Contexts for Women's Manuscript Miscellanies: The Case of Elizabeth Lyttelton and Sir Thomas Browne

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ABSTRACT

This article examines the manuscript miscellany of Elizabeth Lyttelton (Cambridge University Library MS Add. 8460), daughter of Sir Thomas Browne. From both her father's correspondence and her own manuscript it is clear that the extended family provided a congenial context for Lyttelton's literary activities. She compiled, and sometimes emended, extracts from the books she read to her father; poems about and by family members, Norfolk friends, and her father's and brother's associates; popular literature of the later seventeenth century. She shared her father's Royalist sympathies and his religious conformity, and she helped preserve his writing in print and manuscript.

Dear Sister Betty,

Though I make many journeys, yet I am confident that your pen and pencil are greater travellers. How many fine plaines do they passe over, and how many hills, woods, seas doe they designe? You have a fine way of not onley seeing but making a world; and whilst you sit still, how many miles doth your hand travell! I am only unfortunate in this, that I can never meete you in any of your voyages. (1)

So wrote Edward Browne to his sister Elizabeth on 5 July 1669 from Venice. In this letter, written when Elizabeth was about nineteen years of age, Edward is contrasting his actual travels through Europe (printed in two accounts of 1673 and 1677, and revised in an edition of 1685) with her imaginary travels guided by her pen and pencil. Edward may have been referring primarily to her ability to draw and paint, skills we know she practised frequently from the references in the correspondence of their father, Sir Thomas Browne (for example, 'Beside limning, Bet. practiseth washing in black and colours and doth very well'), (2) but this passage is also an eloquent metaphor for Elizabeth's literary activities. Later in life she herself was to travel (to Guernsey, after her marriage to George Lyttelton in 1680) and to send home descriptions of that journey and her new life there, much appreciated by her father ('Thy letters are still our best divertion' and 'You discribed yr voyage very Prettyly', he wrote in letters of June 1681); (3) for a brief period her body joined her hand in its travels. Her brother's description places her in a private, domestic sphere, recording and even creating a world, but not actually experiencing it. Her literary activities, recorded in her father's correspondence and in her miscellany, however, demonstrate that she was in contact with a circle of like-minded people, that she had access to some of the most popular literature of the day, and that she was interested in playing an active role in the preservation of her father's literary reputation after his death. For Elizabeth Lyttelton the family offered a congenial space for manuscript compilation.

Women did not typically have access to the main venues in which maleauthored miscellanies were produced: the universities and the Inns of Court, and also the tavern. (4) None the less, women were readers, owners, and later contributors to university miscellanies, as is the case with ElizabethWellden (Folger Shakespeare Library MS V.a.162) and Elizabeth Clarke (Folger MS X.d.177). Wellden added to a miscellany compiled in the 1630s at Christ Church, Oxford by several family members (Stephen Wellden and N. Wellden, who have signed the first folio) and Elizabeth Clarke transcribed two verses of a song into a licentious collection of jests and poetry compiled at Brasenose College, Oxford in 1595. Women also contributed to miscellanies produced at court, such as the early-sixteenth-century Devonshire manuscript (British Library MS Add. 17492) and Anne Cornwallis's collection from the 1580s (Folger MS V.a.89). (5) But the extended family was perhaps the most common context for the production of women's miscellanies. Ann Bowyer (Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 51) included poems by Ralegh, Churchyard, and Donne with the help of siblings, amidst handwriting exercises and moral precepts. …