Month: July 2014

On Epistolarity (and Materiality)

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In the midst of several archival visits and reviewing the primary literature for my thesis, these last few weeks have been absorbed by meditations upon the epistolary form. As eighteenth century-ists and historians, we are well accustomed to working with collections of familial letters, yet our reflections upon them (myself included) are more often than not limited to their elucidating potential for our own topics of enquiry. Nevertheless, it is crucial to remember that letter-writing is and was a discrete literary form as well as a physical and material object, embroiled in narratives of transportation, gift culture and subsequent conservation by the recipient. Accordingly, I was particularly struck by the considered approach adopted by Temma Berg’s work on “The Lydia Clerke Collection”, a series of letters addressed to, but predominantly not written by, Lady Lydia Clerke. Berg published the letters in her 2006 book, The Lives and Letters of an Eighteenth-Century Circle of Acquaintance, a text which is remarkable for its sensitive and innovative approach to its material. Berg’s follow-up article ‘Truly Yours: Arranging a Letter Collection’ (Eighteenth-Century Life, 35:1 (Winter, 2011), pp. 29-50) describes in detail the reasons for Berg’s relatively radical editorial decisions – including the text’s lack of footnotes and decision to group individual series of letters in the form of novels, with titles such as ‘The History of Lydia Clerke, Written by Others‘.

What I found particularly striking were Berg’s thoughts upon wanting to preserve the original order in which she had found the letters when collating her source material:

“Ideally, to preserve the arbitrariness of their sequence, I would have liked to publish the Lydia Clerke letters as I found them: a sheaf of letters stacked in a box and arranged alphabetically by sender, so that readers would have the pleasures and frustrations of organising letters to their own satisfaction (as I had). But would I be able to find a publisher who would agree to published my book as letters in a box?” (Berg, 2011, p. 38)

Though ultimately Berg decided upon a traditional book format to ‘stress the novelistic qualities of the letters’, I find Berg’s attention to the materiality of her sources vastly compelling. Berg’s desire to preserve the trace of the archival hand, and to reproduce the experience of holding, shuffling through, and reading the letters first-hand, only emphasises how important the material qualities of these objects should be to our readings of them today, not only as literary sources for contemporary correspondence on an array of topics, but as the physical objects of a shared relationship between two or more people.

Whilst visiting the Denbighshire Record Office two weeks ago, I was looking through the correspondence between Sarah Ponsonby and her close friend and neighbour Mrs. Parker of Sweeney Hall, when I noticed that the so-called ‘Ladies of Llangollen’ used specially commissioned seals which read ‘Plas Newydd’, the name of their cottage in which they enacted their remarkable form of rural retirement.


Letter from Sarah Ponsonby to Mrs. Parker. DD/LL, Denbighshire Record Office, Ruthin.

It struck me that the the seal was essential to the whole performance of the letter – which employed nomenclature and labelling as a means by which to designate the letter as part of what Nicole Reynolds has called the ‘cottage industry‘ of Plas Newydd, a thriving network of material, social and intellectual production. However, if I had only paid attention to the contents of the letter, the nitty gritty job of deciding whether its contents told me anything ‘useful’, I may not have even noticed the seal’s existence, and as such, my whole reading of the object would have been different.

Such meditations are obviously limited by the nature of cultural history, which can require us, magpie-like, to pluck as many corroborating resources as we can find from relevant source material. Furthermore, my own background as an art historian predisposes me towards the material and the visual, more so than contemporaries in related historical disciplines. Nevertheless, I feel increased attention to the intersections between epistolarity and materiality can only shed light upon a genre of primary material upon which we rely so heavily, yet seem to use and understand in only a few senses.



Programme for the Travel and the Country House Conference

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View towards the fireplace in the Chinese Room at Erddig, Wrexham, Wales

Chinoiserie Room, Erdigg House (Image via National Trust)

The preliminary programme for the upcoming conference, Travel and the country house: places, cultures and practices has just been released. I will be speaking about ‘Domestic tourism, the country house, and the making of respectability in the travel journals of Caroline Lybbe Powys’, in the second session of the second day. This research is taken from a chapter of my doctoral thesis which situates Powys’s analyses of material objects in relation to country house visiting and domestic tourism.

Please contact for further details and booking.

Travel and the country house: places, cultures and practices 

Northampton, 15-16th September 2014-06-20

Draft Programme

Monday 15th September
10.00-10.40 Registration and coffee

10.40-10.45 Welcome and introduction

10.45-11.45 Keynote: ‘The Italian Grand Tour and the 18th century country house’, Roey Sweet (University
of Leicester)

11.45-13.00 Session 1: The practicalities and pleasures of travel

‘Visiting London for business and pleasure in the years 1599-1623: on the road (and the
Thames) with William Cavendish, 1st. Earl of Cavendish’ – Peter Edwards (Independent

‘Travelling for Pleasure – carriages and the country house’ – Lizzy Jamieson  (Independent Scholar)

‘Wintering in the “shires”: Foxhunting and travel’ – Mandy de Belin (University of

13.00-14.00 Lunch

14.00-15.45 Session 2: European travel, networks and influences

‘The Grand Tour and Episcopal domesticity: the case of Martin Benson, Bishop of
Gloucester (1735-52)’ – Michael Ashby (University of Cambridge)

‘“Antiquity mad”: the Earl Bishop and the translation of continental style in an Irish context’ – Rebecca Campion (National University of Ireland at Maynooth)

‘Centre and periphery: the world brought to the ironmasters “mansions”‘ – Marie Steinrud
(Stockholm University)

‘The English Rothschild family and their country houses: a distinctive style’ – Nicola

15.45-16.15 Tea & coffee

16.15-18.00 Session 3: Views of England from overseas travellers

‘The English country house as (proto) museum: Dutch travel accounts explored (1677-1750)’ – Hanneke Ronnes (University of Amsterdam)

‘“… enjoying country life to the full – only the English know how to do that!”: Appreciation of the British country house by Hungarian aristocratic travellers’ – Kristof Fatsar (Corvinus University of Budapest)

‘Stourhead: all roads lead to Rome – and back again’– John Harrison (Open University)

‘A Dutch view on the English Country House and landscape garden’ – Helen Bremer
(University of Leiden)

18.30-19.30 Reception

19.30 Dinner Tuesday 16th September

9.30-10.45 Session 4: The mobile house

‘Manors, towns and spas. A household on the move in the late 18th century Sweden’ –
Goran Ulvang (University of Uppsala)

‘The travels of an aristocratic family in the early 19th century: the Braybrookes of Audley
End, Essex’ – Andrew Hann (English Heritage)

‘Moving households – problems, choices and new possibilities facing the country-house
family in the 1820s and 1830s’ – Pamela Sambrook (Independent Scholar)

10.45-11.15 Tea and coffee

11.15-1.00 Session 5: Travel, tourism and guides

‘Domestic tourism, the country house, and the making of respectability in the travel
journals of Caroline Lybbe Powys’ – Freya Gowrley (University of Edinburgh)

‘Country house visiting and improvement at Herriard House in Hampshire, 1794-1821’ –
Nicky Pink (Independent Scholar)

‘Arthur Young’s Tours: architecture, painting, sculpture, and the art of adorning
grounds’ – Caroline Anderson (The Courtauld Institute of Art)

‘The representation of the country house in individual books and guides 1720-1845’ –
Paula Riddy (University of Sussex)

1.00-2.00 Lunch

2.00-3.00 Keynote 2: title: Prof Margot Finn (UCL)

3.00-4.15 Session 6: Looking beyond Europe

‘Travel to the East- and West-Indies and Groningen country house culture in the 18th
Century’ – Yme Kuiper (University of Groningen)

‘Appuldurcombe House and the ‘Museum Worsleyanum’: Sir Richard Worsley’s forgotten
collection’ – Abigail Coppins (Independent Scholar)

‘Diaries, decoration and design: the Courtauld’s travels and the effects on Eltham
Palac’‟ – Annie Kemkaran-Smith (English Heritage)

4.15-4.30 Closing comments and discussion