New Bodleian History Books: February 2019 – Historical Letters

In this 21st century, corresponding in longhand is a dying art – the idea of a “love email” really does not ring right, and online blogs have all but replaced the open letter and the handwritten diary.

But as primary sources for the study of history, letters, whether hand- or later machine-written, have a unique appeal – however much distance the individual contemporary conventions may add, letters still always convey a sense of directness and immediacy. They seem to us to open a window into the writers’ innermost thoughts, and let us feel a special closeness to their lives and circumstances.

There is certainly no shortage of famous letter-writers whose creations have been preserved for posterity – the letters of Pliny the Younger to the Roman historian Tacitus with their eye-witness accounts of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius; the Epistles of the Apostle Paul to the Romans, Corinthians or Ephesians; the exchanges of the tragic lovers Heloise and Abelard in the 12th century; or the around 3,000 letters of Queen Elizabeth I, some of them to her youthful successor James VI of Scotland.

Occasionally, even more interestingly, letters of not-so-famous people survive, and offer the historian unique insights into the lives, concerns, and views of (mostly) ordinary people. The Paston family’s letters to each other which cover over 70 years and document their rise from peasantry to aristocracy are a case in point, or the collections of so-called pauper letters, written in the 18th and early 19th century to the overseers of the poor by the poor people themselves.

The modern electronic letter may, however, have one advantage over the traditional handwritten one – it is far easier to save, store, or make accessible. Historical letters on paper, if they even survive, can be difficult to access; they are stored in archives or museum collections, or remain in the possession of the writers’ relatives and heirs, or the original correspondents. To be useful as sources for historians, historical letters need to be laboriously collected, preserved, edited, perhaps even translated, in order to become an accessible source for historians to study.

This February, a number of the new history books acquired by the Bodleian are such collections of letters as primary sources of history from the early modern and modern periods, which supply insights into a multitude of different lives, minds, and concerns.

Two of these are part of vast collections of letters that shed light on some of the Greats in the history of science. Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was a compulsive letter-writer and respondent, who made a point of replying to every letter he received. As a result, the edition of his collected correspondence runs to currently 26 volumes, the latest of which has just arrived in the Bodleian. The correspondence of Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919), the foremost systematist and system builder of Darwinism, reaches similar proportions with over 44,000 letters which represent a rich resource of information about intellectual, cultural, and social life during the industrializing era of Germany. A major 25-year project by the Ernst Haeckel House has just published the first volume of a planned 25-volume critical edition of his collected letters.

There are also three new collections of letters with a political focus. Although all three are concerned with German history, they are very different otherwise. From the era of World War II comes a collection of letters written and sent back home by both German and Russian young soldiers from Stalingrad. Two more collections shed light on German politics of the later post-war era: letters and other documents that illustrate the interactions of the author Heinrich Böll with German Socialist Party leader and Chancellor Willy Brandt throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s, and the political reports and correspondence written by Swiss diplomats stationed in East Berlin in the 1980s.

Last but not least (because it is after all not even two weeks since Valentine’s Day) there are the love letters. J’ai tellement envie de vous presents 25 years’ worth of love letters written by the (in)famous ladies’ man and King of France Henry IV (1553-1610) to his many and various wives and mistresses. Of slightly less elevated status, but still from aristocratic circles, are the correspondents of the collection Briefe der Liebe: in 18th century Germany Henriette von der Malsburg, 16 years old, enters into a marriage of convenience with Georg Ernst von und zu Gilsa  – but they subsequently, and surprisingly to them both, fall passionately in love. Their letters explore both the overwhelming emotional and the physical aspects of their love, but come to an abrupt end after only a year of married bliss with Henriette’s death in childbirth in 1767. Rather longer-lasting is the literary relationship of Balthasar and Magdalena Paumgartner, a merchant couple from Nürnberg, Germany, whose 169 letters from over 16 years of marriage provide a fascinating look at the  work conditions, property issues, gender roles, emotions, married life and family relations at the turn of the 17th century.

If this sounds interesting, do check out the lists of all Bodleian History books on LibraryThing tagged with “letter writing” and “correspondence”!

 

Women history resources at Oxford University (Part 2): a selection of digital resources in the Oxford Libraries

Following on from the first History Day 2018 blog post on Oxford’s archival resources for women’s history, I now turn my attention to interesting full-text online source databases which are available to all registered Bodleian readers. The resources span early modern to modern periods and cover a range of materials, such as diaries, letters, papers and publications by women or for women. Many have a surprisingly global reach though English-language sources still dominate.

Conducting full-text searches in these resources is very difficult. However, many databases are structured in such way as to help find information about women’s daily lives, their thoughts and feelings, but also provide facts and reports on their contributions to e.g. the war efforts. As ever, the more you know about your topic, gleaned from secondary readings, the more success you are likely to have when searching these resources.

More information can also be found on our LibGuide to Women’s Studies.

British and Irish Women’s Letters and Diaries 1500-1950 (subscription resource)
Documents the personal and immediate experiences of approximately 500 women, as revealed in over 90,000 pages of diaries and letters.

Defining Gender, 1450-1910 (subscription resource)
A thematically organised collection of original primary source material from British archives, which ‘explores the study and analysis of gender, leisure and consumer culture’.

Association for Promoting the Education of Women, 1889-1899 correspondence. Defining Gender.

Early Modern Letters Online (EMLO) (free on web)

EMLO provides access to a combined finding aid and editorial interface for basic descriptions of early modern correspondence: a collaboratively populated union catalogue of sixteenth-, seventeenth-, and eighteenth-century letters.

Includes, for instance, the correspondence of Anne Conway (1631-1679)

21 Feb 1650: More, Henry (Dr), 1614-1687 (Christ’s College, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England) to Conway, Anne, 1631-1679. EMLO.

Gerritsen Collection–Women’s History Online, 1543-1945 (subscription resource)
A collection of ‘books, pamphlets and periodicals reflecting the revolution of a feminist consciousness and the movement for women’s rights’, with ‘more than 4,700 publications from continental Europe, the U.S., the United Kingdom, Canada, and New Zealand, dating from 1543-1945. This resource has a more global reach than it might appear.

Granet, La polygynie sororale… (1920), Gerritsen Collection

North American Women’s Letters and Diaries (subscription resource)
Collection of some 150,000 pages of published letters and diaries from individuals writing from colonial times to 1950. Documents the personal experiences of over 1,300 women.

International Women’s Periodicals, 1786-1933: Social and Political Issues (Archives Unbound) (subscription resource)
Online access to 57 women’s magazine and journal publications covering the late eighteenth century to the 1930s. The material allows researchers to explore the role of women in society and the development of the public lives of women as the push for women’s rights (woman suffrage, fair pay, better working conditions, etc.) grew in the United States and England. Some of the titles in this collection were conceived and published by men for women; others, conceived and published by male editors with strong input from female assistant editors or managers; others were conceived and published by women for women. It is therefore also useful for the study of the history of women’s publishing. The strongest suffrage and anti-suffrage writing was done by women for women’s periodicals. Suffrage and anti-suffrage writing, domesticity columns, and literary genres from poetry to serialized novels are included in these periodicals

Gallery of Fashion, Nov 1794. International Women’s Periodicals 1786-1933.

London Low Life (subscription resource)
This collection brings to life the teeming streets of Victorian London, inviting students and scholars to explore the gin palaces, brothels and East End slums of London in the 19th century. From salacious ‘swell’s guides’ to scandalous broadsides and subversive posters, the material sold and exchanged on London’s bustling thoroughfares offers an unparalleled insight into the dark underworld of the city. Children’s chapbooks, street cries, slang dictionaries and ballads were all part of a vibrant culture of street literature.This is also an incredible visual resource for students and scholars of London, with many full colour maps, cartoons, sketches and a full set of the essential Tallis’ Street Views of London – resource for the study of London architecture and commerce. Also includes George Gissing’s famous London scrapbooks from the Pforzheimer Collection, containing his research for London novels such as New Grub Street and The Netherworld.

Women’s Refuges 1871-1880 in London. Thematic Data Map. London Low Life.

Mass Observation Online (subscription resource)
This is a collection of much of the material from the Mass Observation Archive which also records the voices of women. It includes the entire File Report sequence 1937-1972, access to all of the Day Surveys, Directives and Diaries, 1937-1967, Mass Observation Publications 1937-1965 and 87 Topic Collection (e.g. e.g. Smoking Habits 1937-1965, etc.). The Worktown Collection includes material of a major study of the towns of Bolton (Worktown) and Blackpool (Holidaytown).

Diarist 5387, 11 July 1940 [on sexual harassment]. Mass Observation

Useful for the study of social history, sociology, etc., of modern Britain, it covers topics such as abortion, old age, crime, eating habits, shopping, fashion, dance, popular music, coal mining, adult education, sex, reading, ethnic minorities, and the decline of Empire. It is a resource that will be useful to historians, literary scholars, sociologists, anthropologists and political scientists.

Past Masters: Full-Text Humanities (subscription resource)
A collection of primary-source full-text humanities databases, including:

  • Les Œuvres de Simone de Beauvoir
  • The Letters of Jane Austen
  • Bluestocking Feminism 1738-1785.
  • The Letters of Charlotte Brontë
  • The Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney
  • The Notebooks and Library of George Eliot
  • The Journals of Mary Shelley, 1814-1844

Perdita Manuscripts: Women Writers 1500-1700 (subscription resource) Access to 230 digitised manuscripts from the Perdita Project, written or compiled by women in the British Isles during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Women, War and Society, 1914–1918 (Archives Unbound) (subscription resource)
A digital collection of First World War charity and international relief reports, pamphlets, photographs, press cuttings and more. It fully documents the essential contribution of women during the Great War as well as the revolutionary and permanent impact the World War I had on the personal, social and professional lives of these women. It is an important collection for research into 20th century social, political, military and gender history.

Report On The Increased Employment Of Women During The War With Statistics Relating To July 1917. The Women at Work Collection, Imperial War Museum, London, in Women, War and Society, 1914–1918.

Women Writers Online (subscription resource)
A full-text collection of texts by pre-Victorian women writers, published by the Women Writers Project at Northeastern University.

I close with reference to the underrated Waterloo Directory of English Newspapers and Periodicals 1800-1900 (subscription resource). For instance, it helps you locate details of Victorian periodicals on e.g. women’s interest as well as give details of editors, circulation figures, etc.

Waterloo Directory for English Newspapers and Periodicals 1800-1900 – Women Fashion search

There is even more!

It goes without saying that other online source databases will of course have material relevant for women’s history, even though they are not dedicated to them. Browse our Databases A-Z to discover more.

Useful links:

Electronic Enlightenment version 2 launched

“Electronic Enlightenment reconstructs the extraordinary and vital web of correspondence that made the long 18th century the birth place of the modern world.”  With over 55,000 letters and 6,500 correspondents it is more than an electronic archive of printed sources but presents a searchable network of interconnected documents.

The new release features a new content, functionality and a new look:

New content:

  • the correspondence of the Swedish king Gustavus III, from the edition of Gustave III par ses lettres published by Norstedts Förlag of Stockholm.
  • Unpublished Adam Smith letters

New functionality: and ability to do more complex and powerful searches.

New options for letters include searching by:

  • language (11 languages to choose from);
  • age of writer or recipient (from 4 to 99);
  • date range of letters.

New options for lives include searching by:

  • occupation (nearly 700 occupations);
  • nationality (40 nationalities);
  • birth & death information.

New options for sources include searching by:

  • archive & country of manuscript (over 500 archives in 30 countries);
  • title & publisher of early printed editions.

New browse options include browsing:

  • all lives by occupation;
  • all lives by nationality;
  • all source editions by main author;
  • all source editions by publisher.

New look: The clear, intuitive design makes it easier to find your way round the site and underlines the wealth of information and the network of links between documents and people, times and places.

Oxford users can access EE via OxLIP+.