Academic journal article Folklore

Charlotte Sophia Burne: Shropshire Folklorist, First Woman President of the Folklore Society, and First Woman Editor of Folklore. Part 1: A Life and Appreciation

Academic journal article Folklore

Charlotte Sophia Burne: Shropshire Folklorist, First Woman President of the Folklore Society, and First Woman Editor of Folklore. Part 1: A Life and Appreciation

Article excerpt


Charlotte Burne (1850-1923) served the Folklore Society (FLS) for forty years. She was editor of the massive Shropshire Folklore (1883-6), and the second revised edition of the FLS's only official guide, The Handbook of Folklore (1914). She authored over seventy folklore papers, notes and reviews in Folklore and its predecessors, as well as several articles in newspapers and magazines; she was the first woman editor of this journal (1900-08) and the first woman President of the FLS (1909-10). This appreciation is the first part of a two-part study of her life and works. The second part will be a provisional bibliography of her published works.

Charlotte Burne served the Folklore Society (FLS) during the best documented period of its existence, and, almost alone of the regional collectors, was allowed to penetrate the fastnesses of its Council. Yet she is comparatively unknown. As far as we are aware to date, all we have in the way of information are scattered references in Richard Dorson's history of the British folklorists (Dorson 1968), an impressionistic, and not wholly accurate, appreciation (Bronner 1981), a tactful biography of her early life written by her great-nephew J. C. Burne (1975), and a life and appreciation published in a short-lived informal magazine by one of the present authors (Ashman 1986).

"Not a trace" now remains of her notebooks and letters (J. C. Burne 1975, 173). What information there is about her early life comes only indirectly through family letters and diaries in the possession of her great-nephew. Similarly, we know of her later life only through her publications, some correspondence with George Laurence and Alice Bertha Gomme housed in the FLS archives, and FLS minute books.

The mystery of what happened to her personal papers was touched on in J. C. Burne's biography, but all he could, or would, suggest was that "it is only to be expected that they would be destroyed," Burne 1975, 173. However, Gordon Ashman was able to piece together a possible explanation from interviews with J. C. Burne and a study of the diary of Charlotte's youngest sister, Alice (Ashman 1986, 15-17). It appears that there had been almost a lifetime of rancour between the two women, Alice despising Charlotte's folklore activities and the "grand friends" it brought her, [1] or perhaps being jealous of her success. It was Alice who cleared out Charlotte's flat when she died. J. C. Burne put it this way: "[the papers] weren't passed on ... because no-one was interested, and Alice, who was charged with clearing out her things, thought them a load of--a right load, you see." [2] That "no-one was interested" does not seem to be particularly likely. The impression is rather of a whole family (except for Alice) caught up in folklore pursuits. [3] The younger generation certainly held their Aunt Lotty in considerable affection, as may be seen from the dedication of R. V. H. Burne's unpublished family history [4], and the spoof armorial bearings her nephew Richard devised for her in The Loynton Times, a schoolboy holiday paper:

   CSB Arms Quarterly

   First. An editress rampant, on the prowl.

   Second. Six letters urgent, with addresses erased, to be forwarded, on a
   ground copper, for surcharge.

   Third. A garden chair, mal fiche, subsident. The sinister foreleg pierced
   and perforated, on a field vert.

   Fourth. An aged crone, recountant and demonstrant. Charged with lies (or
   folk tales), all improper and swallowed to the extreme.

   Motto. "Proofsheets." [5]

It seems almost unbelievable that someone among her army of nieces and nephews would not have wanted their aunt's papers (or, indeed, that the FLS would not have been glad to have at least some of them). It is much more likely that the papers were deliberately destroyed in a fit of sisterly impatience or malice.

Without these papers, it is difficult to construct a satisfactory account of her life or fully understand the social relationships which underpinned her work for the FLS. …

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