This blog post comes from Dr Sophie Coulombeau (Cardiff University) and Dr Elizabeth Edwards (University of Wales) who visited the Library as John Rylands Research Institute Fellows in August:
In August 2016, we were fortunate enough to undertake a month-long joint research fellowship at the John Rylands Library, working in the Thrale-Piozzi Manuscripts. Hester Thrale Piozzi (known at different times throughout her life as Hester Lynch Salusbury, Mrs. Thrale and Mrs. Piozzi) is best known today as the social hostess whose sparkling wit impressed Dr. Johnson and earned her a place at the heart of London’s fashionable literati. But she was also a Welsh child heiress, a longsuffering wife and mother, a political campaigner, a passionate lover, a woman of scandal, a seasoned traveller, a literary celebrity, an antiquarian, a patron, and a prophet. And despite her relative obscurity today, she was one of the most innovative, successful and notorious writers at work in eighteenth-century and Romantic Britain. The Rylands holds the world’s largest collection of her manuscripts, made up of correspondence, drawings, poetry, political pamphlets, character sketches, tales, essays, literary criticism, biography, travel writings, world history, religious writings, fragments of drama, puzzles and wordplay, translations and epitaphs.
Our intention was to capture images of all the manuscripts held in the Thrale-Piozzi collection, an essential first step towards a large research project (‘The Lives of Hester Thrale Piozzi 1741-1821’, 2018-2021, for which we intend to apply for AHRC funding). This project will produce an online, freely accessible edition of all Thrale Piozzi’s correspondence pre-dating 1784, thus bringing all her letters from the first half of her life together for the first time (the post-1784 letters were published in The Piozzi Letters: Correspondence of Hester Lynch Piozzi, 1784-1821, edited in two volumes by Edward and Lillian Bloom, 1989-1991). We will also work with a major academic press to publish a critical edition of her literary writings – the first to be published since the (rare and out-of-print) Autobiography, letters and literary remains of Mrs. Piozzi (Thrale), edited by Abraham Hayward and published in 1861.
Capturing the digital images we needed (126 volumes, and approximately 12,500 separate images) was a simple enough (though physically rather exhausting) task. But there were surprises in store. We were entirely unprepared for the amount of uncatalogued material that we would discover over the course of the fellowship. Our superbly helpful curatorial buddy Fran Baker (with valuable advice from fellow curator and PhD student Elizabeth Gow) uncovered no fewer than eight uncatalogued items of print and manuscript material relating to Hester Thrale Piozzi. These included:
- A FINE AND INTERESTING COMMONPLACE BOOK, anonymously compiled but containing mostly verse, by and about members of her social circle. It was probably begun in Cheshire or Denbigh, 1800 and later. It is written at least partly (but not exclusively) in Thrale Piozzi’s hand, and suggests that writing, preserving and anthologizing poetry was an important way for both Thrale Piozzi and the other compiler(s) to track and commemorate sociable networks.
- A scrapbook, containing about 1500 clippings from several different newspapers in several different locales (North Wales, Chester and Bath are prominent), dating from the 1770s until the 1830s. There is little doubt in our mind that Thrale Piozzi was the original compiler, but she could not have been the sole one, since there are a few clippings dated after her death, eg. a handwritten date to a notice advertising the leasing of her Welsh home Brynbella, dated 1826, and a notice for the (posthumous) auction of Thrale Piozzi’s papers. There is a huge amount of poetry (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Letitia Landon, Thomas Moore, John Thelwall, Richard Llwyd, and many others), news stories, songs, anecdotes, anagrams, acrostics, epitaphs and epigrams. There is a strong Welsh flavour to the collection, and there are several items related to Thrale Piozzi’s first husband Henry Thrale, Dr. Johnson, the Burney family, and her two homes Streatham and Brynbella. There are also handwritten annotations on at least five clippings, which look like Thrale Piozzi’s handwriting (and signature). If it is indeed her scrapbook, then we believe this sheds a lot of new light on her tastes, interests and engagement with current affairs over several decades.
- An envelope of papers made up of notes apparently found loose in the binding of Thrale Piozzi’s manuscript for her ambitious world history, Retrospection (1801). These shed some very interesting light on her vision for the work, and suggest that her second husband, Gabriel Piozzi, read and even edited her work-in-progress.
- Some superbly skilful drawings of Thrale Piozzi’s beloved dogs, made by her friend
Samuel Lysons in 1791. There are also some less proficient sketches of dogs and of a windmill and a group of people, probably made by Thrale Piozzi herself, and captioned with a remark: ‘I never learned to draw’. This admission bears testament to the patchiness of her youthful education (heavy in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, but light in traditional ‘feminine’ accomplishments).
- A collection of pamphlets, many political in nature, dating from the 1770s to the 1800s, often related to members of Thrale Piozzi’s circle, and annotated in what appears to be her hand. These suggest further insights into her longstanding and shrewd engagement with current affairs.
- A multi-volume set of biblical commentaries, annotated heavily in Thrale Piozzi’s hand. Some of her remarks touch on contemporary events: for example, a line in the commentary speculating that Ham’s descendants may have emigrated to Africa gives her an opportunity to speculate on William Wilberforce’s efforts to abolish the slave trade.
- Thrale Piozzi was a tireless letter writer who maintained a dauntingly wide correspondence circle over several decades. The largest part of her correspondence written as Hester Piozzi has been published (in six volumes), but unpublished letters keep appearing, singly or in small bundles. The Rylands has recently acquired one of the most significant of these: a collection of previously unknown letters written to her steward at Streatham Park, Jacob Weston, in the mid to late-1790s. It is a revealing and very readable collection that shows Piozzi in everyday mode, but where nothing is quite predictable – requests to send supplies of chocolate and green tea to north Wales sit alongside passages on those fleeing the United Irish uprising of 1798 (‘the Irish Families who run hither in whole Troops to shelter from the cruel Rebels who cut in Pieces every one that will not wear a Green Ribbon’).
These discoveries are, in our view, extremely significant. Their discovery should have a palpable effect on future Thrale Piozzi scholarship, and may re-shape the terms of our larger project. In the near future, we intend to write an article for submission to the Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, which will describe the contents of these volumes in greater detail and reflect on their implications for our biographical and critical understanding of Thrale Piozzi.
We would like to thank everyone involved in awarding us a Research Fellowship at the John Rylands Library. We must especially thank Fran Baker for taking such a keen interest in our project, and going beyond the call of duty to track down uncatalogued objects for us. The credit for these discoveries belongs in the first instance to her and to all the other staff at the Rylands who supported our research so ably and enthusiastically.