Mary Collyer and Salomon Gessner, The Death of Abel (1776)

By Dylan Lewis

Fig. 1. Margaret Anne Dewes’s Her Book inscription in Mary Collyer and Salomon Gessner, The death of Abel. In five books. Attempted from the German of Mr. Gessner, 11th ed. (London, 1776). Eighteenth-Century Collections Online,

This (Fig. 1) is Margaret Anne Dewes’s copy of The Death of Abel. It was a gift from her aunt, E. Eldridge in 1776, which we know from the Her Book inscription. I stumbled upon this book completely by accident while browsing the Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO) database one day for another project investigating Anglo-German print relations in the long eighteenth century. Because this inscription is not catalogued or tagged anywhere on ECCO, I have not been able to find more of her books in ECCO, and a short series of searches have not yielded information about her in any other online records or archives. I continue to know nothing about her other than that she owned this copy of The Death of Abel and that it was a gift from her aunt E. Eldridge in 1776.

Fig. 2. Sarah Smith’s Her Book Inscription in Salomon Gessner, The death of Abel : in five books. Attempted from the German of Mr. Gessner (London, 1790?). The British Library,

I found another copy of The Death of Abel with a Her Book inscription recently, this time in the British Library’s online database instead of ECCO (Fig. 2). This copy is the twenty-eighth edition from 1790 [?], owned by Sarah Smith, and was a gift from “her Dearest mother Ann(e) Wright.” Like Margaret Anne Dewes’s book, it serves as an example of women’s book ownership inscriptions not being catalogued as part of the book’s provenance—I stumbled upon this one manually and accidentally too, so Sarah Smith’s ownership of her book remains obscured.[1]

But returning to Margaret Anne Dewes’s book, the text itself is the eleventh edition of The Death of Abel, an English translation of an epic poem written by Swiss author Salomon Gessner titled Der Tod des Abels, first published in German in 1758 (Fig. 3). Gessner lived in Zürich and was a painter, graphic artist, government official, newspaper publisher, and poet. He was also one of the first German poets to receive international fame.[2] He lived briefly in Berlin for an apprenticeship at a bookstore but stayed only for a year, deciding instead to move back to Zürich and dedicate himself to art and poetry. Gessner’s father, Hans Konrad Gessner, was a highly influential bookseller, publisher, and printer based in Zürich.

Fig. 3. Salomon Gessner’s Der Tod des Abels (Leipzig, 1764). Google Books.

The translation of The Death of Abel from German into English was done by a woman named Mary Collyer, who worked professionally as a translator and author (Fig. 4). This particular printing is the eleventh edition from 1776, as is proudly advertised on the title page of the book, and Collyer was the translator for nearly all of the many English editions starting in 1761. In fact, Collyer’s translation of The Death of Abel was one of the bestselling translated literary works during her life, evidenced by the extremely high number of authorized and pirated editions the work went through in a relatively short time span.[3]

Fig. 4. Title page to Margaret Anne Dewes’s copy of The Death of Abel.

Just the Gessners were right at the heart of the book trade, so, too, were the Collyers. Mary Collyer’s husband, Joseph Collyer Sr, was a publisher and translator and served as the publisher for Mary’s translations, which means he financed the project and worked with printers and booksellers to have the book produced. In this case, the printer was a T. Jones, who had a shop at Cliffords Inn Gate on Fetter Lane, where he also sold copies of the text. Their son, Joseph Collyer Jr, was an engraver, who eventually became the portrait artist to Queen Charlotte, and he did the engravings for his mother’s various editions of The Death of Abel.

Mary Collyer dedicates her translation of the text to Queen Charlotte, her patron, emphasizing the German connection between Gessner’s original poem and Queen Charlotte’s “Native Language” of German (Fig. 5). I have tried to do some research on why the Collyers were so specialized in translating from English to German, which was not common at all in the eighteenth century as Germany and its disparate kingdoms were fairly obscure in the English cultural imagination compared to more centralized “nations” such as France, Italy, and Spain, though I haven’t been able to find much.[4] Perhaps they learned German for commercials reasons, such as to secure steady patronage with Queen Charlotte who originally hailed from Mecklenburg-Strelitz, a small German duchy in the Holy Roman Empire.

Fig. 5. Two pages from Mary Collyer’s six-page Dedication in Margaret Anne Dewes’s copy of The Death of Abel.

Regardless, at the end of the text an advertisement is given for three other German translated works also published by Joseph Collyer Sr, but this time for works translated by Joseph instead of Mary. The titles listed are English translations of 1) The Messiah (orig. Der Messias) by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, 2) Noah by Johann Jakob Bodmer, and 3) The History of Sophia Sternheim (orig. Die Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim), which the advertisement lists as “attempted from the German of Mr Wieland” (Fig. 6)…

Fig. 6: Advertisements in the back of Margaret Anne Dewes’s copy of The Death of Abel.

… except this isn’t actually correct at all. Christoph Martin Wieland is not, in fact, the author of Die Geschichte des Fräuleins von SternheimSophie von La Roche, the first published German woman writer, is! Wieland, a German author and personal acquaintance of La Roche’s, served as the editor and publisher of the novel, and La Roche’s authorship of the text was continually questioned or erased in both German editions and English translations the entire time the book was available in print prior to the twentieth century. My ongoing work continues to explore the bibliographic connections between Margaret Anne Dewes, Mary Collyer, and Sophie von La Roche, as well as the multiple ways these women’s contributions to book production in the eighteenth century have been erased. Margaret Anne Dewes’s Her Book reveals the expansive possibilities of exploring ownership inscriptions by women.

Sources: Eighteenth Century Collections Online/The British library and Google Books. Images reproduced with permission.

[1] I note these absences in the catalog fully aware of the immense backlog and lack of resources that librarians and catalogers face. Since there is nothing particularly special about the texts or specific books I discuss in this post, it would be quite surprising if they had detailed catalog entries or information provided beyond basic bibliographic identification. However, I hope my work stresses the importance of cataloging ownership inscriptions as part of a book’s provenance, especially in the case of Her Books.

[2] Alessa Johns has explored Salomon Gessner’s international appeal in her book Bluestocking Feminism and British-German Cultural Transfer, 1750-1837 (University of Michigan Press, 2014). Typographically, Fig. 3 shows the printer’s utilization of Roman type on the title page rather than Blackletter in order to appeal to a more international (namely English and French) readership, despite the text’s German language.

[3] The bibliographic record for Collyer’s The Death of Abel is incomplete and fragmentary, but I have seen evidence of over thirty-five editions of the text produced between 1761 and 1800. Editions of the text continued to be published into the nineteenth century, often with newly appended material.

[4] The period of British history from 1714–1837 is called the Personal Union, which is when the kings of Great Britain were also the electors of Hanover in Germany. While the cultural and political impact of the Hanoverian kings and queens of Great Britain has been well-canvased by historians and cultural anthropologists, there is currently a severe lack of scholarship on the Personal Union from a purely book history perspective. As a result, we know little about Mary Collyer and Joseph Collyer Sr.’s work as translators from German to English and their relationship with Queen Charlotte.