You Can’t Always Get What You Want: Reflections on the Archive

We know the archive has gaps. Over time we’ve lost things or lost track of things, or they’ve caught fire, or connected texts have been separated and sold by the inch to decorate some gentleman’s library (true story).

We also know, as a general principle, that women’s unpublished writing is far less likely to survive than men’s, because it was already considered ephemeral, of less use, etc.

And we know that doing archival work always involves desire–our own, to be sure, but we also have to contend with a whole history of often competing desires. For example: the desire to be represented or leave a legacy that is involved in the creation of texts; the desire to assemble or accumulate that goes into acquisition; the desire to have the archive speak in a certain way; the desire to be useful/to keep funding/to remain relevant–all these bump up against our own desires to find exactly the right book, or all related books, or to find texts that tell the stories we think should be there–and wanting the archive to tell a particular kind of story is also another form of desire.

One text in particular brought the lessons of desire, gaps, and frustration home to me.

It was my last day in the Wellcome. In front of me sat the closely-written manuscript of Elizabeth Godfrey (MS 2535).

Godfrey was an avid annotator, and many receipts were accompanied by many notes in the margin. She also editorialized, drawing hearts next to recipes, and criticizing recipes that didn’t work. Next to “How to Candy Anjellico,” she scribbled, “this is the worst way to do them,” which conjures up a frustrating day of kitchen catastrophes.

These marginalia show Godfrey in a circular process of testing her receipts, tweaking them, and figuring out the best processes and ingredients. Heavily invested in correcting and perfecting, Godfrey also seemed to care about transmitting only verified recipes. Several receipts were also annotated with variations of “this is not to be written,” which raised the question–written where?

Halfway through the book, I found a note next to a recipe for bread pudding, “This I have writ in my green” (45). Two pages later, a version of the same: “This I have writ in my green book.”


MS 2535, 47r

I did a little dance (which thankfully none of the librarians saw)–here was evidence of another unpublished work by Godfrey, one in which she appeared to continue refining and reworking her receipts. Of course I had to find it.

If the Wellcome had one book by Godfrey, perhaps they had others. I name-searched and turned up one possibility, MS 9139…and then time and the archive got in my way.

First, it wasn’t clear that the authors were the same Elizabeth Godfrey. The histories of the women who write these books are rarely easily obtained, and unless they were famous (like Lady Ranelagh, Robert Boyle’s sister) often speculative. Although 9139’s Elizabeth Godfrey was from the same time period as my own, I didn’t have enough information to make that assumption. Even if the cover was green, as the original Godfrey suggested, that still would only be a string of coincidence.

However, it was still worth a shot. I tried to put in an order–and that’s when I found out that the item was still being preserved and wasn’t available through normal request. On top of this, it was my last afternoon in the archive and time was running out. (Cue Mission Impossible theme). I emailed the curatorial staff, hoping I could squeak a request for 9139 in at the end of the day, but sometimes serendipity only goes so far.

I was lucky to have found such an interesting manuscript, but one of the drawbacks of following one’s nose as a research technique is that things don’t always turn up on schedule. I heard from the curator after I’d left the library and headed back to the States, and 9139 was out of my reach–temporarily. (There is the possibility that it will be digitized, or I can request scans.)

Having two books from the same Elizabeth Godfrey would have been amazing–I could already start to see the story about experimentation, verification, testing, and knowledge production over time, and how important it could become to my dissertation. But this is one of the difficulties of working with knowledge that inhabits and arises from the lands between text and memory–you don’t always get what you want. Sometimes you have to make an argument based on one Godfrey manuscript; perhaps that argument might be strengthened in places by the missing Godfrey. For example: it’s a perfect illustration of the problems of trying to retrace physical labor through a textual archive; and it provides an opportunity to consider what has been lost or never recorded to begin with.

Sometimes, what remains is only what you need: one manuscript, rich in annotations, that hints at a world far larger than itself.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s