Mary Anne Rawson's The Bow in the Cloud (1834): A Digital Edition and Network Analysis

Editor's Introduction

Brief History of the Anthology [in progress]

By Christopher Ohge (School of Advanced Study, University of London)
[last revised 20 Feb 2023]

The Bow in the Cloud is an anti-slavery anthology that was published in 1834 by the London firm of Walford & Jackson, in St. Paul’s Churchyard. The anthology consists of 85 poems and prose pieces by a mixture of well-known and non-professional writers involved in anti-slavery societies throughout Great Britain. It was edited by Mary Anne Rawson, née Read (1801–1887), who sought to create what she called in her Preface to the anthology ‘a structure of moral and literary architecture’.  In 1826, Mary-Anne Read, a young activist in Sheffield encouraged by the example of her philanthropist parents, sought to assemble an anti-slavery literature anthology to influence public opinion. Yet the project stalled, for reasons that are not yet known. By 1834, Mary Anne, now married to George Rawson, and still living in Sheffield, had re-ignited the project and shepherded The Bow in the Cloud into publication with a major London publisher.

The Bow in the Cloud came with international aspirations to bolster various abolitionist movements throughout the world. The making of the book encompassed the time when slavery had been abolished in the UK (and was still legal in the colonies), to when it was abolished in most of the colonies but still very much alive in British territories owned by the East India Company and in many other parts of the world such as the United States and Brazil.

The book was sold for 12 shillings, which is about £50 in today’s money. Put another way, it was about two days pay for a skilled tradesman, or about the cost of a week’s supply of butchered meat and tea. In other words, this was a middle-class product of the gift book economy, on the edge of affordability.

Like other gift books of the time, the volume appears handsome: its foolscap octavo pages (at 6¾" x 4¼") were gilt on the edges and bound in turkey morocco with a gilded engraving on the cover. The publication’s advertisement pamphlet called attention to its quality, which is partly true: while the (blended) goatskin-based binding is somewhat sturdy, it was bound a bit too tightly and has clearly frayed at the edges (a higher quality binding would not fray in that way). The gilded pages were also an affectation of the publishing world that did not add significantly to the quality. The foolscap pages themselves were also small and fairly reflective of most publications of the time, so it was not an exceptional piece of craft. Instead it was a production that combined aspects of the new forms of the literary anthology and the 'gift-book' economy that was developing at the time.

The book is sizeable: it comes to 408 pages. The book’s frontispiece was signed by H. Corbould (Edward Henry Corbould). Here is his original version of the etching that was printed before the book’s title page. In 1833 the nineteen-year-old Corbould was at the beginning of a distinguished career as a book illustrator and watercolour artist. In the same year that The Bow in the Cloud was published, he received his first of several gold medals from the Society of Arts, and he later refined his literary appreciation by creating illustrated editions of Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Tennyson. One of Corbould’s letters sent to the publishers Jackson and Walford even includes his fee for the illustration: 4 pounds 40. Details like these abound in Rawson's rich archive.

Significance of the Anthology

What also requires further study is the nature of the enterprise itself: this is an anthology, edited by a pioneering woman with specific aims that were complicated to articulate, at a crucial time in history. Attending to what book historian Tom Mole calls the dynamic cultural practices of ‘selecting, abridging, excerpting, framing, and mediating’ of texts shows ‘the power of anthologies to shape how their readers read’ (Mole 2017, p. 188). Also, as Dr Fionnghuala Sweeney has shown in her work on abolitionist publishing histories, much can be learned by studying in detail the intersections of African American, women, and religious anti-slavery social networks.

The Bow in the Cloud demonstrates unique practices for several reasons: it is an early example of the political literary anthology, and a rather large one (over 400 pages) with some long pieces, and it features grassroots activists, politicians, and well-known literary writers (but no Romantic authors, although Rawson tried to commission work from the likes of Wordsworth, Southey, and Thomas Moore). This kind of eclectic book not only reflected growing literacy rates in the UK but also was the product of several decades of energy from various publishing movements, including the religious press, the new business of editorial reproductions, cheaper printing technologies, the expansion of the literary marketplace after the era of radical political publishing, and women's anti-slavery societies.

The Bow in the Cloud also comes with an under-researched manuscript collection of more than 600 items that is vast and revealing – particularly so for an anthology of this kind, with so many contributors. It is unusual for a collection like this -- that is, a nineteenth-century anthology -- to have such a rich archive of surviving manuscripts. The reason for this is that Rawson saved almost everything she received during the project. She later collected the manuscripts into a two-volume scrapbook. Below are the notes that accompanied each volume.

Mrs. Rawson
Winco Bank Hall

This Volume contains the
original manuscripts of the
"Bow in the Cloud" with portraits of the Writers Authors
M. A. R.
This Volume contains the Portraits
refusals the writings Autographs, of
those who declined to contribute to
"The Bow in the Cloud"
and is filled up with other Anti-
Slavery Letters (& papers) (pictures)

M. A. R.

Each submission to the anthology came with a covering letter (and some submissions have multiple letters spanning from 1826 to 1834), and some pieces also came with photographs, artworks, engravings, or newspaper clippings. This illustration below is a good example of the wealth of archival material in this collection: it is a watercolour illustration submitted by Ann Gilbert to accompany her poem 'The Mother' (the poem was published in the anthology but not this accompanying illustration).

The poems that Rawson chose to publish were also copied in her own hand, and several of those fair copies show evidence of her revisions to the pieces before she supplied a printer’s copy to the publisher.

The entire manuscript collection, housed at the John Rylands Library (Eng MSS 414 and 415), was digitised in 2020, as part of a digital humanities start-up grant from the John Rylands Research Institute, University of Manchester, in 2018/2019. The digital images of more than 600 surviving manuscripts total 818 high-resolution files which are now available on Manchester Digital Collections––with extensive metadata of each item based on my study of the manuscripts––as open-access images on a IIIF image viewer (Mirador). Editor Christopher Ohge has written about this project in a blog post and then featured it as a section ('Exhibition') in Publishing Scholarly Editions: Archives, Computing, and Experience (Cambridge University Press, 2021). A separate GitHub repository collects all of the project data, including TEI XML transcriptions of the published pieces and manuscripts.

Attending to these neglected documents makes it possible to discern Rawson’s rationale for connecting with her target audience, and to see how her choice of material mediated anti-slavery rhetoric at a crucial time when the British were passing the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act and the American abolitionist movement, led by William Lloyd Garrison, was publishing their highest volume of print material. The focus on Rawson’s editorial rationale presents a challenge to textual scholars: it combines aspects of several editorial approaches, including the documentary, genetic text, and social text theories, yet it also adopts a principle of Rawson’s editorial intentions using a logic similar to a critical editor’s. Instead of focusing on the authorial intentions of the writers in the anthology, we follow Rawson’s editorial judgements as the anchor for textual decision-making. The fact that the book is a multi-author literary anthology also presents new challenges to an editor. At the same time, the documentary and book historical focus requires attention to how the book was made and disseminated.

Rawson’s collection, as published, was representative of the abolitionist movement at this time, featuring religious leaders, politicians, non-professional writers, and writers of repute. Among those who declined, however, are prominent names such as William Wordsworth, Robert Southey, Thomas Moore, Thomas Babington Macaulay, and one of the founders of the British abolitionist movement, Thomas Clarkson.

The publisher, Jackson & Walford, was probably best known as the publisher of the nonconformist, progressive magazine Eclectic Review as well as the Congregational Year Books and other ecclesiastical books. One of the contributors to The Bow in the Cloud, Josiah Conder, had since 1813 been the owner and editor of the Eclectic Review, which also featured a substantial and laudatory review of The Bow in the Cloud in its July 1834 issue. This review was significant, since the Eclectic Review was one of the most prestigious literary periodicals of its time, one that published not only prominent romantic authors but also American authors such as Washington Irving. It was not long after the publication of The Bow in the Cloud that American abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass visited Rawson and several of her peers, illustrating the significance of this figure and her noble attempt to influence public opinion through the force of literature and transatlantic networks.

Rawson’s publication intersects with the moment in 1834 when, as Richard Huzzey has argued in his book Freedom Burning: Anti-Slavery and Empire in Victorian Britain (2012), the British started to use ‘anti-slavery’ as a national credo that projected moral superiority over other civilisations. Yet Rawson’s anthology, and particularly the cache of unpublished material she decided to save, shows that she was aware that such posturing was far from altruistic or compassionate, as new forms of violence and economic exploitation of colonial possessions continued to be central to British foreign policy and British allies.

Rawson’s editing of the anthology show her as an active editor, organiser, and writer. Rawson relied on her social network of anti-slavery activists, through the Sheffield Ladies Anti-Slavery Society but also in London and elsewhere. The details are also data and statistics that could aid researchers, and that is the guiding principle of producing this digital edition.

Editorial Principles

The primary purpose of this edition is to show how the anthology was constructed based on the surviving documentary evidence. There are three parts to the edition: the published version of The Bow in the Cloud (along with the attendant manuscripts relating to each piece); a selection of important unpublished material, including poems that were submitted but not published in 1834, and letters from authors who declined to contribute to the anthology; and network analysis and mapping tools to demonstrate the social and semantic networks, as well as the geographical breadth, of the people associated with the anthology.

The edition adopts a pluralistic approach that is indebted to Peter Shillingsburg's and John Bryant's theories--Shillingsburg's digital pluralism, and Bryant's 'fluid text' theory in particular. This edition's focus on Rawson’s editorial rationale therefore employs aspects of several editorial approaches, including the historical-documentary, genetic text, and social text theories, yet it also adopts a principle of Rawson’s editorial intentions using a logic similar to a critical editor’s. Instead of focusing on the authorial intentions of the writers in the anthology, I follow Rawson’s editorial judgements as the anchor for textual decision-making. The fact that the book is a multi-author literary anthology also presents new challenges to an editor. At the same time, the documentary and book historical focus requires attention to how the book was made and disseminated.

To examine the published pieces in the anthology, readers can enter an annotated clear reading text of each piece, in the order in which they appeared in the published anthology. At the end of each reading text, textual 'paths' take the reader through the surviving versions from the manuscript archive. Typically these versions include a fair copy of the piece, edited by Rawson, the original submission by the author, and one or more cover letters sent to Rawson. 

Readers can also select the Table of Contents (triple-bar) button in the top-left of the interface to explore other pieces in the edition. For example, users can access prototype network visualisation tools by clicking on the Network Analysis item in the Table of Contents. For example, the 'connections' interface shows the relationships between page entities and semantic tags relating to those pages and their associated media files.

Another interface, Map of Places Mentioned, displays an annotated map of places associated with the manuscript archive and published anthology. The purpose of this tool is to demonstrate the geographical links in this anti-slavery print network.

Such tools are meant to emphasise different reading experiences of this edition, and to facilitate new research questions and methods of discovery. 

Please be aware that this edition is an organic project. It is being added to every day. The editors of this project believe that transparently showing what the project has accomplished -- with its many fits and starts -- is preferable to waiting until it is 'done'.


This project first received financial support from the John Rylands Research Institute and Library, University of Manchester (2018/19). Also at the University of Manchester the project has benefitted from the expertise and advice of Dr David Brown, Jane Gallagher, Gwen Riley Jones, and Dr Sarah May. Fran Baker (formerly of the John Rylands Library and now at Chatsworth House Library) provided essential expertise on the collection.

The project is also grateful to have received substantial financial support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Mellon Foundation through an NEH-Mellon Fellowship for Publication for 2023 (FEL-289788).

The project has also benefitted from scholarly advice from Professor Jennifer Stertzer (University of Virginia), Professor John Bryant (Emeritus, Hofstra University), Professor Patricia Matthew (Montclair State University), Professor Jane Winters (University of London), and several colleagues at the Institute of English Studies, University of London. Additional in-kind support has come from the School of Advanced Study, University of London.


This page has paths:

This page references: