Last week I was in London for the excellent Sibylline Leaves: Chaos and Compilation in the Romantic Period conference. In this post, I’ll try to cobble together some coherent thoughts generated by the event, particularly in terms of how the ideas raised relate to my own work on collage in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The conference marks the bicentenary of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poetry collection Sibylline Leaves, whose title references Virgil’s Cumaean Sibyl, and the ‘fragmentary and widely scattered state’ of her ‘leaves’. Indeed, the entire conference teemed with scattered, flying, volatile and fugitive leaves, and presented a range of approaches and ideas as to their interpretation.
Beginning with Seamus Perry’s keynote on Coleridge’s desultory nature (in terms of both his indolence and his variousness), the conference’s deep consideration of the language we use to discuss this material was incredibly evocative. Various terms were repeatedly mapped out, tested, and explored, but desultory was one to which a number of speakers returned. Likewise, Coleridge’s own play with words was also highlighted, particularly the irony in titling a collection of collected poems ‘Sibylline Leaves’, given that the Sibyll’s own leaves were never collected up again. Here then, the desultory might work as part of a self-conscious, self-reflexive consideration of the fragmented and the various.
Other panels over the two days explicitly engaged with the practices of notebook making and commonplacing, literary processes that my own work on collage also touches upon. Ruth Abbott, for example, presented fascinating work on Wordsworth’s notebooks, stressing the importance of reading such objects as whole, creative documents; whilst stressing the familial and collective nature of their production; and considering transformations of poetry, to prose, and back again.
The conference also had a ‘reading group’ type session in the middle of its first day, where we discussed Michael Gamer’s work on self-collecting in the creation of works like the Sibylline Leaves. Interestingly, Gamer employs frameworks from the history of collecting in his discussion, something I wish to adopt/adapt in my own work on literary self-fashioning and production.
Other papers stressed the materiality of Romantic literary production, from Jeremy Elprin’s wonderfully rich paper on Coleridge’s ‘Sonnet in nubibus’, which highlighted how Coleridge had transcribed the poem on a piece of seaweed, to Deidre Shauna Lynch’s magisterial second-day keynote, ‘Loose Leaves, Floral Slips and the Romantic Book’. Lynch’s keynote was particularly interesting for me as she discussed many of the objects that I have just been looking at at YCBA, and other volumes that I’m intending to see at Manchester, New York, and the Houghton Library in the future. What I was particularly struck by in Lynch’s paper however, was her emphasis on not merely the compilation of such volumes, but their related disentanglement: ranging from the moment of their acquisition (i.e. before their integration within the album/volume/book); ideas surrounding their ‘clippability’; or the potential of these gathered leaves to become loose once more. This was a revolution in my thinking, as my definition for collage in my postdoctoral project has been almost wholly concerned with the coming together of objects to make a new whole; disparate elements, brought together in a new formulation. Yet Lynch’s paper highlighted that these were indeed ‘Sibylline Leaves’, papers that behaved badly, and whose very precarity was actively reflected upon and visually acknowledged by their makers.
I presented my own research on the commonplace books of Ellen Warter at the end of the first day of the conference (my abstract is available here), and received some very provocative and encouraging feedback. I’m excited to use some of the frameworks I encountered at the event in developing this research further, particularly Lynch’s emphasis on the highly self-aware nature of the Romantic album.
Thanks to a 2016-17 Travel Grant from the Lewis Walpole Library (taken in April 2017) I was able to conduct crucial primary research for two monograph projects: the first, which develops research from my PhD thesis to think about the social and emotional life of the home in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the second, my postdoctoral project, which is provisionally titled Collage before Modernism: Art, Intimacy and Identity in Britain and North America, 1700-1900. The book will be the first study to focus on the complex relationship between emotion, identity, and the production of collage during this period, and will explore how the asking how its creation reflected and constructed the interests, intimacies, and identities of its makers.
Specifically, a Lewis Walpole Library Travel Grant enabled me to conduct research for chapters for each project, which variously examine the reception and production of Strawberry Hill in scrapbooks and extra-illustrated texts made within the circle of Horace Walpole, Anne Seymour Damer, and Mary and Agnes Berry; and the familial production of commonplace books and albums in the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries. For the first of these chapters, I consulted the notebooks, scrapbooks, and correspondence of Anne Seymour Damer, Mary Berry, Agnes Berry, and Horace Walpole, as well as a number of extra-illustrated volumes of Walpole’s A Description of the Villa of Horace Walpole. Examining these manuscript volumes and published texts not only allowed me to unpack and trace the various relationships between this social group, but also to think about how these relationships were constructed and reflected in these collaged objects. I was also able to consult a range of supporting literature, such as the ‘Astley Collection of Strawberry Hill Pieces’, and the ‘Rarities from Strawberry Hill’, which allowed me to place these volumes within a broader context of literary and material production coming from, or centring on, Strawberry Hill. Visiting the library also gave me the chance to examine the famous Beauclerk Cabinet (1783-4), a fascinating piece of furniture, which, like the extra-illustrated copies of the Description, demonstrates how the very fabric of Strawberry Hill was shaped by collaborative and creative endeavour.
For the second of the chapters, I examined the library’s collections of albums and commonplace books, focusing on those that were familially produced, or which particularly pertained to the expression of emotion. The latter included LWL MSS Vol. 18, a manuscript collection of poems, elegies, verses on the subjects of solitude, death, and the nature of humanity, whose carefully selected inclusions will allow me to consider how commonplace books’ excerpted texts reflect and construct contemporaries’ emotional lives during this period. I also looked at the Library’s recent acquisition, LWL MSS Vol. 223, a boxed series of sixty-five manuscript notecards that functions like a commonplace book, bearing several hands and thereby attesting to the communal nature of its production.
I also spent time looking at the Library’s broader collection of commonplace books and albums. which allowed me to conduct important comparative research. Some of these were particularly revealing for thinking through some of the technologies of commonplacing during this period, especially in terms of how contemporaries themselves conceived of these practices. For example, Sir Henry Edward Bunbury’s commonplace book, ‘Omnium gatherum’, comprising original verse, extracts, costume, epigrams, bon mots, traits (LWL MSS File 81), features a highly reflexive, hand-drawn title page, depicting the collector of the volume’s inclusions standing over a pile of rocks labelled with words that evoke the manuscript’s contents.
Spending time looking at these manuscripts in person was invaluable to my research, as it allowed me to explore issues of materiality, and to think about how these objects were constructed, viewed, and handled at the time that they were made. Going forward, I’ll spend time reviewing and reflecting upon the photographs and notes taken at the Library, researching the manuscripts’ various inclusions further and thinking about the volumes in relation to research conducted at other institutions, such as Yale Center for British Art. I’m hugely excited to utilise my findings as I finish my first book and continue the research into my second, and would like to thank the Lewis Walpole Library for making this research possible.
I’m thrilled to have been awarded a Harry Ransom Center Short Term Research Fellowship in the Humanities to conduct research on my postdoctoral research project on collage before modernism. The Harry Ransom Center has a wealth of collections relevant to the project, including the infamous (but rather unstudied) Durenstein! Blood Book, created by John Bingley Garland in 1854 and given to his daughter shortly after. The ‘Blood Book’ is just one object I’ll be looking at during my month-long research fellowship at the Center, which I’ll be taking in 2018.
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.