Tag Archives: letters

Philadelphia, 1777-1778

In 1777-1778, the American Revolutionary War was raging, and a British army officer based in Philadelphia, Guards Brigade battalion commander Brigadier John Howard, penned three remarkable letters to Thomas Villiers, the 1st earl of Clarendon (2nd creation).

Print illustration of the Battle of Germantown, 1777, by Christian Schussele, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Battle of Germantown, by Christian Schussele, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The first letter was written on the 14th of October 1777, from Germain Town Camp [sic], ten days after the Battle of Germantown, a major battle in the campaign for Philadelphia. British commander Sir William Howe had captured Philadelphia in September 1777 after winning the battles of Brandywine and Paoli and on the 4th of October, George Washington launched an ambitious counterattack against British forces based at Germantown on the outskirts of the city. The attack failed, partially foiled by a thick fog which hampered communication, but Howe chose not to pursue the Continental Army as it retreated, and at the onset of winter withdrew his forces to Philadelphia, while the Americans, largely unscathed, wintered in Valley Forge.

Brigadier Howard’s 14th of October letter to Thomas Villiers gives an eyewitness account of the British victory at the Battle of Brandywine that September, opening with a description of the circumstances and objectives of the campaign for Philadelphia:

From the natural strenth of this Country, in extensive Woods, Stong Posts, and Rivers, all military operations must be slow. And more especially in a country where we cannot depend upon the information or friendship of one single inhabitant; for either from motives of fear, interest, or enmity, we find America universally against us

He continues:

As this Province and its neighbourhood has been the chief supply of the Rebel Army, and Philadelphia the seat of their imaginary government, it being the Heart of their new created Empire, the Rebels judged they could not risk too much to keep it in their possession

After describing the manoeuvres at Brandywine, Howard describes the Battle of Germantown:

Gen[era]l Washington, with all the force he could possibly collect together, has since attacked us in our Camp: He was very much favoured in his approach to it by a very thick fog: We had thirteen Battalions less that day than at the Affair of the Bradywine and notwithstanding this diminution of our strenth he was repulsed with very considerable loss

But the letter is not entirely upbeat. Howard continues with an argument for more troops in the face of an insurgency:

Notwithstanding these successes, I must beg leave here to remark, that we have yet a very formidable Enemy to contend with; as it is the strenuous united efforts of America, that invariably perserveres with unremitting zealous rage against our cause. For this reason, my Lord, when any Post is to be occupied by us, for the security of magazines, Forrage, Stores or Country that should be covered, as we cannot put confidence in the People either for information or defence, it puts us under the necessity of making such considerable Detachments that it weakens the […] army

Not mentioned in this letter, possibly because Howard was unaware of it, was that a week earlier the British had suffered a major defeat in the Saratoga campaign. Following this, British prime minister Lord North made serious moves towards a settlement that would end the war, sending the Carlisle Peace Commission to America to negotiate with the Continental Congress for a form of self rule.

Brigadier Howard’s next letter was written from Philadelphia on 19 April 1778, as the Carlisle Commissioners were sailing toward America. Howard enthuses about two draft Parliamentary Bills which had just arrived on American shores, proposing to abolish taxation in America. Howard is confident that they will help to turn Americans against the war (he was certainly correct that the American leadership was concerned):

The military part of their continental people who act as […] Generals etc will not like to return to the Cobblers Stall or Hatters shop from which they came and they of course will reject every idea of pacification, but the Inhabitants at large I believe will, or at least ought, to receive it with satisfaction

And he remains concerned, and scathing, about American opposition:

I have just heard that the continental Governor of the Jerseys has burnt at Trenton, by the hands of the hangman, the copy of the Draught of this Bill which has been published: your Lordship will judge by this what zeal and rage exists among them, and what enemies they are to every subordinate order of good government.

Still in Philadelphia on 10 May 1778, following both the Continental Congress’s rejection of the peace terms offered by the draft bills and America’s alliance with France, Howard writes a more despairing, and prescient, third letter:

It is easy to win a Battle, but very difficult, nay almost impossible, to retain a country against the will of its inhabitants; in doing which, we fight against ourselves, by the difficult maintenance and keeping up the army that conquer’d it. I am convinced it is wasting our strenth to carry on, for any lenth of time, interior active operations of war.

He was not arguing for retreat, however:

I am as well convinced the only way to have made the Americans return to their duty was, and is, by chastisement; I mean, my Lord, by burning every town, village & house that were not materially our friend.

He concludes:

Had we proceeded, in the course of our service in this country, with this rigor, this rebellion had been long ago ended, and without it, give me leave to assure your Lordships, if Great Britain sends us fifty thousand men, it will not do

Howard’s brutal, scorched earth proposition might make for an interesting counterfactual history, but he was correct in one way, as we know: although war was waged for years to come, the British were not able to retain the country against the will of its inhabitants. On 3 September 1783, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris, the United States at last achieved its independence.

These papers, of the Earls of Clarendon of the second creation, are currently being catalogued and will be available to readers in 2022.

New catalogue: Archive of David Astor

The catalogue of newspaper editor and philanthropist David Astor is now complete and available online via Bodleian Archives and Manuscripts.

In the middle of July I took a trip to the village of Sutton Courtenay –it was a sunny day, lockdown and there was not much else I could think of doing. Besides, I’d been meaning to visit for a while. I’d heard that George Orwell was buried in the churchyard there. How Orwell came to be buried in Sutton Courtenay is quite a well-known story –  Orwell wanted to be buried in the nearest Church of England cemetery to where he died, but finding there were none in central London with any space, his family appealed to his friends for help, and David Astor, who lived in Sutton Courtenay stepped up. And as it happens, Astor is now buried just behind his friend.

The graves of George Orwell and David Astor at All Saints’ Church, Sutton Courtenay

Orwell was one of many writers who, though not strictly journalists, were recruited by Astor to write for The Observer, but as you can see their friendship extended beyond the literary. When Orwell was suffering from a bout of tuberculosis and was recommended clean air by doctors, Astor arranged for him to stay on the island of Jura, a place where the Astor family had large estates and where David Astor had spent many childhood holidays. It was while staying on Jura that Orwell wrote 1984.

George Orwell is certainly not the only big name to crop up in the David Astor archive – going through his correspondents is almost like reading Who’s Who, including, of course a large amount of correspondence with his mother Nancy Astor, the first woman to take a seat in Parliament. There is, however, a definite lean towards Astor’s philanthropic interests. Members of the anti-apartheid movement feature heavily, especially the noted campaigner Michael Scott, and of course Nelson Mandela.

It’s not just the famous in this archive though, but also the infamous. Astor’s great interest in prison reform led him to become, along with Lord Longford, one of the most high profile campaigners for the release of “Moors murderer” Myra Hindley. Though the campaign to get her parole – or at least an end date for her sentence – was ultimately unsuccessful, Astor and Hindley corresponded regularly up until Astor’s death in 2001. He clearly found her letters indicative of her reformed character. Whether others will – well, they’ll have to read them to judge them.

New catalogue: The Montgomery family papers

A small collection, this is the archive of a close-knit family of intellectuals, Robert Montgomery (1859-1938), his son Neil Montgomery (1895-1979), Neil’s wife Margaret (1896-1984) and their children, Lesley Le Claire (1927-2012) and Hugh Montgomery (1931-2008).

Robert Montgomery was an Argyll-born weaver’s son who became a headmaster in Huddersfield. While the archive is light on his papers, it may contain a long-lost gem of Highland romanticism, Robert’s draft novel The Last of the Clans. Or perhaps not – as his son, Neil, wryly writes in a preface:

“For the main part, however, the novel is hardly a success. My father never intended to publish it, or if he ever entertained such an idea he quickly abandoned it.”

Neil Montgomery was a distinguished psychiatrist who became the superintendent of Storthes Hall Hospital, a Huddersfield asylum. He had a strong interest in metaphysics, literature and theological matters with a particular interest in the philosophical poetry of Denis Saurat (1890-1958), an Anglo-French scholar, writer and broadcaster.

The Montgomery children went on to excel in divergent fields. Hugh Montgomery studied at Merton College, Oxford and  became a physicist, working among other places at the Harwell Research Laboratory in Oxford. He was a member of the Scottish Arctic Club and one of the features of the family archive are his photographs of expeditions to Greenland and Iceland in the 1970s and 1980s. Lesley Montgomery (who in 1986 married Alan Le Claire, also a physicist and originally Hugh Montgomery’s boss) became a much respected librarian, finishing her career as Librarian of Worcester College, Oxford (1977-1992). She was an expert, in particular, on seventeenth-century Britain, a hub of scholarly work on the period, and friend to researchers, reflected in the large pile of letters from Eric Sams, a musicologist and a Shakespeare scholar. The archive also features Lesley’s literary works as a playwright and author, including the script she wrote for Worcester College students to dramatize the Putney Debates of 1647, which was eventually produced for BBC radio. She went on to write other BBC Third Programme documentaries and to write and lecture on subjects including Kenelm Digby (manuscripts collected by Digby can be found in the Bodleian [PDF]).

The Montomery family archive is notable for the warmly affectionate, psychologically informed, intellectually stimulating, and open-minded correspondence between family members. In a letter from Neil Montgomery to Lesley, then 24, on the 16th of June, 1951, he writes about divorce, repression, the emancipation of women and the sexual sphere.

“The insistence on feminine chastity is of course a culture pattern belonging to a firmly based patriarchal society […] the demand for chastity of wives and daughters is basically the jealousy of the “Old Man”, the father, against all younger males. […] Nevertheless in a properly regulated society the vote will be a useful thing to have. So too will sexual freedom. Women will then be able to choose chastity freely and not forced to accept it as something imposed upon them by the lordly male. And that, unless I am much mistaken, will be in basic accord with the normal woman’s nature. […] Deep in her bones woman knows what the biological meaning of all this sex business is. She must have a stable home for the children which are born. Therefore she is instinctively against promiscuity. […] So then I come back to my genial Victorian corner. The sanctity of marriage is not overthrown. Women can still be paragons of virtue, and at the same time I can lay claim to be in the vanguard of modern thought. Did ever you know a better of [sic] example of having one’s cake and one’s halfpenny?”

The archive is particularly strong on early twentieth-century psychological theories, and their intersections with literature, philosophy and theology. It is also notable for Neil Montgomery’s correspondence with Philippe Mairet and W.T. (Travers) Symons, editors of the New English Weekly; the long sequence of letters from Eric Sams to Lesley Le Claire; a series of draft articles written by the mathematician Ethel Maud Rowell; and the transatlantic, wartime letters written by Margaret Montgomery (the honorary secretary of the Huddersfield Association of University Women) to Lydia Lagloire of Quebec City, Canada (a fellow University Woman) which touch on conditions in the U.K. and Canada and the political situation in Quebec, among many other matters.

New catalogue: Stephen Spender archive

The catalogue of the Stephen Spender archive is now online.

Stephen Spender at the B.B.C., n.d.

Stephen Spender at the B.B.C., n.d.

Sir Stephen Spender (1909-1995), poet, playwright, author and critic, was the longest surviving member of the ‘Auden Group’ (Oxford poets Louis MacNeice, W.H. Auden and Cecil Day-Lewis and the Cambridge-educated novelist Christopher Isherwood).

Although he studied at Oxford, at University College, Spender ultimately failed to take a degree and moved, with Isherwood, to the more sexually liberated Weimar Germany, starting a three year relationship with a former soldier called Tony Hyndman (1911-1980). Isherwood’s experience in Germany was worked into his novel Goodbye to Berlin (1939), which was famously made into the film Cabaret (1972), starring Liza Minnelli. Spender meanwhile, wrote The Temple (finally published in 1988) which was unpublishable at the time due to its homosexual content.

Moving back to England, Spender flirted with joining the Communist Party, and was briefly involved in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side as a writer and delegate. In December 1936, he married Inez Maria Pearn (1914–1977), a modern languages postgraduate at Oxford. By 1941, they were divorced and Spender married Natasha Litvin (1919-2010), a concert pianist, with whom he had two children.

Disqualified, by health and age, from military service in World War II, he became a London fireman with the Auxiliary Fire Service while also co-editing the literary magazine Horizon with Cyril Connolly (1903-1974). After the war, Spender earned a living in colleges across America as a lecturer and university professor. From 1965 to 1966 he served as the poetry consultant at the Library of Congress (effectively the U.S. Poet Laureate) and alongside his teaching, he worked as co-editor of the monthly magazine Encounter from its inception in 1953 to its funding scandal in 1966-7, when it was revealed that the magazine had been subsidized by the C.I.A., at which point Spender resigned. He also continued to publish poetry, drama, novels, short stories, essays, literary criticism and journalism right up to his death in 1995, and was well known for his autobiographical works, including World Within World (1951).

Beyond his writing and teaching, Spender campaigned against censorship and the persecution of writers, founding the Writers and Scholars Educational Trust, which became Index on Censorship. He was knighted in 1983.

A longtime member of the literary establishment in the UK and the USA, Spender’s archive includes a rich correspondence with hundreds of notable people, from J.R. Ackerley to Virginia Woolf, and not least with his wife Natasha Spender. It includes long sequences  of correspondence with W.H. Auden and T.S. Eliot (mainly photocopies of originals held by U.S. archives), and also sequences of original correspondence with Cecil Day-Lewis, Christopher Isherwood and his partner, the artist Don Bachardy, as well as Spender’s good friends Isaiah Berlin, Joseph Brodsky and John and Rosamond Lehmann. His correspondence also recounts the implosion of his editorship of Encounter. Another feature are numerous notebooks and loose draft material for Spender’s poetry and other literary works.

See also the Dictionary of National Biography entry for Spender; Stephen Spender, the Authorized Biography by John Sutherland (2005); and the National Register of Archives for a list of institutions across the U.K. and the U.S. holding Spender archival material.

New acquisition: John Buchan letters

“Publishing is my business, writing my amusement and politics my duty.”

It was the 75th anniversary of John Buchan’s death on 11 February and the Bodleian has recently purchased 21 letters (MS. Eng. c. 8330) from Buchan to his Brasenose College friend Benjamin Consitt Boulter, known affectionately as Taff or Taffy. Buchan is probably best-remembered today for his spy adventure novel The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), which has been filmed on multiple occasions with diminishing success after Alfred Hitchcock’s definitive 1935 version. But Buchan’s prolific novel writing formed only a part of a varied career as a politician and colonial diplomat, which culminated in his appointment as Governor General of Canada in 1935, a post which he held until his death in 1940.

Twenty of the holograph letters date from Buchan’s formative Oxford undergraduate days, while the last is a typescript sent from Government House, Ottawa, a few weeks after the outbreak of war in 1939 and three months before Buchan’s death  in 1940. By this time Buchan was first Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield in the County of Oxford and his friend Boulter had retired to Burford, where he continued to write and illustrate Christian-themed books. There is a forty-year gap between the last handwritten ‘Oxford’ letter and the final typed one – an archival absence which is perhaps more poignant and voluble in its way than full documentation, passing as it does straight from the youthful hopes of the correspondents to their old age, although Boulter outlived Buchan by 20 years and died in 1960.

Also included among Buchan’s own letters is one to his younger sister, Anna Masterton Buchan (1877-1948), who was herself a novelist writing under the pseudonym O. Douglas. The sender is unidentified, but the subject is the tragic death of the Buchans’ brother, William, in 1912. William worked in the Indian Civil Service and the letter (sent from India) laments the loss of his ‘sweetness & unselfish devotion’.

 

-Judith Priestman, Curator of Modern Literary Manuscripts

Philip Larkin and Judy Egerton letters.

Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin

In 2003 the Bodleian purchased the correspondence of the poet Philip Larkin and his great friend, the art historian and curator, Judy Egerton. These letters were closed to researchers during Egerton’s lifetime, but are now available and the catalogue has been mounted online.

Larkin was sub-librarian at Queen’s University Belfast in 1951 when he first met Egerton, and their correspondence dates from 1954 (the year before Larkin’s first substantial volume of poetry, The Less Deceived, was published) until the time of his death in 1985. It is an amicable, gossipy and mutually affectionate exchange, more in the vein of his correspondence with Barbara Pym than the comically – and not-so comically – strident tones adopted by male friends like Kingsley Amis, or the frequently tense and unhappy letters to his lover, Monica Jones.

-Judith Priestman, Curator of Modern Literary Manuscripts