News | November 5, 2023

Spirit Contact at Séance Helps Solve Riddle of £125,000 W.B. Yeats’s Mosada Presentation Copy

Peter Harrington

First edition, first impression of W.B. Yeats’s first book Mosada (1886)

Rare book dealer Peter Harrington’s cataloguing team credit a voice from beyond the grave in providing the clue to the recipient of a presentation copy of one of the rarities of English literature, a first edition, first impression of W.B. Yeats’s first book Mosada (1886). It is believed that there were only 100 copies printed.

The copy, which has just sold at the recent Boston Antiquarian Book Fair is inscribed to “Mrs Zena Vowell, from her friend, the Author” on the reverse of the front wrapper. The book was offered at £125,000.

Smythe's census of copies of Mosada lists 21 copies which are known to have survived into the 21st century. Of these, only nine copies were definitely known to be inscribed by the author, including the present copy.

The inscription in this copy had been incorrectly identified in the past to a “Zena Powell”. The new identification owes a significant debt to the contact of a spirit which apparently came through at a séance held by Irish spiritualist Hester Travers Smith in the early 20th century, as discovered by leading Yeats scholar Professor Warwick Gould, who was consulted by the London rare book dealer in the course of cataloguing the book.

Herbert Dennis Bradley, the spiritualist and direct voice medium, provided an account of a séance in his 1924 book Towards the Stars, during which a spirit announced itself as Zena Vowell, and addressed Smith. Asked when she had passed away, Vowell’s response was given as eight years ago. Then, when asked the place that they had last met, the voice named the hill of Howth. Bradley notes that Smith later confirmed that she had spent two days of her summer holidays with a friend, Zena Vowell, in Howth, close to Dublin, and that her friend had been dead for eight years.

Hester Travers Smith (née Dowden) was the daughter of the Irish poet and critic Edward Dowden. It is thought that she may have been the model for the medium in Yeats's play exploring the occult mediumship, The Words upon the Window Pane (Dublin Magazine version, 1931-32, Cuala 1934.)  Her daughter would become a stage designer for the Abbey Theatre.

Smythe notes that according to the biography of Yeats by Joseph Hone, Mosada was “brought about by John Butler Yeats, the poet’s father who, assisted by his friend Professor Edward Dowden, ‘collected a few subscribers’...” It is likely that Vowell, with her connections to the Dowdens, was one of these subscribers.

Peter Harrington


Identifying a real, rather than spiritual, Mrs Zena Vowell has proven difficult, although a Thomasina Vowell is recorded in the 1901 census as visiting 148 Dartmouth Square in Dublin. Thomasina Vowell was visiting with Elizabeth R. Vowell. The head of the household was Gage S. Green, and his wife is noted as Thomasina M. Green. It is likely that Mrs Vowell was therefore visiting her daughter, accompanied by another daughter.

Thomasina Vowell’s birthplace is listed as County Waterford with a date around 1831. In the 1911 census Thomasina Vowell was resident with Elizabeth R. Vowell at 38 Leeson Park in Dublin. Her birthplace is then listed as County Cork, but with the same birth date. Further research suggests that one Tamasine [sic] Vowell died on 31 July 1918 (with Elizabeth R. Vowell as her executrix). She was the widow of William Richards Vowell, an avid anti-Catholic cleric.

This copy of Mosada was last publicly exhibited at Trinity College Dublin in 1956. Peter Harrington offered it for sale over the weekend at the Boston Antiquarian Book Fair, which took place October 27-29, 2023. The book has since been sold at the fair.

“This was the first time we have had the pleasure of offering a first edition of W.B. Yeats’s first book at Peter Harrington – it is exceptionally rare. But more interestingly, perhaps, it is also the very first time we’ve identified a recipient of a presentation copy of a book through an account of a voice from beyond the grave,” said Dr. Philip W. Errington, senior specialist at Peter Harrington.