The Abbess, A Romance

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by William Henry Ireland

The Abbess
George Wythe bookplate.jpg
Title not held by The Wolf Law Library
at the College of William & Mary.
Author William Henry Ireland
Published Baltimore, MD: Printed by S. Sower, and J. W. Butler
Date 1801
Language English
Volumes 3 volume set

William Henry Ireland (1775 – 1835) was a poet and author, but is renowned for his forging of a cache of documents and letters purportedly in the hand of William Shakespeare, in 1794-1795. Ireland's father accepted the forgeries as genuine, put them on display for the public, and published them in a volume, Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments Under the Hand and Seal of William Shakspeare Including the Tragedy of King Lear and a Small Fragment of Hamlet, from the Original Mss. in the Possession of Samuel Ireland (1796). The documents were quickly exposed as forgeries by Shakespearian scholars and experts.

Ireland's Gothic novel, The Abbess, was originally published in London in 1799, in four volumes. The American edition was published in Baltimore in three volumes, in 1801. The title page proudly credits Ireland as "The Avowed Author of the Shakspear Papers." Based on an earlier novel by Matthew Lewis, The Monk, (1796), The Abbess has a similarly lurid and scandalous plot.

Evidence for Inclusion in Wythe's Library

List of "Subscribers' Names" from Maryland and Virginia, from volume three of the 1801 American edition of William Henry Ireland's The Abbess, including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and George Wythe.

No copy of Ireland's novel is indicated in Thomas Jefferson's inventory of Wythe's library at the time of Wythe's death in 1806. Wythe's name does appear printed in the list of the publisher's subscribers, however, as does Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. Also appearing under the list of subscribers from Richmond, Virginia is one "Peter Finsley," which may be a misprint for Peter Tinsley, Wythe's clerk in the Court of Chancery.

John West Butler, one of the American publishers of Ireland's novel, wrote to Jefferson in April, 1801, in the hopes of enrolling the President as a subscriber in order to promote and publish this new work by the author of "Shakespeare's Papers":

Having issued proposals for printing the enclosed work, and intending shortly to commence a tour through many of the States, particularly Virginia, for the purpose of obtaining Subscribers, I have ventured to solicit the early patronage of a Character so well known, and justly respected, both on account of his high office, and the brilliant talents which have placed him in it; conscious, that a name so celebrated and beloved, will not only add a pleasing lustre and respectibility to the Proposals, but insure a large increase of Subscribers to a work that is approved by, and graced with, the illustrious name of Jefferson. And, believe me, Sir, your name will by no means be dishonoured by patronizing the "Abbess"; a work, allowed by the highest judges, to bear the strongest marks of worth and genius. What better proof, Sir, can be produced or required, of the truth of this assertion, than, that it was written by the author of "Shakespeare's Papers," a work, the spirit and genius of which, bore so near an alliance and close imitation of the British Homer, that the greatest literary judges and warmest admirers of the English Bard, not only gave it their decided voice in favour of its originating in Shakespeare's fertile brain, but even the Reviewers, those literary dictators, passed on it a long Eulogium, and congratulated the lovers of wit, taste, and genius, on the restoration of those unlooked for, those valuable, inimitable, and long lost "Papers" of the immortal Shakespeare![1]

Jefferson replied positively to Butler in May, 1801, and subscribed to the book: "Tho'a stranger to the work I have not hesitated to give this mark of my personal respect for yourself as well as of my desire to encourage the art of printing in this country generally."[2] No copy of The Abbess is listed in the various catalogs of Jefferson's library.


  1. "To Thomas Jefferson from John West Butler, 13 April 1801," Founders Online, National Archives.
  2. See note to "Jefferson from John West Butler," Founders Online, National Archives.