A brief survey of some of the remarkable manuscripts written by 19th-century children’s writer Margaret Gatty in her youth, currently residing in Sheffield Archives.
As my over-excited Twitter account can attest, I’ve been spending a lot of time in Sheffield Archives. Back in May I was given a remit as apparently impossible as it was irresistible: go and spend a month in the archive, see what is there and come back with some ideas for future research projects. When I first met Senior Archivist Cheryl Bailey she cheerfully told me that there was around four miles of material for me to go through, before noticing that I’d gone quite pale and kindly offering me a chair. However, any trepidation I had in the face of such a vast undertaking was soon overtaken by sheer amazement once the job began.
Ahead of my first visit Cheryl very helpfully prepared a few items that she thought ‘might interest me.’ I arrived at 9.30am, by 10 I was comparing the handwriting of Charles Dickens with that of Charles Darwin and Isambard Kingdom Brunel (Brunel was neatest).
A remarkable collection presents itself in that of the Gatty family. The Gatty’s lived in the Sheffield area throughout the 19th century and were incredibly well-connected. Margaret Gatty (neè Scott), a children’s writer and marine biologist who regularly challenged Charles Darwin on the topic of evolution, married Rev. Alfred Gatty, who had previously served as the personal Chaplain to Lord Horatio Nelson during the Napoleonic wars. Their daughter, Juliana (Julia) Ewing, also went onto have a successful career as a children’s writer, with the archive collecting her regular correspondences with the likes of Lewis Carroll and Rudyard Kipling.
In addition to the family’s own extraordinary notes and correspondences, Alfred Gatty also instigated an impressive autograph collection which was continued by later generations, bestowing upon the archive a number of volumes featuring the writing of such figures as William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge, Sir Walter Scott, Arthur Conan Doyle, Christina Rossetti and Florence Nightingale.
However, for me, the material that is most impressive resides within a box of family ‘Juvenilia.’ Typically used with reference writers like Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters the term ‘juvenilia’ is defined in the OED as ‘works produced by an author or artist whilst still young’ – and believe me, as children, teenagers and young women both Margaret and her daughter Julia were prolific.
One of the most extraordinary set of compositions present itself in the form of over sixty meticulously detailed ‘family magazines’, written in pen in imitation of those periodicals and magazines available in print at the time.
More remarkable still, the collection demonstrates that this is a family tradition, with Margaret penning her own ‘Scorton Gazette’, whilst two decades later her daughter Julia produces the ‘Gunpowder plot’ and ‘Anon’ (described as being ‘a new periodical for the literary table’). And these were not fleeting of faddish endeavours, a new issue of ‘The Gunpowder plot’ appears every month from 1862-1871!
The detail and dedication implicit in these pieces is astonishing. What is more, Margaret’s satirical ‘Scorton Gazette’ is hilarious from the very first issue (published May 4 1832). Here, on the incredibly detailed ‘advertisements’ page we find a ‘matrimony’ section. It reads:
“An elderly gentleman unembarrassed by fortune or personal advantages will be most happy to unite himself to any Lady possessing 3000 a year – beauty – accomplished – and good tempered. NB. In case of necessity the last three qualifications will be dispensed with.”
And then, beneath this, beside an ornately detailed manicule the works: ‘No joke is intended.’
Elsewhere in the collection there are (once again) immaculately presented examples of extended prose, produced in imitation of their printed counterparts. At age 23 Gatty embarks on a ‘multi-volume’ series under the title ‘Tales of a Chambermaid’, the first instalments being ‘James Jackson or, ‘tis six years since.’ Fascinatingly, Gatty does not write as herself but instead adopts the persona of that ‘Author of Waverly’, Sir Walter Scott.
In addition to these incredible full ‘works’ there are fragments of pieces now lost (or perhaps never finished), such as a few pages from a untitled and undated play in which two protagonists, Fanny and Annie, find themselves on holiday in the country when they meant to visit the city. Tantalisingly the final dialogue in the manuscript finds Fanny reflecting that:
“Women may say what they please, nobody minds. What comfort it is to be born foolish and not be supposed capable of talking sense! One has some of the privileges of the court fool by virtue of the contempt in which one is held.”
However, my favourite fragment, which I feel compelled to share here, takes the form of the satirical advertisement transcribed below. Written in 1831, we find here the as yet unmarried 21-year old Margaret Scott (not yet Gatty) listing the necessary pre-requisites of any male suitor…
By a young lady
A gentleman of every respect
WORTHY OF HER!
To ensure which he must possess
A strong mind – and a comfortable house
Profound intellect and enough money
Sound sense and poetic talent
Exalted imagination and unnerving judgment
The tenderest sympathy and a taste for drawing.
Love of instrumental music and a disposition to German –
A competent knowledge of Metaphysics and a taste for the ridiculous:
Becoming humility and proper pride – modest diffidence and self-respect.
He must be less rational than romantic
Capable of the most ardent attachment yet never led away by his feelings
Have been to only one school and have never done anything queer at college
(or if he has he must say nothing about it)
And above all his manners must combine retiring modesty with aristocratic ease.
In a word he must possess all the virtues and accomplishments possessed by the young lady and all those especially I which she is deficient.
Religion and good principles taken for granted.
The gentleman must not fall in love under 6 days and had better say nothing about if for 6 months or as much longer as he pleases – thereby generously giving the young lady an opportunity of deciding carefully.