On 26 May, I’ll be presenting new research on the commonplace books of Ellen Warter at the University of Edinburgh’s Nineteenth-Century Research Seminars. The title and abstract for the paper are below, and the programme for the series as a whole can be found here.
Object biographies: family histories and textual afterlives in the commonplace books of Ellen Warter
This paper will focus on two commonplace books made by Ellen Warter c.1885 (CRC, University of Edinburgh). Unlike many commonplace books, which tend to comprise transcriptions from a wide variety of texts by a range of different authors, over 300 pages of Warter’s texts refer to the history and literary productions of the Brontë family, including excerpts from the sisters’ writings, literary criticism relating to their publications, and information pertaining to their home in Haworth, North Yorkshire. Beyond her documentation of the Brontës, the practice of commonplacing was firmly intertwined with Warter’s own family history. Her father had edited the letters and commonplace books of his father-in-law, the Romantic poet Robert Southey, whilst her mother’s own commonplace book was published in 1861. For Warter then, commonplacing was not only an educative practice, but also an inherently familial one, with her compilation of ‘Brontëana’ consistent with the domestic material practices of her own literary family.
This paper will situate the books between other examples of ‘Brontëana’ and the ‘culture of commonplacing’ more broadly. Employing the framework of the object biography, the paper will consider Warter’s commonplace books as literary assemblage, tracing the constitutive elements of Warter’s commonplace books as they passed from one literary form into the next. At the same time, the paper will demonstrate how the books were inherently biographical objects, redolent with potent familial association, both of Warter’s own family, and that of the Brontës, and whose compilation created material and familial afterlives for its collected contents.