Hunting for Manuscripts

ENGLAND has become the home of sport for many Americans, who come annually to this island for deer stalking, for fishing, and for the hunting of foxes. But there is another form of hunting which has occupied a good deal of my English leisure — the hunting, namely, for manuscripts of literary interest in English archives and old English country houses. I acquired my taste for this form of sport when I began to write the life of the old poet and ambassador and Provost of Eton, Sir Henry Wotton; and I spent some years in collecting his unpublished letters. The archives of the Record Office, the British Museum, and the Bodleian Library are easily accessible to researchers, and there are officials at these institutions ready and even eager to assist students in their labors. But I soon became aware that distinguished biographers preferred to make use of printed sources rather than to pursue their researches among unpublished papers. I found that since Walton’s biography at least seven sketches, portraits, and lives of Wotton had been written by scholars of distinction, including Adolphus Ward and Sir Sidney Lee, but that none of these had looked at his dispatches, of which at least five hundred were preserved unread in the Record Office, or at his letters to be found in the British Museum. All these were, of course, easily accessible; one had only to ask for the packet which might contain a document of interest, and the packet would be brought to one’s reading desk by a polite official.

When, however, I wished to pursue my researches into the archives of private houses, I found that a much more elaborate method of procedure was required. It is quite useless, in my experience, to write out of the blue, so to speak, to great personages and ask permission to examine their muniments rooms and inherited manuscripts. Either they will not reply or they will send curt refusals. I think that they do not know themselves (not being literate people) what treasures they possess; or if they do they regard an unknown inquirer as a thief or gangster, with robbery as the object of his visit. I found it necessary, therefore, to procure some kind of personal introduction before writing to them. The plan I adopted was that of inquiring among the people I happened to meet if any of them knew, or knew anything about, the magnate whose manuscripts I wanted to examine; and once a personal relation of this kind was formed, however tenuous, all difficulties would at once vanish.

The world allots but meagre rewards to researchers; it allows them in recompense, however, the privilege of describing the discoveries they have made, and thus to enjoy what is one of the least reprehensible forms of human vanity — a form of self-glory it has not very amiably denominated by the inglorious term of ‘boasting.’ Undeterred, however, by that epithet, I shall avail myself of the scholar’s license — a license also shared by fishermen — by mentioning a few of my successes in this special sport of mine.


In examining the Seventh Report of the Historical Manuscripts Commission, I found a note by A. J. Horwood, who had been sent in 1878 to examine the manuscripts at a great mansion near Oakham, of a manuscript volume which contained ‘copies of letters seemingly by and to Sir Henry Wotton.’ I found that this house was in the possession of a certain elderly colonel, and I began inquiring among the people I met if any of them knew him. At last I met an old lady who was his cousin, and who kindly said that I might write to him and make use of her name as an introduction. I therefore wrote, and received a most courteous answer from the colonel, saying that he knew nothing of the manuscript book, and did not believe he possessed it, but that he was quite willing for me to come and look for it myself.

I thereupon went to Oakham, and took a cab up to an immense Italian villa, which is one of the biggest houses in England, if not the biggest. I drove into a great colonnaded courtyard of about twenty acres (larger, I believe, than the Great Court of Trinity College, Cambridge), and up to the splendid steps of the mansion — steps partially broken and partially overgrown with weeds, for the whole place looked ill-kept and considerably out of repair, as if funds were not abundant on that hilltop. I rang the great resounding front-door bell, and the stately portal was opened by an old gentleman in a shawl, who reminded me of the Duke of Wellington in his appearance. I introduced myself, and mentioned his cousin, of whom we talked awhile, and then I stated my errand, at which he gave a somewhat malicious chuckle and showed me into an immense library, which occupied one wing of the great house and looked about a mile long. It was full of débris, pictures without frames, frames without pictures, old rocking-horses without heads, and was lined with immense old bookshelves, reaching to ceilings that seemed to touch the sky. ‘Now you can have a look, and you must let me give you luncheon later,’ he said, and then he disappeared.

It was a cold day in November; the library was unheated, and I felt the beginnings of a violent cold upon me. My despair at the gigantic search in prospect (which would have required weeks at least for its satisfactory performance) can be imagined; but still I felt that, having come so far, I must take at least a look. While I was doing this, I happened to see the colonel with two maiden ladies (whom I afterwards found to be his daughters) staring at me through an immense window from the terrace outside. By great good fortune I found within half an hour the book I was looking for, and saw at once that it was of even greater interest than I had hoped, as it contained copies of many of Wotton’s unpublished letters, a number of documents concerning his first embassy at Venice (16041610), and a large collection of notes of ‘table talk,’ kept by someone in his household at Venice during that period, with many anecdotes about Queen Elizabeth, James I, Henry IV, Bacon and Essex, and various personages of the time, as well as a number of poems by Donne and others, a copy of Donne’s Paradoxes, with a long unpublished letter of Donne’s sent with them, and a number of other early, unpublished letters by Donne, some signed and some unsigned, all of which had escaped Horwood’s notice when he examined the manuscript.

I took the book to the colonel’s study, where there was a good fire, and where the old gentleman sat reading The Times; occasionally I caught his eye, staring at me over its pages as if he were asking himself what sort of creature I could be to take so great an interest in old papers.

When at last I hinted that it would take me more than an afternoon to master and copy out the contents of this volume, he most kindly asked me to come and pay him a visit for this purpose. I was, of course, delighted to accept this invitation, and spent several days in this great seventeenthcentury palace, whose wide terraces overlooked perhaps the most famous of English hunting countries. I had my meals with the colonel and his daughters, and attended divine service with them in the chapel of the house. They all treated me with the perfect courtesy of their class, and made no attempt to find out who I was, or what motive had induced me to engage in this (to them) so incomprehensible a form of sport. They were too polite to ask any questions, while I refrained from giving any kind of information on the subject.

When I found that the period of my visit was insufficient for an adequate study of the contents of this book, I arranged with the Oxford Press to purchase its copyright, and to have the volume sent to Oxford for careful copies to be made. Professor Grierson came to Oxford to examine the poems, which he afterwards published in his masterly edition of Donne’s poems. I remember that when he and I were shut up together to examine this volume in a big room at the top of the Clarendon Press, Satan tempted me to make the suggestion that it would be rather fun to insert among these perfectly unknown notes of table talk some chance remark about Bacon as a playwright which might set the Baconians agog; and I remember Grierson’s expression of horror at this suggestion, which it is indeed lucky we did n’t carry out, since, shortly after the volume was returned to the place where I had found it, the house was burnt down and the manuscript destroyed.

I published the letters of Wotton and the table talk (with which, I need hardly say, I did not tamper) in my Life of Wotton. The letters of Donne (which were of great interest) were published by Mrs. Simpson in her Study of the Prose Works of John Donne, and reprinted by John Hayward in the Nonesuch Donne.


Some years later, when Mrs. Toynbee was editing Horace Walpole’s letters, as I happened to be specially interested in Walpole at the time, I wrote to her (although I did not know her) saying that I hoped she would print more of Walpole’s letters to Madame du Deffand, since the extracts from them published by Miss Berry seemed to me of such interest and merit. She replied that she would gladly do so, but that the box containing the Walpole-Du Deffand correspondence had not been traced since its sale at Strawberry Hill in 1842, and that no one knew where it was. Encouraged, I suppose, by a series of other successes in hunting for manuscripts in country houses, I replied with a rashness which now seems to me incredible that I would find that box for her if she would tell me all she knew about it. She replied that it was supposed to have been bought at Strawberry Hill by a man of Asiatic origin named Dyce-Sombre, and that nothing had been heard of it since.

I looked up the history of the purchaser of this box, and found that it was an extraordinary one. His greatgrandfather was a German carpenter, who went to India in 1754 and, becoming a soldier in the service of several native princes, acquired the appellation of Sombre — from his serious cast of countenance — instead of his German name Reinhard, and was given by the emperor of Delhi the principality of Sirdhama. This passed on his death to his wife, a dancing girl, who became the begum of that state. Sombre in the meantime had begotten by a concubine a son called Zuffer yah Khan. Zuffer Khan died, leaving a daughter, who married George Alexander Dyce, the commandant of the begum’s forces. The son by this marriage inherited half a million sterling from the begum at her decease, and added the name of Sombre to that of Dyce. He became a Roman Catholic, and was created by the Pope a chevalier of the Order of Christ, in consideration of the very large gifts the begum had made to his Holiness.

In 1838, Dyce-Sombre came to England, where he married the daughter of an English peer. He entered Parliament and then a lunatic asylum, and died in 1851; and his wife, from whom he had been long separated, married a man of fortune who was afterwards created a peer under the title of Lord F. His title and estate were inherited by his son.

It was with this begum’s money that the desired box had been purchased; and I had a feeling, what is called a ‘hunch,’ that the box was now in the possession, and reposed in the country house, of Lord F.

I cannot account for this hunch, but it amounted to so strong a conviction that I began again my tedious process of trying to establish some sort of relation with this backwoods peer, who lived in Staffordshire, and of whom no one I met seemed to have ever heard. At last I met in Florence a young man who told me that this Lord F. was the intimate friend of his cousin, the Dean of York, and suggested that I should write to the Dean, saying that he had told me I might do so. This suggestion I adopted; and after making inquiries as to how a letter to a Dean should be properly addressed, I sent a polite epistle to the Very Reverend gentleman (who I found was himself a man of letters, having written a book on The Heraldry of York Minster). I received a most courteous reply from the Dean, who said yes, Lord F. was a friend of his, and that I had better write to him, telling him that he (the Dean) had told me to do so. I thereupon wrote to Lord F., delicately suggesting that the Dean of York was a great pal of mine, and asking him if he happened to possess among his archives this box from Strawberry Hill.

Thereupon I waited for some weeks, perhaps a month or two, but received no answer. Then came a letter from Mrs. Toynbee, reminding me that I had agreed to find these letters, and telling me that she was holding up her edition of Walpole for them — and well, so to speak, what about it? I sat down and wrote a letter of apology to the irritated lady, saying that I had been far too presumptuous in making this promise, in which I regretted to say that I had completely failed.

I was living in the country at the time, and used to walk to the village post office every day to get my letters and post those which I had written that morning. Before dropping my letter to Mrs. Toynbee in the box, I opened one addressed to me, which turned out to be from Lord F. himself, in which he wrote, with many apologies, to say that he had mislaid my note and had only come on it that morning; whereupon he had gone up to his attic and had found there the box about which I had written, and which he had had no notion that he possessed. It would be, he feared, of no interest to me, as he had found, on examining the letters in it, that some autograph collector had cut off the signatures from them. However, he politely added, if I cared to come to Staffordshire he would put the box at my disposal, to make any use I wished of its contents. He ended with messages of regard to our common friend, the Dean of York. I tore up my first letter, therefore, to Mrs. Toynbee, and went home to write another to her, in which I said that, having promised to find this box, I had, of course, done so, and that it was now in Lord F.’s attic in Staffordshire, and if she would write to him, mentioning my name and that of the Dean of York, he would no doubt put it at her disposal.

Thereupon Mrs. Toynbee (with, I think, her husband, Paget Toynbee) went leaping up to Staffordshire, and found that the box contained even greater treasures than she could have hoped for — hundreds and hundreds of unpublished letters from Madame du Deffand, who was only second in fame as a letter writer to Madame de Sévigné. They were all annotated (evidently for publication) by Horace Walpole himself, and among them were a certain number of Walpole’s own letters, though he seems to have destroyed most of these on account of the bad French in which he believed that they had been written. Mrs. Toynbee spent some years in preparing a scholarly edition of these manuscripts, and this edition was published in three big volumes, after her death, by her husband.

I confess that my fisherman’s vanity was a little hurt by the fact that no copy of this book was sent to me, and that my share in this catch was not referred to. This, however, may have been due to the fact that Mrs. Toynbee was dead when her husband brought out the book. Scholars I have almost always found to be most scrupulous in the acknowledgments of their debts to me, and I have always tried to observe this rule of courtesy myself. I am not altogether pleased to find that I am not exempt from the touchiness of these folk.


My last experience of this sport I should like to put on record — not that I have any grievance to air, but because I think it may prove one day of interest to literary historians. I happened to see last year in David Alec Wilson’s portentous life of Carlyle a quotation from a letter of Carlyle’s to Lord Ashburton in the possession of a certain noble marquis. Again that voice told me that this peer had somewhere in his possession the whole CarlyleAshburton correspondence. So I began trying to find someone who was acquainted with him; and at last a lady who was a friend of mine told me that she knew him and his wife very well, and promised to ask them when she next saw them whether they had these letters. Not long after she wrote to say that she had inquired, and that they said they did n’t have them and knew nothing about them. I replied that I thought her noble friends might do well to have another look, as one letter at least had been seen not long ago by Carlyle’s biographer. Shortly afterwards I received a note which I first thought was the rudest and then saw was one of the kindest I had ever received from one of these noble but unlettered personages who so curiously combine incivility to strangers with generosity and courtesy to anyone who may seem to have some connection with anyone of their class.

The letter was addressed to ‘Mr. (or Mrs.) L. P. Smith,’ and, beginning ‘Dear Sir or Madam,’ stated that the writer had received two scrawls from my friend, neither of which he could read, and so thought it better to write to me direct. He had, he said, the Carlyle letters, but they were of a distinctly personal nature, being addressed to members of his family now deceased. He had looked at them, but could not see that they possessed any interest; however, he would be delighted to lend me typewritten copies of them, if I would undertake to submit to him any extracts from them before I made use of them for publication.

I of course answered that I should be very glad to see these copies, and I offered to pay to have them made. No notice was taken of this offer; and in a few months I received a heap of typewritten copies of the Carlyle correspondence — 256 letters of Carlyle’s, 27 of Mrs. Carlyle’s, and other documents concerning the relations of the Carlyles and the Ashburtons, all of them unpublished. Of Carlyle’s letters 121 were to the first Lady Ashburton (Lady Harriet Baring), 94 to the second, and 41 to Lord Ashburton, the whole correspondence covering a period of thirty-four years.

I found them very interesting reading — Carlyle being to my mind one of the best of letter writers, and Mrs. Carlyle, of course, always fascinating. Carlyle was at his best in writing to the Barings. The letters to Lady Harriet show that he was considerably bewitched by this great lady, and that Mrs. Carlyle had good reason to be jealous. Her successor, Louisa, Lady Ashburton, was of a very different character, and proved herself to be the good angel of Carlyle, and also of Mrs. Carlyle, with whom she formed a most devoted friendship. She too was a clever woman, who, after the death of her husband, became engaged to Robert Browning. But she broke off the engagement, to his great indignation, in which he is supposed to have written the famous lines: —

Would it were I had been false, not you!
I that am nothing, not you that are all:
I, never the worse for a touch or two
On my speckled hide.

The owner of these letters wrote me that I could print extracts from them, but that he would reserve the right of refusing, even at the last moment, to allow any extract to be printed. The whole correspondence he would not permit to be published, as he did n’t want to have anyone making money out of the friendships of his relations. I did not feel like undertaking any publication under the supervision of this kind but arbitrary, unlettered, and (as I gathered from his letters) somewhat pompous nobleman. I therefore returned them to him, with due thanks for letting me see them, and they are still in his possession. I feel that a book ought sometime to be made of them, since the friendship of the Carlyles with the Ashburtons was the most important friendship of their lives, and in writing to all three of them both the Carlyles wrote their best. Through friends and relations of the owner of these manuscripts I have made several attempts to obtain permission for such a volume to be edited and published by some competent person, but so far my efforts have been in vain. But one day no doubt these letters will see the light. They will make a volume full of good reading and of important literary interest.


Only the other day I had a queer experience, and thought for a moment that I had heard that plaguy Voice again. I was sitting at luncheon by a lady who is a scholar of repute, and, speaking of manuscripts, she told me that her first job was to catalogue the manuscripts and books at Gorhambury for the Lord Verulam of the time. She said that in poking about, somewhat indiscreetly, in an old cupboard, she had found, under a heap of rubbish, a number of old playbills of Shakespeare’s plays. She found that in fact her search had been an indiscretion; Lord Verulam did not want anything to be known about these playbills, as he had been much bothered by Baconian cranks and did not care to have them after him again.

Playbills of Shakespeare’s age are, I believe, unknown, and that bills of some of Shakespeare’s plays should be found in the home of Bacon’s heir seemed to me a suggestion full of disagreeable possibilities, but one which perhaps it was my duty as a scholar to follow up. On writing, however, to the lady in question, I received the following reassuring reply.

Yes, I really did say we found Shakespearean playbills at Gorhambury in 1911 or thereabouts — but while old they were far from being contemporary. They would be waste of a scholar’s time — if they still exist — but would in those days have provided a lot of healthy exercise for a Baconian Heretic.

In this sport of hunting for manuscripts in English country houses, either I have had extraordinary luck, or else such houses are full of treasures (think, for instance, of the Paston Letters!) for those who will take the trouble to hunt for them. But it is necessary to acquire the technique of pursuing this form of chase — a form, to my mind, superior in interest to that of fishing for big fish or of hunting foxes. And not only are there letters to reward the hunters. In the last year or two a manuscript of the first literary importance has been discovered in an old country house, The Book of Marjorie Kempe, a frank autobiography written in the most vivid and enchanting style, and full of incredible avowals. It is by centuries the earliest autobiography in English, and indeed a great open window into the life of the early fifteenth century.

Commonplace books full of contemporary verse abound also in old libraries, which have never been examined by persons with a taste for poetry of merit. Many Elizabethans wrote beautiful poems which they never thought of printing, but circulated among their friends, who made copies of them. I have already mentioned the beautiful unpublished verses in the volume of Wotton’s letters which I found, some of which have appeared in recent anthologies. The only other volume I know of which has been examined from the point of view of literary merit is the volume, now famous, in the Christ Church library, in which poems were found of surpassing beauty that have become permanent additions to our treasure of Elizabethan poetry.