Copley Report: Genevieve Theodora McNutt

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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I was also able to examine Ritson’s Catalogue of Romances, his unpublished attempt to document and organize every printed romance, very broadly defined to include most fictional narrative works, in French, Italian and Spanish before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