LITERARY PICKLOCK: THE AUTHORSHIP DEBATE
(a condensed summary)
From what remains, we can deduce that most of the verse of elusive Ephelia circulated at the Courts of Charles I and Charles II from the 1640s to the early 1680s. The corpus of the poet's collected writings (sixty-eight poems, to date) consists of bold political broadsides, amorous lyrics, a "lost" play, songs, and verse-epistles to a highly placed coterie.
Some of the writings of Ephelia reached print during her lifetime: a licensed broadside addressed to Charles II on the Popish Plot, in 1678 (Image 1); an elegant octavo of "female poems" and unsparing moral critiques of Stuart court culture, in 1679 (Image 2); and a privately-printed broadside addressed to the King's treasonous bastard son, James duke of Monmouth in 1681 (Image 3). Distinctive among broadsides and poetry-books of the Restoration, Ephelia's licensed broadside of 1678 and her octavo of 1679 are stylish products, whose physical features and publication history suggest special handling at the highest levels. Among her unpublished material is one evidentiary piece to thrill any document detective: a signed working draft of a funeral elegy on Sir Thomas Isham, a young bon vivant and art collector, with close ties to the Villiers and Stuart circles (Image 4). This elegantly penned lyric, whose poetic habits correspond to those in other texts of Ephelia's, is preserved at the University of Nottingham Library (Image 5). For details on this manuscript and its subject, readers may consult my edition of Ephelia's poems (1992, 1993), pages 52-67. I now look forward to ways in which my appreciation of this autograph will benefit from Joe Nickell's new study on evidentiary evidence (Oak Knoll Press, Delaware, 2000)
While concealed authorship created the legend of Ephelia, it also compromised her canonical legitimacy; and because these rare texts were written in a problematic diversity of styles and voices, scholars have been skeptical about Ephelia altogether. No one has been able to unmask Ephelia these three centuries, despite searches by David Vieth, Elaine Hobby, Germaine Greer, et al. Unable to 'find' Ephelia, the academic establishment wrote her off as a hoax and marginalized her as a writer without a face. And, thus, without value. It has essentially shut the door on the Ephelia mystery. Picking the lock of such a door has summoned all my wit; and my goal to reclaim Ephelia as an authentic voice continues to gain ground with further contributions from other Ephelia reconstructionists (Wilson). While the authorship debate these three centuries has kept Ephelia alive, it also produced a dense screen of feeble speculation. Greeting any sleuth on the trail of Ephelia's identity is a thicket of entangled traditions:
"Joan Phillips." Bibliographically, the most fixed candidate for Ephelia's authorship is H.B. Wheatley's "Joan Phillips," his faceless contender of 1885. This tradition of the poet's identity has come down to us in several independent shards of information, in the work of Aphra Behn in 1678, Thomas Newcombe in 1712, and J.W. Ebsworth in 1883. Weatley's "Joan Phillips" became further fixed when Sir Edmund Gosse in 1885 offered a self-acknowledged "wild rumor," since quashed in 1958 by an alert Welsh reader of Notes & Queries. But some rumors die hard; and it will be some time before "Joan Phillips" is forever expunged from public memory and from the principal library catalogues and reference works which continue to list Ephelia as Wheatley's "Joan Phillips." For my reasoned and plausible hypothesis on "Joan Philips" as Mary Villiers's urban cover, see my links in this paragraph to Wheatley, Behn, Newcomb, and Ebsworth.
Corporate or Fictitious Authorship. In the many traditions of Ephelia's authorship, the most damaging view was that put forward by the nineteenth-century editor and anthologist, Joseph Woodfall Ebsworth in The Roxburghe Ballads, 10 volumes (1871-99). In his notes on two poems of Ephelia's, which he reprints in this collection, Ebsworth suggests that Ephelia was merely a playful hoax, perpetrated by Sir George Etherege and a cabal of Court Wits. This old, retrograde view of Ephelia as an invented poet has been revived by the editors of Kissing The Rod (1988) and, less forcefully, by a cautiously ambivalent Warren Chernaik in 1995.
Anne Phillips Proud (Prowde). Based on my first researches into the Ephelia subject in the late 1980s, my edition of Ephelia's collected texts in 1992 (second printing, 1993) introduced one Anne Phillips Proud (Prowde) of Shrewsbury, a descendant of the Proud-Milton-Phillips line, as "an attractive speculative candidate" for the poet's identity. While the case was admittedly thin, it followed from a nexus of internal and external information, which heretofore had not been identified nor systematized. Anne Proud is now superseded by a more persuasive contender; yet my early case for Anne Proud and my first edition of Ephelia were essential first steps in the herculean task of sorting through a daunting accretion of material on this poet -- three centuries' worth.
The efforts of contrarians to deny Ephelia bonafide status have been persuasively challenged with fresh formulations and new evidence, which now place the debate on an exciting new track. Work on Ephelia by Judith Ann Page, Elaine Hobby, Georgina Anne Colwell, Harriette Andreadis, and myself argues for an authentic female voice in the Ephelia texts and a continuity of poetic habits. While virtually all work on Ephelia to date has been speculative, the feminist-reconstructionist wing can now explain many features of this enticing conundrum. As these pages will show, my case for Ephelia's authorship in Mary Villiers explains almost all of the complex issues in this long-contested debate, most especially the long-standing (mis)attribution of her best lyric, "Ephelia's Lamentation," to Sir George Etherege, and the polyvocality of Female Poems...by Ephelia (1679, 1682).