The Unhappy Lady of Hackney

London: Printed and Sold by J. Pitts, [c. 1802].

Price: $2,500 save 20% $2,000

Add to Cart

A young woman speaks from the grave to reveal her rapist's crimes

(Item #6087) The Unhappy Lady of Hackney. Broadside Ballad, Incest, Assault, Dual Perspective.

The Unhappy Lady of Hackney

London: Printed and Sold by J. Pitts, [c. 1802]. Early edition. Folio broadside measuring 240 x 365mm and printed to recto in four columns with two woodcuts. A very nearly Fine example with lower margin untrimmed and several marginal paper flaws not affecting text. Scarce across its early formats, Bodleian Ballads reports six different editions from 1797 to 1846; and OCLC reports no copies of this version at institutions (while documenting 12 copies across all other editions). The present is the only example on the market.

An unexpected call and response ballad, in which one narrator speaks from the grave, The Unhappy Lady of Hackney tackles the serious topics of incestuous assault and pregnancy. Within the ballad's first two columns, the narrator focuses in third person on the story of "a gentleman who had two comely daughters, And one was married to a squire who caused this disaster." Centering the damage done to a father by his poorly behaved children, the narrator explains that "the youngest daughter being fair...Her sister's husband night and day Did tempt this lovely creature, telling her it was no sin, For him to embrace her"; and the narrator tells how "this innocent unto his bow Indeed [the squire] quickly brought her, Then took her from her parent's house, With many a tear they sought her; Crying alas!...Her parents did lament her...So secret he did hide her; At length she big with child did prove, While this her amorous lover Did oft frequent her company, None knew it was her brother." By this point in the story, the younger sister is presented as equally culpable as her brother in law -- taking him as a lover and living among strangers as husband and wife.

As we move into the ballad's last half, however, the narrator changes and with it the story. Pregnant and vulnerable, the younger sister gains her own voice. In column three she speaks directly to the squire about his sins of forcing her into incestuous adultery; and she focuses on the harms she has also caused to family she loves. "Your wife my tender sister dear, Does little know my sorrow. My troubled soul shall take its flight from hence before tomorrow, O, sister dear forgive the crime, And heaven shew some pity. For heinous was the fault of mine, You wretch that did deceive me." Determined that the cycle of violence cease, she says that she and her child will both die -- but that the story will live on. And so her voice continues posthumously in column four in a letter written to her parents. Here we get a fuller story of assault and manipulation. "He overcame me with wine, And us'd me at his pleasure, Then took me from my parents dear, In sorrow out of measure."

Exposed, one would expect that the squire would face punishment. Sadly, the ballad takes a more realistic conclusion. "Her eldest brother, a hopeful youth, Grief burst his heart asunder. And he this life did soon depart. His sister raved like thunder, To think her husband was so base to prove her sister's ruin." As the tale shifts back to third person, it concludes with the man who took focus at the beginning: the father. His conclusion? To blame his youngest daughter for exposing the crimes committed upon her. "Alas, my child, your death is our undoing."

As a literary piece, The Unhappy Lady engages with numerous other works and could benefit from further examination (from Ovidian and Shakespearean stories, to the increasingly popular sensational stories told in pulp). As a historical piece, it exists at a moment when concepts of incest and assault were shifting.

BOD19040. V477.
(Item #6087)

Price: $2,500 save 20% $2,000

Add to Cart Inquire Add to Wish List
The Unhappy Lady of Hackney