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Jane Austen in Austin: A Regency display on view

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mansfield Park, Jane Austen’s most ambitious and controversial novel. To celebrate both the author and the cultural history behind this complex work, students in English Professor Janine Barchas’s fall 2013 graduate seminar curated two display cases relating to Austen and her culture. Below, students Chienyn Chi, Dilara Cirit, Gray Hemstreet, Brooke Robb, Megan Snell, and Casey Sloan share some of the items displayed.

 

From family correspondence to uniquely inscribed copies of the novels, the Jane Austen items held by the Harry Ransom Center allow us a rare and intimate view of this beloved author. Georgian fashion plates, landscape illustrations, and other Regency-era artifacts further help to illuminate the culture in which Austen lived and wrote. This display can be seen during reading room hours for the rest of the spring semester.

 

One case contains items relevant to the world described in Mansfield Park, first advertised as published on May 9, 1814. In telling the story of the modest and physically fragile Fanny Price, Austen created a complex and challenging work that critics often contrast unfavorably with the more popular Pride and Prejudice, in which the heroine is pert and talkative. Austen herself judged Pride and Prejudice “rather too light & bright & sparkling.” In Mansfield Park, Austen alludes to the vogue for large-scale “improvements” by popular landscaper Humphry Repton, sentimental drama and theater culture, and the Royal Navy’s role in the Napoleonic Wars. Such references reveal Austen’s awareness of the large cultural concerns of her day.

 

 

Researching Austen in Austin: Archival research reveals connections between Jane Austen’s characters and real-life celebrities and politicians

Janine Barchas is an associate professor of English at The University of Texas at Austin. Barchas used the Ransom Center’s collections as she conducted research for her book Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity, published this past fall by John Hopkins University Press. She writes about working in the collections and how they guided her research.

Did I do a lot of research for my new book Matters of Fact in Jane Austen in the Harry Ransom Center? You bet!

True, many eighteenth-century books and newspapers can now be read online from the comfort of one’s home computer—and without having to attend to the time-consuming niceties of personal hygiene. As literary historians, we have books and documents at our fingertips (literally) that even five years ago demanded trips to far-flung scholarly libraries. E-tools are making historical research faster while also raising the bar of scholarship—since the skill is no longer in the mere finding.

In Matters of Fact in Jane Austen, I argue that Austen’s novels allude to actual high-profile politicians and contemporary celebrities as well as to famous historical figures and landed estates. As the book’s jacket asserts, the “extensive research into the names and locations in Austen’s fiction” takes “full advantage of the explosion of archival materials now available online.”

Digital archives—scholarly databases as well as open resources such as Google Books and even Google Maps—were indeed a great boon to my research. Still, new e-tools do not replace traditional archival spelunking. Nothing beats the targeted serendipity of researching in the collections of a truly great library. In the end, my proximity to the Ransom Center proved just as great an advantage as the e-revolution.

I’ve been asked to identify a few Ransom Center items that shaped, propelled, or redirected my research into Jane Austen.  I picked three: one book, one map, and one manuscript.

1) A BOOK

Humphry Repton’s Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, Including Some Remarks on Grecian and Gothic Architecture. London: Printed by T. Bensley for J. Taylor, 1803. [-Q- SB 471 R427 HRC WAU]

The celebrity landscaper Humphry Repton is mentioned by name in Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814), a novel slightly critical of the fashion for so-called “improvements” that would fell ancient trees just because they were planted in an unnaturally straight line. The Ransom Center owns Evelyn Waugh’s copy of Repton’s watershed Observations. It is a favorite show-and-tell piece among the Center’s curatorial staff, since the hand-colored illustrations have unique folding flaps that show the “before” and “after” views of the changes that Repton wrought at great estates and at great expense. The front of the book also boasts a list of the clients whose estates are mentioned as “examples” by Repton—his resume, as it were. Austen’s cousins, the Leighs of Adlestrop, appear among this client list. The complete list is a virtual who’s who of England’s wealthy and their landed estates. When, among Repton’s list of Britain’s most fashionable landowners, I recognized the telltale names of Austen’s leading men and women (including Dashwood and Wentworth), I began to wonder whether, long before James Joyce plucked names from city directories, she too had used works like Repton’s Observations as inspiration.

2) A MAP

“The N.W. Bank of Soundings by Captain F. W. Austin R.N. in 1808.” Published by the Hydrographic Office, 1816.

Slowly, I came to believe that Austen’s street names in, for example, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion are not casual throwaways to mark the urban setting of Bath generally but compact interpretive clues that reward those with particular knowledge of such locations. At the Ransom Center, I pored over old maps and guidebooks—first of Bath, then Lyme Regis, and other locales mentioned in her stories. Hearing of my Austen research and my queries about old maps, librarian Richard Workman showed me a map of the island of St. Helena, published in 1816 by the Hydrographic Office, which is (in spite of the spelling variation) based upon the painstaking coastal measurements, or “soundings,” taken by Jane Austen’s seafaring brother Frank (Francis William Austen), a ship captain in the Royal Navy in 1808. The existence of Frank’s chart of St. Helena suddenly suggested the larger cartographic sensibility that surrounded Jane Austen. If Austen maps her fictional characters with uncanny precision, she may have gleaned this impulse from another cartographer in her family. While this map was not direct evidence, it offered a larger historical and family context for Austen’s own cartographic exactitude.

3) A MANUSCRIPT

Letter by James Edward Austen-Leigh (1788–1874) to Mr. Cheney, dated April 14, 1870.

Some years ago, in preparation for my first University of Texas class on Austen in 2005, I flipped through the manuscript card catalogue under “AUSTEN, J,” on the off-chance that the Ransom Center owned an actual letter by Jane Austen. It does not. Instead, I found a letter by Austen’s nephew and family biographer, James Austen-Leigh, who published his Memoir of Jane Austen in 1870. When I read it, I was surprised and intrigued. On the face of it, the note is a rather obsequious thank-you for “a kind letter of approbation” about his memoir, received from the brother of a former schoolfellow. In 2009, Deirdre Le Faye identified the recipient as Edward Cheney (1803–1884), whose brother was Robert Henry Cheney (1799–1866). The short letter also asks Cheney whether the cancelled Persuasion chapters should be published in a future second edition of the Memoir. Most suggestively, Austen-Leigh’s letter alludes to the difficulties of finessing the biography of his aunt:

In treating of a subject so mixed up with private matters, I have been chiefly anxious, by no means to offend, and, if possible, to satisfy my own family, & those old personal friends whom, next to my own family, I care most for.

He hints at the polite need to “satisfy” family feeling and keep “private matters” out of the biography. Is this letter a smoking gun? Since Cassandra Austen burned the bulk of her sister Jane’s letters, we know precious little about the author’s private life. Did family members who lived well into the Victorian age help whitewash and starch Austen’s reputation into the prim spinster of record? What might she have seemed like to us now if such “private matters” had not been finessed, repressed, and burned? In sum, this stray letter first sparked my interest and led to questions about what may have been willfully lost in the critical reception of her work.

Finally, in addition to tracking specific research leads, my work in the Ransom Center included old-fashioned reading pleasures. I cherished being able to touch the Austen family copies of Jane’s own novels that miraculously made their way from Chawton to Texas. I carefully turned pages in worn copies of Steel’s Navy List, where I searched, like the Musgrove sisters in Persuasion, for the names of ships, including those of Austen’s sailor brothers. In old editions of the Baronetage, I deciphered the cramped marginalia of former owners who, like the fictional Sir Walter, annotated their copies with details of deaths, births, and notable events. Maps in old guidebooks unfolded to show me the tourist sites of Bath as Austen would have known them in 1801, when her family relocated there. I even turned pages in the same books that Austen borrowed from the library at her brother’s Godmersham estate! No mere screen experience provides this type of thrill.

 

Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

 

Photo Friday

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Photography volunteer Michel McCabe-Hughes inventories negatives from the Arnold Newman papers and photography collection. Photo by Edgar Walters.
Photography volunteer Michel McCabe-Hughes inventories negatives from the Arnold Newman papers and photography collection. Photo by Edgar Walters.
Student technician Nestor Cordova digitizes the Robert De Niro video collection. The film being digitized is "Jacknife" (1989). Photo by Edgar Walters.
Student technician Nestor Cordova digitizes the Robert De Niro video collection. The film being digitized is "Jacknife" (1989). Photo by Edgar Walters.
Digitization Supervisor Alan Van Dyke scans a first edition copy of "Helena" by Evelyn Waugh. Photo by Edgar Walters.
Digitization Supervisor Alan Van Dyke scans a first edition copy of "Helena" by Evelyn Waugh. Photo by Edgar Walters.

Postcards from France: Paul Fussell and the Field Service “Form-letter”

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May 23, 2012, marked the passing of literary scholar and public intellectual Paul Fussell, whose monumental 1975 study of World War I, The Great War and Modern Memory, brought widespread attention to how the experience of trench warfare helped foster a modern, ironic sensibility that still influences art and culture today. Fussell’s book was the first in-depth study of the cultural legacy of the First World War and remains a landmark in the scholarship of early twentieth-century literature. As critic Vincent Sherry has written, the book’s “ambition and popularity move interpretation of the War from a relatively minor literary and historical specialization to a much more widespread cultural concern. [Fussell’s] claims for the meaning of the War are profound and far-reaching . . . . [he] has set the agenda for most of the criticism that has followed him.”

Staff members who are working on the Ransom Center’s 2014 centenary exhibition Looking at the First World War have certainly found Sherry’s claim for the importance of Fussell’s influence to be true. Fussell, a former patron of the Ransom Center, centered his work on many of the British trench poets and writers whose manuscript collections are held at the Center. The Great War and Modern Memory frequently refers to the poem drafts, letters, and diaries of writers such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Edmund Blunden. Fussell maintained that these writers—all of whom were young officers in the trenches of the Western Front—developed a new and often satiric poetic language that served to subvert the “official” rhetoric that was used by the British government and army. Combining biting irony with graphic descriptions of newly industrialized warfare—gas attacks and machine guns, for example—the Generation of 1914 sought to tell the public the eyewitness truth about modern combat.

Numerous items that will be on display in the upcoming exhibition highlight Fussell’s observation that the First World War, as a watershed moment of the twentieth century, inspired soldier-poets to produce deeply personal accounts of their combat experience—often in direct response to government and army propaganda. One of The Great War and Modern Memory’s most memorable examples of the division between the “official” language of the War and the literary response to trench life is Fussell’s discussion of the standardized “Field Service Postcard” issued by the British Army in November 1914. Known as “Quick Firers,” these postcards were mass-produced in the millions and issued to infantry servicemen who would send them to family and friends as evidence of being alive and safe.

The Ransom Center’s Wilfred Owen collection houses more than a dozen of the Field Service Postcards that the young poet-officer sent his family while on active duty in France during 1916–18. As you can see from this image of a postcard sent by Owen to his mother in 1917, the card forces the sender to report his well-being by choosing between uniform, pre-printed sentences: “NOTHING” written in the margins of the card is allowed, or else the card will be destroyed instead of sent. Thus, soldiers such as Owen faced what Fussell refers to as the “implicit optimism” of the Field Service Postcard: they were forced to report that they were “quite well, “going on well,” or were to be “discharged soon” and happily sent back home. The standardized sentences of the card did not allow soldiers to report, for example, that they were facing an artillery barrage, had lost limbs, or were wounded beyond hope of recovery. Owen, who detested the army’s censorship, made an agreement with his mother that if he were advancing to the front lines of battle he would send her a Field Service Postcard with the sentence “I am being sent down to base” struck out twice. The double strikeout is apparent in this postcard, sent just days before Owen was transferred to the Somme region of France, where he participated in some of the heaviest fighting of the War.

In the years following the Great War, the Field Service Postcard, which Fussell calls the first widespread “form” letter, would be spoofed by poets and writers wishing to point out the lack of humanity in these standardized communications. As discussed in a blog post by Rich Oram, the Ransom Center’s Edmund Wilson and Evelyn Waugh archives reveal that both men mocked the “form-letter” model when sending or declining social invitations in the postwar period.  This 1929 letter from the poet Edmund Blunden to Siegfried Sassoon, housed in the Ransom Center’s Siegfried Sassoon collection, demonstrates that the memory of the standard Field Service Postcard stayed with soldiers long after the Armistice.

Blunden offers only alternative variations of “well” as a means of describing his mental state and mixes contemporary references with allusions to wartime objects or locations. When listing the possible enclosures of the letter, Blunden offers “H. Wolfe’s Poetical Works” or a “Signed Portrait of H. Williamson” (Humbert Wolfe and Henry Williamson were literary rivals of Blunden’s) alongside a “D.C.M. and Bar” (Distinguished Conduct Medal and insignia for a soldier’s uniform) and a “Silk Card” (an embroidered postcard that was often sent as a souvenir by British soldiers in France to their loved ones at home). Likewise Blunden brackets obsolete military destinations—“base hospital,” a “delousing station,” and “Red Dragon Crater” (a section of No Man’s Land where Blunden endured some of his worst combat experience)—with Lord’s, the famous London cricket ground beloved by both Blunden and Sassoon. In personalizing the “form-letter,” Blunden emphasizes the hollow and automated nature of the Field Service Postcard in its original form. As Fussell reminds us, such gestures of individuality were acts of defiance against the industrialization of war, death, and language during the First World War and its aftermath.

Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory discusses several Great War poets and writers whose archives are housed at the Ransom Center, including Owen, Sassoon, Blunden, Robert Graves, H. M. Tomlinson, and Isaac Rosenberg.

Related content:

Last Letters From World War I Literary Heroes

A standard British Army Field Service Postcard sent from Wilfred Owen to his mother, Susan Owen, on April 5, 1917.
A standard British Army Field Service Postcard sent from Wilfred Owen to his mother, Susan Owen, on April 5, 1917.

Primp My Book: A brief history of the customized reading experience

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Long before viewers watched Pimp My Ride or American Chopper—in fact, long before the combustion engine—readers personalized, customized, glamorized, and just plain peacocked their books. Whether encrusted with jewels, adorned by portraits of queens, or scribbled upon with ballpoint pens, the books pictured here demonstrate post-market enhancements, or primping, as a recurring phenomenon in book culture across centuries. These volumes embody fantasies of transformation through the act of dressing up. The story of the custom book starts with medieval illumination, a process that primped a book on the inside. The remaining books mediate the relationship with the text through their covers.

The warmth of red velvet, the chill of a silver hinge, the sparkle of precious jewel, or the smell of fine leather can create a sensory experience that complements, critiques, or even contradicts the words within the covers. Using these diverse materials, as well as techniques from inlay to Cosway, these covers make statements, sometimes even jokes, about their books’ contents.

Edward FitzGerald’s 'The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám of Naishápúr.' Photo by Pete Smith.
Edward FitzGerald’s 'The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám of Naishápúr.' Photo by Pete Smith.

The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám of Naishápúr (Needham, MA: Rosemary Press, 1916)
Miniature Book Collection

This tiny Rubáiyát, like others in its series, is bound in Russian leather and hand-tooled in gold. It was one of only 60 published by Rosemary Press, founded by Charles Dana Burrage (1857–1926), a Boston lawyer, naturalist, Orientalist, and the first president of the University of California Club of New England. His wee books were given as party favors at club events.

Thomas Moore’s 'Lalla Rookh:  An Oriental Romance.' Photo by Pete Smith.
Thomas Moore’s 'Lalla Rookh: An Oriental Romance.' Photo by Pete Smith.

Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh: An Oriental Romance (London and New York: Routledge, Warne, & Routledge, 1860)

This copy of Moore’s Lalla Rookh was primped in the early twentieth century. Sangorski and Sutcliffe of London bound this weighty three-pound copy in a colored leather binding inlaid with gold to form an intricate floral pattern studded with a central diamond and several rubies, pearls, and turquoises. Hidden inside the front cover is a stunning Cosway-style portrait of Moore, similar to Marie Antoinette’s portrait on another book in this display. A floral pattern was chipped into the book’s gilded edges creating a bas-relief effect, not unlike the gauffered edges on the embroidered prayer book mentioned below.

Page from Book of Hours. Photo by Pete Smith.
Page from Book of Hours. Photo by Pete Smith.

Book of Hours (France, 15th-19th Century)
Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts Collection

Illuminated Books of Hours, or private devotional manuals, emerged as a distinct genre in the late thirteenth century. By the fourteenth, these status symbols had become items of conspicuous consumption for the nobility. The quantity and quality of their illustrations, called miniatures, is often an indication of their value, but this particular example has a twist—these illuminations are nineteenth-century fakes. While the manuscript dates to the fifteenth century, the miniatures were either over-painted or entirely fabricated approximately 500 years later into blanks left by the medieval scribe (for just such enhancement). The work is probably that of a nineteenth-century artist attempting to increase the value of a medieval manuscript.

'Officium Beatae Mariae Virginis.' Photo by Pete Smith.
'Officium Beatae Mariae Virginis.' Photo by Pete Smith.

Officium Beatae Mariae Virginis (Venice: Paulus Balleonius, 1709)

Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, this devotional is bound in thin wooden boards held together by metal hinges. The delicate fronds and flourishes on the upper and lower covers were created by inlaying various colored woods into a black veneer. Some of these woods are stained blue and green, while others retain their natural colors. The mother-of-pearl dog-roses that adorn the covers and spine are a symbol of Mary, and thus function as both ornament and clue to the book’s content.

'La Mode Feminine de 1490 a 1920,' Volume 2 of 3. Photo by Pete Smith.
'La Mode Feminine de 1490 a 1920,' Volume 2 of 3. Photo by Pete Smith.

La Mode Féminine de 1490 à 1920, Volume 2 of 3 (Paris: Nilsson, ca. 1926)
The Library of Edward Alexander Parsons

This collection of hand-colored French fashion plates features a portrait of the Queen of Fashion herself, Marie Antoinette. This portrait is an example of Cosway bindings, miniature paintings on ivory inset into gold-tooled leather covers. While these bindings get their name from the English miniaturist Richard Cosway (c. 1742–1821), the London bookselling firm Southeran’s is credited with their invention. Cosway bindings became popular as post-market modifications in the early twentieth century. This fashionable cover is tailor-made for its subject.

Bernard Kops’s 'The World is a Wedding.' Photo by Pete Smith.
Bernard Kops’s 'The World is a Wedding.' Photo by Pete Smith.

Bernard Kops’s The World is a Wedding (London: Mayflower-Dell, 1966)

Not all post-market portraiture is elegant. Kops modified this presentation copy of his autobiography for his friend and colleague Arnold Wesker, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center. Kops removed the original cover and replaced it with the inverted cover torn from a paperback copy of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, which he then decorated with pen and a family photo. In his inscription on the title page, Kops explains, “I hated the… cover so much I made my own. Yours Bernard Kops December 65.”

'The New Testament of Our Lord Jesus Christ.' Photo by Pete Smith.
'The New Testament of Our Lord Jesus Christ.' Photo by Pete Smith.

The New Testament of Our Lord Jesus Christ (London: Christopher Barker, 1598)
The Stark Library

Early pocket-sized Bibles often benefitted from the protection of clasps and cornerpieces, which protected a volume’s edges from wear, enhancing longevity and portability. This small New Testament volume, printed by the same printer as the Book of Common Prayer, belonged to a wealthy individual: the edges of the pages show the remains of gilding, while the clasps and cornerpieces appear to be genuine silver. The Tudor roses visible on the cornerpieces and an inscription by a previous owner on the inside cover may link the book to Queen Elizabeth I.

Washington Irving’s 'A History of New York,' Volume 1 of 2. Photo by Pete Smith.
Washington Irving’s 'A History of New York,' Volume 1 of 2. Photo by Pete Smith.

Washington Irving’s A History of New York, Volume 1 of 2 (New York: Inskeep & Bradford, 1809)

Written under the pseudonym Dietrich Knickerbocker, this playful account of New York parodies earlier histories. Owned by the New York cotton magnate M. C. D. Borden and bearing the seal of New York City on its cover, this first-edition copy was re-bound by prominent Parisian bookbinder Georges Canapé (1864–1940) close to 100 years after its printing. The bright orange color may hint at New York’s Dutch history, while the goatskin leather, commonly used by Canapé, fits the nickname that Irving gave to New York City: Gotham, or “goat town.”

C. H. A. Bjerregaard’s 'Sufi Interpretations of the Quatrains of Omar Khayyam and Fitzgerald.' Photo by Pete Smith.
C. H. A. Bjerregaard’s 'Sufi Interpretations of the Quatrains of Omar Khayyam and Fitzgerald.' Photo by Pete Smith.

C. H. A. Bjerregaard’s Sufi Interpretations of the Quatrains of Omar Khayyam and Fitzgerald (New York: J. F. Taylor, 1902)
Numbered edition, no. 1 of 5
The Stark Library

Bound in brown pigskin, this painted cover lavishly depicts Omar’s vines of wisdom, each line of the drawing seared into place by a heated tool or flame. True to Bjerregaard’s vow to explore the “mines under the vineyard,” the pages between the decorated covers—rich with watercolor paintings, additional pyrographic illustrations, and brocade backed endpapers—reveal further artistic enhancements. One of only five printed, this opulent “Jamshyd” copy presents Bjerregaard’s anti-sensualist pairing of the famous quatrains with Sufi wisdom.

Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 'The Last Days of Pompeii.' Photo by Pete Smith.
Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 'The Last Days of Pompeii.' Photo by Pete Smith.

Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii (London: Collins, ca. 1910s)
The Library of Edward Alexander Parsons

Polished wooden inlaid boards cover this otherwise unassuming edition of Lytton’s popular novel, leaving the original spine visible. The inlaid upper cover is composed of at least eight separate pieces of wood, cut and fitted together so precisely that the surface feels completely smooth to the touch. Inlaid bindings peaked in popularity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, so this early twentieth-century repackaging was likely a deliberately anachronistic choice—perhaps a playful reference to the famous mosaics of Pompeii.

Book of Common Prayer. Photo by Pete Smith.
Book of Common Prayer. Photo by Pete Smith.

Book of Common Prayer (London: Christopher Barker, 1586)

Embroidered with silver cord and thread, this rare surviving example of textile binding features red velvet covers decorated with spangles. Although the exact date of this binding is unknown, it closely resembles the embroidered velvet Bible presented by the same printer, Christopher Barker, to Queen Elizabeth I as a New Year’s gift in 1584. The identity of ‘F. S.’ remains a mystery, but the gauffered edges—gilded, and then impressed with patterns by a heated tool—indicate that this book was owned by a member of the upper class. A final clue to the mysterious owner’s status lies in a 1638 statement by a guild of English embroiderers, who claimed that their book covers were fit for the “Nobility and Gentry of this kingdome… and not for common persons.”

Students in The University of Texas at Austin Professor Janine Barchas’s fall 2010 graduate seminar, English 384k: Graphic Design & Literary Text put together a display case at the Ransom Center with these examples of various bindings. This display can be seen during Reading Room hours through the end of January. Students who worked on this project include Lynn Cowles, Colleen Eils, Jennifer Harger, Brianna Hyslop, Aaron Mercier, Michael Quatro, Robin Riehl, Jessica Shafer, Connie Steel, Laura Thain, Joanna Thaler, and Jay Voss.

Biographer discusses researching Somerset Maugham biography

Biographer discusses researching Somerset Maugham biography
Biographer discusses researching Somerset Maugham biography
Writer and journalist Selina Hastings is the author of four literary biographies, including The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, which was released today in the United States.

Hastings recently wrote an article for Ransom Edition about her work in the Ransom Center’s collections and the “uneasy friendship” between Maugham and Hugh Walpole.

Hastings is a terrific storyteller, and you can listen to audio of her talking about the challenges she faced in researching Maugham. In a case of being in the perfect place at the perfect time, Hastings was the first scholar to be granted access to Maugham’s papers by the Royal Literary Fund.

At the Ransom Center, Hastings conducted research as a Mellon Fellow in 2002–2003 and was awarded the Dorot Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Jewish Studies in 2009–2010. She has previously worked in the Ransom Center’s collections for her biographies on Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford, and Rosamond Lehmann. She is currently working on a biography of Sybille Bedford.

Medieval and early modern manuscripts collection now accessible online

The Ransom Center has launched an online database for its medieval and early modern manuscripts collection. The database includes more than 7,000 digital images and can be accessed via the Ransom Center’s website.

The medieval and early modern manuscripts collection contains 215 items dating from the eleventh to the seventeenth centuries. It comprises items from various collections, including those of George Atherton Aitken, W. H. Crain, Carlton Lake, Edward A. Parsons, Sir Thomas Phillipps, Walter Emile Van Wijk, Evelyn Waugh, John Henry Wrenn and others.

The Ransom Center is in the process of digitizing all of the collection items, which will be added to the database as they are completed. At present, digital images are available for 27 of the items for a current total of 7,288 pages.

The database contains item-level descriptions for all 215 items, and the collection is searchable by keyword and any combination of the following categories: name, country of origin, century, language, format (such as charters or diaries), subject, and physical features (such as musical notation or wax seals).

 

Please click the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

 

A Small Gem of Negativity: The Decline Postcard

Postcard from George Bernard Shaw collection. Click image to see larger version.
Postcard from George Bernard Shaw collection. Click image to see larger version.
Timothy Ferris has recently blogged about Edmund Wilson’s “decline letter,” a form postcard listing all of the things the crotchety literary critic refused to do: read manuscripts, advise authors, address meetings, donate and inscribe books—the list goes on and on. The same postcard may be found in the Ransom Center’s collections, and on our copy Wilson has checked “WRITE ARTICLES OR BOOKS TO ORDER” and added “I have nothing interesting to say about Pound and haven’t been influenced by him.”

I have “collected” such items in the Center’s collections for several years without a pigeonhole (the catalogers like to call them “genre headings”) to throw them into, but now I do. The term “decline letter” has a certain rightness and precision about it. In my view, a decline letter shouldn’t be confused with a rejection letter (Ferris himself goes on to make this error in his blog). The purpose of a rejection letter is to turn down book manuscripts or deflate one’s aspirations of attending an Ivy League university. A decline letter, on the other hand, is a form letter used to decline all the various impositions on an author’s (or celebrity’s) time.

Authors are subjected to many annoying demands from various quarters, but the autograph collector is probably the most feared. In P. G. Wodehouse’s story “The Autograph Hunters,” the esteemed novelist Mr. Montagu Wilson “was notoriously a foe to the autograph-hunter. His curt, type-written replies (signed by a secretary) had damped the ardour of scores of brave men and—more or less—fair women.” Mr. Wilson could have employed a decline letter or postcard, sparing his secretary many hours of work.

Postcard from George Bernard Shaw collection with Shaw's annotations. Click on image to see enlarged version.
Postcard from George Bernard Shaw collection with Shaw's annotations. Click on image to see enlarged version.
Most of the examples of the genre I have seen in the Center’s manuscript collections are actually postcards. A printed postcard answer to an appeal is, by its very nature, a putdown even more offhanded than a form letter. The George Bernard Shaw collection contains a whole folder of these postcards, many of them with autograph revisions. Because of his fame and strong views on all topics, the playwright was constantly solicited by journalists and fans and had an entire repertoire of brightly-colored decline postcards. A form postcard on vegetarianism, though not a decline card, carries a handwritten addition to the printer: “Any color except pink!”

Evelyn Waugh spent most of the later part of his career escaping from London literary life and importunate autograph seekers, aspiring authors, and Americans of all descriptions. Yet the mail still had to be dealt with, and Waugh eventually developed a card carrying this notice: “Mr Evelyn Waugh deeply regrets that he is unable to do what is so kindly proposed.”

Even more mild-mannered authors, such as Marianne Moore, could be driven to the use of decline postcards. Moore’s list* includes “recommend editors favorable to verse by children or work bequeathed for publication,” suggesting that she had received more than a few requests along this line.

I expect that few contemporary writers use decline postcards; they simply ignore annoying requests or have a form email on file for the same purpose. Too bad—at its best the decline postcard is a small gem of negativity.

*This example is from an entry in a dealer catalog.

Update on the "Victorian Blood Book"

This large, oblong decoupage book contains more than 40 collages consisting of carefully assembled engravings from books. The decoupage has been embellished with hand-colored drops of “blood” and handwritten religious commentaries. The emphasis throughout is on images of the Crucifixion, birds, and snakes, all dripping with blood.

The album, familiarly known to us as the “Victorian Blood Book,” has been an object of fascination, horror, and mystery since it arrived with the rest of the Evelyn Waugh library in 1967.

Associate Director and Hobby Foundation Librarian Richard Oram wrote an article about the book for a prior issue of eNews. Since then, he has unearthed some new information about the book’s origins, which he discusses in a new audio slideshow, where you can see slides of each page of the book.