Clutching My Pearls is about Jane Austen and the times she lived in. The opinions are mine, but I don't claim originality. Click here for the first in the series. For more about other female writers of Austen's time, click the "Authoresses" tag in the Categories list to the right.
In the previous post, I discussed the 1824 novel The Banker's Daughters of Bristol by Rosalia St. Clair, which combined conventional morality with some radical sentiments. It is easy to guess that "Rosalia St. Clair" is a pseudonym; the kind of romantic name that Anne of Green Gables might choose for herself.
Rosalia St. Clair was the pen-name used by Agnes Crombie Hall (1763-1846) for the novels she wrote for Minerva Press. As Rosalia, Agnes spun tales about dukes and earls with liveried servants and carriages. She also wrote about star-crossed lovers who gave up everything for each other and retire to live in a little cottage. That is what the reading public wanted, but Agnes's life was a world away from the lives of her characters.
A publisher's foreword for one of her historical novellas, re-issued some years after her death, sketches her origins and then gives us a poignant anecdote: "Agnes Hall was “the only daughter of Mr. [John] Crombie [of Jedburgh, Scotland], a writer in [Jed]burgh, who flourished about the latter half of the last century; he possessed considerable property,.. Marrying a Dr. [Robert] Hall, a medical man... she left her native place only to endure a chequered life in the metropolis, for her lot was one of trial and privation. When the accustomed sources of support failed, she had to betake herself to her pen to eke out a precarious subsistence for herself and family… Her talents were not without recognition, for when reporting was more a literary art than it is now, she was engaged to attend the debates in the House of Commons as a reporter. Such were her extremities from domestic straits, that she was wont to borrow apparel for these occasions, from a pawn shop."
"Extremities from domestic straits"
Agnes obviously came from an educated family, or as she put it, she was "educated to better prospects." Her father is described above as a "writer," which is a Scottish term for an attorney. He also served as the town clerk. Perhaps her father disapproved of her marriage to Robert Hall, who appears to have done more writing than working as a surgeon. It's understandable that the couple moved to London, rather than some less expensive place, because they needed to stay in touch with the magazine editors they wrote for. But you wonder why there was no help from the prosperous Mr. Crombie, especially considering the Halls had a daughter to support.
Dr. Hall, who wrote about medical research, lost "the chief part of his property by a fraudulent bankrupt." An obituary of Dr. Hall, probably written by Agnes herself, states that he wasted considerable funds in futile lawsuits to get his property back. I wonder if records still exist for those lawsuits, for those would reveal the name of the person who allegedly cheated the Halls.
Her Poverty, But Not Her Will, Consents. (detail) Frank Holl. 1876. A woman pawns her wedding ring
Agnes Hall often wrote on topics that were usually the province of men. Scholar Gary Westfahl says she was chosen to contribute to Abraham Rees's Cyclopaedia because she was "one of the few women then deemed qualified to write on science and literature." Here you can see a letter to the editor from 1803, describing the invention of the diving-bell, and warning about the progress being made toward submarines which could be used to attack British shipping. Obviously her interests ranged widely and she was very tuned in to politics. She wrote on botany and literature for other encyclopedias as well. Her sympathies were with free-thinkers and dissidents like William Godwin (Mary Shelley's father), whom she corresponded with while she still lived in Scotland.
Nobody could read Agnes Hall's file in the archives of the Royal Literary Fund without feeling sympathy for a woman who tried everything she could think of to earn a genteel living, including doing needlework and taking in lodgers, but appears to have been destitute for much of her life. One letter of support sent in the 1830's states: “She is of the first respectability and in great distress. The widow of Dr. Hall… she lost all her own private fortune by the failure of an Army Agent, [someone who administered army pensions and widows' pensions] and has now only a pittance of about forty pounds a year to support herself and daughter.” According to the RLF file, this agent was one James Window. who declared bankruptcy. As this occurred after Dr. Hall's death, it cannot be the earlier case of bankruptcy which ruined him.
Agnes also wrote that she'd been defrauded by the publishers Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, & Green, who never paid her for a novella she wrote for them, titled Obstinacy, a title intended to fit in with a series of books for young people (Integrity, Decision, Patience) published by the more successful author, Barbara Hofland. No wonder she had bitter thoughts about “the absurd institutions of society, which so strongly tend to exalt the mere accidental distinction of birth, or the possession of property, over intellectual attainments or moral worth.” Perhaps she couldn't resist putting some of her angry outbursts into the thoughts of the heroines she created for Minerva Press.
Agnes Crombie Hall laid down her pen on December 1, 1846, at the age of 83. “On Tuesday morning last she got up and pursued her literary occupations till about eleven o’clock, when she complained of feeling cold at the stomach, and laid down on the bed.” Her daughter Agnes ran out to get help, “and on her return [discovered that the] deceased was a corpse.” She left a stack of unsold manuscripts, for as she put it thirteen years before her death, "I have outlived all of my literary friends connected with the periodical press."
She was buried at St. Pancras, in Camden town, where Mary Wollstonecraft was originally buried. The Gentleman’s Magazine eulogized her respectfully: “Mrs. Hall was a woman of varied talent, and possessed of so much native and inherent energy, that few circumstances, however disastrous, could wholly subdue or annihilate her power of mind.”
This woman and her story deserves to be rediscovered. What about her reports on the House of Commons? Is it possible to discover what outlet she wrote for? She broke gender barriers, she was a free thinker, and she sprinkled sedition into her sentimental novels. It was only dire financial necessity that caused her to hide her true name behind the moniker of "Rosalia St. Clair." I think the real Agnes didn't believe in romantic fairy tales.
A year after Agnes Hall's death, her daughter was trying to earn money through writing or selling articles. A short letter of introduction from from John Stuart Mill to the publisher of Fraser's Magazine states that "Miss Hall... is desirous of addressing herself to you on the subject of a contribution to the magazine. I was well acquainted with her mother, the late Mrs. Hall, for whom I had a great respect."
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Perhaps Agnes's gravestone, if she had one, was one of those arranged around an ash tree by young Thomas Hardy, who had to move the gravestones to make way for the railroad. The famous "Hardy Tree" around which he placed the gravestones has recently toppled over, sadly.
Jane Austen's brother Henry was also an army agent and a banker. The failure of his bank in 1816 was a serious financial and emotional blow to the Austen family.
Westfahl, Gary. A Day in a Working Life: 300 Trades and Professions Through History ABC-CLIO, 2015. p. 801
Devoney Looser, who recently released her dual biography of the Porter sisters, Regency historical novelists, has also written a book about female writers of the long 18th century and beyond who, like Agnes Hall, kept their quill pens in their hands until advanced old age. Women Writers and Old age in Great Britain 1750-1850.