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Autographs and Amanuenses in the Mary Hamilton Papers

How can we uncover the voices of the past? Christine Wallis delves into the world of 18th-century letters and their writers.

‘The two ladies were delighted to see their dear friend again, called it an age since they had met’

(Austen, Pride and Prejudice)

One of the joys (and challenges) of working on the Unlocking the Mary Hamilton Papers project has been the opportunity to work with a largely-unexplored collection of letters and diaries from the courtier and bluestocking Mary Hamilton (1756-1816). In producing an online edition of Hamilton’s papers, the project team has worked closely with the Rylands’ imaging department to digitise the collection, and the images can be seen alongside document transcriptions at Manchester Digital Collections.

The project aims to bring together as much of Hamilton’s surviving correspondence as possible. To do this we are including images of Hamilton’s papers held by eleven other libraries in the UK and America in our online collection. A key benefit of bringing so many of Hamilton’s letters together is that it enables us to contextualise and better understand our own holdings at the Rylands.

The archive is full of surprises: Hamilton’s sketch of a hot air balloon from her diary, 13th August 1784.
(HAM/2/13, John Rylands Library)

Mary Delany’s letters

A good example of this contextualisation can be found in Hamilton’s letters from her friend Mary Delany (1700-88). In addition to the four Delany letters held by the John Rylands Library, Yale University’s Lewis Walpole Library supplied images of a further 51 letters. Handwriting comparison and cross-referencing between the letters shows that, although signed by Delany, the four Rylands letters were in fact penned by Delany’s two main amanuenses, her great-niece Mary Anne Port, and her trusted servant Anne Astley.

Amanuensis-written letters are not uncommon in historical writing; Elizabeth I often wrote personal letters herself, however official and administrative letters were generally written by her scribes.[i] Delegated writing also appears further down the social scale; letters from a group of 17th and 18th century Dutch correspondents showed the frequent use of ‘social writers’ (friends or family members writing on someone’s behalf), typically because the senders themselves could not write, or because illness prevented them.[ii]

...my dim Eyes will not suffer me to write it better

In Mary Delany’s case, it is clear that ill health and old age affected her ability to write. Her close friend tells Hamilton:

‘Mrs Delany attempted to write to you […] but is miserable to find her Eyes fail her too much […] I read the Letter to her (her Eyes being too weak to read it her self) […] I hope very soon to have the pleasure of seeing Dear Miss Hamilton Mrs D. says in St James’s place & her kind love.’

‘I hope soon to have the pleasure of seeing Dear Miss Hamilton Mrs D. says.’
(HAM/1/7/11/2, John Rylands Library)

Delany’s friend tells Hamilton that her eyesight is too poor to read and write, but interestingly, she also conveys Delany’s good wishes by means of a direct quotation.

In another letter, Delany’s servant Ann Astley comments that she is writing in her own capacity to update Hamilton on Delany’s health, but that she expects to be able to dictate something herself soon: ‘…she thinks herself much better and intends dictating the next Letter Her self’

‘She thinks herself much better…’
(HAM/1/9/72, John Rylands Library)

Hamilton clearly appreciated the times when Delany was able to write for herself. The image below shows a brief note asking when Hamilton will next visit. Hamilton has annotated the note ‘Mrs Delanys own dear hand writing’, showing how valued the autograph note was:

‘It is an age since I saw you my Dear Miss H.’
(EX-YALE-LWLPR-MSS-VOL-00075-00053, Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University)

Voices from the Past?

As a historical linguist one of the questions that interests me is how we can use personal letters to find out about individual variation in the writing (and speech) of people in the past. With a correspondent like Delany, who frequently used other writers to pen her letters, an inevitable question arises: can we retrieve anything of Delany’s own voice in these instances of delegated writing?

This is not a straightforward task, but there is one phrase which is notable for its appearance in Delany’s letters, whether autograph or delegated:

‘It is an age since I saw or even heard of my Dear.’
(EX-YALE-LWLPR-MSS-VOL-00075-00037, Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University)

As in the example above, Delany complains that ‘it is an age’ since she saw Hamilton, and fascinatingly, we see this echoed by her amanuenses:

‘It is an age since we have met.’
(HAM/1/6/3/2, John Rylands Library)
‘…she thinks it an age since she had that happiness’
(EX-YALE-LWLPR-MSS-VOL-00075-00055, Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University)

Delany uses this phrase far more than any of the other writers we have investigated in the collection so far, so it seems that here we do have an echo of her idiomatic usage, even when filtered through other writers.

The material in the Hamilton Papers is incredibly rich; it has much to tell us about how friendships were maintained in Hamilton’s social circle(s), yet beyond this it continues to open unexpected windows onto 18th century life.

For more information please see the project blog.


[i] Evans, M. 2016. ‘ “By the queen”: Collaborative Authorship in Scribal Correspondence of Queen Elizabeth I’, In: Daybell, J. & A. Gordon (eds.) Women and Epistolary Agency in Early Modern Culture, 1450-1690, Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 36-55.

[ii] Rutten, Gijsbert & Marijke van der Wal. 2014. Letters as Loot. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

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