18th-century letters and a family’s literary flowers

The Bodleian Library’s collection of papers from the Harcourt family (Earls of Harcourt) have been the subject of research by Carly Watson, this year’s Balliol-Bodley Scholar. On 18 June at the Bodleian Library Watson described her work listing hundreds of poems in manuscript that were collected by George Simon, 2nd earl Harcourt (1736-1809), and his wife Elizabeth Vernon.

Watson has been noting the poems found in the letters from friends of the earl and countess, along with several hundred in manuscript by the Countess herself. Other poems were copied down from newspapers of the day, indicating that the Harcourts kept an eye on how current events were memorialized in verse, and circulated choice examples with their friends. The Harcourt papers supply the library with many new poems not already found in Margaret Crum’s First-line Index of English Poetry 1500-1800 in Manuscripts of the Bodleian Library Oxford. Watson’s additions will be recorded in the card-index supplement, kept in Duke Humfrey’s Library.

For the Harcourts, their house and garden both inspired and reflected their literary lives. During the landscaping by William Mason and Capability Brown, in the 1770s, the gardens were given urns, seats and statues inscribed with commemorative verses and inviting poetic reflections. The result was a rich correspondence including manuscript copies of poems, some of them written in the garden, circulating between the Harcourts and their friends. As Curator of Manuscripts Chris Fletcher remarked, this represents a long British tradition of literary gardens.

An online catalogue of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century correspondence in the Harcourt family papers will be available from the library website later this year.