Hunting for Eliza Fenwick

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Hunting for Eliza Fenwick

Published on April 07 2014

Submitted by Lissa Paul

As a children’s literature specialist, my first encounters with Eliza Fenwick (1766-1840) were through the innovative books she’d written for children, including Visits to the Juvenile Library (1805) and Rays from the Rainbow  (1811), a paint-by-number or parse-by colour grammar book she produced from William Godwin’s Juvenile Library. 

Eventually, I read Eliza’s epistolary novel, Secresy and the collection of letters to Mary Hays, published in 1927, Fate of the Fenwicks. Those letters end just after the death of Eliza’s daughter in 1827, when Eliza became the sole support for her four young grandchildren, then aged 5-14. Their father, William Rutherford, had abandoned the family in Barbados and the initial attempt of Eliza and her daughter to relocate in America had failed.   The biographical information I had initially about Eliza was sketchy, though it did include a brief reference to her school in Niagara.

When I arrived at Brock University in 2005 as a full professor in the Faculty of Education (my PhD is in English), I thought it was a good time to see if I could find out more about Eliza, as the school must have been somewhere in the neighbourhood.  That’s when I applied to The Social Sciences and Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and received, in 2007, my first three-year grant to see what I could find. My “starter book” on Eliza, The Children’s Book Business: Lessons from the Long Eighteenth Century, was published by Routledge in 2011.  I’ve called it a book biography as it is centres on Eliza’s 1805 Visits to the Juvenile Library, and is about the children’s book business of the period.
With the help of the Niagara-on-the Lake Historical Society, I did find Eliza’s school in Niagara, an abandoned house still standing in the town. But information about what Eliza was actually doing in Ontario was still minimal. I got lucky. A biography of Mary Hays contained the information, though without explanation, that the manuscript letters to Hays were in the New-York Historical Society Library. As I’d been doing some research at the New York Public Library, I walked over, and found a box of unreferenced, and apparently unknown set of letters that Eliza and her granddaughter had written from Niagara and Toronto to friends in New York. I was awarded a second SSHRC grant on Eliza in 2011, to research a biography of her life and work. In the fall of 2013, I received a visiting fellowship for a term at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, England, in order to complete a first draft of the manuscript, which I’ve now done.
Eliza’s story is compelling and heroic and worth telling.



lissa paul sitting at desk with laptop