Mary Diana Dods

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Mary Diana Dods (1790–1830) was a Scottish writer of books, short stories and other works, who adopted a male identity. Most of her works appeared under the pseudonym David Lyndsay. In private life she used the name Walter Sholto Douglas.[1][2] This may have been partially inspired by her grandfather's name, Sholto Douglas, the fifteenth Earl of Morton. She was a close friend and confidante of Mary Shelley, and lived a portion of her life as the husband of Isabella Robinson.[3] In 1980, scholar Betty T. Bennett sensationally revealed that Dods performed both male identities for various literary and personal reasons.[4]

Early Life[edit]

Apparently the illegitimate daughters of George Douglas, the sixteenth Earl of Morton, Mary Diana Dods was raised with her older sister Georgina at two residences, at Dalmahoy House, the seat of her father's Scottish estate, and one in London.[4]


The literary success of works published under her male pseudonym, David Lyndsay, suggests Mary Diana Dods received a substantial education.[3] Education for women was better in Scotland than in England in the 19th century, but still paltry. At most, women learned basic etiquette and household upkeep from hired governesses. Mary's education is attributed to the Scottish parish school system.[3] Unlike Edinburgh University, parish schools educated both sexes. Another theory is that Mary's father was wealthy enough to provide additional domestic tutors.[3] Another supporting detail in Bennett's research is a letter from Lyndsay to his publisher saying he had been educated by the "best Masters".[5]


Some dramas of hers appeared in Blackwood's Magazine,[6] as were several of her stories, which have been seen as "very much in the vein of Byron's Oriental tales".[7] Dods, communicating as Lyndsay, admitted to admiring Byron for his writing, but adamantly denied that she plagiarized from his work.[3]

Lyndsay had at least six contributions published in Blackwood's Magazine. Those confirmed include "The Death of Isaiah – a Fragment"; "Horae Gallicae. No. I. Raynouard's States of Blois"; "The Mount of Olives, The Plague of Darkness, The Last Plague"; "The Ring and the Stream"; and "Vigil of St. Mark".[8] Another key work was Dramas of the Ancient World, written at William Blackwood's invitation, which appeared in 1822 as written by David Lyndsay.[9] Tales of the Wild and the Wonderful (1826, Littel) was also published pseudonymously, with support from Lyndsay's close friend Mary Shelley. This contributed to the then-current popularization of German fairy-tales.[10]

During her lifetime Dods, publishing under the pseudonym Lyndsay, rose to the higher literary circles of both England and France. There is evidence that she was acquainted with General Lafayette, Lord Byron, and Frances Wright.[3] She published pseudonymously for reasons explained to her father in a letter of 26 June 1822: "I sometimes, about once a quarter, write a criticism for the Reviewers upon some popular work, any that happen to be the fashion, for which, I am esteem'd one of the cleverest and keenest of that race of Vipers. I am paid tolerably well, ten Guineas per sheet, but this not under my own name. I dare not acknowledge the Fact lest the angry Authors whose works I am compelled to maul in the course of my vocation should return the compliment and maul me in return."[9] Writing as an ostensibly male author in the Victorian era of England's history gave Dods invaluable freedom. As a young woman her wealthy father had often ignored her petitions for money – her sister Georgiana was typically given a larger sum, and more often.[11] This shows that Mary's father did not trust her financial responsibility in the same way as her sister's, a limitation which kept both young women in perpetual debt. The debt receipts and bills, however, provide much evidence for the research on Mary in relation to her false personae – Lyndsay and Douglas.[11][3] Writing under the pseudonym of David Lyndsay, Mary developed her literary ingenuity and avoided the constraints of working in the socially more acceptable role of a governess.[12] Through her writing she began to reach into the literary circles of Lord Byron and Mary Shelley.[3] The letters of Mary Shelley, the original focus of Bennett's research, reveal details of both the male identities Dods adopted in her life and career.[3]


Dods's original pseudonym was David Lyndsay, for the purpose of supporting herself as a writer while living with her sister Georgiana Carter. Carter's husband died soon after their marriage, and the two sisters lived together in London. In August 1821, the first of many letters appears between Lyndsay and the publisher of Blackwood's Magazine, William Blackwood.[13] As Lyndsay, Dods received criticism and praise for her published work in the magazine. She was recognized as a good, well-read writer by the magazine's critics.[3] In 1822, letters began to make mention of a liver illness that kept Lyndsay occupied and prevented her work from being completed on time.[14]

These correspondences reveal some biographical details. Dods, writing as Lyndsay, relates details such as her Scottish heritage, her linguistic prowess, and the fact that she is a good critic of theatre performance.[15] The connection between Dods and her male persona is clear; Dods was noted as linguistically gifted in her social spheres, and was fluent in French, German, Italian, Latin, and Spanish.[3] Other small details give support to the relationship; both Dods and Lyndsay in separate letters relate a difficult and demanding relationship with their fathers.[16][3]

Second identity[edit]

Dods also lived under the male identity of a diplomat and scholar she named Walter Sholto Douglas, ostensibly the spouse of one Isabella Robinson and a friend of Mary Shelley.[17] The marriage was concocted in part as a veil for Robinson's illegitimate pregnancy.[3] When the child was born, Dods and Robinson named the little girl Adeline Douglas; when she married Henry Drummond Wolff in 1853, Adeline cited her late father as "Walter Sholto Douglas." [4] Correspondence between Dods and Jane Williams in the mid-1820s suggests they too had close relations.[18]

In 1827 Shelley helped Dods and Robinson two obtain false passports, enabling them to travel to Paris under the identities of Mr and Mrs Douglas.[19] In the description of Douglas for the passport, "he" is said to be short, with dark curly hair and dark eyes. In a book by Eliza Rennie, biographer of Mary Shelley, Dods is described similarly:[20] "very sharp and piercing black eyes, a complexion extremely pale and unhealthy... her figure was short... (Dod's hair) cropped, curly, short, and thick."[21][3] Rennie adds that at first glance, Dods appears as "someone of the masculine gender".[3]

However, these similarities support, rather than prove the identity. In another section of her book on Shelley, Rennie writes that, "'Miss Dods' was an alias for Mr. ---", a strong confirmation that Rennie knew the alternate identity of Dods.[22]

Letters between Mary Shelley and literary acquaintances intimate similar truths about Dods' identity. Because Shelley corresponded with both Lyndsay and Dods, the obvious similarity in their handwriting confirms a single writer.[23] One telling clue comes in a letter Shelley wrote with a large blank space originally indicating to critics that she had simply discontinued one sentence and begun another. However, the phrase is continuous and states, "pray console dear Doddy for [blank space] she is very sorrowful & has reason to be so."[24] Reading the rest of Shelley and Lyndsay's letters in hindsight, and other letters to literary friends, Bennett confirms the female identity of both Douglas and Lyndsay.[3]

Moustache and whiskers[edit]

Later in life Dods suffered further attacks of her liver disease, and other, unnamed mental and physical illnesses.[3] There is no definitive evidence whether the relationship between Dods and Isabella was a romantic one, but it is not impossible either. The decline in Dods' mental and physical well-being coincided with a separation from Isabella for some substantial time.[3] After a lifetime of financial struggle and debt, Douglas ended up in a debtor's prison.[6] While there she asked a friend to have a moustache and whiskers brought to her, in the contemporary style.[25] This indicates less a preoccupation with keeping up the male identity than Dods's need for one. Living as a woman had not worked for her, and she was undergoing ruin as a man.[26]

She is thought to have died of her ailments between November 1829 and November 1830, after several months in the prison.[9]


Lady Adeline Douglas Wolff's secret stories of how her mother Isabella Robinson's first "husband" switched genders for literary and personal gain might have appealed to her own daughter, the rebellious author Adeline Georgiana Isabel Kingscote, who published several of her first novels under the male pseudonym Lucas Cleve.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Sage, Lorna (1999). The Cambridge Guide to Women's Writing in English. Cambridge University Press. p. 196. ISBN 978-0521668132.
  2. ^ Van Kooy, Dana (2015). "Lilla Maria Crisafulli and Keir Elam (eds.), Women's Romantic Theatre and Drama: History, Agency, and Performativity (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2010)". Romanticism. Edinburgh University Press. 21 (1): 110. doi:10.3366/rom.2015.0220.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r T., Bennett, Betty (1995). Mary Diana Dods: a gentleman and a scholar. Hopkins Univ. Press. ISBN 978-0801849848. OCLC 634508279.
  4. ^ a b c Edited by Elizabeth L. Ewan, Sue Innes, Sian Reynolds, Rose Pipes (2007). Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. pp. 97–98. ISBN 978-0748617135.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: Extra text: authors list (link)
  5. ^ Bennett p. 94.
  6. ^ a b Rose, Phyllis (24 March 1991). "Clothes make the man". The Washington Post. Retrieved 7 January 2017.
  7. ^ Bennett, p. 229, note 83.
  8. ^ "David Lyndsay".
  9. ^ a b c Geraldine Friedman: "Pseudonymity, Passing, and Queer Biography: The Case of Mary Diana Dods", Érudit, No. 23 (August 2001) Retrieved 8 January 2017.
  10. ^ Baker, William (February 2000). "The Cambridge Guide to Women's Writing in English; Lorna Sage. The Cambridge Guide to Women's Writing in English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1999. viii + 696 pp, ISBN: 0 521 49525 3; 0 521 66813 1 paperback £27.95; £16.95 paperback". Reference Reviews. 14 (2): 21. doi:10.1108/rr.2000. ISSN 0950-4125.
  11. ^ a b Bennett p. 193
  12. ^ Bennett p. 218
  13. ^ Bennett p. 43.
  14. ^ Bennett p. 49.
  15. ^ Bennett p. 47 and 49.
  16. ^ Bennett p. 103.
  17. ^ Redford, Catherine (2013). "'The till now unseen object of my mad idolatry': The Presence of Jane Williams in Mary Shelley's The Last Man". Romanticism. Edinburgh University Press. 19 (1): 92. doi:10.3366/rom.2013.0115.
  18. ^ Charlotte Gordon: Romantic Outlaws (New York/London: 2015), Chapter 35, notes 28–30. Retrieved 7 January 2017.
  19. ^ Vicinus, Martha (1992). "Reviewed Work: Mary Diana Dods: A Gentleman and a Scholar by Betty T. Bennett". Keats-Shelley Journal. 41: 260–262. JSTOR 30210452.
  20. ^ "Eliza Rennie", Wikipedia, 6 December 2018, retrieved 21 February 2019
  21. ^ Bennett p. 93.
  22. ^ Bennett pp. 93–94.
  23. ^ Bennett p. 61.
  24. ^ Bennett p. 77.
  25. ^ Oldstone-Moore, Christopher (October 2005). "The Beard Movement in Victorian Britain". Victorian Studies. 48 (1): 7–34. doi:10.2979/vic.2005.48.1.7. ISSN 0042-5222.
  26. ^ Bennett p. 227.


  • Bennett, Betty T. (1994). Mary Diana Dods, a Gentleman and a Scholar. Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Dods, Mary Diana. Elizabeth L.; Innes, Sue. The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women (hardcover).
  • Lyndsay, David.
  • Oldstone-Moore, Christopher. “The Beard Movement in Victorian Britain.” Victorian Studies, vol. 48, no. 1, 2005, pp. 7–34. JSTOR,
  • Sage, Lorna. Cambridge Guide to Women’s Writing in English. Norwich, University of East Anglia, October 1999.