BARS Blog

BARS Blog

News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

Archive Spotlight: The Royal Irish Academy and Global Connections in Martha Wilmot’s Russian Journals

Today we welcome Dr Pamela Buck to the BARS blog. Pamela is an Associate Professor of English at Sacred Heart University. Her research focuses on British women writers and material culture during the French Revolution and Napoleonic period.  She is currently working on a book project concerning the souvenir as an object of political and cultural exchange in Romantic women’s travel writing. Here she tells us about her research at the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin.

 

Global Connections in Martha Wilmot’s Russian Journals

 

In July 2016, I traveled to Dublin, Ireland to examine the works of Martha Wilmot (1775-1873) in the Wilmot-Dashkova Collection at the library of the Royal Irish Academy.[1]  Wilmot was an Anglo-Irish writer from a well-connected, wealthy family in County Cork.  In 1803, she traveled to Russia after receiving an invitation from Princess Ekaterina Dashkova, who met Wilmot’s father while on a tour of Ireland in 1779-1780.  One of the foremost women of the Russian Enlightenment, Princess Dashkova was instrumental in the coup that had brought Catherine the Great to power.  During Wilmot’s five years in Russia, an intense friendship formed between the two women, and Dashkova often referred to herself as Wilmot’s “Russian mother.”  Wilmot spent her time observing society at the royal courts in St. Petersburg and Moscow as well as at the Princess’ country estate.  She also kept detailed journals and letters of her stay that provide a fascinating look at Russian customs and political life.

 

Portrait of Martha Wilmot (The Russian Journals of Martha and Catherine Wilmot. Edited by Edith Londonderry and H. M. Hyde. London: Macmillan, 1934)

 

Today, about half of Wilmot’s letters and journals exist in print.[2]  In previous research on her published work, I note that she collects a multitude of objects on her journey, including Dashkova’s memoirs, which she published in 1840, a fan belonging to Catherine the Great, snuffboxes, diamonds, imperial portraits, and court costumes.[3]  I argue that she circulates these objects to strengthen Britain’s understanding of Russia and encourage a possible alliance against Napoleon, whose growing empire threatened to subsume Europe.  The goal of my archival project was to learn how Wilmot’s unpublished writing might further document the circulation of material objects between Britain and Russia and show her participation in the emerging global networks of her time.

With the generous help of Assistant Librarian Sophie Evans, I examined three collections of Wilmot’s papers: the six notebooks that comprise the journal of her stay (12 L 17-22), her letters to Ireland (12 L 24), and letters written with her sister Catherine, who visited from 1805-1807 (12 L 29). The manuscripts, which are often silk or clothbound, tied with ribbons, and illustrated with sketches and translations of Russian poems and songs, indicate that she considered them lasting keepsakes and that she hoped they would give her readers a more vivid sense of this relatively unknown culture.  Interestingly, manuscript 12 L 24 consists largely of copies of her work made by her mother, suggesting that it was widely circulated and popular amongst family and friends.  The parts most frequently copied, and likely considered the most engaging or important, were her discussions of the Princess’ lavish gifts, the threat posed by Napoleon’s empire, and Russia’s relations with the East.

 

Silk envelope (By permission of the Royal Irish Academy © RIA)

 

Examining Wilmot’s manuscripts indeed enabled me to understand more fully how the exchange of gifts between her and Dashkova helped facilitate an alliance. For example, in an entry dated December 2, 1803, Wilmot relates how “Today the P gave me a little medal of the statue of Peter the Great” and told her the story of his reign.[4]  An entry of April 4, 1804 recounts the gift of “a snuffbox which belonged to the Princess Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, Princess Daschkaw’s godmother.”[5]  Connected to prominent Russian leaders, the objects enhance Wilmot’s understanding of the country and its imperial power.  An entry from December 28, 1804 indicates that the Princess desires a mutual alliance when she gives Wilmot a shawl she received from Alexander I in exchange for her English one.[6]  As Katrina O’Loughlin points out, these sentimental items are emblematic of women’s sociability, allowing them to exhibit their feelings for one another.[7]  The journals thus show how the material objects that strengthen Wilmot and Dashkova’s personal friendship reinforce the political ties between their countries as well.

My research on Wilmot’s work also revealed unexpected connections between Britain, Russia, and the East. Russia attempted to bolster its national image by identifying with Western nations such as Britain, but also through its domination of the East.  This too occurred through material culture.  In a July 23, 1803 entry, Wilmot recounts viewing “specimens of the curiosities of different countrys” like India, Turkey, and China at the Princess’ Academy in St. Petersburg.[8]  Confiscated and placed in a museum, these objects indicate the political and cultural power Russia exerted over Eastern countries.  Dashkova also shares such objects with Wilmot, who notes in a January 3, 1806 entry, “The Princess has been rummaging today, and has rooted out a million things, from every quarter of the globe, but particularly from China.  She has given us pagodas, a musical instrument, purse, boxes, etc.”[9]  Giving Chinese objects to Wilmot may be another way in which Dashkova hopes to convince Britain that Russia would prove to be a powerful political ally.  However, the goods may also suggest that Russia could help Britain partake in prosperous trade with the East.  British attempts to establish a trading port in China had been unsuccessful, and they eagerly sought ways to fulfill the consumer demand at home for Eastern luxuries.  Regardless, the collection and exchange of these objects reveal both Russia and Britain’s desires to strengthen their empires and redefine themselves as global nations.

 

Traveling case (By permission of the Royal Irish Academy © RIA)

 

Although virtually unknown in literary studies today, Martha Wilmot’s work makes a significant contribution to our understanding of women writers and their involvement abroad during the Romantic period. The Wilmot-Dashkova Collection also contains Catherine Wilmot’s own journal and letters of her stay in Russia, which provide a more critical view of Russian cultural and political practices, and letters from her 1801-1803 journey to France and Italy, which offer an inside look at Napoleon’s empire.  While Martha Wilmot chose not to publish her journals, her portable writing case, also preserved in the archive, suggests that she considered herself a legitimate travel writer. The collection would appeal to scholars interested in the intersection of gender, politics, and material culture in the Napoleonic period. With its rare insights into relations between East and West, it would also appeal to those with an interest in global Romanticism.

 

– by Pamela Buck

 

[1] I thank Sacred Heart University for supporting this project through a University Research and Creativity Grant.

[2] Martha Wilmot, The Russian Journals of Martha and Catherine Wilmot, eds. Edith Londonderry and H. M. Hyde (London: Macmillan, 1934).

[3] Pamela Buck, “From Russia with Love: Souvenirs and Political Alliance in Martha Wilmot’s The Russian Journals,” in Eighteenth-Century Thing Theory in a Global Context: From Consumerism to Celebrity Culture, eds. Ileana Baird and Christina Ionescu (Basingstoke: Ashgate Publishing, 2013), 133-48.

[4] Martha Wilmot, “Journal of stay in Russia” (12 L 17), 151.

[5] Ibid., (12 L 18), 103.

[6] Ibid., 292.

[7] Katrina O’Loughlin, “‘Your Russian Mother’: Friendship and Global Relations in the Dashkova Archive” (presentation, North American Society for the Study of Romanticism Conference, Tokyo, Japan, June 13-15, 2014).

[8] Martha Wilmot, “Journal of stay in Russia” (12 L 17), 68.

[9] Wilmot, “Journal” (12 L 20), 8.