THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

59 posts categorized "Manuscripts"

03 August 2017

Travelling through Europe: the journals of Mary Cecilia Blencowe

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Mary Cecilia Blencowe was born in 1852 in relatively unremarkable circumstances. She never married and has no descendants, but luckily for us Mary Cecilia Blencowe left behind something even better– her diaries. Mary was an avid traveller, and detailed two voyages across Europe in 1871 and 1872 in journals which I am currently cataloguing.

Her first voyage began in March 1871. Mary travelled to Europe during the tail end of the Franco-Prussian war, which had seen France suffer a humiliating defeat to a nascent Germany. She was in no doubt about her allegiance, regularly expressing her sadness for ‘Poor France’ and insulting their ‘merciless foes’. Her assessment of the war is uncannily prophetic, writing in 1871 that ‘France has fought and been conquered…only for a moment and – we shall see’, presaging the hostilities that would erupt in World War One 53 years later.

Landscape Diaries
Mary Cecilia Blencowe's diaries, Add MS 89256/2 and Add MS 89256/1

Her travels took her to Verona (‘the house where the parents of Juliet lived…is now a tavern, and looks neglected and dingy’), Venice (‘embarking in a gondola…[is] much pleasanter than rattling through the streets in a noisy omnibus!’), Genoa (‘if our boat had only not been quite as unwieldy, we should certainly have fancied ourselves in fairy land’) and Stresa (‘how doubly beautiful it seemed to us, after having been so long in towns in the busiest haunts of men who don’t always improve things’), before arriving in Switzerland to stay in Lausanne. Her entries give a fascinating snapshot of Europe immediately after the Franco-Prussian war, as well as providing details of a Victorian woman’s holiday activities.

Vue Generale de Lausanne
Vue Generale de Lausanne, A Garcin, 1870-75. J. Paul Getty Museum (Getty Open Content Program)

Mary’s diaries reveal a surprisingly modern sense of humour, rather than the dry and moralistic attitude culturally associated with the Victorians. In Venice she enjoyed the eternal pastime of people-watching from the campanile, ’watch[ing] the small people and still smaller pigeons in the piazza below’. She also went to art galleries, although she didn’t always appreciate the exhibits, describing one as ‘an ancient picture of an ancient prince, with his favourite cat who is so hideous I think it is a good thing the days of her life are over’.

Landscape Text
Add MS 89256/2

Childsnatcher smallThis adventure ended in July 1871, when she returned to London. In 1872 she travelled to Germany and Switzerland and began writing again. The highlight of this trip was her encounter with ‘a very curious specimen of the human race, a very little weird old man…[who] looked like some creature of another world, but what sort of world I cannot say.’ It wasn’t just her who was scared as ‘he glared at children…until they ran away frightened’. Underneath her description Mary drew a tiny sketch of the man – a Victorian child catcher.

Childsnatcher Page

Her adventures end in August 1872 when she regretfully returned to England in a carriage, comforted by the presence of ‘such a nice Prussian. So handsome and so manly’. Holiday romance, Victorian style.

Emily Stevenson
Modern Archives and Manuscripts Intern

 

27 July 2017

Flouting Laws for his Cause: John Flavell’s FAQs

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John Flavell (1630-1691) was a Presbyterian preacher from Dartmouth, who overtly disobeyed both the ‘Uniformity Act’ of 1662, and the ‘Five Mile Act’ of 1665. These acts prohibited those who opposed the Church of England’s structure from preaching or living within five miles of their parish. Presbyterian ministers, including Flavell, refuted the bishop-centric hierarchies of the Church, and he was expelled.

However, Flavell went to extraordinary lengths to reach his followers. He spoke to his flock in a forest, preached in private houses at midnight, and sermonised on the Saltstone, a ledge in the middle of the Salcombe estuary (quickly evacuated when the tide was on the turn). He also dressed as a woman to ride through town and perform a baptism.  Pursued by riders, he fled into the sea, where both he and his steed swam to the next bay in order to escape persecution.

Flavell 1

Although he was publicly vilified, with antagonists burning an effigy of him in 1685, Flavell continued to preach, and to write extensively about his spiritual learning. An Exposition of the Assemblies Catechism (Add MS 89247) is set out in a ‘frequently asked questions’ format, with answers providing clarification of small topics such as ‘Man’s Chiefe Ende’ and ‘God’s Truth’. The answers are not merely derived from his work as a preacher, but cited from specific bible verses.

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When published in print, this text, like other works published by Flavell, would become exponentially popular with notable puritanical figures such as Increase Mather, rector of Harvard University from 1685-1701, and who was involved with the Salem Witch Trials.

This manuscript notebook, suspected to be composed mainly of autograph script by Flavell himself, could be partially copied from the printed edition of Flavell’s work, as the first page mirrors exactly the frontispiece from the 1692 printed edition, leaving out only the publisher’s details.

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Considering Flavell died in 1691, references to the 1692 printed version are most unlikely to be his doing. However, the presence of Flavell’s hand for the majority of the book suggests that it could have been a fair copy that later fell into the possession of the inscribed ‘Mary Davey’, who wrote ‘A covenant drawn up between God and my own soul’ at a later date than Flavell’s ‘Exposition’. Her ink can be seen throughout the subsequent pages, suggesting she used it as a personal prayer book.

Flavell 4

The last page ends mid-sentence: ‘We know that an idol is nothing in the world, or that...’, leaving the final question unanswered, and raising more about the overlap between manuscript and printed texts, the circulation of recusant religious texts, and issues arising from personal archives. The legacy of the text is wide reaching, considering its clandestine origins in sermons preached in an estuary at midnight.

Flavell 6


Emily Montford
Modern Archives and Manuscripts Intern

Further reading:

John Flavell, An Exposition of the Assemblies Catechism, Add MS 89247
John Flavell, An Exposition of the Assemblies Catechism (London: T. Cockerill, 1692), 1018.h.6.(1.)

 

25 July 2017

A Soldier’s Life – the memoir of William Young 76th Regiment of Foot

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We recently acquired the captivating memoir of William Young, HM 76th Regiment of Foot.  Young wrote  ‘A Soldier’s Life &  Experience’ whilst stationed in Bangalore in 1871 ‘surrounded by lovely scenery, thousands of miles away,’ to give his relatives at home ‘some faint idea of my chequered life – its joys, its troubles and sorrows’. 

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One of H.M.’s 76th Regt’ by William Young MSS Eur F698

William starts with his childhood in Ireland and his unhappy relationship with his father who was ‘a very cross man’ with ‘ a rough harsh manner’.   Having decided to leave home, William ‘in mad brained folly enlisted for a Soldier’.  His ‘ever gentle and kind mother’ fretted for him. When she died soon afterwards, she was said to have called for William with her last breath.

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‘Good bye Sister!  I’m going for a Soldier!!’ by William Young MSS Eur F698


In February 1864, William’s regiment arrived in Madras  after ‘a charming voyage’.  He describes his reactions to his new surroundings – the people, their clothes and language, the blazing sun.  Barely a week after landing he was promoted to Lance Corporal at the age of only nineteen, being ‘a tall, smart, healthy looking young fellow’.

William started to court Mary, the daughter of John Nugent a retired Army Warrant Officer. As John objected to the relationship, William visited Mary at night muffled up in a large black cloak!  John eventually gave his consent to the marriage, but, as William expected, the Colonel of his regiment said that he was too young to marry and there was no vacancy for Mary to be taken on the strength as a wife. 

John Nugent died on 2 November 1865 and Mary’s mother Jane agreed that the couple should marry without permission.  William and Mary had two marriage ceremonies, Protestant at St Matthias Vepery on 17 November 1865, and Catholic at Bangalore on 22 December 1865.  The couple were forced to live apart and Mary worked as a lady’s servant. They did not meet for eighteen months. After William signed on for another term of eleven years, he was given accommodation in the married quarters, with the promise of Mary being taken onto the strength as soon as a vacancy occurred.

There is a gripping description of a military march.  William marched with a pebble in his mouth to help keep away the ‘parching thirst’.  The women of the regiment rode in a cart; many were drunk.  Mary was horrified at their uncouth behaviour and was ostracised for refusing to associate with them.   When the regiment received orders to go to Rangoon, Mary fled to her sister in Trichinopoly rather than travel on with the other women. Her belongings were on board the ship and so William was obliged to sell them in Burma. The couple were later reunited in 1868 at Madras when Mary came to visit William in hospital.  Sadly, Mary died in November 1868 at the age of only 25 – ‘thank God we were permitted to meet and make up all our little misunderstandings’. 

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‘The tired Soldier and his family’ by William Young MSS Eur F698

William’s memoir continues with his return to Britain on leave, his voyage back to India, and a fascinating account of the daily life of a soldier in India, including the relationship between the Army and the local peoples.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
MSS Eur F698 Memoir of William Young
Church register entries for William’s marriages- IOR/N/2/46 ff. 359, 379. Digitised images available via the Findmypast website.
(Mary’s name is given as Catherine in the church records from India.)

 

10 July 2017

Dame Anne McLaren: a noted career

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To publicise the upcoming event: Anne McLaren: Science, Ethics and the Archive, to be held at the British Library on 20 July, 6.30-8.00 pm, we are republishing this post examining the notable achievements of McLaren’s career. A longer article on McLaren by the biologist Marilyn Monk can be found on the BL Science blog along with this article on McLaren’s role on the Warnock Committee.

Dame Anne McLaren (1927–2007) was a developmental biologist who pioneered reproductive techniques that led to human in vitro fertilisation (IVF).

Dame_Anne_McLaren_©_James_Brabazon Dame Anne McLaren. Copyright © James Brabazon.

McLaren studied Zoology at Oxford and received a DPhil in 1952. In the same year she moved to UCL and began research with her husband Donald Michie into the skeletal development of mice. In 1955 she and Michie moved to the Royal Veterinary College and it was in 1958, while working with John Biggers, that McLaren produced the first litter of mice grown from embryos that had been developed outside the uterus and then transferred to a surrogate mother. This work paved the way for the development of IVF technologies and the birth of the first IVF baby Louise Brown some 20 years later.
 

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Detail from McLaren’s laboratory notebook dated 1955-1959 recording her experiments concerning embryo transplants in mice. (Add MS 83844). Copyright the estate of Anne McLaren.
 

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Detail from Mclaren’s laboratory notebook dated 1968-1976. (Add MS 83854). Copyright the estate of Anne McLaren.


In later years Anne’s career took her from Edinburgh to Cambridge via UCL where she continued her work into fertility and reproduction. As well as undertaking research she was a keen advocate of scientists explaining their work to the population at large and being involved in the formation of public policy. McLaren was a member of the Warnock committee whose advice led to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990 as well as the establishment of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which regulated in vitro fertilization and the use of human embryos, on which she served for over 10 years.
 

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Selection of lectures dating from 1977-78 including a ‘Lecture to girl’s school near York’ (Add MS 83835). Copyright the estate of Anne McLaren.

The Anne McLaren papers at the British Library consist of letters, notes, notebooks and offprints. These are currently available to readers through the British Library Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue at Add MS 83830-83981 and Add MS 89202.

Anne McLaren’s scientific publications and books, along with an oral history interview conducted in February 2007, are available to readers via the British Library Explore catalogue.

Jonathan Pledge
Curator of Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts, Public and Political Life

 

06 July 2017

The roaring Dutch lion breaks the English chains

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This year marks the 350th anniversary of the raid on the Medway during the Second Anglo Dutch War (1666-1667).  A Dutch squadron commanded by Lieutenant-Admiral Michiel de Ruyter made a daring raid on the English fleet, capturing a fort at Sheerness, breaking the chain boom at Gillingham, capturing the Unity and Royal Charles, and burning thirteen English ships.

A new exhibition Breaking the Chain at the Historic Dockyards Chatham provides a unique opportunity to learn about the Battle of the Medway and its aftermath through items and objects from institutions in Britain and the Netherlands, including a number of items from the British Library.

  Evelyn  John
Provided by Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, via the Europeana Collections Portal CC By

Two of these items come from the John Evelyn papers, including a translation of the account of the Battle from Nicolaas Witsen’s Aeloude en hedendaegsche Scheeps-Bouw en Bestier, and Evelyn’s diary entry describing the battle. More information on the John Evelyn archive can be found here.

The following item is also taken from the Evelyn papers, but does not appear in the exhibition. Add MS 78393 ff 16-17 is a sketch showing the ships and fortifications at Chatham. Although not drawn by Evelyn, it has been annotated in his hand ‘Descent of the Dutch when they burnt our ships at Chatham 1666 [sic]’.

  Evelyn Add MS 78393  f 15
Add MS 78393, f 15. Evelyn’s pencil annotation can be seen in the left hand corner. CC By

Evelyn Add MS 78393  f 15 close-up
Add MS 78393, f 15. Close-up showing the fortifications along the river.  CC By

We also supplied a number of items providing a Dutch perspective, including a copy of De Complete Werken van Joost van Vondel, which features his celebratory poem De Zeeleeu op den Teems.

In addition to loaning physical items for exhibitions, institutions are often able to provide access to digital copies online. The Europeana Collections portal provides access to over 53 million digital objects from European heritage and cultural institutions, and includes several items relating to the Medway raid from the Rijksmuseum.

Alex Hailey
Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

 

27 April 2017

Picturing Places - Taking a wider view?

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Think of the British Library’s collections - it is probably books rather than prints and drawings which come to mind.  Think of Gainsborough, Constable or Turner:  do you picture Sublime, imaginary paintings rather than ‘topographical’, place-specific prints and drawings?

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33.h.7.: Peter Fabris, The eruption of Vesuvius, from Supplement to the Campi Phelgraei (1779) Noc

Picturing Places, a new free online resource launched today by the British Library, aims to widen perceptions of both the British Library’s holdings and topographical art.

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Maps K.Top.14.83.e.: Anonymous, Interior view of the east end of Netley Abbey near Southampton (about 1790-1810) Noc

Rather than seeing topography as marginal compared to the landscapes in oils or watercolours by the canon of ‘great artists’ or more imaginative and Sublime images, Picturing Places celebrates images of specific places in the graphic arts, sparking a lively debate around nationhood, identity, and cultural value.

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Add MS 36489 C 2

Add MS 36486 C: George Scharf, Panorama of Ratisbon (Regensburg) (1845) Noc

The British Library holds the world’s most extensive and important collection of British topographic materials: from handwritten notes by antiquarians to rare first editions, extra-illustrated books and unique compilations of plates, text and drawings by named collectors, the British Library is a treasure trove for anyone with an interest in the intersections between place, art, representation and history.  The full extent and depth of the collections are only now being properly recognised and explored. 

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Add MS 15546, f.101: Samuel Hieronymus Grimm, A service in Bath Abbey (1788) Noc

Picturing Places explores the Library’s extensive holdings of landscape imagery and showcases works of art by well-known artists such as J.M.W. Turner alongside images by a multitude of lesser-known figures.  Only a few have ever been seen or published before, as historically, the British Library’s prints and drawings have been overlooked by scholars.  The material in these extensive collections reflect the scholarly and artistic practices of earlier eras when images and texts would have been seen as more closely equivalent.  They have been neglected due both to the overwhelming volume of material and the perception of their relative ‘insignificance’ in the context of a national library where text has always taken precedence. 

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746.e.2.: Robert Wallis after JMW Turner, Stonehenge, from Picturesque Views in England and Wales (1829) Noc

While landscape images have often been treated as accurate records of place, this website reveals for the first time the many different stories involved – about travel and empire, science and exploration, the imagination, history and observation.

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Add MS 15509, f.11: John Cleveley, junior, The ruins of Killaru, Islay (1772) Noc

Picturing Places is an outcome of a current British Library research project, Transforming Topography, which we began in 2013 with a research workshop sponsored by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.   We have partnered with other institutions such as the Royal Collection and British Museum and with academics worldwide.  93 authors representing emerging and established experts in fields such as art history, history, cultural geography and geography are currently involved, and we have 108 essays now being processed for publication.  Films from the Library’s 2016 Transforming Topography conference exploring the depiction of place are also available, providing revelatory insights about the history of landscape imagery.

Keep an eye on Picturing Places and  @bl_prints for updates as the project progresses.

Felicity Myrone
Lead Curator, Western Prints & Drawings

 

09 March 2017

Did Jane Austen develop cataracts from arsenic poisoning?

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When Jane Austen died in 1817, aged 41, her portable writing desk was inherited by her sister Cassandra. It was later passed down through her eldest brother’s family. In 1999, Joan Austen-Leigh, Jane Austen’s great-great-great-niece, very generously entrusted it to the care of the British Library. Among the items that had been stored for generations in the desk drawer were three pairs of spectacles. According to family tradition, they all belonged to Jane Austen.

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Spectacles believed to have belonged to Jane Austen (now British Library Add MS 86841/2-4): wire-framed pair (on left), ‘tortoiseshell pair A’ (centre), ‘tortoiseshell pair B’ (on right, with string wound around arm). 6a00d8341c464853ef01bb097e9917970d

The British Library has for the first time had the spectacles tested. Our Conservation department was involved from the start, to ensure that no harm would come to them. The company Birmingham Optical kindly supplied us with a lensmeter to measure their strength, and their specialist staff undertook the tests.

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 Louis Cabena (left) and Deep Singh (right) from Birmingham Optical, with lensmeter and spectacles in the British Library Conservation Centre. 6a00d8341c464853ef01bb097e9917970d

The tests revealed that the three pairs of spectacles are all convex or ‘plus’ lenses, so would have been used by someone longsighted. In other words their owner needed glasses for close-up tasks, such as reading. Interestingly, ‘tortoiseshell pair B’ is much stronger than the others.

Test results

Wire-framed pair:       R. + 1.75 DS  L. +1.75 DS (PD 27.0 53.0 26.0)

Tortoiseshell pair A:   R. + 3.25 DS  L. +3.25 DS (PD 26.0 56.0 30.0)

Tortoiseshell pair B:   R. +5.00/-0.25 x 84 L. +4.75/-0.25 x 49 (PD 28.5 55.0 26.5)

We showed these results to the London-based optometrist Professor Simon Barnard. He believes there are a number of possible reasons for the variation in strength. Jane Austen may always have been longsighted, and initially used the wire-framed pair for reading and distance viewing. She later required a slightly stronger pair (tortoiseshell pair A) for reading, and used the strongest pair (tortoiseshell pair B) for extremely close work, such as fine embroidery, which would have been held closer to the face than a book.

Austen is known to have had problems with her eyes. She complained in several letters about her ‘weak’ eyes. Could it be that she gradually needed stronger and stronger glasses for reading because of a more serious underlying health problem? Professor Barnard believes this is a possibility. He points out that certain systemic health problems can cause changes in the vision of both longsighted and shortsighted people. Diabetes is one such condition, because it can induce cataracts. A gradually developing cataract would mean that an individual would need a stronger and stronger prescription, over time, in order to undertake close-up tasks. However, diabetes was fatal at that time, so someone might not have lived long enough to require several different prescriptions in succession. 

If Austen did develop cataracts, a more likely cause, according to Professor Barnard, is accidental poisoning from a heavy metal such as arsenic. Arsenic poisoning is now known to cause cataracts. Despite its toxicity, arsenic was commonly found in medicines in 19th-century England, as well as in some water supplies. In this situation, Austen would have switched from using the wire-framed pair to tortoiseshell pair A, then pair B, as her cataracts got progressively worse.

Jane Austen’s early death has in the past been attributed to Addison’s disease (an endocrine disorder), cancer and tuberculosis. In 2011, the crime writer Lindsay Ashford suggested that Austen died of arsenic poisoning. She came to this conclusion after reading Austen’s description of the unusual facial pigmentation she suffered at the end of her life – something commonly found with arsenic poisoning. Ashford’s novel The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen strays from theories of accidental poisoning into rather more fantastical murder. The variations in the strength of the British Library’s three pairs of spectacles may indeed give further credence to the theory that Austen suffered from arsenic poisoning, albeit accidental.

We should, however, inject a note of caution at this point: although prescription lenses were in use in Austen’s day, we don’t know whether these glasses were prescribed for her by a physician, or whether she bought them ‘off-the-shelf’. We can’t be completely sure that she wore them at all. However, we are keen to publish these test results in the hope that other eye specialists will share their ideas and opinions with us. 

We know this subject is already of interest to literary scholars. Janine Barchas and Elizabeth Picherit of the University of Texas at Austin have taken a keen interest in the spectacles in the British Library, and have also been investigating Austen’s references to spectacles in her novels. Their theories have now been published in the journal Modern Philology. We look forward to further discussions and debate on this topic.  The spectacles themselves have just gone on display in the British Library’s free Treasures Gallery for all to see.

Dr Sandra Tuppen

Lead Curator, Modern Archives & Manuscripts 1601-1850

The British Library

Email: sandra.tuppen@bl.uk

22 November 2016

The business archive of Alan Gradon Thomas

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We’ve met Alan Gradon Thomas before, back in 2013 when my colleague Chantry Westwell came across a festschrift in his honour whilst researching the provenance of a medieval calendar. The recent completion of the cataloguing of Thomas’s extensive business archive seems like a good time to reacquaint ourselves with the esteemed book and manuscript seller of Bournemouth and, latterly, London.

 

Alan Graydon Thomas archive 1

Alan Gradon Thomas archive Noc

 

Thomas was an international dealer in a pre-digital age. He had customers all over the world and all of his business was conducted by letter and telephone, using printed catalogues. It was not uncommon for Thomas to send a catalogue to a customer overseas, receive a letter back some weeks later setting out what the customer wished to buy, only for Thomas to have to write back to say that in the interim he had sold the book or manuscript to another customer.

 

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Three manuscripts purchased from Thomas by the British Library Noc

 

He was a meticulous record keeper and the archive, containing sales ledgers, stock lists, financial records, inventories, papers relating to his superbly researched catalogues, and valuations, spans nearly 50 years. There are hundreds of files of correspondence with his customers, including the major auction houses, important private collectors such as John Wolfson, Sir Karl Popper, Lord Kenyon, Lord Wardington, and Major Abbey, and many of the great collections of the world: the British Library, the British Museum, the Bodleian, the Beinecke, the Folger, the Huntington, and the Royal Library in Brussels, to name just a few. Thomas’s correspondence also contains letters from fellow dealers, and from rare book and manuscript curators, librarians, and experts such as Mirjam Foot, Anthony Hobson, Nicolas Barker, Richard Linenthal, and Christopher de Hamel.

The festschrift alone is evidence of how well Thomas was thought of in the trade. But that high regard is also evident in his being elected President of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association for 1958-1959, during which time he was instrumental in establishing the first London Antiquarian Book Fair. His papers include a large amount of ABA material: committee minutes, annual reports and accounts, newsletters, correspondence, and papers relating to the book fairs.

In turn, Thomas himself had great respect for, and was always very appreciative of, the help of the ‘footsoldiers’ of the trade, the shop assistants and bookroom staff. The archive contains papers relating to collections Thomas ran to mark the retirement of three long serving assistants from Sotheby’s and the British Museum. He assiduously wrote to scores of contacts in the trade to drum up as many financial contributions as possible.

Alan Thomas died in August 1992 “as much an enthusiast - for the arts, literature, the history of ideas and beliefs - at 80 as he was at 20”, as his obituary in The Independent put it.

His archive, given his clientele and the material he dealt with, is an extremely rich resource for those interested in the history and provenance of manuscripts and rare books.

Michael St John-McAlister
Western Manuscripts Cataloguing Manager  Cc-by

Further reading:
Add MS 89159 Archive of Alan Gradon Thomas
Christopher de Hamel and Richard A. Linenthal (eds), Fine books and book collecting: books and manuscripts acquired from Alan G. Thomas and described by his customers on the occasion of his seventieth birthday (Leamington Spa: James Hall, 1981)