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Affectionately yours, William Godwin – The Abinger Papers Conservation Project – Phase one.

by on May 1, 2012

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from Arthur Green, Conservation & Collection Care

The Abinger papers are a substantial part of three generations of the Godwin and Shelley family archive, and were the last third of the archive to remain in private hands. The papers were purchased by the University in 2004 with the support of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation, and other donors through a public campaign.

The collection consists of over 8000 letters and over 100 notebooks, and is the bulk of correspondence and journals of the novelist and political philosopher William Godwin, as well as items from other family members including Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Other significant items within the collection include letters from poets John Keats, William Wordsworth, and Lord Byron. The collection was catalogued in 2010 by Charlotte McKillop-Mash, and the conservation was made possible by a generous donation from Prof. Suzuna Jimbo.

The year-long conservation project has helped to stabilise fragile items and to improve safe access to a well used library resource. All of the 8646 letters are now safely housed in ‘fascicules’ and the notebooks all have custom made archival boxes. Fascicules are a purpose-made storage system devised at the Bodleian in the late 1970’s, whereby loose items of varying size are hinged into suitable sized single-section bindings.

Fasciculing has addressed many of the preservation needs associated with handling and storage. It eliminates the need for folding items, and reduces wear and tear by supporting each leaf when read, particularly the thin paper of the 189 ‘wet-transfer-copies’ within the collection. Wet-transfer-copying was developed by James Watt, and is a system of taking multiple copies of a letter from one original, by sandwiching a letter written with specially formulated ink, with a thin paper, and then pressing. William Godwin was an early adopter of James Watt’s invention and the Abinger wet-transfer-copies are a rare and important example of this technology.

Many items from the collection have been recently displayed in the exhibition “Shelley’s Ghost: Reshaping the image of a literary family” at the Bodleian Library and Wordsworth Museum in 2011, and currently at the New York Public Library.

Phase one of the conservation project was successfully completed in February 2012 by Arthur Green, with assistance from Joan Lee, and under the supervision of Robert Minte, in consultation with Bruce Barker-Benfield. Phase two of the project to conserve two of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s notebooks is scheduled to start soon and will be undertaken by Nicole Gilroy, Book Conservation supervisor.

One Comment
  1. Pamela Clemit permalink

    It’s excellent news that this year-long conservation project has been completed. This is important work. The Bodleian’s investment in a conservation programme on the Abinger correspondence items confirms the value of these documents as part of our universal cultural heritage. This enlightened project is especially crucial in relation to Godwin’s wet-transfer copies, many of which are fragile, with faded and semi-legible texts.

    A further stage in signalling the cultural value of these documents is the preparation of a scholarly edition. Readers might like to know that the texts from the wet-transfer copies are among those being made available in The Letters of William Godwin, published by Oxford University Press in six volumes. The first volume, which appeared in 2011, includes texts of all the surviving wet-transfer copies up to the end of 1797; the remainder, up to 1805, will be published in Volume II (in preparation). Further details about the publication project can be found at:

    http://readdurhamenglish.wordpress.com/2012/04/03/letters-of-william-godwin-cast-light-on-the-eighteenth-century/

    An edition like this supports the Bodleian’s conservation project. Fixing the texts of Godwin’s letters in printed form helps to guarantee their survival. The edition gives people access to the original texts (with scholarly support) without the need to visit the Bodleian, or to puzzle over the images in the Abinger catalogue. By transcribing and editing the original documents, the edition makes them accessible to larger numbers of people and diffuses their physical manifestation in many locations. There is less need to handle the precious originals, which the Bodleian is working so hard to preserve.

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