When it doesn’t work out: a failed attempt at identifying a contributor to the Lady’s Magazine

In the past few weeks, the social media pages of academics have been buzzing with commentary on the ‘CV of Failures’ that was published online by Princeton professor Johannes Haushofer. Prof. Haushofer decided to be open about his failed applications for jobs and scholarships and his rejected journal submissions to show the world that even tenured staff at Ivy League institutions have to deal with disappointments, and to encourage junior colleagues who might wrongly think that they are somehow deficient as academics because of their own. Some commentators have dismissed this as a ‘humblebrag’, but I am too appreciative of Prof. Haushofer’s candour, and too impatient with internet neologisms, to be of their opinion. In fact, I have decided to follow suit, and to write a blog post about a recent failure of my own: the wrong tree I have been barking up in the mistaken assumption that it held the identity of Lady’s Magazine contributor ‘J. Hodson’.

    Jennie, Jenny and I have in past posts told you enthusiastically about our discoveries on the largely anonymous and pseudonymous contents of the magazine. In the last two months alone, for instance, we have blogged about Catherine Cuthbertson and Radagunda Roberts (about the latter even twice). Most of you probably had not heard of these brilliant women before, and that is precisely why we were so interested in them. It is very satisfying to find out more about these long-forgotten authors whose periodical contributions had more contemporaneous readers than any canonized novel. Finding out the smallest detail often takes a lot of work. Despite of the rarity of resources on eighteenth-century authors in general, and the especially scanty paper trails left by periodical writers, it can take a while to rule out all possible leads that you need to verify in order to close in on the true, or at least the most probable story. Often we do not manage to do so at all. Only last week I lost a few days because I thought that I was on the brink of an exciting discovery concerning a reader-contributor who has been puzzling us for some time.

    We can gather a few basic facts about ‘J. Hodson’ from the magazine. This contributor is identified as male in an editorial footnote and genders himself male as well, he is active (at least under this signature) in the magazine from September 1781 to February 1784, and the by-lines to a few of his items tell us that he would have been ‘14 years old’ in September 1781. As I have discussed before, juvenile authors regularly contributed to the Lady’s Magazine, and their age is then often specifically stated to draw attention to the precocity of their writing. Hodson’s contributions are certainly impressive for a teenager. He starts off quite blandly with two appropriated items, being a poem allegedly ‘translated from Ossian’ (September 1781) which in fact appears to be only a slight paraphrase of the ‘original’ by Macpherson, and a series of ‘Sayings and sentiments of wise men’ of Greek and Roman Antiquity (September to January 1782) which did not come straight from these fonts of wisdom themselves but were all gleaned from The Spectator (continuously in print in collected editions) without acknowledgement. Young master Hodson however finds his own voice the year after, submitting a generic but prosodically competent pastoral poem in March 1782, and in May 1782 a gallant poetic defence of the fair sex against a misogynistic letter writer.

LM XIV (Dec 1783): p. 658. Image © Adam Matthew Digital / Birmingham Central Library. Not to be reproduced without permission.

LM XIV (Dec 1783): p. 658. Image © Adam Matthew Digital / Birmingham Central Library. Not to be reproduced without permission.

    From June 1783 to February 1784 he delivers his most impressive feat, an essay series entitled ‘The Critic’ which consists of quibbling but erudite discussions of contentious passages in translations of classical literature. This is one of several cases wherein reader-contributors in the late eighteenth century continue the older tradition of essay periodicals (such as the aforementioned Spectator) as serial features in magazines like the Lady’s. Hodson’s ‘Critic’ may have been inspired by earlier reviews of the translations in question, or may have otherwise followed on views first suggested by others, but they do appear to be largely original. An exasperated note with the December 1783 instalment shows that the editors, for one, either found them too ambitious for the Lady’s Magazine, or wished to say in a polite way that they considered Hodson’s essays too much like the homework of a schoolboy conning his Latin vocab.

LM XIII (June 1782): p. 320. Image © Adam Matthew Digital / Birmingham Central Library. Not to be reproduced without permission.

LM XIII (June 1782): p. 320. Image © Adam Matthew Digital / Birmingham Central Library. Not to be reproduced without permission.

    Nevertheless, in the June 1782 number Hodson is honoured with ‘A Card’ from overbearing regular contributor ‘J. L-g’ (John Legg), a strange polymath who often gave himself airs about his importance in the magazine. Legg predicts a bright future for Hodson, and indeed it is not hard to understand why he would have thought so. Other young hopefuls like Thomas Chatterton and George Crabbe had contributed before, and probably many other authors of later renown who we have since again forgotten about. So who knew what bright career Hodson went on to have after his promising start in the welcoming, democratic forum that was the Lady’s Magazine?

    Unfortunately, the trail went cold instantly. ‘J. Hodson’ stops contributing to the Lady’s Magazine, or at least under that signature, in 1874, and at no point before or after seems to have contributed to other periodicals with recognizable signatures (which includes the variants “Hodgson” and ‘Hudson’ that appear in the Lady’s Magazine as well). Our usual searches through records of births and deaths did not yield much because there were so many young men named Hodson/Hudson/Hodgson around with the initial “J”, and it is always best not to rule out the possibility that the signature referred to a so-called “hypocorism” (calling name or pet name) or a middle name that the author could have preferred to go by. His stipulated age allowed us to narrow it down somewhat, so that we could query all men named Hodson/Hudson/Hodgson born in 1781 minus 14, or 1767 (allowing a year of variability on the date).

   This was when it happened: information on a certain Rev. Septimus Hodson in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography implied that this person was born around the same time as our Hodson, in 1768. With some rounding off, both would have been 14 in September 1781, and “J.” could well have been an initial standing for the Rev.’s middle name. Could they be one and the same person? Further research made me eager that they would be. The Rev. Hodson turned out to have been a minor public figure in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. He was an author as well, publishing amongst others a few books of sermons and some favourably noticed socio-economic pamphlets. In the early nineteenth century he married the Romantic poet Margaret Holden, who was friendly with Joanna Baillie and Robert Southey, and there is no reason why the Rev. as a boy would not himself have tested his pen by writing for the Lady’s Magazine on matters literary. Interestingly, he was also a controversial figure, as is demonstrated by William West’s memoir of early-nineteenth-century literary London ‘Annals of authors, artists, books and booksellers’[1], which states that his reputation had suffered from an accusation of plagiarism levelled at his first books of sermons.

From Septimus Hodson (Ed.), Psalms & Hymns selected for Congregational Use (1801), p. viii

from: Septimus Hodson (Ed.), Psalms & Hymns selected for Congregational Use (1801), p. viii

   If only that were all. The fantastic blog All Things Georgian by the historians Joanne Major and Sarah Murden recently featured a post on him, that revealed that the Rev. Hodson during the had been involved in a scandal after allegations that he had “seduced” a thirteen-year-old ward of the Lambeth orphanage, where he then officiated as chaplain. This is a big discovery as the ODNB does not mention these events, merely stating that

[t]he claim […] that he was forced to give up his preferments and flee to America ‘in consequence of a discovery particularly disgraceful’, seems to be unsubstantiated, although in 1789 he did publish A Refutation of the Charges of Plagiarism Brought Against the Rev. Septimus Hodson.[2]

   Although I was able to track down a few documents relevant to Septimus, none revealed any helpful middle names starting with ‘J’. Confusingly, the year of birth that the ODNB has for him, 1768, is probably wrong to begin with, as I only discovered a couple of days into my research. Major and Murden hold instead that he was born in 1763, which I believe is right, as this year is indicated in a record of his birth that is difficult to track down because its entry in online databases transcribes Septimus’s name wrongly as ‘Sephinus’ (which – wonderfully – is also a name). I suspect that the ODNB biographer based her findings on the Cambridge alumni register where Caius College alumnus Rev. Hodson is entered as being born in 1768; likely too a wrong transcription, based on the understandable error of mistaking a foxed ‘3’ for an ‘8’. It is a scary thought, but you cannot always rely on historical documents, and errors tend to perpetuate themselves.

    So, neither the names, nor the ages of these men were in agreement. How I wish that they had been, as identifying ‘J. Hodson’ with the Rev. Septimus would have allowed me to tell a sensational story. But hey-ho: though disappointing, this is not the end. There are other J. Hodsons publishing in the late eighteenth century. One possible candidate is Dr James Hodson M.D., author of theological tracts and the men’s medical guide Nature’s Assistant to the Restoration of Health (1789) which contains valuable hints on ‘a destructive habit of a private nature’. This is an amusing possibility, and this Dr Hodson would surely be a less grim connection for the magazine than the Rev. Still, I have found no substantial evidence to confirm or refute the possibility that this author and the Lady’s Magazine’s ‘Critic’ would be one and the same person either.

    As Prof. Haushofer wanted to demonstrate with his inverted CV: the important thing is not to lose heart. If you have any suggestions on where I might look next, I would be very grateful for them, and productive leads will of course be cited in our annotated index!

Dr Koenraad Claes

School of English, University of Kent

[1] William West, ‘Annals of authors, artists, books and booksellers. Letter XIV: Thomas Cadell, the Rev. Septimus Hodson, &c.’, The Aldine Magazine of Biography, Bibliography, Criticism, and the Arts Vol. 1, 1839.

[2] Kathryn Sutherland, ‘Holford , Margaret (bap. 1778, d. 1852)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/13450, accessed 4 May 2016]

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