By Alice Rhodes
This May, thanks to the BARS Stephen Copley Research Award, I was able to spend a week in Derby Local Studies and Family History Library, carrying out research into poet and political orator turned speech therapist, John Thelwall’s “Derby Manuscript”. The collection, contained within three volumes of notebooks and spanning almost a thousand pages, includes poetry on subjects as diverse as Thelwall’s own career and was identified by Judith Thompson in 2004. The manuscript, begun after Thelwall’s “retirement” from political lecturing, contains not only published and unpublished poems from this period of his life, but also reworkings of earlier published work, including several poems from his 1793 “politico-sentimental journal” The Peripatetic.
My PhD thesis explores speech production in British literature in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, with a particular focus on the work of Erasmus Darwin, John Thelwall and Percy Shelley. I aim to argue that speech production becomes a focal point for these writers to explore politically and philosophically unorthodox ideas and that a specific concern with the mechanics of speech implicated their writing in politically-loaded contemporary debates about materialism, and developing conceptions of disciplinarity. Excitingly, all of the amendments and crossings out that Thelwall made to his poetry have remained legible, revealing the extent of his ambivalences and anxieties about his political, philosophical, and professional allegiances, as he struggles, in places, to find the right words to express these increasingly fraught subjects. The manuscript also contains several poems which have been annotated with elocutionary markings to aid recitation and poetry on the subject of oratory and elocution. Other highlights included drawings, reflections on his past work, and several drafts of his unpublished poem Musalogia, in which he passes judgement on a whole range of contemporary literary figures, including Wordsworth, Byron, and Shelley.
During my research trip I also visited the Library of Birmingham’s Wolfson Centre for archival research which houses letters written by Thelwall and correspondence between Erasmus Darwin and James Watt. Included in these collections was an 1801 letter from Thelwall to Joseph Strutt, written at the very beginning of what he describes as his “metamorphose” from republican radical to teacher of elocution, which sheds light onto what Thelwall himself saw as the continuities and discontinuities between his political and elocutionary projects.
I’d like to again thank BARS for this brilliant opportunity. I’d also like to thank the staff at the Wolfson Centre for archival research and at Derby Local Studies Library for all their help and for allowing me access to Thelwall’s original manuscripts.