By: Sophia Natasha Sunseri
Like Chelsea, I visited the Shelley and his Circle Archives (part of the Pforzheimer Collection) at the NYPL. My experience also bore a resemblance to Chelsea’s in that I, too, encountered a somewhat agitated archivist who informed me that she wasn’t frustrated with me, but with the assignment (which, in her opinion, is too vague). Regardless, I proceeded with my research, albeit somewhat tentatively.
I was initially interested in perusing some of Mary Wollstonecraft’s manuscripts (and was specifically hoping to come across a working draft of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman ). Some preliminary research revealed, however, that only two of Wollstonecraft’s working drafts are known to have survived: the first page of her essay “On Poetry” and a book review that she wrote. Thankfully, I was able to ascertain this information beforehand, as the NYPL’s online resources were quite useful. I refered to the library’s archives portal (https://wa.gc.cuny.edu/owa/?ae=Item&t=IPM.Note&id=RgAAAADEc%2fqmmQwMRauaFFPEeyqxBwCrCKyHOuKOTpLhQMMhSjpdBeuf4XH9AAACijVP6CjeSoftZudbrYoNAI1O47G7AAAJ) as well as to their published version of the Shelley and his Circle materials (Harvard UP, 1961-, 10 vols.), accessible here: http://catalog.nypl.org/record=b11093889~S1. Before my visit, I emailed the aforementioned archivist and requested to see correspondence between Mary Wollstonecraft and her sister, Everina Wollstonecraft, as well as the “On Poetry” manuscript.
In Mary Wollstonecraft’s letter to Everina (dated May 11-12, 1787), she discusses an ongoing monetary dispute with her brother, her experiences as a governess, a handful of French authors (especially Rousseau), and running into— and eventually snubbing—”Neptune,” an elegant but snobbish man for whom she once had affection. It is Wollstonecraft’s draft of “On Poetry,” however, that captivates my attention most. Although only one page of the draft survives (it is speculated to have originally been 11 quarto pages long) it affords much insight into Wollstonecraft’s revision process, which I find quite fascinating. Two published works are derived from this draft: an essay in the form of a letter to the editor of The Monthly Magazine, which was released in April of 1797 (http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/008920340) and an essay published after Wollstonecraft’s death in September of 1797 under a new title assigned by Godwin: Posthumous Works of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman (with Godwin noting its origins in the preface). The differences between the two published versions are quite striking. The text from Posthumous Works most closely resembles the manuscript version (suggesting that it was most likely composed before The Monthly Magazine version). In this earlier version, Wollstonecraft employs simple vernacular: compare the phrase “the dream is over” (Posthumous Works) with the phrase “the reverie is over” (The Monthly Magazine). The text in the Monthly Magazine is ostensibly more baroque. Juxtaposing both works with what remains of the original manuscript reveals Wollstonecraft’s penchant to elaborate in her rewriting (it should be noted that Godwin did not heavily edit Wollstonecraft’s writing; he mostly made minor changes to punctuation). By assessing these primary source materials, I was able to draw conclusions that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to.
While I did not find what I originally set out to find (a manuscript of one of Wollstonecraft’s better known works, like The Vindication of the Rights of Woman) it was interesting to observe that many of the ideas expressed in Wollstonecraft’s correspondences and in her essay draft were foregrounded in earlier works with which I am familiar (for example: her conflicted relationship to Rousseau; her rejection of highly stylized writing in favour of writing that communicates direct personal experience).
In the end, I was grateful that I came across materials that were previously unknown to me. It is this serendipitous aspect of archival research that I find most appealing—the accidental stumbling upon and the unexpected turns that one’s research may take as a direct result (which is one of the reasons why the archivist’s insistence upon a research project with such rigidly defined parameters irked me). I am looking forward to conducting more research at other archives in the city (and hopefully elsewhere).