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Archive for August 2016

Copley Report: Genevieve Theodora McNutt

Genevieve Theodora McNutt was awarded Stephen Copley Research Award by BARS earlier this year.  Below, she gives an account of the research trip to the British Library that this funding enabled her to complete.

The Stephen Copley Research Award allowed me to travel to London to visit the British Library.  My research addresses the work of the antiquary Joseph Ritson, and I hoped to develop a better understanding of the research that Ritson undertook in the British Museum, particularly in the early years between his move to London in 1775 and his first major publications in 1782.  This period is sparsely covered in Bertrand Bronson’s excellent biography, as Bronson acknowledges.  There are very few surviving letters from this period, and little evidence of Ritson’s activities.  And yet, from his published work, it is clear that he carried out an astonishing project of research into early English literature during this period.  During my trip, I was able to consult material held in the British Library which provided invaluable evidence of Ritson’s research.

The Register of Manuscripts Sent to the Reading Room of the British Museum goes a long way towards filling the gaps in Ritson’s biography.  The Register makes clear that Ritson’s research was even more extensive than I had realized, and I now face the daunting task of cross-referencing the shelf marks recorded in the Register with the catalogues of the different collections.  However some results were immediately apparent.  The collections of the British Museum allowed Ritson’s research to take a literary turn, and many of his contributions to the study of early English literature would have been simply impossible without access to the those collections.  Although Ritson’s work on medieval romance was among the last works published during his lifetime, he had identified and made a close study of many of his manuscript sources decades earlier.  Although my focus, given my limited time, was on Ritson, turning the pages of the Register provided a fascinating window into the scholarship of the romantic period.

I was also able to examine Ritson’s Catalogue of Romances, his unpublished attempt to document and organize every printed romance, very broadly defined to include most fictional narrative works, in French, Italian and Spanish before 1600, and in English before 1660 (to my shame I only had the time and knowledge to deal with the volume of English romances).  The Catalogue is a sprawling and eclectic work, with multiple layers of revision over the years, and it provides fascinating evidence of Ritson’s research and the ways in which it changed and developed.  Although the bulk of the work is bibliographic, probably modelled on Joseph Ames’s Typographical Antiquities, there are many instances of Ritson’s literary judgements, sometimes arising from the task of categorization and organization.  Particularly interesting are the notes in Francis Douce’s hand, in a distinctive red ink.  Although it was previously unclear whether these had been made before or after Ritson’s death, I have identified several places in which Douce’s notes led to revisions in Ritson’s hand, providing clear evidence of collaboration.

I would like to thank BARS for making this trip possible.  The information I gathered is extremely valuable for my research.  It was a wonderful experience, if somewhat disorientating, to conduct research on how research was conducted more than two hundred years ago, to request, through an online catalogue, manuscripts that were themselves the record of manuscripts requested, and to sit in the crowded Reading Rooms of the British Library and try to understand a man who spent so many hours in the rooms of Montagu House.

Genevieve Theodora McNutt, University of Edinburgh

Five Questions: Carol Bolton on Southey’s Letters from England

Carol Bolton - Letters from England

Carol Bolton is Programme Director for English at Loughborough University.  She has published widely on Romantic-period topics and has particular interests in writings that engage with issues of exploration and empire and in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century politics.  She has played an important role in rehabilitating and exploring the work of Robert Southey, the subject of her first monograph and the focus of several substantial editorial projects in which she has played major parts.  The latest of these, an edition of Robert Southey’s Letters from England by Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella, which we discuss below, was recently released by Routledge as part of the Pickering Masters series.

1) How did you come to realise that you wanted to produce an edition of Letters from England?

I have worked on several collaborative projects to publish editions of Southey’s poetry (Poetical Works 1793-1810, 2004; Later Poetical Works 1811-1838, 2012) and letters (The Collected Letters, Parts 1-4, 2009-2013) as well as writing articles, essays and a book (Writing the Empire: Robert Southey and Romantic Colonialism, 2007) on his representations of travel, exploration and colonialism.  Letters from England presents a view of his own country through the eyes of an invented foreign national, so we see Southey distancing himself from his fellow citizens to write insightfully and often humorously about them.  It is one of his most engaging works and presents a detailed, on-the-spot survey of early nineteenth-century life.  The lifetime editions of this book (1807, 1808, 1814) are only available in copyright libraries and the most recent modern edition by Jack Simmons, was published in 1951.  In sixty years the field of Romantic Studies has changed immensely and I wanted to present a new critical appraisal of the book, based on recent Southey research, as well as drawing on current methodologies that re-historicise literary works within their social and political context to appreciate their cultural relevance.

2) Your introduction very interestingly contextualises Letters from England within existing traditions of topographical travel writing and of depicting England through the eyes of fictional foreigners.  To what extent do you think that Southey’s book-making was imitating past examples, and to what extent do you think that the Letters constitute an innovation?

As a bibliophile with a strong sense of literary tradition, Southey saw himself in a long line of authors, poets and historians in his own book-making ventures.  In Letters from England he drew on the eighteenth-century interest in travelogues – domestic and foreign, factual and fictional – to produce what he hoped would be a lucrative best-seller.  Writing it in the epistolary form, at a time when private reflections marketed for public consumption were popular, and employing a wry tone that is often satirical, the reflections of his Spanish tourist were intended to entertain.  In this way he employed techniques used by earlier writers, such as Montesquieu, Horace Walpole, Thomas Percy and Oliver Goldsmith.  Despite sharing some of the apprehensions of these previous authors – who highlight declining moral standards and increasing materialism in the English people – Southey raises other grave issues about his contemporary society.  His fears for the stability of the nation, its eroding religious values, and his Romantic, anti-industrialist views on increasing mechanisation, urbanisation, consumerism, and progress for its own sake rather than to improve human lives, are all concerns in this work.  In order to criticise the present, he judges his countrymen with a historian’s eye.  His sense of Englishness is rooted in the past, its cultural traditions and heritage, and he invokes an idealised, nostalgic version of feudalism, which in spite of its hierarchical structure he believed had respect for all members of society.  Southey felt his travel account was innovative in the ‘life-painting’ it provided, and Espriella doesn’t just visit obvious places, such as abbeys, tombs and national monuments.  He describes everyday life on the London streets and in the factories of the manufacturing towns.  He comments on the wealth and majesty of such a prosperous nation as well as capturing vignettes of poverty and suffering to produce a broad survey of early nineteenth-century England.

3) What seem to you to be the best and worst aspects of England in Espriella’s (and Southey’s) eyes?

The best aspects of England are its cultural heritage and the historical sites of interest that a tourist like Espriella would be expected to visit: cathedrals, abbeys, great houses, palaces and monuments.  But Southey is concerned that while foreign visitors appreciate these places, his own countrymen do not value the rich heritage in front of their eyes.  The English people are often shown as having valuable qualities of character – for instance their sense of intellectual and political independence – but Southey also sees them as being unaware of their place within a national tradition and a more glorious past, as well as lacking a cohesive social bond between the classes.  In his anti-modern stance, he presents the English as focused on their livelihoods, so that the goods they produce and consume are more highly prized than their fellow citizens.  His Romantic, anti-economic perspective paints a picture of soulless materialism that drives industry, hardens hearts against the poor and impoverishes English culture and heritage.  Despite criticising his Spaniard’s ‘superstitious’ Roman Catholic faith, he employs his firm belief in the merits of a strong national church to expose the empty ceremonies and lip-serving, cold-hearted religion of the English.  He also provides a survey of the sects that are springing up, whose charismatic prophets and zealous congregations are attracting members to what he considers insane beliefs and behaviour.  Through Espriella, Southey warns that the schismatic state of the English religion is a threat to the Anglican Church as well as national stability.  And Southey also uses the scandalised sensibilities of his outsider to lever a more concerned response from his countrymen towards the labouring classes and soften the hearts of the wealthy in their attitudes to the poor.  As might be expected from a member of the ‘Lake poets’, Southey shows prescience in anticipating our modern ecological concerns, by demonstrating how enclosure and industrialisation are diminishing the countryside as a natural resource.  The pedestrian tour of the Lake District made by Espriella shows his appreciation of its wild ruggedness at a time when theories of the sublime were popular, and the region was beginning to attract tourists (a word coined during this period).  In prioritising the subjective, experiential voice of the walker, Southey shows how he and his fellow Romantics have become identified with this emblematic region and how their aesthetic responses to it have endured in England’s cultural heritage.

4) Now that the edition’s available, how do you think that scholars might profitably employ the insights to be gleaned from Letters from England?  Are there aspects or elements which you think might be particularly useful for teaching the Romantic period at undergraduate or MA level?

The book is a rich source of information on the social history of the early nineteenth century.  In addition, the editorial apparatus explains topical references, literary and cultural allusions, and includes translations of foreign language material.  It provides references to Southey’s correspondence, facilitating greater understanding of the text, the influence of Southey’s friends and correspondents on its composition, and accurately identifies the sources he drew on in writing it.  The fact that sections of Letters from England have been frequently cited and anthologised demonstrates its utility as a resource for the period.  This new scholarly edition enables a full understanding of its socio-historical context, authorial intentions, and the relationship between this text and other works by Southey and his contemporaries.  It intends to assist in the current trend for reappraising Southey’s eminence as a literary figure and to highlight the limitations of categories such as poet, historian or journalist that have been previously applied to him.  Although Southey was a prolific and proficient writer in all these fields, we now know that he was also an amusing prose writer.  Southey’s centrality to Romantic-period literature and its textual and cultural practices is now evident, but this edition adds an extra dimension in showing how the established perceptions of genre and style within which he and his contemporaries worked were challenged in a debate over form and function that makes this one of his most innovative works.

There are several aspects of the text that are useful for teaching the Romantic period to students.  I have found the visitor’s view of London and his responses to the metropolis very helpful in teaching my MA module ‘Literary Londons’.  The Lake District sections explicate contemporary aesthetic theories of the picturesque and sublime.  The intertextuality of the book, identified in my research into Southey’s correspondence, identifies a range of correspondents and sources that illuminate the ‘bookmaking’ activities of nineteenth-century authors.  In addition, the bifocal perspective of the experienced English author and the naive Spanish tourist are ideal for teaching students on courses about narratology, its structures and functions and use of focalisation.  Letters from England is an essential source for the historical context of the period, against which many canonical and lesser-known texts can be read.  This will facilitate greater understanding of the social, political and religious background of the Romantic period, and illuminate the attitudes, beliefs and concerns of its authors and their characters.

5) What new projects do you plan to work on now that the edition is complete?

I intend to investigate some of the contemporary issues raised by Southey in Letters from England in greater depth in the form of articles and essays.  For instance, I am very interested in the version of ‘Englishness’ he presents to the reader and how this is informed by his views on history, literature and cultural precedents.  I also intend to explicate his Romantic engagement with landscape (domestic and alien) in this book and his poetry, to demonstrate how his responses to colonialist ventures originate from his Anglophile sense of historical tradition and the influences of pastoral poetry.  In the longer term I will be working on a monograph that examines the ‘politics of place’ in attitudes to travel, exploration and colonialism in the Romantic period.

‘On This Day in 1816’: Report from the July 2016 Frankenstein Bicentenary Events

A report on the bicentenary events to celebrate 200 years since the composition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, July 2016

by Anna Mercer (University of York)




In May 1816, the Shelleys moved to the beautiful setting of Lake Geneva. They were accompanied by Mary’s step-sister, Claire Clairmont, who in London had begun an affair with Lord Byron. Percy Shelley had originally thought of leaving England for Italy, but Claire’s involvement with Byron led them to Switzerland instead. On 13 May 1816 the Shelleys and Claire arrived in Geneva, followed on 25 May by Byron and his companion Dr. John Polidori. By June, both parties had taken residences close to each other on the shores of the lake; Byron stayed at the Villa Diodati. Incessant rain often prevented them from going out on the water in the evenings, and even stopped Percy, Mary and Claire from returning to their own lodgings. Mary would later recall the evenings at the villa:

We often […] sat up in conversation till the morning light. There was never any lack of subjects, and, grave or gay, we were always interested.

What followed – the proposal made by Lord Byron that each of the party at Diodati write a ghost story, and the subsequent composition of Frankenstein – is now infamous. But what of Mary Shelley’s toil and dedication to writing that novel, in the days and months after experiencing ‘the grim terrors’ of her ‘waking dream’?

On 24 July 1816, Mary Shelley notes in her journal, ‘write my story’: this is her first reference to the composition of Frankenstein. Mary’s soon-to-be husband, Percy Shelley, was also writing his great poem ‘Mont Blanc’ on this day. Percy Shelley also contributed 4,000 to 5,000 words to Mary’s 72,000-word novel (this number was identified by the scholar Charles E. Robinson). The Shelleys’ productivity, and their creative collaboration, was thriving in 1816.

Mary worked on the book throughout the summer, and began redrafting after the Shelleys returned to England in the winter. It was Percy Shelley who encouraged Mary to expand her narrative; as she later recalled in 1831, ‘He was for ever inciting me to obtain literary reputation […] but for his incitement, [Frankenstein] would never have taken the form in which it was presented to the world’.

2016 provides the opportunity to celebrate many Romantic bicentenaries, engaging with the work of both the first and second generations of Romantic authors. Presentations of Romantic scholarship can utilise an engaging tagline – ‘On This Day’ – when considering the remarkable events that occurred exactly 200 years ago. Combining my personal interest in reading the Shelleys’ works side-by-side, and my experiences of the success of other public events that include recitals from Romantic texts, or poetry in general, I set out to organise an event series that marked this momentous occasion in Romantic history: the composition of the period’s most iconic novel, Frankenstein, in 1816.


The events took place in two locations. On the evening of the 23 July (the date before that note ‘write my story’ in Mary Shelley’s journal), we presented an evening of readings and two academic talks (by David Higgins and myself) at the Keats-Shelley House, Rome. The house, which overlooks the Spanish Steps, was the final dwelling place of John Keats, who died there aged just 25 in 1821. It is now a beautifully curated and intimate museum of manuscripts, books, paintings and relics, dedicated to remembering the English Romantic poets in the Eternal City. Although the Shelleys did not live there, their Roman residence is only a short walk away, above the Spanish Steps, on the Via Sestina.


The event began with a reading of the first paragraphs of Vol I, Chapter IV of the 1818 Frankenstein, beginning with that haunting sentence, ‘It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils’. This opening (Mary Shelley’s words never failing to provide atmosphere!) then led on to short talks about the Shelleys’ collaboration and also the impact of environmental catastrophe on the works composed in and near Geneva in 1816. Extracts from the work of Percy Bysshe Shelley were also read to the audience: sections from ‘Mont Blanc’ and his preface to Frankenstein (written in the guise of Mary Shelley), as well as another section from Mary Shelley’s introduction to Frankenstein written many years after the Diodati summer in 1831. We finished with prosecco on the terrace, which gave us the opportunity to talk to our friendly audience.

A week earlier, on 14 July, we had presented the same event in York in the Huntingdon Room at King’s Manor. The University of York and the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies assisted us in promoting this free event (including a press release). We were very grateful to have a positive turnout, selling out all our tickets a few days beforehand and then extending the ticket numbers to 70.

I am greatly indebted to our funders; without their support we could not have made the event in York free to attend, and their contribution also supported costs incurred when the event team travelled to Rome. We received funding from the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies and the F R Leavis Fund at the University of York, and also from BARS and BSECS. The event was affiliated with the ‘Romantic Bicentennials’ network, and supported by the KSMA at the Keats-Shelley House, as well as the Keats-Shelley Review.


I’d also like to thank Giuseppe Albano (curator at the Keats-Shelley House), Clare Bond (the CECS administrator at York), the other members of the event team (David Higgins, Lucy Hodgetts and Duncan Robertson), and Alys Mostyn for stepping in to help in Rome.

Overall, I would argue that it is worth taking advantage of the 200th anniversary of the Shelleys’ creative activities to now rethink our understanding of their works, and draw further attention to the poignancy and longevity of their achievements as progressive authors. It is important to use the bicentenary celebrations of the composition of Frankenstein to remind us of the egalitarian intellectual community that existed in 1816. This supportive environment allowed the story to not only be conceived, but also developed, and refined. Perhaps now, 200 years later, we can really harness the usefulness of understanding the Shelleys as a literary couple to appreciate how intellectual collaborations – even with regards to such a typically solitary creative pursuit as literature – can produce such marvellous creative outcomes.



The event will be reprised at Chawton House Library in November. See the website here 

In November 1816 Mary Shelley was writing Frankenstein, and therefore this event also commemorates the novel’s composition exactly 200 years ago. On the 24th November 1816 Mary records in her journal: ‘Write’. During the period from September 1816 – April 1817 Percy Shelley was also acting as editor, making corrections or additions to the draft. As Charles E. Robinson observes, the manuscript evidence suggests ‘that he made his comments not on one reading near the end of the process but on separate readings of individual chapters as [Mary] continued to draft the novel’. The event at Chawton House Library acts as a celebration of the bicentenary of this creative and collaborative period in 1816 that brought Frankenstein to completion.



Charles E. Robinson, ‘Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Text(s) in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein’ in The Neglected Shelley ed. Alan M. Weinberg and Timothy Webb (London: Ashgate, 2015).

Mary Shelley (with Percy Bysshe Shelley), The Original Frankenstein ed. Charles E. Robinson (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2008).