A little over three years ago I started gathering primary material for my doctoral thesis. I began by transcribing the letters of the seventeenth-century nun, Winefrid Thimelby (1618-90), and her family members, the Astons and Thimelbys, many of whom were poets and writers. These family letters had been studied before I started my work, but there was (and still is) plenty to be done. For one thing, the letters need to be edited again.
They were first edited by Arthur Clifford, an Aston descendant He found an old trunk in his family home: ‘a bumper, brimful, and overflowing’ containing ‘papers, of every sort, and size: the surface of which was most respectably, defended by a deep, and venerable layer of literary dust’ (Tixall Letters, 1815, vol. 2, p. 1). Clifford was an accurate transcriber—when he wanted to be—but he apparently brought to the task all of the baggage of family pride. If something didn’t suit his view of his family in some way he didn’t include it. On the back of a letter from Winefrid to her brother-in-law, the recently widowed Herbert Aston, I found a fascinating poem fragment riffing on John Donne’s ‘A Feaver’ in which the speaker of the poem expresses the confused grief of a widower who finds himself attracted to other women after the death of his wife.
I found the Donne riff on my first day at the BL. Clifford had published the letter on which it appears, but not the poem. Scholarly articles made no mention of it either. I didn’t know that when I first encountered the poem fragment. I simply attempted to copy it out (the text was hard to read and heavily reworked) and then kept transcribing. When I presented my findings to my supervisors they both beamed: ‘This is exactly the sort of thing we hoped you’d find.’ The moral? Even if there is an edition of a text, always consult the original manuscripts if you can. The same goes for early printed books, many of which are available online through subscription or open access. Not only do readers leave traces of their reading activity, the way that books are bound, the type, woodcuts, paper source, watermarks, handwriting, ink and all of the material features of an artifact can tell us something about the way it was designed to be used.
With my primary supervisor’s support and guidance I’ve had the opportunity to publish the riff, along with several of Winefrid’s letters, and the letters of other seventeenth and eighteenth century nuns in: English Convents in Exile, 1600–1800. Vol. 3: ‘Life Writing’ ed. Nicky Hallett, gen ed. Caroline Bowden (2012). Editing the letters for this project lead me to other adventures, and not just beyond the BL, but beyond libraries and Into the Wild.