Award Report: Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837 Anniversary Bursary

Posted on 6 March 2018

Madeleine Pelling discusses how this award has helped with her research.

This year, I had the honour of being awarded the Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837 Anniversary Bursary for my proposed research into the little-know Bluestocking, courtier, and diarist Mary Hamilton (1756-1816). Using the rich archive of Hamilton’s diaries, letters and antiquarian manuscripts held at the John Rylands Library (University of Manchester) in combination with previously unknown and neglected papers at the Lancashire archives, I aim to reveal Hamilton’s creative and intellectual endeavours within Bluestocking circles. In particular, I propose Hamilton’s relationships with figures including Elizabeth Vesey, Elizabeth Montagu, Horace Walpole, Mary Delany and the duchess of Portland as formative in her development as an antiquarian and writer.

This research will feed into my PhD thesis, which explores the vast collection of natural history specimens, art and antiquities gathered by Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, duchess of Portland (1715-1785), dismantled at auction a year after her death. In particular, I focus on textual and tactile responses to the collection, as well as the circulation of art criticism and antiquarian commentary as a means of defining the duchess’s museum within the Bluestocking coterie.

Hamilton Pic

Charlotte Boyle, Pencil sketch of Mary Hamilton, 1781.  In W. S. Lewis ed., The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1937-1983), vol. 31

I position Hamilton as a textual topographer whose multifaceted, rich, and varied accounts of the artifacts and collections she encountered emerge as important chronicles of the social, material, and literary practices of antiquarianism. Through close reading of her voluminous letters and diaries, I contextualise Hamilton’s writing within the wider genre of historiographical commentary; exploring the mechanisms of critical analysis and narrative creation that informed the cultural life of both objects and collectors. My research posits these texts as sites of both biographical and self-constructive writing, used to emplace Hamilton within the contexts of these encounters, displaying and prioritising her own knowledge, tastes and social relationships. I propose the duchess of Portland’s museum at Bulstrode Park, and Walpole’s collection at Strawberry Hill as significant arenas in which Hamilton experimented as a writer of history, cutting her teeth on the objects, texts and conversations she encountered there.

I recently presented part of this research at Oxford University’s Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture Seminar, and have submitted an article based on this paper to Eighteenth-Century Studies journal.