Diaries and Letters

September 25, 2010 at 8:02 pm (books, news, people, research) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )


Starting my book in the Year of 1814, I wanted to remind myself what life was like in the age of the horse. I pulled off my shelves the first volume of the Torrington Diaries (1934), and began at the beginning: how the 24 diaries were re-assembled. A fabulous story, and once which spoke immediately to me.

“A year or to ago Mr. Douglas Clayton of Croydon, showed me [editor C. Bruyn Andrews] one of the volumes, which he had bought at a second-hand bookseller’s”. Immediately, my mind flew to thoughts of Mark and his father, who had purchased, perhaps at just such a “second-hand bookseller’s” the 1798 diary of young Augusta Smith (Mamma to Emma; mother-in-law to Mary).

Andrews continued, telling of the diaries just lying around, “apparently unnoticed”, until they were sold “quite recently by auction for a few pounds”. The manuscripts were then resold almost immediately (sounds rather like some recent sales of Jane Austen first editions….). The auction catalogue listed 31 volumes; the bookseller’s only 24, which leads the editor to surmise that the seven remaining were “odd volumes of something quite different”. At the time the introduction was written 22 volumes had been located; by the time subsequent volumes were published the two missing volumes had been located and included (see 1938’s vol. 4 online at Internet Archive).

But what a true “variety of places” the manuscripts of the Torrington Tours were found in! Andrews lists them: “At the Bodleian Library at Oxford; at Mr. Sadler’s mansion at Ashburne in Derbyshire; with Mr. Dunn, general draper of Blackburn; at the Cardiff Public Library; at the delightful secluded Berkshire vicarage of Mr. de Vitré at West Hendred; at the Public Library at the busy town of Luton; at Mr. Suckling’s old bookshop next to the Garrick Club in London.” Such “luck” in the early 1930s; can that be reenacted in the 2010s?

Every time Alan in Warwickshire emails me a scan of a newly-purchased letter, I thank my lucky stars; when someone like Mark or Angela comes with some unexpected — and exciting — piece of the puzzle, the “luck” turns incredible.

Angela’s letter — written by Augusta (the daughter; later Mrs. Henry Watson Wilder) in 1824 — is a perfect case: Augusta reminisces about their 1822-23 tour to the Continent. She tells her cousin (and us!) her longing for the bustle of Rome at Easter. Until Angela’s letter surfaced there was little about the Smiths during their stay in Rome that had come down to me.

And there lies the *magic* of letters: In an  instant they can tell something that was never before dreamed; they can hint at little trials and wishes; they can answer questions; or provide an instantaneous outlook on someone’s life.

Readers of this blog already know some of the far-flung places bits and pieces of this research reside in: Public Libraries in the U.K.; county archives from places as diverse as Essex, Hampshire and Warwickshire; large academic institutions like Duke University and Oxford University. Then there are the individuals – Alan, Mark, Angela, Dr. Catto. And the family members and descendents. What wonders research unearths — an even if I am the only one, in the end, who cares, some days that’s just okay too. These people fascinate me. And untangling their lives comes like a detective story that has come unravelled and just needs some knitting together; but first the strands must be located – the beginnings and the ends.

Oh! there are so many pieces that once existed! Do they still? Emma’s travel journals or letters from the Continental Tour of 1822-23; the “Foreign Journal” of her sister Augusta (which presumably covers the same tour); William Ellis Gosling’s “MS Volume of his reflections and notes”; Elizabeth Gosling’s honeymoon journal; letters and journals of Lady Elizabeth Compton; Charles Smith’s letters from abroad (the subject of its own post); the Diaries of the Rev. Richard Seymour, which currently only exist in microfilm at Warwickshire Record Office; this too has its own post).

For more details on these items — and the page which will be updated when appropriate, please see the page “Where Are These Items?”

It is a momentous decision, to begin writing while still gathering — for one tiny letter, or stout diary discovered can totally change direction. Yet, when Angela’s letter appeared, with that testimony of Augusta’s about Easter, 1823 – it gave the perfectly fitting piece for my little booklet on sister Fanny. And for little things one must be grateful.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: