IASH Twitter Takeover – Favourite Collages #2 – the commonplace books of Ellen Warter

In the second of my IASH Twitter Takeover ‘favourite collages’ posts, I want to talk about something that you might not think about as being a collage at all – two commonplace books made c.1885 by Ellen Warter, the granddaughter of the Romantic poet Robert Southey, now held at the Centre for Research Collections at the University of Edinburgh.

img_2435 2Page from the commonplace book of Ellen Warter, granddaughter of Robert Southey, Coll-1559, Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh.

A popular practice since classical antiquity, the production of commonplace books involved the compilation of excerpted texts from a broad array of writers on a variety of topics. Like traditional paper collage, then, they are collections of materials from a range of different sources, reformulated into a new object. Despite this compiled and composite nature, commonplace books are rarely conceived of in relation to collage. Instead, they tend to be discussed more as records of reading practices, knowledge exchange, and education.

Yet Ellen Warter’s commonplace books tell a more complex story than this.Warter devoted over 300 pages of her volumes to the lives and literature of the Brontë family, who were the objects of her sustained estimation, affection, and documentation. This specific emphasis upon the Brontës relates Warter’s albums to a specific type of album-making: namely, the production of volumes dedicated to literary celebrities, a practice enacted throughout the nineteenth century. Beyond this fascination with the Brontës however, the practice of commonplacing was firmly intertwined with Warter’s own family history. As the granddaughter of Robert Southey, she was part of a family whose own commonplacing and album-making spanned several generations. Warter’s grandfather, aunts, mother, and father all made, or contributed to the production of, composite volumes, a literary inheritance that places Warter’s own productions within a longer history and set of material practices. Crucially, such practices were also enacted within the broader Romantic circle, with Southey contributing to the volumes of his friends’ daughters, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Caroline Bowles, Charles Lamb, and Edward Quillinan reciprocally adding poems to the albums of Edith Southey, Warter’s mother. For Warter then, commonplacing was not only an educative practice, but an inherently social one, with her compilation of ‘Brontëana’ consistent with the collective practices of her own extended literary family.

More than the sum of their collaged parts then, Warter’s commonplace books are not only a collection of individual details and textual clippings, but evoke the broader contexts of authorship, celebrity, and collaboration.

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