The First Edition of Catherine Jemmat's Poems

Jemmat, Catherine (1714-1766)

Miscellanies, in prose and verse. By Mrs. Catherine Jemmat. Daughter of the late Admiral Yeo, of Plymouth, and Author of her own Memoirs.

London: Printed for the author, 1766


Quarto: [16], 28 ,33-227, [1]p. Collation: a-d2, B-Z2, Aa-Zz2, Aaa-Lll2


Bound in contemporary quarter calf and marbled boards, wear to the corners and paper, small defects to spine. A fine, fresh copy with wide margins.

First edition of this collection by the diarist Catherine Jemmat. Jemmat tells us that some of the poems were supplied by friends, and there is as yet no scholarly consensus on which poems may be confidently ascribed to her. Yet a number of the poems and the essays seem to reflect aspects of Jemmat's own difficult life. She suffered physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her father and husband, and was forced to write in order to support herself and her young daughter.

Among the poems in this collection are "On the Invention of Letters and the Utility of the Press", "A Poem on the Art of Printing", "In Vindication of the Ladies", and "On seeing Mr. Barry perform the Parts of Othello, Romeo, Jaffier, and Castalio", and a poem, "Wrote by a gentleman, extempore, on hearing a celebrated Beauty blamed by some of her own Sex for her Sprightliness."

The prose pieces include "An Essay in Vindication of the Femle Sex", and "From a Lady to her Niece, on her Lover being killed in a Duel".

There is also a disturbing tale, told in the first person, of a young man who died at the age of nineteen and found himself reincarnated as a dog. The dog suffered unimaginable cruelty at the hands of his owner (who cut off his ears and tail), and the man's four-year-old son, who routinely beat him. Upon escaping, the dog was captured by yet another cruel master, and had his brains bashed out with a flail. Reincarnated again, this time as a bullfinch's chick, he became the pet of a sweet young girl, but his fortune did not last. For the girl was persuaded that if she poked out the bird's eyes with a pin, the creature's song would be sweeter still. Shortly after enduring this mutilation, the bird was eaten by a cat. Such scenes played out over and over again. The young man comes back as a cockchaser (and is impaled by a boy), a worm (to be hung on a hook and swallowed by an eel), a cock, a lobster, and a pig. Each time, he suffered the "same kind of death as those that are broken upon the wheel." The story ends without any sort of moral or happy resolution.

In her epilogue, Jemmat tells us that "as most children, by a wrong education, are bred up in principles of cruelty" she hopes that her story will "be a means of giving them better breeding, and softening and humanizing their tempers and behaviour." The story –and Jemmat's intention in writing it- have greater poignancy when we consider the abuse that Jemmat was subjected to at the hands of her violent father and alcoholic husband.

A poem, "Wrote by a gentleman, extempore, on hearing a celebrated Beauty blamed by some of her own Sex for her Sprightliness", seems to be a vindication of Jemmat's own character and spirit, as articulated in her memoirs, where she describes her "giddy and romantic" nature and characterizes herself as being "used to the gaiety of public places; to a perpetual round of company."

"Catherine Jemmat [née Yeo], was the eldest of three children of John Yeo (d. 1756), a half-pay admiral, and his first wife. In her memoirs, she describes her father as an indifferent sailor and, at home, 'a bashaw, whose single nod of disapprobation struck terror into the whole family'. Her mother died when she was five or six years old and, within months, her father had married 'a giggling girl of nineteen' (ibid., 1.10); they had five children, four of whom died. Catherine Yeo was sent to a boarding-school for a time; she describes herself as 'endow'd with a quick genius, and a propensity to learn whatever was in the reach of my capacity' (ibid., 1.16). She left the boarding-school 'to learn plain work, under the care of three gentlewomen' (ibid., 1.17), and eventually returned to her father's house.

"Much of Catherine's Memoirs describes the tensions between her own 'giddy and romantic' nature and her father's desire to arrange a financially advantageous marriage for her. She characterizes herself as being 'used to the gaiety of public places; to a perpetual round of company' and the first volume of her Memoirs is largely devoted to accounts of her numerous suitors. But Catherine also implies that her father resorted to domestic violence in his efforts to control her choice of husband, for she characterizes his behaviour as 'insupportable, and such as I had much rather the reader would guess at … than I should attempt further to illustrate' . She does describe being 'lock'd … up for two months' in order to be kept apart from one of her suitors, 'during which space, I never saw a creature but the person who brought me victuals; I was neither suffered to have pen, ink, or paper'. Finally, she 'resolved to marry the first person who should propose himself to me' (ibid., 1.166).

"Catherine's resolution resulted in marriage to a Mr Jemmat, a Plymouth silk mercer. He claimed to have 'a pretty fortune of about three thousand pounds, well laid out in business' (Jemmat, Memoirs, 2.1), and offered his 'affection and fortune' as a means of escape 'from the tyranny of a relentless father' (ibid., 2.7–8). After their marriage they returned to Jemmat's home and business in Plymouth: the house was 'an hog-sty' (ibid., 2.33), and Jemmat himself alcoholic and physically abusive, with 'no intentions to settle in the world, or to obtain the reputation of an upright man' (ibid., 2.33). She described their marriage:

'night after night, like a poor submissive slave, have I laid my lordly master in his bed, intoxicated and insensible: day after day have I received blows and bruises for my reward: in short, I thought I had married a man, I found I had married a monster.'

"She also soon learned that Jemmat married her in order 'to extort money from my father to pay his creditors, who were very numerous and pressing' (ibid., 2.34); when her father refused to comply, Jemmat finally went bankrupt within three years of their marriage. By this time, Catherine Jemmat had given birth to a daughter. Despite the intervention of her friends, Admiral Yeo refused to help his daughter, with the result that she was 'thrown upon the wide world for support' (ibid., 2.58).

"Catherine Jemmat employs many of the stock defences of the eighteenth-century woman writer to justify her entrance into print. At one point she laments her own romantic streak which led her to reject a marriage proposal from an eminent tradesman … 'had I been but worldly enough to have suppressed my want of regard, and to have acted like the modern young ladies, I might now have been driven in a coach and six, instead of driving myself a quill.'

"But elsewhere she suggests something more than financial motives for her Memoirs. She is 'induc[ed] to … resigning the needle for the pen' in order '[t]o arraign my words, thoughts, and actions, with the minutest truth, at the tribunal of publick justice' (ibid., 1.3). Jemmat confesses that her reputation has been irretrievably damaged, but at the end of her Memoirs she is at pains to demonstrate that she has not 'act[ed] beneath the dignity of my sex', and provides evidence from her acquaintances in order to 'shew the opinion that every one that knew me had of my father and husband's behaviour' (ibid., 2.59).

"Almost nothing is known of Catherine Jemmat's life beyond the events described in her Memoirs."(ODNB)

ESTC T39452