Stephen Copley Research Report: Beth Brigham on Sir Anthony Carlisle in the Southey-Bedford & Abinger Collections

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Here we have the latest report from Beth Brigham, the most recent winner of the Stephen Copley research awards, for more information about how to apply, please see here.

In January, I was able to undertake a five-day research trip to the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries after receiving a Stephen Copley Research Award – I must therefore thank BARS for their generous support and the Bodleian for granting access to their archives.

The aim of this research trip was to examine unpublished correspondence relating to the surgeon Sir Anthony Carlisle (1764-1840), a figure that has generally received little notice from literary scholars. However, Don Shelton’s claim that Carlisle wrote the Minerva Press fiction attributed to ‘Mrs Carver’ has gifted the medical practitioner with a literary legacy that most noticeably ties him to The Horrors of Oakendale Abbey (1797), a gothic novel filled with anatomical references. Carlisle has additionally been labelled ‘a real Frankenstein’ by popular media outlets after Shelton highlighted the surgeon’s scientific interests and presence in William Godwin’s home in the early years of Mary Shelley’s life. As my thesis explores the intersections between literature and the history of medical science, focusing on medical appropriations of the gothic, this figure has understandably drawn my attention. The research I conducted in Oxford thus formed part of an in-depth case study of Carlisle’s life and persona in relation to Shelton’s claims, which will substantiate both my thesis and a forthcoming journal article due to appear in a special issue of Romanticism on the Net.

The first part of my research involved reviewing correspondence from the Southey-Bedford archive. Southey and the miscellaneous writer and civil servant, Grosvenor Charles Bedford, corresponded throughout the period 1792-1838 and were closely acquainted with Carlisle. A previous examination of Southey’s side of this correspondence, which has been extensively edited and digitised through the Romantic Circles project, revealed obscure references to Carlisle’s activities during the 1790s. I therefore sought to review Bedford’s unpublished side of this correspondence, as I hoped his letters from the years 1794-1807 would contain new details of Carlisle’s life. After grappling with Bedford’s handwriting, I in fact discovered a letter from 1795 that was bursting with medical references, indicating that Bedford and Southey were privy to Carlisle’s medico-scientific pursuits. Indeed, the letter points to Bedford’s personal interest in medicine and he regrets not having been ‘brought up in Physich’ (Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Eng. lett. d. 50, fol.3v). Most notably, Bedford describes accompanying Carlisle to the dissecting room of the physician Matthew Baillie, where he views some ‘putrescent evidences of mortality’(Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Eng. lett. d. 50, fol.3v). Constructing a particularly gothic scene, Bedford writes of ‘three bodies blue, bloody, & emaciated’ and describes how the fireplace was ‘filled with bones, brains & viscera’(Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Eng. lett. d. 50, fol.3v).

My favourite find from the Southey-Bedford collection was a postscript from an 1806 letter to Southey where Bedford writes ‘Carlisle is at my elbow…& desires to be remembered by you’ (Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Eng. lett. d.50 fol.140r). The close physical intimacy described in the letter is emblematic of the close friendship that these three figures enjoyed long into the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, only a handful of Bedford’s letters from the 1790s have survived, but this research trip offered new insight into Carlisle’s life and allowed me to ascertain the limits of my work.

My time in Oxford further provided a particularly significant opportunity to review correspondence written and signed by Carlisle himself. As little of his personal ephemera has survived, this was the only time that I have had first-hand access to the surgeon’s writing outside of his published medical works.

Correspondence from the Abinger Collection certainly positions the surgeon as a significant presence in the Godwin household, as one letter Carlisle wrote to Godwin in 1804 suggests that he treated the young Mary Godwin and her half-sister Fanny for what was most likely a case of measles. This professional medical letter even offers the personal insight of the surgeon, as he writes of the ‘satisfaction’ he felt in being able to ‘afford the little extent of my professional aid to all my friends, and none more than yourself’, highlighting Godwin and Carlisle’s firm friendship (Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Abinger c.8 fol.72r).

Furthermore, in this letter, Carlisle cryptically writes ‘if at any time my manners should have exhibited peevishness or the attentions seemed irksome, this has been always produced by causes which operate deeply and almost continually upon my private life, and in which my affections, my duties, and my thoughts, are engaged beyond all other things’ (Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Abinger c.8 fol.72r-72v). While Shelton’s claims remain up for debate, my research overall demonstrated that there are certainly mysteries relating to Carlisle’s private life that are yet to be exhumed.

Beth Brigham is an AHRC-funded postgraduate researcher at Northumbria University and an associate of the British Association for Romantic Studies affiliated Gothic Women Project. Her research considers how medical practitioners of the eighteenth and nineteenth century appropriated the gothic genre in order to reshape cultural conceptions of death and the body. More widely, her research explores the role of gothic fiction within the history of medical professionalisation and reform, particularly during the bodysnatching era. Follow her on Twitter at @bethany_brigham, and the Gothic Women Project @gothic_women