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We also know, as a general principle, that women’s unpublished writing is far less likely to survive than men’s, because it was already considered ephemeral, of less use, etc.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I did a little dance (which thankfully none of the librarians saw)–here was evidence of another unpublished work by Godfrey, one in which she appeared to continue refining and reworking her receipts.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.


Copy and Paste: Bridget Parker’s Poetry


Bridget Parker, Wellcome MS 3768

This little green book was my seventh manuscript of the day. I thought it was pretty standard, unhelpful even, until I found this curious poem:


One of 3 pages

I wasn’t surprised to find a memorial poem in a household book, as I’ve seen others containing similar things: records of births, deaths, marriages; prayers for children and relatives; excerpts from classical authors about friendship or wisdom. Anne Glyd, for example, not only records her children and grandchildren’s births and deaths, but also writes a few pages memorializing her husband when he dies in 1658.

But the catalog notes for this poem caught my eye: they said that this poem was from John Donne’s “Obsequies 0f the Lord Harrington.” So I googled the poem–and it looks nothing like Donne’s poem, except for the following lines which she uses:

O soule, O circle why so quickly bee

Thy ends, thy birth and death clos’d up in thee?

Though virtue flowed to thee by thy first breath

All is at once sunke in the whirle-poole death:

Although Parker puts these lines together, they’re separated by 50 lines in Donne’s much longer poem. Parker additionally ends her poem with Donne’s second-to-to last couplet:

Doe not deare soule this sacrifice refuse:

That in thy grave I doe interre my muse.

Ok, so Parker read some lines she liked and thought they fit her particular situation as well. This makes sense–I know, for example, several friends who want Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud” read at their funerals. Sometimes our deepest feelings are best expressed by another’s words.

Given what I know about the early moderns’ comfort with what we would now call plagiarism–but then was considered an active reading & intellectual practice–I wondered if other parts of the poem came from non-Donne sources. (See Adam Smyth’s work for a good example of commonplacing and cutting as reading practices).

Sure enough: parts of Parker’s poem are from George Herbert’s “Grief,” another poem by Donne, “Elegy on the Lady Markham”; the satirist John Cleveland’s “An Elegy upon Dr. Chaderton,” and phrases that sound like famous Shakespeare quotes.

This tells us first that Bridget Parker was reading and engaging with her contemporaries. More intriguingly, it raises questions about authorship. Did Bridget Parker “write” this poem? What is the status of writing that is partially from other sources? What is the role of creativity in such writing–it requires a good ear for iambic pentameter to weave together pieces of multiple poems into something that is not only cogent but melodic.

When Shakespeare adapts entire speeches out of Holinshed’s “Chronicles” or turns Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde into “As You Like It,” we consider him to have invented new work. Does that same metric apply to Bridget Parker?

Furthermore: how should we think about this poem given its location in a household book? Is Bridget Parker a poet, or a woman who just happened to write poetry? What might it take to get her anthologized–and what sort of defense of early modern authorial practices might we have to mount in the footnotes?

What tantalizes me most about finding this poem, however, is that for all the questions it raises about authorship, credibility, gender, and writing, it also stands as evidence that women wrote in many genres and did not see them as separate. It also offers the merest hint that early modern women’s literary production may be much larger than we anticipated–we just haven’t been looking in the right places.