The resources of a Princeton University Library research grant enabled me to conduct three weeks of research at the Cotsen Children’s Library this fall. This research was enormously useful for my dissertation project “A Smaller and Still Smaller Circle”: Biographical Conversation in Romantic and Victorian Literature. My project considers how a range of diverse texts—Charles and Mary Lamb’s Mrs. Leicester’s School (1809), Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1818), Harriet Martineau’s The Crofton Boys (1841), Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (1853), and Juliana Horatia Ewing’s Mrs. Overtheway’s Remembrances (1869)—depict children telling their personal histories in the form of “biographical conversation.” This phrase, taken from Mrs. Leicester’s School, describes a specifically conversational autobiography that allows listeners to respond to and reshape the life stories they hear and in turn enables speakers to reinterpret their own pasts.
This project juxtaposes children’s literature and adult literature in order to highlight their shared emphasis on biographical conversation. Materials in the Cotsen Children’s Library have been particularly informative for the three chapters concerning children’s texts, but the insights I gathered from this material will also be relevant to the chapters on Austen and Brontë. During my stay I examined a range of diverse materials from the collection that emphasize biography and conversation. Reading children’s biographies such as The Juvenile Plutarch (1801) and Buds of Genius (1816), texts that search for the seeds of greatness in the childhoods of celebrated figures, illuminated the didactic use of biography as a model for child readers to follow. I also found surprising insight into biographical conversation in the narratives purportedly related by inanimate objects. In the course of recounting their adventures, these objects (including a pin, a chair, a peg-top, and other common items), provide a fresh look at the virtues and foibles of their human owners. The objects’ accounts of being altered and abused by their owners highlight the emphasis on transformation in the traditional autobiography. The declaration of a chair (formerly a beech tree) that “I was not always what you now see me,” might equally be found in the mouth of a human speaker. Looking at games in the Cotsen collection made it clear that the emphasis on biography and conversation in childhood culture reaches beyond books. Numerous biography-based quiz games summarize the main features of the lives of the famous, encouraging children to memorize key events. A game such as The Eventful Career of Napoleon Buonaparte even allows a player to inhabit a celebrity biography by following the famous battles of a military career.
I gained a general sense of the cultural context for biographical conversation from examining these materials, but some items in the Cotsen collection also had specific resonance for the main texts of my project. Looking at late nineteenth and early twentieth-century editions of Mrs. Leicester’s School helped me gain insight into the ways that editorial choices affect the reading experience. For example, one edition omits the text’s entire frame narrative, leaving the setting and motivation for the stories unexplained. The frame narrative is a considerable focus of my dissertation chapter; encountering the text without this element allowed me to rethink and justify my focus on the frame. The resources of the Cotsen were also valuable as I formulated the argument of my fifth chapter, on Juliana Horatia Ewing’s Mrs. Overtheway’s Remembrances. Ewing published nearly all of her fiction in Aunt Judy’s Magazine, the children’s periodical edited by her mother Margaret Gatty. Examining the library’s collection of issues of Aunt Judy’s Magazine helped me to link Ewing’s interest in conversation with the magazine form in which her work first appeared. In its serial form, a text such as Mrs. Overtheway’s Remembrances is continually interrupted by other stories, mimicking the effect of a conversation in which each voice is interrupted by the responses of others. Examining children’s periodicals such as The Chatterbox, Good Words for the Young, and The Girl’s Own Paper allowed me to contextualize Aunt Judy’s Magazine and consider how differing assumptions about the class and gender of the target audience molded the tone and structure of each magazine.
I would like to thank the Friends of the Princeton University Library for the support that allowed me to conduct this research and to thank the Library staff who made my visit so rewarding. Andrea Immel and Aaron Pickett provided excellent assistance with accessing the Cotsen collection. Members of the Reading Room staff were consistently helpful and made my visit both useful and enjoyable. The assistance of the research grant was invaluable to my dissertation project and the insights I gained while using the collection will continue to inform my work.
4 January 2011