Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Blogging from the Jerwood Centre: why use archives?

Why should we, as academics, students and researchers, use archives, and in particular, what is to be gained from looking at original manuscripts 'in the flesh'?

The answers might seem obvious but in an age where digitised archives are becoming increasingly common, opening up (in some cases without any charge) material to scholars anywhere in the world with a broadband connection, it bears thinking about why or if we should still go to the expense and effort of visiting archives. What started as a relatively brief post has swollen to large proportions so I'm going to address this in two posts. Firstly, I want to think about why we might look at original manuscripts and other archive material.

For the past few days I've been looking at Sara Coleridge's letters here at the Jerwood Centre, so I'll take them as my example. There are of course, some very easy answers to my question in Sara's case. Because her work has only very recently begun to receive critical attention, I don't have the luxury of scholarly editions of her work. Her daughter published a highly edited memoir and selection of letters in 1874, but this text comprising about a hundred letters constitutes about a tenth of all known existing letters. None of Sara's poetry was published until a Selected Poems appeared in 2007. For those of us who are working on non-canonical, marginal and downright unknown material, archive holdings can often be the only way to access the texts we need to look at.

Even when working on authors well-known enough that the majority of their remains have made it into print, however, there are practical reasons for archival work. Archives often (but not always) maintain collections as they receive them, preserving the context in which they were originally kept. Some of Sara's letters, for example, are in the Trust's Moorsom Collection – named after the family who bequeathed the collection – alongside letters and documents from friends and acquaintances of the two families. The collection provides an illustration of one extended social group she belonged to and how one family viewed and preserved her within that social web.

More importantly, perhaps, the original manuscripts tell us things about the text, about the author, and about the context in which it was written that even a well-edited and thoroughly footnoted scholarly edition cannot. Envelopes, paper, ink, addresses, postmarks and other visual traces all carry meaning. Grammar and especially punctuation are often 'corrected' for modern scholarly editions, in ways that can significantly alter the emotional tone of a text, and looking at original manuscripts is one way back into that tone.

The most graphic example is handwriting. An author's handwriting gives us the feeling of a direct connection with the hand that held the pen and the eye that scanned the page; although we need to be wary of assuming such connections handwriting can nontheless reveal far more than the printed text. Here is a letter Sara wrote to someone she hoped would become a friend in 1818, when she was sixteen years old:

Courtesy of the Wordsworth Trust
The excessively formal, slightly gauche, flowery language, a mixture of teenage intensity and the rules learned from letter-writing guides tell us something about the girl who's writing this, and her relationship with the addressee. Looking at the handwriting tells us even more. The letter has been written using a rule of some sort to keep the lines straight and evenly spaced - if you look closely, there's a couple of points where her pen has hit the rule and run along it. It's clearly her 'best' hand but it's still somewhat unformed and effortful- the handwriting of someone who hasn't yet developed her handwriting style.  When the letter is read in manuscript like this, it has much more information to yield about sixteen-year old Sara and about what this letter was intended to achieve.

Here's another example, again by Sara, but written in 1851, the year before she died of breast cancer:

Courtesy of the Wordsworth Trust
This letter was sent to Edward Quillinan, by this time the widower of Dora Wordsworth. Sara developed a close friendship with Edward and they exchanged letters frequently until his death in 1851. Sara's handwriting in this case can be read in two ways. The first is the hand of someone writing to a very close friend for whom the formalities of spacing and neatness need not be upheld - the signature running up the side of the paper, for example, would  be bad manners in a letter to a polite acquaintance. The second way to read this is as the writing of someone suffering through the later stages of terminal cancer. Although I'm aware of the possibility of over-reading, I think that last line in particular bears the evidence of a shaking hand, a reminder of the extreme physical discomfort she spent her last years in. Again, her handwriting gives us much more than the words alone. Between those two examples lies almost an entire life, illustrated quite poignantly by the contrast between the schoolgirl-ish copperplate and the shaking hand of the cancer patient. Looking at handwriting also reminds us that narrative is not just carried through words, but constituted in the words themselves, in this case quite literally: we miss part of the story if we can't see the writing. 

In part two of this post, I want to address perhaps the more tricky question: amidst the rise of the digital archive, what can we get out of visiting archives, and what is the value of the physical object?


  1. This is a fascinating post, Bea. Your point about handwriting is very true. When I worked on Shelley's manuscripts at the Bodleian, I was struck by how different it was working on the original document as opposed to looking at the same text in facsimile editions. Sara's correspondence looks fascinating!

  2. Having seen some of Shelley's handwriting I can safely say you definitely had a worse time of it than me, Leanne! One of the things I find particularly useful about looking at manuscripts is that you get a real sense of the evolving work - deletions, strike-throughs and additions - and even if you are aware of the composition history, the visual representation of that textual instability makes a huge difference to how you think about it.

    On the other hand, I also wonder if maybe there's a danger to reading manuscripts too - somehow the connection with the physical hand of the author seems to leave them more than usually vulnerable to over-reading. I've been looking at Hartley's letters today, and his handwriting varies wildly - sometimes it's pretty good, sometimes not only completely illegible and very shaky-looking, but a completely different style. Knowing what I do of his life, I'm tempted to read those letters as the products of his drinking sprees - but I'm also aware this is potentially a huge stretch of interpretation.

  3. Shelley's handwriting is amazing once you get used to it - he seems to have shared Wordsworth's tendency to continually redraft, and his notebooks are quite chaotic at times! Still, his corrections, as you say, are incredibly rewarding.

    I take your point about the dangers of over-reading, but surely that is what makes manuscript research so valuable: the sense that you get an insight into what an individual was thinking/feeling at a certain temporal point? Perhaps trying to keep a balance between being objective with the manuscript as a document and taking the person's history/life story into account is the way forward. Really interesting posts by the way, I'm enjoying your Grasmere blogging!

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