Unlocking the Mary Hamilton papers

Welcome to Unlocking the Mary Hamilton Papers!

This ambitious project exploits an almost untouched archive to answer important questions about reading, letter-writing and everyday language in Georgian England and the contribution made by social networks to these significant cultural practices.  The Mary Hamilton Papers are scattered over eleven libraries in Britain and the UK: this project will reunite these papers in a complete, Open-Access scholarly edition. As the project develops, we will reconstruct and analyse Hamilton’s social networks.  The remit of the project includes literary, historical and linguistic research, including forms of address and expression, and sociable reading practices, within and across those networks.  The project will build on the earlier work of the Image-To-Text Project, which began the important work of transliterating the Mary Hamilton letters in the John Rylands library.

What will we be doing?

In the early stages the team are focussing their energies on transcribing, tagging and coding the letters in the John Rylands archive, using high-quality images produced by the library, for the purposes of the online edition.  We will be constructing a ‘personography’ of correspondents and notable persons, in order to trace Hamilton’s social networks, and building a ‘Literary Encyclopedia’ to track reading experiences of correspondence. We will be contacting archives worldwide in order to hunt for any further Hamilton material not yet known to the project, so if you know of a Hamilton letter, or letters, that we may not be aware of, please get in touch! You can do this by using the contact form.

As the project progresses, we will be developing our four main research strands, which you can read about below. Watch this space for updates and snippets of what we find, or follow us on twitter!

Research Strands

(I) Our research starts from the premise, increasingly important in various disciplinary fields, that social networks are crucial to the maintenance and change of both linguistic and cultural behaviour. Having constructed a ‘personography’ of writers, addressees and others mentioned in the Papers, we will map all the social networks to which Mary Hamilton belonged. This strand will subsequently include a ground-breaking comparison of the operation and effects of social network membership across the different domains of reading practices, letter-writing and grammatical structure, where we will carry out more specialised investigations.

(II) We will make a comprehensive analysis of accounts of reading practices mentioned in the archive, ascertaining whether patterns of circulation, reception and response show any significant differentiation in line with the genre of a text, or the class/gender/perceived character of that text’s author. We will distinguish print and manuscript texts throughout. This strand will contribute to our understanding of, inter alia, eighteenth-century canon formation.

(III) In the late Georgian period, politeness was of central importance not just as a sociocultural phenomenon but in language use. The correspondence will be examined from several angles to track the influence on usage of normative rules in historical grammars and letter-writing manuals. We will analyse how gender and social status, including social network relationships, bear on forms of address and thus contribute to face-saving strategies. This strand of the study will add significantly to our knowledge of sociolinguistic and sociopragmatic factors in the history of Late Modern English, and the history of language standardisation.

(IV) The Hamilton Papers cover a crucial period in the history of English verb structure, particularly changes in usage of be as auxiliary, such as the loss of your being looking well and the advent of was being debated, two symptoms among many of a major but relatively neglected realignment of the auxiliary system. We will make a fine-grained analysis of the progress of change both across social networks and during the lifetime of individuals, leading to a better understanding of the language of the period, the history of English and mechanisms of language change generally.

Each of the four research strands will produce and draw on its own systematic database of instances. The essential groundwork for these databases is an edition of the Mary Hamilton Papers that is reliable and searchable for text, names, concepts and parts of speech. A valuable additional product of the project will therefore be a complete, scholarly, readable edition of the Papers, available in Open Access online.