A new season of Bodleian Student Editions workshops began on 23 November. You can read more about them on our blog.
We continue to add letters to the Early Modern Letters Online (EMLO) database from correspondence in the Bodleian’s manuscript collections. The challenge is to find material that is unpublished, readable (for people without previous palaeographical experience), interesting, and in good condition, as the students work with the original documents in the workshop.
This year, as well as continuing transcriptions of the 27 letters of James, Duke of York, begun in last year’s workshops, we have also embarked upon a new series of letters written by Penelope Maitland (née Madan; 1730–1805) to her friend Charlotte West (née Perry; 1769–1860). The Maitland letters provide a wonderful insight into a fascinating family around the time of the French Revolution and the wars with France, events which were to have a deep impact on both Maitland and her correspondent.
The letters (ref. MSS. 6633) came to the Library in 2011, a very generous gift of mother and daughter, Pat and Charlotte Kinnear, descendants of Charlotte West (née Perry). They had discovered, through the Bodleian’s online catalogue, that some of Penelope Maitland’s papers were already in our collections. In fact, Maitland’s maiden name was Madan and she was related to an ancestor of Falconer Madan (1851–1935), Bodley’s Librarian from 1912 to 1919. We learn of Maitland’s remarkable connections in Falconer Madan’s account of his family (The Madan Family, 1933): she was the younger daughter of Colonel Martin Madan, MP, an equerry to Prince Frederick, and the poet Judith Cowper (1702–1781); and she was a cousin of poet William Cowper (1731–1800). Penelope Madan married Sir Alexander Maitland (1728–1820), 1st Baronet, a general in the British Army, and a younger son of Charles Maitland, 6th Earl of Lauderdale. From 1749 she formed an attachment to the Methodists and became acquainted with the Wesleys. Papers of Madan family members including Maitland, her parents, her sister Maria Frances Cecilia Cowper (also a poet), and daughter-in-law Helen Maitland were given to the library in 1967.
Maitland’s letters to Charlotte West date from the last two decades of her long life. West was nearly forty years younger and had known the older woman since she was a child in their home village of Totteridge, Hertfordshire. After completing her education in France at a Benedictine convent, West (Perry at the time) lived with her father Sampson Perry in London. In 1788 she eloped with Charles Augustus West, a page to George III, and they were married secretly at Gretna Green. A year later, the marriage was formalized at St Luke’s, Chelsea. Charles Augustus West became an army officer and was serving in Egypt and then Flanders at the time the letters were written. This gave the two women something else in common, as Maitland also had family members at war: her son Lieutenant-Colonel Augustus Maitland was killed in action in the Low Countries in 1799, while another son, Frederick, attained the rank of General. At the time of the letters, he was commanding marines at sea, and in 1796 he was appointed secretary to General Sir Ralph Abercromby, with whom he travelled to the West Indies, much to Maitland’s dismay.
The letters transcribed in the first workshop of the series all date from 1789, and are full of local interest and colour. A long letter written between 16 and 25 March 1789 gives an alarming account of a fire in the Maitland household, and discusses remedies for a daughter’s ill health (‘I gave her Calves foot Jelly every morning ½ pint — wch took Some good effect, but she receiv’d much more from Steel drops taken once a day …’). There is also a glimpse of the work of West’s father, Sampson Perry, editor of a newspaper called The Argus. Evidently anxious to support her friends’ endeavour, Maitland offers a curiously circumspect endorsement of the paper’s literary qualities:
Tell your Father, I am much flatter’d by his asking my opinion of the Argus. I really am ill qualify’d for a Critic. But as far as my very poor judgment goes, it appears a Paper preferable to any I have seen on several accounts, and if its Success Equals my wishes, it will Exceed all others in that respect also — the Paper, the Printing, are excelling any—and the Intelligence seems not at all inferior as to Quantity & as to quality, there is variety & entertainment …
There is a great deal more to Maitland’s reservations than at first appears. The conservative-minded Maitland has just begun to realize that there is something different about this paper which counteracts her desire to support it for West’s sake:
one objection have I to beg pardon for suggesting in respect of the Political Part, — I think it savours of the Opposite Party — it would Be an absolute greif to me that any of my Freinds, especially my Particular Freinds, should ever imbibe their Contagion …
The Argus was in fact a radical independent newspaper. Sampson Perry was a sometime surgeon, author, and military commander who was waging war on the government through his paper, which led to his conviction for libel. In 1792 he fled to France, only to be imprisoned by the Revolutionary regime. In 1794 he returned to England in disguise, but was arrested and sent to Newgate, an incident noted by a disapproving Maitland in a letter of 2 April 1795.
As well as her perspective on important events of her time, Maitland’s letters to West chronicle her personal tribulations: the illnesses of herself and her children, and her problems living under the eye of a rather controlling husband in their home in Totteridge. Her resilience and wit emerge in her epistolary codenames for her family. Her husband is referred to as ‘The General’ (usually abbreviated to G–l), while she calls herself the ‘Abbess’, and her daughters, also named Penelope and Charlotte, ‘the Nuns’, or ‘Vesta’ and ‘Vitula’.
Maitland’s correspondence with West adds another layer to our intricate picture of the lives of this literary family. It is particularly exciting for us to see Bodleian manuscripts, with relevance to characters from the history of the library itself, made more widely available through the combined efforts of library readers from both in and outside the University—both family members of the correspondents and students.
As with previous workshops, it was the chance to handle original manuscripts—in many cases for the first time—and discover the ‘human aspect shining through the letters’ that was the highlight for the student participants, who represented a wide range of degree courses including Chemistry, Engineering, Geography, Music, Classics, and History. Those working on Maitland’s letters were keen to compare examples of her idiosyncrasies and ‘peculiar humour’, while discussing wider questions such as the ways in which ‘different intentions and areas of interest affect what will be preserved in a transcription’. The workshops continue to show how students at different levels and in different disciplines can work with manuscript sources and digital technologies in collaboration with library and faculty staff to increase access to Bodleian collections in their scholarly contexts, and find new areas to explore.
—Mike Webb, Curator of Early Modern Archives and Manuscripts