Anonymous was a woman

Two Whodunits: Bartlett's and the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations

Webster's dictionary. Roget's thesaurus. Bartlett's quotations. These are the eponymous giants of the reference world. John Bartlett, owner of the University Bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts, published A Collection of Familiar Quotations, with Complete Indices of Authors and Subjects in 1855. The current edition is the 17th; its title has evolved into Bartlett's Familiar Quotations: A Collection of Passages, Phrases, and Proverbs Traced to Their Sources in Ancient and Modern Literature. The book's impact has been pervasive. Winston Churchill himself praised it in his autobiography: "an admirable work, and I studied it intently."

When I began work on the Yale Book of Quotations, I found that, despite its subtitle, Bartlett's shows little evidence of research into the origins of its quotations. And in 2003, Michael Hancher '67PhD, an English professor at the University of Minnesota and president of the Dictionary Society of North America, published an article in the Harvard Library Bulletinshowing that the very name "Bartlett's" is a questionable credit.

John Bartlett is generally supposed to have drawn the quotations in his book from his own extensive reading and prodigious memory and a commonplace book he kept. But he acknowledged in the 1855 preface that "this Collection … has been considerably enlarged by additions from an English work on a similar plan." That work, Hancher found, was named in some reviews of the time as the Handbook of Familiar Quotations from English Authors (London, 1853).

Bartlett's first edition closely tracked the quotations in theHandbook. Moreover, it expressed similar ambitions in its preface, used the same chronological organization, and had a comparable index, design, and layout. It is notable that, although Bartlett was an American and his book was published in the United States, fewer than 5 percent of the quotations were American.

But who was responsible for the Handbook? Here, Hancher ran into a puzzle. There is no editor's name on the title page. There is, however, a note at the front. It begins:

  • This Collection was originally intended for the amusement of a family-circle, without any idea of publication. It was only when the Compiler found how many well-read persons were unable to name the author of even the most familiar passage that it occurred to her to supply, by a work of reference, what appeared to be a desideratum in our literature.

The Compiler mentions her residence—at Southwick Place, a fashionable address in London—but signed the note only with her initials: I. R. P.

Hancher deduced from the note that I. R. P. was "no professional author." Yet she was "au courant with the work of the Statistical Society," and for her book she was "able to enlist the services of John Murray, one of the most prestigious publishers in London." Then Hancher examined one of the few known first editions, at the British Library. Next to the initials at the end of the preface, someone had written: "Preston?"

When he consulted the John Murray archives, he found a ledger that lists the author of the Handbook as Isabella Rushton Preston. He also found her letters to Murray. In her first letter, dated April 17, 1849, she had sent him 16 quotations and suggested that "perhaps even Mr. Murray, conversant as he is with our literature, may not be able at once to say from whence they came." From that beginning came her book, which sold thousands of copies. The only other information Hancher could find about Preston's life was in the London census, which showed that in 1851 she was 43 years old and living with her widowed mother, her half-brother, and three servants. In 1861 she was still alive. But that is the last we know of her.

Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, we see, has a somewhat shadowy editorial provenance. It would be too much of a coincidence, surely, for the other leading traditional quotations book, the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, to have its own story of a female compiler receiving little credit. Yet that is exactly what I find.

Today's ODQ gives the name of its editor, Elizabeth Knowles, on the title page. But the title page of the first edition (1941) gives no editor's name. The person most identified with that edition is the writer Bernard Darwin; his contribution, however, was the introduction. Knowles wrote a "History of the Dictionary" for the current edition (2009), but she nowhere identifies the original editor.

Yet in a section of front matter in the first edition entitled "The Compilers to the Reader," we do find the following: "The work remained in contemplation for some time before it began to take shape under the general editorship of Miss Alice Mary Smyth, who worked, for purposes of selection, with a small committee formed of members of the [Oxford University] Press itself." This is the only mention of Smyth I've discovered in any edition.

Who was Alice Mary Smyth? She lived from 1908 to 1989 and was a writer, an editor, and the librarian at Oxford University Press. She married the writer and publisher Charles Hadfield. In all, she wrote and edited more than a dozen books for adults and children. She received more professional recognition in her lifetime than did Isabella Rushton Preston. But, as with Preston, her major role in creating a quotations reference has been greatly neglected.

Although I am tempted to tell you that my own quotations book was secretly compiled by a woman, that was not the case. My excellent senior research editors included Jane Garry, Denise Montgomery, and Suzanne Watkins, but for the most part it was a male-edited work. In that respect, it might almost be considered a novelty.

Anonymous was—not always, but far too often—a woman. 


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