160 Hours of Precious Reading Time

Anne MacVicar Grant

This week in my Women Poets of the Romantic Period (WPRP) collection work, I read through all of volume 1 of Ann MacVicar Grant’s Letters from the mountains: being the real correspondence of a lady, between the years 1773 and 1807 (1809). And the question was, at the end of my reading time on Wednesday:

Do I spend my 10 hours in WPRP next week reading all of volume 2? (Another ~300 pages)

And for the moment, I think my answer is no. (This may be the wrong answer.)

I’m worried — perhaps too worried — that if I spend my weeks in WPRP reading complete works, I won’t get through enough of the collection’s material to select the best possible works for the digital and in-house exhibits that are my job to curate.

The collection contains around 450 individual works, and includes a large number of books by more well-known Romantic authors like Hannah More, Anna Letitia Barbauld, Joanna Baillie, and Charlotte Smith, as well as a mine of volumes by authors I had never previously heard of, like Anne MacVicar Grant. The way Deborah Hollis (Assoc. Professor/Faculty Director of Special Collections) suggested divvying up my year’s work is by semester: spend fall semester “enjoying the collection” and spring semester building the digital exhibit. And while I have been just smitten with my reading time in Special Collections, I’m already concerned about how quickly this semester will fly by. I also know that to build a good digital exhibit the way I want to build it will take pretty much all of my time in the Spring. This will entail creating text files and then TEI encoding the works that I select, making XSLTs, and then publishing them on a platform like Omeka (I hope my experience with Omeka matches the great reputation my colleagues have given it). Finally, I want to submit this project to NINES, so that it lives on with a collection of other projects like it.

Accessibility:

Another reason not to read volume 2 of Grant’s Letters from the Mountains in Special Collex: I can buy it or borrow it from library books in circulation, if it’s just the content that I want, and then I can read volume 3 as well (which is not in WPRP). And this is true for so many of the works that I’m thrilled to find in the collection. Another such example is Helen Maria Williams’ Letters Written in France — I have had a hankering to read this work for the first time, as well, and was excited to spot it in the database and on the shelves in a tiny volume, so worn that the “F” in France has eroded from the title page. (I also heard a great talk by Patrick Vincent on Williams’ travel writing at the recent NASSR conference.) Williams’ Letters are not hard to find outside of the WPRP shelves–there’s a Broadview edition edited by Neil Fraistat and Susan Lanser that I could order from Amazon.com. It is exciting to see the 18th-century edition of the letters in the collection, and to explore that text as an object, but the content can be accessed elsewhere in forms that are not as delicate to manipulate. (Note: when not in Special Collections, I break spines. Book spines, that is.) I am thinking that while I do need to read this work, I would be remiss to spend the entirety of my 10 hours/week in WPRP on it.

I have a feeling that this is going to be my battle this fall: how to explore the breadth of the WPRP collection to the best of my ability without getting lost in the process of slowly reading a smaller number of works. It doesn’t help that I keep finding such fabulous material in my reading, and that makes me want to read on. Take volume 1 of Grant’s Letters, for example.

Grant’s Letters:

Grant’s writing conveys deep affection for Highland culture, humor, adventure, and other curiosities that kept me reading on both for research and entertainment. Small wonder that the revenue from these letters helped her support her family while she single-parented after her husband’s death.

Here’s an excerpt from Letter VI that demonstrates the way she romanticizes Highlanders:

“After dinner, we left our two old gentlemen together, and set out for S______: the walk S_____ward is charming. It is a sweet place, sheltered by a small hill; a brook, fringed with willows and alder, runs by it; beautiful meadows lie below, and towering mountains rise opposite. I never saw a place of a more pastoral aspect. I love the good old people: there is something so artless, primitive, and benevolent about them. Do you know, the Highlanders resemble the French, in being poor with a better grace than other people. If they want certain luxuries or conveniences, they do not look embarrassed, or disconcerted, and make you feel awkward by paltry apologies, which you don’t know how to answer; they rather dismiss any sentiment of that kind by a kind of playful raillery, for which they seem to have a talent. Our visit, if not a pleasant, was a least a merry one. The moment tea was done, dancing began. Excellent dancers they are, and in musick [sic.] of various kinds they certainly excel. The floor is not yet laid, but that was no impediment. People hereabouts when they have a good ancestry, education and manners, are so supported by the consciousness of those advantages, and the credit allowed for them, that they seem not the least disconcerted at the deficiency of the goods of fortune; and I give them great credit for their spirit and contentment, thought it should provoke the appellation of poor and proud, which vulgar minds are so ready to apply them. Is it not a blessed thing that there yet exists a place where poverty is respectable, and deprived of its sting? O this incurable disease of wandering!” (47-48)

I found it very interesting that she compares them to the French, “in being poor with a better grace than other people” — French and Highlanders are aligned as equally marginalized and “earthy” folk. The comparison to the French also politicizes the description — letter VI was written in 1773 — at a time when the Jacobite rebellions were fading from recent history and when Scotland was being integrated more and more fully into the British Empire. Also, the Boston Tea Party took place, the abolition movement was underway, and British government was beginning to bristle at the American Revolution that would just precede the French.

Grant also wrote about her own writing and herself as a writer. She articulates a great respect for the Muse, and how she considers that her own letter writing is not highly inspired writing that can reach a larger audience, like poetry. She says:

But in this playful way of writing, merely for each other’s amusement, which one may call rhyming conversation, I feel less reluctance, because I know it is to die in the little circle where it was born. (183)

She also makes books out of the correspondence that she keeps, and considers them as works of literature to be read and reread–perhaps as a way to combat the short life-span of the correspondence she refers to in the above quotation:

I have cut all the leaves out of a great old goose of a book, and there I have placed those pretty pictures in regular succession; with Miss Ourry’s, and Mrs. Sprot’s; cousin Jean’s letters, which I value much for the vein of original humour that runs through them, are there too: so are some of Beattie’s poems. You can’t think how diligently I peruse this good book. Watts on the Passions is not dearer to you; for, as warm as he is in your workbag, do you think your paper bag of epistles can ever lift its head in competition with my great book? No ; it has too much respect for its betters, and has learnt from me the doctrine of gradations. (204)

Finally, a trope that runs throughout this first volume of letters is her fancy for trying on different fantastic occupations, from shepherd, to goatherd, and others. So I end with this nested quote:

I have changed my mind about herding goats, and now the result of my moonlight meditation in the wood, and my reflections on this good lady’s well-earned praise, have determined me to seek forthwith,

A hairy gown and narrow cell
Where I may sit and nightly spell,
Of every star that heaven doth shew,
And every herb that sips the dew.   [From Milton’s Il Penseroso]

What fine transitions one might make, from the bright eye of the celestial bull, to the soft eye of the terrestrial daisy, by thus studying stars and herbs together. . . . But whether nun, goat-herd, herbalist, or star-gazer, depend on my being unalterably yours. (67)

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5 Comments

  1. The issues that you’re encountering with delving into an archive plague everyone who does archival work — how much to read, annotate, experience, highlight. And this is also where many get bogged down that they don’t complete their projects. Instead of limiting your exploration time, I suggest that you partition up the semester into reading around and exploring for 4 weeks. Don’t try to read everything, every word. Read snippets, opening pages, some correspondence. That survey will allow you to focus your ideas. For, you cannot do everything or you will succumb to Derrida’s “mal d’archive.”

    After you’ve completed the survey, go back to the works that genuinely piqued your interest. If they’ve done that for you, others will follow. The idea is to invite others to explore the works in your Special Collections. An exhibit or an archive only provides the hint of everything. If you draw in a dozen scholars to continue your work, you have done a great job.

    Right now, you’re in the middle of everything and it’s chaotic. You’ll have to learn to enjoy that — because you do or you wouldn’t have taken on this project. The chaos will sort itself out but for now, flounder around for just awhile longer.

    I hope this helps! It’s an imminently fascinating project! Oh, and we are doing the same thing here with a much, much smaller project hopefully to be submitted to NINES. We’re struggling with the digital platform. So keep blogging about your digital decisions, please.

    1. Kirstyn Leuner

      Prof. Harris, thank you for this thoughtful and really helpful response! Having a whole archive to explore is a great problem to have, and I’m glad that my anxiety about reading whole works (though I really want to) is on target. I am going to follow your suggestion to book-hop more quickly for the next 3-4 weeks or so, and then select works to devote more time to once I have a greater sense of the archive as a whole. I would love to hear more details about the similar project that you’re involved with — what, in particular, are you struggling with regarding the digital platform, and how are you selecting and excerpting works to include in your exhibit? I will continue to blog about my processes so we can exchange information. Onward . . .

  2. Upward!
    Briefly, someone dropped off 3 books in the library’s dropbox. Not ours. Library student worker who is a former student of mine (from dh & bh) and gave them to me. After some investigating, it’s apparent that these are very rare books (artists’ books by Beardsley illustrating Wilde’s poetry). Gorgeous, gorgeous images. So, it’s an extremely small scale project where the students will research both author and illustrator as well as the Modernist historical context. First will be a library exhibit, but we need to do a digital edition that will be publishable, hopefully with NINES or some other online journal. But, I’m not sure about the final platform — Omeka?

    One student is in charge of project managing the digital side — I’ll have her investigate TEI and such. I really want this to be the students’ project, making decisions on how to display and demonstrate but also letting them know about the professional parameters required. BTW, did I mention that these are undergraduates? They totally rock.

    Lookin forward to more updates!

  3. Kirstyn Leuner

    I love the mystery of your anonymous donator! The Beardsley project sounds amazing and I bow to your undergraduate curators – indeed, they do rock.

    I talked about my WPRP project with Laura Mandell at NASSR, and she suggested that I use Omeka — so, my plan came from the sagest source in these matter, IMO. Lots has to get done before I reach that stage — looking forward to the process.

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