Stephen Copley Research Award Report: John Thelwall Manuscripts at Derby Local Studies and Family History Library
by Alice Rhodes
This May, thanks to the BARS Stephen Copley Research Award, I was able to spend a week in Derby Local Studies and Family History Library. I carried out research into poet and political orator turned speech therapist, John Thelwall, and his “Derby Manuscript”. The collection, contained within three volumes of notebooks and spanning almost a thousand pages, includes poetry on subjects as diverse as Thelwall’s own career and was identified by Judith Thompson in 2004. The manuscript, begun after Thelwall’s “retirement” from political lecturing, contains not only published and unpublished poems from this period of his life, but also reworkings of earlier published work, including several poems from his 1793 “politico-sentimental journal” The Peripatetic.
My PhD thesis explores speech production in British literature in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, with a particular focus on the work of Erasmus Darwin, John Thelwall and Percy Bysshe Shelley. I aim to argue that speech production becomes a focal point for these writers to explore politically and philosophically unorthodox ideas and that a specific concern with the mechanics of speech implicated their writing in politically-loaded contemporary debates about materialism, and developing conceptions of disciplinarity. The material held in Derby has been invaluable in helping me to track how Thelwall’s ideas, particularly those on materialist philosophy, continued to develop across his career(s). Excitingly, all of the amendments and crossings out that Thelwall made to his poetry have remained legible, revealing the extent of his ambivalences and anxieties about his political, philosophical, and professional allegiances, as he struggles, in places, to find the right words to express these increasingly fraught subjects. The manuscript also contains several poems which have been annotated with elocutionary markings to aid recitation and poetry on the subject of oratory and elocution, both of which have provided me with a deeper understanding of Thelwall’s elocutionary theory.
During my research trip I also had the opportunity to visit the Library of Birmingham’s Wolfson Centre for Archival Research, which houses letters written by Thelwall and correspondence between Erasmus Darwin and James Watt. Included in these collections was an 1801 letter from Thelwall to Joseph Strutt, written at the very beginning of what he describes as his “metamorphose” from republican radical to teacher of elocution, which sheds light onto what Thelwall himself saw as the continuities and discontinuities between his political and elocutionary projects.
I’d like to thank BARS again for this brilliant opportunity to carry out research which will form an important strand of my thesis. I’d also like to thank the staff at the Wolfson Centre for Archival Research and at Derby Local Studies Library for all their help and for allowing me access to Thelwall’s original manuscripts.
– Alice Rhodes (University of York)