I have to admit – guiltily – that there were times when I could get slightly blasé about working on the Mary Braddon archive, now housed with the Augustine Library, at Canterbury Christ Church University. It constituted an embarrassment of riches. So much was revealed to me in just the first few days of researching it that after years I could feel almost nonchalant about uncovering yet more amazing finds.
I promised you a glimpse or two and I wouldn’t want to disappoint. Plus, it gives me the chance to send an appeal – to any Rhoda Broughton scholars out there. Take a look at the signature, here: ….
Does it belong to her? There are two complete letters that could be from her – but the hand-writing is especially indecipherable, so that I will have to consult a document expert over the course of the project to work on them. In the meantime it would be useful to know if this is even her writing – to Braddon.
So, yes, with a somewhat workaday attitude I went back to the library recently and spent several hours photographing and assessing the condition of a large quantity of the papers. These are kept in the trunk belonging to Braddon, which was cleared out of her study around the time of her death in 1915. I feel very familiar with the majority of this material; however, as I dug deeper amongst the papers I found some new surprises. I am ashamed of myself. I should never underestimate this collection. This attitude came about as a result of years of describing it to interested (and not so interested) parties (and – literally – sometimes I was doing it AT parties) – and fellow academics who would nod and smile. Genuine excitement at one end of the spectrum has to be contrasted with a ho-hum attitude at the other end – once the listener realised that the work was closed to general access. Oh, the rivalries and competition in our business!
But I wasn’t being deliberately unhelpful – it’s just that the papers were in no real condition or situation for large numbers of people to start scrutinising them. A small portion of material was sent out to the Richmond Museum and Library for their exhibit on Braddon a few years ago, reflecting her years of residence in the town. Those are amongst the more worn and rapidly deteriorating manuscripts now. Not, I hasten to add, anything to do with the museum’s handling of them! No, it was just the mere fact that they have been out in the world and not kept safe, dry, and mildly warm in their metal case. As simple as it was, the system of storage that the family had inherited was amongst the best that could be managed outside of special collection conditions.
However, that will all change soon – and in the meantime the surprises keep on coming. For example, I had never allowed this small scroll to be unwrapped. I took the risk of doing it myself at the library – and it was some butterfly that emerged from the cocoon!
More information soon – on the Waterstone’s Book of the Month series set for the Canterbury branch and the forthcoming exhibition in July at the Augustine Library, Christ Church University. And let me take this chance to welcome Alyson Hunt onto the team as Research Assistant – a Wilkie Collins specialist who will no doubt enjoy some of the finds in the collection! Such as this one: