I’m working on the 1828 letters again now (after far too long a break doing other things) and I’m right back in the swing of it. It hasn’t been easy – I’ve had to tell work that I’m only answering emails after the working day has ended because I need to get on with the Davy letters work while I’m here in this library.
Davy is at the end of his life – he’s going to die in June 1829 but for the moment, June 1828, he seems quite happy, travelling in Slovenia and making experiments on eels and the salmon found in the Danube and theorising on their reproduction and migration. It’s been really difficult to find the lakes and rivers that he fishes in near Ljubljana, which he calls Laybach; he often uses the German or Italian names for these Slovenian places. He often writes the word phonetically, making a stab at how it’s spelled; you can imagine what that’s like for me to work out.
I’ve also found out almost exactly when Davy started his last – very weird, philosophical book – Consolations in Travel (between 9 and 12th July 1828 in case anyone’s interested). He writes this about it in a letter to his wife on 12th July: ‘I amuse myself as much as I can by literary composition [I have] just finished a ‘vision on the history of human existence’ of which the scene is laid in the Colliseum [sic] & in which I endeavour to establish the progressive nature of intellect & the infinite possibility of spiritual natures. My dream is as good as another & happy are those that dream most in life & most agreably.’ On the 20th July, he writes to his wife again: ‘I think you will be amused by my Vision which is philosophical poetry though not in metre.’
In other news I found a new letter when I went to the New York Public Library in the Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle and it’s to the playwright Joanna Baillie! It’s the only letter we have to her though I knew that they were friends. It’s only dated ‘Thursday evening’ but it talks about consoling her sister in law so I think it’s written following the death of the physician Matthew Baillie on 23 September 1823. Amazing eh?
So, I’m going to try to keep this blog up every two weeks, in the way that I used to when I was working on the Davy letters full time some years ago. It’s my first week as a short-term fellow in the Chemical Heritage Foundation, in Philadelphia, which is has a beautiful library in the historic part of the city. I’m going to be here for 12 weeks and I have a lot to do! I’ve got off to a good start today. I found a word that my co-editor hadn’t managed to work out in a letter held here and the work that I did two weeks ago in the June Fullmer archive continues to bear fruit. We’ve found about 20 new letters as a result and we’re still checking out more.
I’ve just arranged to go to the Morgan Library in New York too and I’ve started now to be a bit more free in my searching for Davy material and to call up letters and diaries that mention him too. These kinds of sources have started to be valuable for working out where he was when and a number of persistent questions have been resolved over the past few weeks of this nature. I’ve also determined to spend an hour or so a day reading from cover to cover a few key texts that I may have read years ago or that I’ve just selected from for specific bits of information, such as the key Davy biographies. The library here is an excellent resource for all things Davy and it’s also very comfortable and conducive to work. Being near the end of the project is quite a different experience: you know a bit more what you should be on the look-out for, and I’m better, I think, at sifting through information to find exactly what I need (if it’s there). Wish me luck! I’ve got a lot to do here…
It’s been ages since I wrote this blog, but today I find myself completely overexcited by the research I’m doing and I want a) to tell someone about it, and b) to record it for myself. I’m in the Ohio State University Archives this week looking at the archives of June Fullmer, who from the 1960s until her death in 2001 gathered materials for a two-volume letters edition of Sir Humphry Davy and his wife Jane. Does this sound familiar? In fact, John Burnham, another Ohio State professor of the History of Science, who died on 12th May this year, was her literary executor and in 2008 he gave the fledgling Davy Letters Project team a typescript of June Fullmer’s collection of 763 letters and this started us off.
Reading through these many boxes of archive material is an odd thing. It’s unusual for me to be reading the research notes and correspondence of a critic rather than, say, Davy himself. I had no idea how much work Fullmer had done on the letters edition and it is rather tragic that she never got to publish it herself. In fact, I’ve read that the print proofs of the first volume of her biography of Davy (the only one to appear) arrived just days after Fullmer had died. It is nice, therefore, that at our last meeting of the Davy Letters Project we decided to dedicate our edition to Fullmer.
There are some treasures in this archive, including a letter from Oliver Sacks to Fullmer. There are a number of leads with regard to letters that we may not have in our edition that Dr Andrew Lacey and I are starting to follow up. There’s an unpublished essay on Jane Davy, the much maligned wife, of whom Fullmer writes: ‘My guess is that when all the returns are in we will find a woman of great native intelligence handicapped by the educational opportunities open to women at the time, a woman who may have seemed silly and tasteless, but, a woman who was nonetheless fascinating to intelligent men.’ I discover in Fullmer’s archive, too, that Jane published poetry, or at least one poem, in the same volume as her husband had, A Collection of Poems: Chiefly Manuscript, and from Living Authors, edited by Joanna Baillie in 1823. Jane’s poem was ‘To Count —-, On the Death of his Wife’ and it can be read in google books. And I have also found that Fullmer wrote poetry! At least there’s some criticism (and appreciation) in a letter from friends about a poem that she had written.
I am sad that Fullmer didn’t get to see her letters edition to fruition. In one letter, written in 1968, she writes that she has been collecting Davy’s letters for 12 years! She says that she has written 7000 letters to libraries around the globe in search for them. In a letter to Andrew Kerr, dated 23/2/1970, Fullmer writes: ‘I have spent so much time reading the Regency literature, as well as letters and diaries of Italian expatriates, etc., for the period up to about 1850, that I know many of these people better than my own neighbors.’
At least I’m here now, reading her work and using it in the edition that will finally see the light of day sometime soon hopefully. It was very touching to read her letter to the Royal Institution, 21/5/71, in which she comments on Dame Kathleen Lonsdale’s death: ‘I do hope, though, that you have some sort of commitment to get her papers. Fifty years from now, or, perhaps, even sooner, historians will find them very interesting.’ I am definitely finding Fullmer’s papers absolutely fascinating. I’m so glad that they were collected and kept and pleased that her work will not have been in vain.
Well, I say ‘1820 done’ but actually those letters and my notes have just gone off to my co-editor, Prof Tim Fulford, and will come back to me with things to check and change and add, but still I have now sent it off to him and it’s already been seen by Prof Frank James. It was a great year to annotate. There’s some really brilliant (and scurrilous) stuff in Davy’s 1820 letters. In May, Davy hears that Joseph Banks has resigned from the Presidency of the Royal Society, comes rushing back to Britain from his leisurely holidaying abroad and begins campaigning in earnest for himself. There are some great letters written by Davy where we don’t have the originals but only printed versions (printed much later) and all of the names have been replaced by asterisks. I’ve been trying to work out whether the number of asterisks used is significant (they do vary) and work out who Davy is referring to. He seems to be really very rude about Davies Gilbert (formerly Giddy) who was his first mentor and the primary reason that Davy managed to get out of his apprenticeship as an apothecary and begin his illustrious career in chemistry. There’s gratitude for you. I love this kind of work where to identify people you need to work out other allusions (eg. a ‘rotten borough’ in Cornwall) and piece together the bits of information you have on them (eg. he hasn’t even published in the Phil Trans!).
I’m into 1822 now and he’s firmly President of the RS; lots of the letters are written in the third person (even in his own handwriting) and they tend to be official, thanking people for the gift of their publications etc etc. As the year of the fellowship where I’m working on this for 100% of my time draws to a close I’ve done a tally of the work that I’ve done. I’ve written 51k words of notes so far and when you add in the letter texts themselves that comes to 132k. And there’s still a few more months to go.
I’m off to Sheffield for the ‘Summer of 1816’ conference on Friday which has an really strong programme. It’s going to be tough to decide which papers to go to actually. I’m putting on a panel on ‘Romantic Science’ though to be honest it’s really about Davy, and why not…?
I had a good trip to Dublin recently and confirmed that there was a letter in the National Library of Ireland that we didn’t have in the edition, though I don’t know how we missed it when we did our trawl (we had others from that library). Sometimes it’s because of the way that items have been catalogued. In any case, we have it now and it’s an interesting letter from Davy to Richard Lovell Edgeworth from 1810. The lovely people at the NLI allowed me to take pictures of this and the other letters they hold. Unlike Trinity College, Dublin, who did not. I was only checking transcripts of letters there but found we had a little bit of both addresses missing. I can’t get one of the words on two letters but it’s going to cost me 25 Euros to get an image made of these pages that I need. I know that this is a way for cash-strapped libraries to make money but this is also going against the grain of the open access that should be offered by publicly-funded institutions. In all other respects Dublin was lovely. I went to a really great Yeats exhibition in the NLI and an excellent exhibition about the 1916 Easter Rising in the GPO itself. All very emotive stuff.
I’m trying to charge ahead with 1820 letters while returning each evening to 1818 and the continuing difficulties there. I really don’t enjoy going back to a year once I think it’s done and especially since all you have to do is the difficult stuff that you weren’t able to do the first time round. For example, there’s a really tricky letter about a lease owned by the Davy family which seems to be being contested by the landowner’s tax man. This is well out of my comfort zone! I need help with this — maybe a local historian but I don’t know who to ask.
In cheerier news, we had interviews and presentations for a long-awaited post in Gothic Literature at Lancaster last week. By the time I return to teaching in October there will be no less than 5 new staff in our dept, which is just amazing. Right, back to it. I have 15 whole days at home now (whether in Manchester or Lancaster) and I need to make the most of them).
So much has happened over the last six weeks that it’s difficult to know where to begin. I was in Tokyo from 17-27 March, which was just amazing, and I gave a talk on the Shelleys and science at Waseida University. When I came back I went straight to Lancaster (the Easter break didn’t mean much this year and I worked really hard on the Easter weekend!) and the LitSciMed symposium took place from 30-31st March. This was just a lovely event; it was so excellent to see everyone again, many of them doing really well. We have a new website, thanks to Andrew Lacey (http://wp.lancs.ac.uk/litscimed/) and the resources from the training we did are already up there.
The week after I went to Keele University on the Wednesday where I read John Davy’s manuscript memoir in the special collections, ‘Some Notices of my Life’. This was a real revelation. It clears some problems I’d had with notes to John’s movements but also revealed some interesting stuff about Humph too. John writes, for example, that he deliberately didn’t go to the coronation of King George IV. I bet this was because he had links with Queen Caroline and knew there would be a fuss (which there was!). The day after, the British Society for Literature and Science conference started and I was the first plenary speaker! It was such a huge honour to do this. I’ve been to every single conference and even hosted the third one at Keele. This was a once-in-a-lifetime thing for me.
The week after this I was in London: a mad, mad day on Weds 13th April that began with a Frankenstein breakfast at which Damien Lewis and Helen McCrory performed passages from the novel (amazing!). Then I hotfooted it to Hackney where I was interviewed by presenter George Lamb for Medium Brown podcast (you can download it for free from ITunes: https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/medium-brow/id434929837?mt=2) on the science in Frankenstein. Then off to the Royal Festival Hall where the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association prizes were given out by Richard Holmes (I’m one of the essay prize judges).
More research in archives that turned up some marvellous stuff that week in the Royal Society and the UCL archives currently located at Kew. And then last week I was in Amsterdam mainly working but also doing a tiny bit of sightseeing too. This week I have three days at home before going to Dublin to Trinity College archive and the National Library of Ireland.
Phew! It’s been so great. I’m a bit exhausted and I could do with some time at home soon to eat more healthily and put in some properly long days of work but all is good.
I have unfortunately not managed to do much to the 1818 letters since I last wrote my blog. Instead I’ve been working on my plenary for the British Society for Literature and Science conference, which is coming up in Birmingham (http://www.bsls.ac.uk/conference/) in April. It’s a huge honour for me to be asked to talk at this. I’ve attended every single annual conference of this society (this is the 11th!) and organised the third one myself at Keele University. I’ve decided to talk about the use of letters in literature and science studies and have been thinking hard about what, precisely, letters can bring to our subdiscipline. I have an essay club with two brilliant colleagues at work; we met yesterday and that was hugely helpful. I still have a fair bit of work to do on the paper though.
Last Wednesday, I did a public talk as part of the Wonder Women series (http://www.creativetourist.com/articles/festivals-and-events/manchester/wonder-women-2016-full-events-listings/) on Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. It was sold out and the audience was great, some A-level students who are studying Frankenstein and then some Portico members too. I had great questions and really enjoyed the whole event.
Other than that I thought I’d share a couple of my favourite Davy letter moments. For example, in a letter dated April 1812 to Jane Apreece (who will become Lady Jane Davy, his wife) after she has been ill, Davy writes: ‘For the first time in my life I have wished to be a woman that I might watch by your bed side’ (!). I saw an 1818 letter where Davy for the first (and perhaps only) time abbreviated his name to ‘Sir Humpy’, which makes me want only to refer to him in this way from now on. There’s also an intriguing fragment in the Royal Institution that has been cut off for his signature – there are lots of letters that have had this done to them by people collecting the autographs of celebrities. We are left with only a tiny bit at the end of the letter but it is quite mysterious:
some false statement or absurd exaggeration
Do not send what I mentioned, I hope I may be able to escape without notice. –
yours very sincerely
This is tantalising enough but on the back of this fragment there is a postmark so that I can date the letter to 26 March 1818: ‘D | 26 MR 26 | 1818’. Unfortunately we have no letter dated on this date and so I can’t find out what he is referring to here. It’s probably something to do with the safety lamp controversy since this rumbled on through the beginning of 1818.
Anyway, more soon. I’m off to Tokyo (via Lancaster and London) tomorrow to give a paper. How exciting is that!
I really want to get back into writing this. Bizarrely, given that this is a public blog, I think I want to keep it more for myself than for anyone else. I would really like to keep a record of this extraordinary year (the AHRC fellowship year), which may well prove to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but I’d also like to record how to find things out.
Google books really is the most amazing resource. You can see so many contemporary accounts online. In annotating the 1818 letters today I had to find out about an artic expedition that Davy asked John Dalton to go on. I was able to read the account of it by the captain (John Ross) and find out who had gone in Dalton’s stead (Edward Sabine) as well as read Dalton’s reply to Davy’s letter. Amazing. Every day I wonder how people did this work without the internet. I still have a long and ever-growing list of things that I can only read in particular libraries, eg. the British Library. For example, there’s one Davy letter published in a pamphlet so rare that it only seems (according to COPAC, which gives a record of large library holdings in Britain) to only be in the Bodleian. Luckily I already going there on Thursday 9th March so I can read it then.
If I only have a day, I can check which days were on which dates by using one of the many Day of the Week calendars online, such as this one http://www.searchforancestors.com/utility/dayofweek.html. I was able to date one letter to 1816 because it was dated 29th February (topical, given today’s date!) and so it had to be a leap year etc etc. There’s so much work that can go into this stuff.
Very quickly, some of my fave finds so far: Jane Davy spelling ‘Maison Boteux’ when it should have been ‘Botot’ (the name of the person who owned the place), perhaps she had never seen it written down but only heard it. And, I’ve finally – due to the help of a lovely person in Kendal Libraries – found the Bayliff and Bigge (it was actually Bayliff and Rigge, which is why I couldn’t find them!) who manufactured Davy’s new ‘twilled gauze’ in Kendal that was stronger than the stuff he tried before. These are exactly the kinds of people that it’s hard to find much about: working class men and all women (though, I guess you are more likely to find out information about women in the higher than lower classes).
More in a fortnight!
I’ve been meaning to write again for weeks, months, but now am determined to continue again, if only with a few paragraphs, every fortnight. I’m now thoroughly into my AHRC Leaders Fellowship, editing and annotating the letters of Humphry Davy. It’s going to be difficult to do everything that I’ve promised but I’ve got a timetable and mini-goals to try to keep me on track. I’m especially trying to focus on the work itself so am trying to limit my emailing to an hour and a half early in the morning each day. This is quite hard and means that things just get left undone. But, if I’m not strict with myself, I won’t get done what needs to be done…
Which is, three letters per day every working day for this academic year. It took me five weeks to do the 25 letters for 1814 which is far too slow. I’m going to try to get the 74 1816 letters done in the next four weeks… Hmmm… I think I’m getting the hang of it. I absolutely love the work. I have to find out about such a variety of stuff! In 1814 it was all about Europe because Davy was travelling through France, Italy and Switzerland. I’ve had to find out about people, places, publications and lots of other things that don’t begin with ‘p’. I can’t tell you the pleasure I have when I work something out (if it hasn’t taken me far too long!). It’s difficult though. I spent a fair bit of time (probably too much) trying to find out who the French chemist de la Rive’s aunt was. (I think I did it though!) I’ve started to email experts more now and to use mailing lists to ask questions. All help will of course be gratefully received. I’m learning so much. And it’s a thrill when you read another editor’s ‘Untraced’ and know that you have managed to trace the person in question.
1816 will be all about the safety lamp and so it’s a new set of questions and topics and people being written to. Will let you know how I get on…
Lots has happened recently. We’ve finished the filming for our MOOC (a massive open, online course) on William Wordsworth: Poetry, People and Place. Filming took place at Dove Cottage with the full support of the Wordsworth Trust (https://wordsworth.org.uk/visit/dove-cottage.html). The course is online and completely free. You can watch the trailer and sign up for it here: https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/william-wordsworth/details. The course will begin on Sept 7th and run for four weeks. My bit is in the second half of the fourth week and I’m talking about Dorothy Wordsworth. There’s some film from inside Dove Cottage, quizzes about Dorothy’s life and her journals, some lovely audio readings of the journal extracts from my colleague Jenn Ashworth (http://jennashworth.co.uk/) etc etc. I think it will be a lot of fun. In any case, it’s worth checking out the many courses offered by FutureLearn. I quite fancied a few of these myself and it’s pretty amazing that they are completely free.
Since then it’s been pretty manic. Those people who think that academics get three months off in the summer are very much mistaken. We finished teaching before Easter at Lancaster and I’m not sure that it’s made any difference at all. In fact I’ve found myself wondering how I used to fit teaching in. I spent a week in Glasgow as external examiner, I’ve been doing REF2020 interviews with every member of staff in the dept, and I haven’t managed to revise my ‘Literature and Chemistry’ chapter for the Ashgate Companion. We have our own exam boards this week, a Davy Letters meeting arranged for 29th June and I’m hoping that after 3rd July I might be able to get back to some research. I’m attempting to do the revisions on that essay, work on the collection as a whole with my co-editor John Holmes, and write another essay for the Literature and Medicine journal over July, August and September. I’m going to the BARS conference in July and contributing to the Analogy symposium in Cambridge in September. I’ve booked a week in London at the end of July so that I can get lots of reading done in the British Library. So, well, research is being planned but not yet executed. Lots to do before then.