As part of the IJBS Blog Series Vera J. Camden, Professor of English at Kent State University, explores the the trials and tribulations of editing the diary of the eighteenth-century Presbyterian widow of a London goldsmith, Hannah Burton.
Margaret Ezell has reflected that the survival of manuscript documents such as early modern women’s diaries are like insects in amber, occupying a ‘long since deceased literary landscape’ that yet offer a ‘continuation of that presence which survives destruction, that matter which the living are permitted still to embrace.’
Yet such ‘embrace[s]’ are by no means effortless. The challenges of transcribing early modern manuscripts are many, ranging from cramped handwriting, to idiosyncratic punctuation; from protracted notes to obscure biographical details; from pages left intentionally blank to ripped or blotted transcriptions of unknown authors. Such peculiarities faced me when I came to edit the diary of Hannah Burton (1723–1786), since published as She Being Dead Yet Speaketh: The Franklin Family Papers in the Other Voice series. In this blog post, I wish to explore the patience and persistence required when making such manuscript papers ‘press ready’.
The early modern diary of Hannah offers a rare insight into the inner life and outer experience of a destitute widow living at the height of the economic revolutions and dissenting religious resurgences of eighteenth-century London, but its pages require careful decoding.
Hannah’s manuscript diary presented what seemed at first glance almost impenetrable pages of anxious italic script, ink blots, stricken words, pinned portions, upside down insertions from foreign hands, and ripped page remnants, so characteristic of the ‘messy’ manuscripts of the ordinary early modern household (see Figure 1). Hannah writes in the same notebook as her grandmother, Mary Franklin (d. 1711) had written in to keep an account of her own spiritual experiences during the persecution of the Protestant Dissenters after the Restoration. Such intergenerational manuscripts of course contain many enigmas.
In the case of Hannah’s diary, we know her name because she autographs nearly all of her daily entries in full or with her initials. Though her grandmother’s notebook contains the autograph signature of Mary Franklin on its front flyleaf, Hannah Burton goes to the extra effort of curating her grandmother’s narrative, adding its title in her own hand ‘The Experiences of my grandmother, Mrs. Mary Franklin.’ (see Figure 2) Naming herself and her grandmother holds a particular significance to Hannah. She explicitly invokes her family legacy of faith in the preamble to her diary where she writes, ‘Oh, may the unfeigned faith, and patient that dwelt in my dear grandmother Franklin, and in my dear and honored mother Ryland dwell in me also’ (p. 175). In titling the narrative of her grandmother and writing her own name, she connects to – and reminds others of—the history she has inherited with these family papers.
Widow of a London goldsmith, Hannah takes pen to paper in September 1782, following her husband’s death, to capture, Job-like, the contours of her sorrows and losses amidst the nearly unbearable economic realities of her destitute state living on a widow’s meager pension. Hannah Burton’s account of her days reflects the tension within herself between a devotion that fosters transcendence of worldly trials and a desperate particularity to record every debt, every conversation, and every dreadful disorder that poverty brings. While she is determined to identify herself as the author of this diary, she paradoxically omits any proper naming of her husband: he is repeatedly mentioned but only by monikers such as ‘wrestling Jacob’, ‘dearest yokefellow’, and, when he was sick, as a bruised and battered house, a crumbling ‘clay building.’ (pp. 206; 221; 196). Whether she was resisting naming her husband because of shame over financial ruin or merely a sense that his worldly identity had been superseded by being now numbered among the citizens of London, the fact remains that the editorial task of finding a biographical context for this spiritual chronicle entailed much sleuthing of the London archives. More than once my then graduate assistant Valentino Zullo and I pleaded out loud and into the night: ‘who was your husband?’ ‘Who is this wrestling Jacob?’
How did we find out, finally, whom Hannah was married to? We uncovered the truth by following the diarist’s habits of mind, for, throughout her diary, Hannah documents all anniversaries, from the day of the loss of her mother fourteen years ago, to the anniversary of a nearly fatal encounter with a bull on the streets of London! She also documents the details of her purchases and debts, telling us she has no money for cheese and candles and that she has reluctantly sold her husband’s ‘old coats’ and ‘old rags’ (p. 183). It is the attention to these details that makes this document seem so quintessentially eighteenth century compared to her grandmother’s narrative where domestic details of such things as weaning of children, cradle fires and home intruders pointed to the Lord’s providences (pp. 135; 139). Hannah by contrast keeps to record-keeping, account keeping and mapping her travels, and thus leaves a neat, discernible trail which in the end led us to the Goldsmiths’ Hall, and to William Burton (d. 1781), London master goldsmith, and watchcase maker (see Figure 3).
The three clues that Hannah offers about her husband are also related to three preoccupying themes of her diary: time, money and death. She reminiscences that of the death of her husband occurred ‘sixty-five weeks ago,’ ‘sixty-seven weeks ago’ and so on and that his illness had been painful and prolonged (pp. 223; 242); she tells us that she has an eight-pound pension because of the charity of his business (p. 182); and, lastly, she tells us he is now among the clods of the valley in Bunhill Fields (p. 179). Thus, by searching pension records, death and burial records from Bunhill fields, and the names of possible apprentices within a span of several years, we were able to locate William Burton, apprenticed to his father, and thrice bankrupted, whose Last Will and Testament left all worldly goods to his widow, Hannah, who receives his small annual pension and other charities from the Goldsmiths’ Hall.
Hannah Burton, ‘The Diary of Hannah Burton (1782)’, in She Being Dead Yet Speaketh: The Franklin Family Papers, ed. Vera J. Camden (Toronto: Iter Press and the Arizona Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2020), pp. 173-266.
 Margaret J. M. Ezell, ‘The Posthumous Publication of Women’s Manuscripts and the History of Authorship’, in Women’s Writing and the Circulation of Ideas: Manuscript Publication in England, 1550–1800, ed. by George Justice and Nathan Tinker (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 121-136 (128).
 Margaret J. M. Ezell, ‘Invisible Books,’ in Producing the Eighteenth-Century Book: Writers and Publishers in England, 1650–1800, eds. Laura L. Runge and Pat Rogers (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2009), pp. 53–69 (66).