Professor Betty Schellenberg Recovers a Lost Genre

By Veronica Litt

In today’s interview, Professor Betty Schellenberg recovers a lost genre: the personal manuscript poetry miscellany.

Nestled between manuscript and print, replication and originality, personal and professional, these notebooks enhance our understanding of eighteenth-century literary culture.

Oh – and there’s also a poem about a squirrel.

At this year’s CSECS conference, Professor Betty Schellenberg (English, Simon Fraser University) will discuss an unfamiliar genre: the personal manuscript poetry miscellany. Halfway between a scrapbook and a poetry collection, these miscellanies are “handwritten compilations of mostly poems (but often including prose extracts or riddles) derived from more than one source, but presenting themselves as unified and aestheticized objects.”

Proliferating from the mid- to late-eighteenth century, manuscript miscellanies were a popular form of literary production that “follow[ed] a life over a period of years, and reflect[ed] the range and shifts of that life’s interests.” Schellenberg estimates between 200-300 examples of this literature in special collections (the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library has three; for images, scroll to the end of the post). Despite their establishment in eighteenth-century literary culture, these texts are virtually unstudied today.

Epitaphs 1
This collection of epitaphs includes a table of contents and unifies its selections with a consistent hand and dashes to underline titles.

According to Dr. Schellenberg, their neglect may be due to the difficulty of generalizing such a variable genre. As she says, “there’s probably no one item that fits my definition exactly,” but by remaining open to this literature’s generic and formal variations, Schellenberg can better “fine tune [her] sense of what’s typical.”

In the earlier phase of a larger project, Schellenberg is still weighing her options. Will her research result in a set of critical case studies? Will she direct her work into book historical territory, crafting a comprehensive inventory of these texts? For the time being, her method is clear: she will “focus in on this literature and attend to it and what it’s doing for its own sake.”

Schellenberg’s previous research on literary coteries introduced her to this curious genre. Many of the miscellanies that she has examined were co-written by “small, locally concentrated networks of friends and family members who enjoy[ed] exchanging verse that commemorate[d] occasions of importance to members of the group, whether a birthday, a marriage celebration, or the death of a beloved pet squirrel.”

As Schellenberg notes, however, these collections were not motivated only by the “impulse to record one’s daily life.” “They’re recording significant family or personal events,” she tells me, “and at the same time, there is an impulse to make art of daily life, to memorialize it…Maybe the twentieth-century equivalent would be the family photo album.”

Animated Nature 1786 Detail
Detail from “Animated Nature” (1786). Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

For some authors, such as the Lincolnshire siblings Eleanor and Joshua Peart, organizing poetry was a way to display literary ambition. By placing original work (in this case, Joshua’s satirical poem on the death of Eleanor’s pet squirrel) in close proximity to verses by established authors (George Lyttleton’s “The Squirrels of Hagley Park to Miss Warburton’s Squirrel” [1763]), local writers produced “a kind of fluidity between the more high-profile poetry that gets into print via magazines and anthologies” and their own writing. In Schellenberg’s words, “it’s possible to imitate published poetry, to write a poem in a similar vein about something that happens to you.”

Professor Schellenberg emphasizes the porous boundary between print and manuscript throughout the mid and late eighteenth century. These miscellanies became popular after “the heyday of the commonplace book in an age when books were scarce” and the nineteenth century, “when the ubiquity of cheap print allowed cutting out rather than copying, leading to the dominance of the scrapbook.”

In between these print cultural bookends, the manuscript miscellany bridges what we would often consider “discrete media categories.” Schellenberg cites the established narrative that “print overwhelmed other manuscript forms, but that’s not the case in any absolute way, and this is where you see the front-lines.” By recognizing powerful similarities between poetic miscellanies and magazines, Schellenberg finds that “the boundaries between them are so thin” that the manuscript miscellany becomes the “interface between the older medium and the new.”

To learn more about this literature, attend Professor Schellenberg’s paper, “‘Ye British Youths, so Fond to Roam: The Mediated Cosmopolitanism of Personal Manuscript Miscellanies,” which will discuss how occasional poems allowed authors to “use everyday events as the means to digress into more unusual, sometimes literally ‘foreign’ topics.”

Dr. Schellenberg will present her paper at the “Cosmopolitanism in the Manuscript Book” panel on Thursday, October 19, 2017.

Into the Archive…

“The best Method, without doubt, is to carry the knowledge you acquire on your Head; but if that be a lost hope, the next best is to carry it in your Pocket.” – Beckford

With this choice quotation, George Picard begins the first of two lengthy commonplace books (1802-6; call number: MSS 03254). The grandson of John Picard, the entrepreneur who brought white lead manufacturing to England, George was born into an upwardly mobile, middle class family. While his brother, John Kirkby Junior, was employed as a solider before following (and soon bankrupting) the family business, little is known of George. These commonplace books, however, suggest a fastidious reader who found satisfaction in reproducing travel literature.

Picard’s extremely neat collection concerns a variety of topics, reflecting the Hull writer’s interest in lands and peoples outside of England. The books feature some Greek, and Picard often reproduces material from the Danish explorer, Carsten Niebuhr’s Travels Through Arabia and Other Countries in the East (1799), including sections titled “Egyptian Husbandry,” “Arab Superstition,” and “Tribes in the Cast of the Indians.”



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Epitaphs 4
“On Simon Harcourt”

A popular subgenre of the manuscript poetry miscellany, collections of epitaphs recur across archives and special collections. At the Fisher, this small, square miscellany (call number: MSS 01223) includes a table of contents and attempts to replicate serif type in manuscript, demonstrating the unified aesthetics discussed by Dr. Schellenberg above.

As the pages progress, however, one finds plenty of mistakes. Several lines are struck through (first attempts gone wrong); corrections recur constantly, written in a cramped hand alongside or above the errant text (sometimes multiple times on a single page.) These details indicate the difficulty of reproducing text in a visually attractive way, without the luxury of an eraser.

Who wrote this endearing book? The shifting hands may indicate that multiple writers worked on the collection, dated 1750-1768, or that one writer puttered away throughout his or her life.



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Footnote - Bernard
Bernard’s pasted in footnote

A true gem, Peter Bernard’s commonplace book (call number: MSS 05270) details his interest in a hodge podge of topics: everything from silly poems about the difficulty of eating on a hot day to “The Art of Procuring Pleasant Dreams.”

An apothecary, physician, and surgeon, Bernard filled spare hours with lighter fare, reproducing riddles, a formula for shoe-cleaner, and prose in praise of Christmas, dogs, and other charming topics.

Occasionally one finds graver material, including a reproduced abolitionist poem, “The Slaves: An Elegy” (anonymous, 1788), written in a more spacious style than usual, with attempts to replicate an italic, serif font in words of particular importance. See also Bernard’s distinctive use of red and black ink and his curious, pasted-in footnote, placed in the middle rather than at the bottom of the page.

Serif Elegy - Bernard
A detail from Bernard’s transcription of “The Slaves: An Elegy”

The text was written in York and Colchester, as well as Halifax, Nova Scotia, between 1794-1805. From Colchester, Bernard dedicated the text to his daughter, Catherine, on her birthday, May 9th, 1795. Catherine then gave the book to her own son, the Norwich surgeon, W. Bransby Francis, in 1840.

Red Ink - Bernard
Bernard’s use of red and black ink



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All images of Picard’s miscellany, the collection of epitaphs, and Bernard’s commonplace book are courtesy of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. 

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