop at the Seven Dials after I came to England more than 20 years ago. It is a small, slim volume, comprising just over 80 pages, published in 1809, with the simple title Brighton. A Poem.

Title page and frontispiece of Mary Lloyd’s book Brighton. A Poem, 1809

This unassuming little book is a rare glimpse into Brighton in the early 1800s, when it was arguably the most fashionable seaside resort, or ‘watering place’, in the country. While it may not be the most accomplished poetry that was published in that period, it paints a delightful picture of Brighton from the perspective of a young woman, who enjoyed both the liveliness of the town, and the surrounding countryside.

Who was Mary Lloyd?

A fashion plate from Ackermann’s Repository, 1811

As is so often the case with women in the Georgian period and before reliable census records, we know next to nothing about Mary Lloyd. Her name doesn’t make genealogical research easy, as it is quite a common name. I identified a grave of a Mary Lloyd in Brighton’s Extra-Mural Cemetery and got quite excited about it, but it soon became clear that it could not be her. There are a couple of Mary Lloyds in literary history, but it is unlikely that our Brighton Mary is one of them. There are no known pictures of her, so a contemporary image of a young woman from the popular magazine Ackermann’s Repository of Arts… will have to do for now. It is something she would most certainly have perused and read in one of the public libraries in Brighton. We gain a little information about her in the brief preface to her book, in which she mentions ‘august and noble patronage’, which suggests that she had supporters who helped her write and publish. She also points out that she has ‘no literary friends’ who could cast an eye on her work, so she does not seem to have been part of any intellectual circles. With regard to writing poetry, she informs the reader that this is her first attempt, and that she is ‘young in poesy’. It is likely that she was also youngish in age in 1809, and a handful of poems in Scottish dialect added to the volume could mean that she had Scottish connections. She was still alive in 1816, as she is listed the Biographical Dictionary of the Living Authors of Great Britain and Ireland. Regrettably, this is all we know about her. In the absence of much biographical information, let’s just look at her intriguing little book and see what it tells us about her, Brighton, and the Royal Pavilion.

What is the book about?

In Mary Lloyd’s long poem, we follow a wandering, ambling visitor and narrator, who introduces Brighton and its attractions to us. The poem is written largely in rhyming couplets. In her own words, Lloyd aims to ‘delineate[s] the different scenes [of Brighton], at the seasons and hours in which they appear most pleasing and striking’. She does so by describing places, people, sights and surroundings from morning through to evening, as if painting a series of picturesque views. At noon, for example, we find ourselves at the beauty spot Devil’s Dyke north of Brighton, looking at the vale below where ‘nature in all her richest colours glow[s]’. In true Romantic tradition, almost everything is seen in relation to the elements and the greater cosmological picture. Brighton is introduced as the ‘loveliest neighbour of the wave, whose stately cliffs the rolling surges lave..’, and you could be forgiven for thinking instinctively of Turner’s or Constable’s sketches of the town. Towards the end of the poem are perhaps some of her finest poetic lines, in which the narrator watches the moon rise over the sea in the evening, illuminating the scene: ‘Now to the wild rocks let us rove again, / and view the beauties of the moonlight main; / ten thousand diamonds sparkle and expire; / or dart from wave to wave their lambent fire.’

Brighton in ca. 1809

The poem was published in 1809, so it is likely that Lloyd composed it in 1808 or 1807. This was an exciting time in Brighton, as the new Royal Stables (now the Dome and Corn Exchange) had just been erected – but were not quite finished – and many new large townhouses were being built, including the first crescent-shaped row of Georgian houses, the Royal Crescent. In the same year, Attree’s Topography of Brighton was published, an important early guidebook to Brighton, which included a detailed map by J Marchant. This shows how Brighton was growing and expanding rapidly, and almost all places Lloyd mentions in her poem can be seen on it.

Marchant’s map of Brighthelmstone in 1809

Lloyd describes some of these new developments, but her focus is always on the most agreeable views and prospects. The two illustrations she includes in her books do not show us any grand structures in detail, but the Signal House – a humble building in the east from where you can see the bay in which Brighton lies – and a view from the beach from an area known as The Rocks (just below where Lower Rock Gardens is now) towards the Steine and Pool Valley, with Dr Russell’s house visible. We do not know who the artist of these rare engravings was, but the one The Rocks, later appeared in John George Bishop’s book A Peep into the Past – Brighton in the Olden Time (1880), as an example of how the Marine Parade area looked before it was developed. Lloyd artfully manages to include some historical background into her lyrical descriptions, and weave in dramatic recent events, such as a the tragic death of four fishermen whose boat capsized. Crucial historical information is added in the form of lengthy footnotes.

The frontispiece of Mary Lloyd’s book, a view of Brighton looking from east to west

Mary Lloyd’s frontispiece reprinted in Bishop’s Brighton in the Olden Time, 1880

Detail of Marchant’s map of Brighthelmstone, showing the area between the “Rocks” and the Steine.

The Signal House, the other plate in Mary Lloyd’s book

What does Lloyd think about the Pavilion Estate?

Lloyd devotes an entire section to the Steine, as the place for entertainment, fashionable society, ‘fresh delights’, ‘gaiety’, beauty and music. The gayest of the new buildings is, naturally, the Royal Pavilion, but there is no mention of any exotic features, as Lloyd would have seen William Porden’s neo-classical Marine Pavilion, with conservatory-like extensions to the north-east and south-east, as seen in Cracklow’s famous print from 1806, where we see the Prince of Wales parading along the Steine on horseback. She therefore likens it to Italian architecture: ‘Around the beauteous lawn, gay buildings rise, / there the Pavilion wooes admiring eyes; / In Italy’s fair clime such structures grow; / where through the orange-groves soft zephyrs blow.’ Unlike Attree, who gives us a fascinating account of the early Chinoiserie schemes of the Pavilion, she doesn’t describe the interior at all, which would suggest that she did not gain access to the building. The new Royal Stables, she notes in a footnote, are not yet finished, but she calls them a ‘majestic edifice’, ‘towering above each structure by its side’ with ‘graceful pride’. The overpowering presence of the Dome is noticeable in many images of Brighton of the early 19th century.

Detail from The View of the Pavilion and Steyne at Brighton C T Cracklow, 1806. The Prince of Wales is on horseback, in the company of Benjamin Bloomfield, then in charge of a troop of the Royal Horse Artillery.

A front view of the new Royal Stables (Church Street), c.1809

Was the book a success?

It isn’t easy to make a commercial success of a volume of poetry at the best of times, and one wonders how a young woman managed to publish a slim lyrical description of Brighton in 1809. The book is now extremely rare, which suggests the print run was small. Lloyd does not appear to have published anything else, but this doesn’t mean the book was not a success. As hinted at in her preface, Lloyd has supporters, who may have helped finance the printing. It was published privately, without backing from a publisher, and sold by J Harding in St James’s Street, and ‘by all the booksellers in Brighton’. It was sold on a subscription basis, which was basically a way of ensuring sales before a book was actually printed. Lists of early subscribers were often included in Georgian publications, which gives us invaluable insight into print numbers and readerships. Lloyd’s poem does have a list of subscribers, and it is impressive. Many well-known Brighton names are on this list, some of whom pre-ordered multiple copies, for example the Third Earl of Egremont, who was great patron of Turner, and owned a villa just north of The Rocks. He ordered three copies, as did the Duchess of Marlborough. The Duke of Clarence is first on the list; the Officers from the Royal Horse Artillery ordered five copies. Mrs Fitzherbert is there, as is Colonel Bloomfield (who can also be seen in the Cracklow print). In total, Lloyd secured the sale of 146 copies via subscription only, so we can estimate a print run of around 250, perhaps 300, not bad for a privately published volume by a young female poet.

The book was reviewed in at least two London magazines, The Critical Review of Annals of Literature in 1810 and The Monthly Review, or Literary Journal in 1809.  The reviews are not entirely positive and a little condescending in tone, but the critics see some potential in her work: ‘Though we cannot praise her poetical powers very highly, yet her poem of Brighton at least excels in accuracy of delineation. Miss Mary Lloyd has caught the prominent features of the place and its inhabitants.’ (Critical Review, 1810, 3, XVIII, p.106). This sounds a bit like damning with faint praise, and perhaps these reviews discouraged Mary Lloyd from writing anything else, but for me, this poem is a hugely interesting description of Brighton in the early 19th century from an intelligent, perceptive and creative woman. She may not have gained access to the Pavilion and she may not be as great as Wordsworth, but she has given us a joyful and sensitive early account of Brighton from a woman’s perspective. I imagine her going for long walks in and around Brighton, admiring the views, revelling in the beauty of Brighton’s setting.

Mrs Fitzherbert’s House on the Steine, 1806

Post scriptum: Did George IV read Mary Lloyd?

I secretly hope that he did, and it is quite likely, since Mrs Fitzherbert, his long-term companion, had a copy in her newly built house on the Steine (which is also mentioned by Lloyd). George had a great interest in women’s literature. As is well known, he was a great admirer of Jane Austen’s work. But there is more: while Mary Lloyd was probably the first woman to publish an entire book about Brighton, there was an earlier female poet who lived in Brighton and wrote about Sussex. Charlotte Turner Smith (1749-1806), who published Elegiac Sonnets in 1789, is a much better known and documented poet, and it is more than likely that Lloyd knew of her work. Crucially, George owned a copy of Elegiac Sonnets, proof of his interest in contemporary women’s literature. I would like to think that, when dropping in on Maria Fitzherbert in her elegant house on the Steine, he picked up Mary Lloyd’s Brighton poem, curious about what she had to say about him and his Pavilion by the sea.

Alexandra Loske, Curator, Royal Pavilion