During my PhD, I spent a number of days working through the family correspondence of the Yorkshire lesser nobility family the Robinsons at the ‘Wrest Park Collection’ at Bedfordshire Archives and Record Services. My magical source is a letter sent by the British diplomat in Spain Thomas Robinson, Lord Grantham to his brother Frederick (Fritz) Robinson in London in March 1779. The letter details the social and cultural life of the Spanish court as well as the Robinson family back in England. The conspicuous discussion of material goods in the letter is representative of the brothers’ correspondence generally – this is both in part down to the brothers’ intense personal interest in art and furnishings and a semi-professional interest as Frederick acted as Grantham’s secretary and agent. In the run of 301 Grantham and Frederick’s letters in the archive, hundreds were concerned with material things – this is magical in itself. When reading through the collection, a phrase really stood out to me from this letter discussing Grantham’s ambassadorial gala coach used on formal processions into the Spanish royal palaces. Grantham wrote: “my Coach & Buff Harness are shabby to a degree & I determine whether I can do anything to be merely decent at [the Palace at] Aranjuez. You may think that I have no ambition to make a figure, at the same Time I must keep up appearances.”
In 2012 I was preparing to teach a module on the case of Mary Toft who alleged to have given birth to rabbits in 1726. The module was intended to teach second-year students about source analysis through a discrete and manageable case study. The case caused a media sensation and I knew well many of the primary sources associated, notably the well-known printed pamphlets and engravings. These sources had shaped the studies of the case which focussed on either medical historical perspectives or broader concepts relating to the imagination and the self. In their often satiric reinvention and representation of the case, these printed sources underscored that the case was a hoax.
My magical source is a letter sent from John Locke to a Quaker preacher called Rebecca Collier, in which he outlines some of his thoughts and views on female preaching after he had heard her and her companion, Rachel Brecken, preach at a Quaker meeting in London. There was a short marginal note to say that Locke had altered his views on female preaching on the basis of this encounter with Collier and that he had subsequently revised his Notes and Queries on this subject. There was also a rather baffling story that King William III had been in attendance at the same meeting, dressed incognito.
The story of free speech during the French Revolution, a recurrent theme in French Revolutionary studies, is often told like this: During the Ancien Régime, there was no such freedom. Publications were subject to censorship, and any expression deemed to have violated ‘religion, morality, the monarchy and the honour of individuals’ was subject to punishment. Authors and printers could find themselves imprisoned in the Bastille, and those accused of uttering seditious speech could have their tongues torn out by the public executioner.
When the South Sea Bubble burst in September 1720, investors were devastated. By 1721, deaths attributed to suicide had risen by 40 per cent in London. In response to this apparent epidemic, an anonymous writer published Two letters, in Edinburgh, in 1721, which discussed the public response to the South Sea Bubble collapse, and considered the rise in suicide in light of Roman examples of self-inflicted death. This blog post focuses particularly on the second letter, discussing suicide, which offers ‘a comparison between the suicide of the ancient Romans and that so frequent of late among the English’.