04 August 2022
Jessica Mehta is currently a Fulbright Nehru Senior Scholar in Bengaluru, India, and was a 2019 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
I was fortunate to visit the British Library as an Eccles Fellow in 2019, just before the onset of the pandemic. The intention of this visit was to support my PhD thesis, “Women Poets and Eating Disorders: 1840–1970s.” Two of “my” key poets include Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti, and the Library holds myriad handwritten drafts from both poets. Archival analysis was critical to my doctoral work and is greatly informing my post-doctoral life as I prepare my research into monograph form. As Jane Dowson says, “the best use of archival writing is to open up, rather than close down, interpretive possibilities”. 1 Stephen Dilks sums up how we, and I, are using such archives: “When a new generation of readers rediscovers [literature’s] meaning in a new historical context, it partially remakes its meaning; it extends its meaning into the present; it makes it live again, and not precisely as it ever lived before”. 2
My three-part methodological approach culminated in a unique way to examine these poets’ work. My steps included analysing (oftentimes handwritten, unpublished, and non-digitised) archival drafts; comparing drafts to the published version(s) of poems; and examining these poems (both via the comparison of draft progressions to published poems and the completed poems as they stand) alongside various medical theories related to eating disorders during the poets’ eras. Dilks stresses that when we read, it is with “an incomplete sense of the context” which is “one reason why experts continue to debate the meaning or meanings of texts that have been read thousands of times”. 3 It might seem like some poems, such as “Aurora Leigh,” have been read and analysed ad nauseum, but have they really? I argue they have not. Similarly, archives and drafts are key to a close exploration of a poet’s work because they reveal process, not just in a poetic sense but in terms of the writer’s internal progression. Wim Van Mierlo says, “Literary archives allow us to study that writing not only in its finished, but also in its inchoate, embryonic state … the avant-texte, the text before it is ‘the text’”. 4 Derrida famously dubs such places home to Archive Fever (1995), which he claims, “verges on radical evil”. 5
I took a traditional approach to archival exploration, travelling the globe in my quest—the farthest I traveled was the British Library. Sadly, as Carolyn Steedman bemoans, “Many modern historians simply never use the[se] kind of archives,” suggesting that the “majority” of historians today “have never set foot in a départementale or national archive”. 6 This became increasingly true as travel was stopped and borders closed during COVID-19. However, it was in this approach, in becoming Steedman’s “figure solemnly hunched over a list of names, compiling a long time ago for a purpose quite different from the historian’s,” where I truly connected with my poets. 7 Here, in the Library, I felt that I, too, was gaining “entry to an inner world”. 8 There are several notes made in the drafts I examined, such as Barrett Browning’s question to herself regarding a shawl in a draft of her persona poem “Runaway Slave.” She asks, “Does that sound like a slave’s article of clothing?” (British Library shelfmark: Ashley MS A2517). This was, obviously, well before the era of culture vultures and cultural appropriation.
The sense of privacy revealed in drafts suggest that these papers provide a more honest peek into the poet’s world, letting us unearth realities and perhaps truths not yet buried in the polished poems. After my time at the Library, I wholeheartedly agree with Helen Taylor’s summation that, “This generation of scholars perhaps needs to be reminded of an age when scholarship involved long train journeys to archives”. 9 Digital records are simply not the same though, ultimately, I depended on digitisation from other archival libraries when lockdowns occurred.
My months spent in the Library’s archives led to uncovering much more than early drafts. Here, things get personal. I was tasked with avoiding the trap of, as Steedman puts it, feeling “able to speak on behalf of the dead, and to interpret the words and the acts they themselves had not understood”. 10 These archives reveal how poets were responding to world events, such as the abolition of slavery in the United States, and their own flourishing knowledge and experiences. The labour of drafting poems gives us the opportunity to watch the evolution of an anorexic aesthetic and the chance to see how choices (such as adding more em-dashes or capitalising certain food- or hunger-centric words) led various poem iterations to become increasingly reflective of the processes and results of eating disorders. The work these writers undertook often mimics the presentations and cycles of an eating disorder, beginning with the most overt aspect of the editing process: the scraping away of excess fat.
The idea and motivation for my thesis, successfully defended in March 2023, began many years ago with the quiet, sudden realisation that I was not the only one. I had sisters. That bond strengthened during my research. I found myself in that space, deep in the archives, where, as Steedman says, “You think: I could get to hate these people, and then: I can never do these people justice, and finally: I shall never get it done”. 11 As Derrida says, “If Freud suffered from mal d’archive, if his case stems from trouble de l’archive, he is not without his place, simultaneously, in the archive fever or disorder we are experiencing today”. 12 Delicately poring over precious ephemera, yearning to touch history and become a part of it, I came to understand the fluid, subjective fleetingness of what archives entail. “We are en mal d’archive: in need of archives,” says Derrida, and further expounds:
It is to burn with a passion. It is to never rest, interminably, from searching for the archive … It is to have a compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive, an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for the return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement. 13
Years ago, I found kindred spirits in women who were writing eras and lifetimes ago. My experience at the Library led me to a place as a researcher that Simon Barker beautifully describes: “[Researchers] soon discover that beyond the boundary of the archive they may become not the mere writers of stories that ought to be told, but a figure in the story that is being told”. 14 Don’t we all want to be such protagonists, such heroes? Isn’t that, at least in part, what brings us to the Library?
- Jane Dowson, “Poetry and Personality: The Private Papers and Public Image of Elizabeth Jennings", in The Boundaries of the Literary Archive: Reclamation and Representation, edited by Carrie Smith and Lisa Stead, Routledge, 2017, p. 107.
- Stephen Dilks, et al. Cultural Conversations: The Presence of the Past. Boston; New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 2001, p. 4.
- ibid, 4.
- Wim Van Mierlo, “The Archeology of the Manuscript: Towards Modern Paleography,” in The Boundaries of the Literary Archive: Reclamation and Representation, edited by Carrie Smith and Lisa Stead. London: Routledge, 2017, pp. 15–16.
- Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Translated by Eric Prenowitz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995, pp. 19-20.
- Carolyn Steedman. Dust: The Archive and Cultural History. Rutgers University Press, 2002, x.
- ibid, xi.
- Linda Anderson, et al., editors. “Introduction: Poetry, Theory, Archives.” The Contemporary Poetry Archive: Essays and Interventions. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019, p. 1.
- Helen Taylor, “‘What Will Survive of Us Are Manuscripts’: Archives, Scholarship, and Human Stories,” in The Boundaries of the Literary Archive: Reclamation and Representation, edited by Carrie Smith and Lisa Stead, Routledge, 2017, p. 198.
- Carolyn Steedman. Dust: The Archive and Cultural History. Rutgers University Press, 2002, p. 38.
- ibid, 18.
- Derrida, p. 90.
- ibid, 91.
- Simon Barker, “Lost Property: John Galsworthy and the Search for ‘That Stuffed Shirt,'” in The Boundaries of the Literary Archive: Reclamation and Representation, edited by Carrie Smith and Lisa Stead, Routledge, 2017, p. 103.