Bluestocking Elizabeth Sarah Wilmot’s Poems Meet 21st-Century Technology
by Grace Chen and Ann Cheng
What do you get when an 18th-century British woman writer’s poems traverse the Atlantic and fall in the hands of North American university students? As senior undergraduate students in English literature at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, we had the privilege of finding out! Taking a course on 18th-century women writers, we explored the photographed manuscripts (reproduced by kind permission of Chawton House) of the ‘forgotten Bluestocking,’ Elizabeth Sarah Wilmot, under the guidance of Dr. Betty Schellenberg. Over several weeks, we worked in groups to transcribe, annotate, analyze, and upload some of Wilmot’s previously unpublished poems. In the process, we learned about what happens when aged pen-and-ink verses find their way out of their temperature-controlled vaults and onto a 21st-century technological platform.
Our first job was making sense of the manuscripts themselves. Each group was assigned a poem to transcribe and received digital photographs of the folios containing that poem. While we could read Wilmot’s writing clearly for the most part, water stains and shadows made certain words difficult to make out. Some students used Photoshop to change the lighting contrast and otherwise manipulate the photographs. Despite these digital tools, some parts remained illegible. We divined some of the rhyme words by reading the preceding or the subsequent line, since Wilmot tended to write in couplets.
We also familiarized ourselves with 18th-century orthography and manuscript poetry. For example, the first letter “s” in words like “thankless” or “matchless” would be written as “ſ.” We quickly learned not to confuse this symbol with the modern letter “f”! As there was no punctuation at the end of Wilmot’s lines, we also had to reread them several times to understand them as clauses or sentences.
Once we crossed these hurdles, it was time to savour the actual content of Wilmot’s poems as we transcribed them. Many of the poems follow the epistolary tradition and are addressed to Wilmot’s family members. One of them, “To Harry at Eton in answer to a Letter of his wrote in verse petitioning to come Home on his Papa and Mamas Wedding Day the 27th of Oct. 1770,” for example, was Wilmot’s actual written response to her son, who was studying at Eton. It was fascinating to pick out popular 18th-century poetic meters in Wilmot’s writing style, such as iambic tetrameter and heroic couplets. In short, transcribing was a linguistic excavation of sorts. Although we share the same language as Wilmot, we unearthed period-specific symbols and words that were foreign to us.
Annotating the Wilmot manuscripts proved to be just as challenging. Wilmot’s allusions and references to other people almost seem to be an entirely new language. While her usage of Greek mythology is fairly common for writers of the time, Wilmot also tends to refer to her fellow Englishwomen, particularly in her poem “The Mistake Rectified April 1770”. Some of these women turned out to be prominent bluestockings whose rich biographies are quick to pop up with a simple Google search. However, tracking down the rest of the names, most of which corresponded to aristocratic titles, turned out to be a wild goose chase for seemingly non-existent people. Historical records focusing primarily on the lives of male landowners, as well as the fact that women’s names would change with marriage, made our hunt no easy task. Even databases such as Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles failed to reveal the identities of these women, as the only clues we had to go by were the land that the women were affiliated with, a vague time frame corresponding to the date of the poem, and the fact that the women were of the creative or intellectual sort. Needless to say, many of the women that Wilmotrefers to remain unidentified.
To present our work, our class utilized Omeka.net, an online publishing platform for creating and sharing open-access exhibits. We merged 18th-century manuscript culture with modern day technology by publishing our annotated transcriptions side-by-side with the images of Wilmot’s original manuscripts, as well as our fresh-eyed analyses of her previously unpublished work. Lastly, we included digital images to enhance the reader’s’ experience of thinking about Wilmot’s work. For example, a copy of Richard Samuel’s “Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo” accompanied Wilmot’s “The Mistake Rectified” to create a visual of the poem’s theme. Likewise, an exhibit on “From Mrs Wilmot in the Country to Mr Wilmot in Town Decr: 11th 1754” featured images of typical 18th-century country and city houses to illustrate the kinds of residences that Wilmot’s epistolary poem may have landed in.
Throughout the entire process of this class project, we learned just how difficult annotating can be, particularly when there are limited records available, and how even our annotations made a difference in the way readers might interpret Wilmot’s work. We gained valuable curation experience in choosing how we wanted to present Wilmot’s unpublished poems to the world and how we wanted them to be perceived. The surprisingly large amount of behind-the-scenes work in creating the exhibits taught us that with the all-powerful (and mildly addicting!) feeling of curation comes great responsibility. As we learned, it takes considerable time, thought and skill to preserve the integrity of a “forgotten Bluestocking’s” literary contributions in the limelight of the digital age.