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The Wordsworth Trust’s Jerwood Centre

An introduction to the Jerwood Centre, the archive of the Wordsworth Trust, which holds 90% of William Wordsworth’s manuscripts.
This Wordsworth MOOC is a special collaboration between Lancaster University and the Wordsworth Trust, based here at Grasmere. I’m delighted to be joined by the Wordsworth Trust’s curator, Jeff Cowton. Thank you very much for joining us, Jeff. And thanks for allowing us special access to your magnificent collections here. Firstly, could you tell us a little bit about how the Wordsworth Trust was formed? Well, the Trust was formed in 1891. And it was formed to preserve Dove Cottage, Wordsworth’s home for those important years– 1799 til 1808. And the first year it opened, there were 400 visitors. Since that time, it’s developed a whole set of collections. It’s become an important research centre, an important centre for learning.
And we’re now receiving about 50,000 visitors a year. So it’s been quite a transformation for those 100 years. Thank you. So we’re sitting now in the magnificent surroundings of the reading room, of the Jerwood Centre. How did you acquire this terrific collection? It was a gradual process to start with. The first collection was a collection of first editions, given by Professor William Knight, an early scholar. And this sort of set the way that when the poet’s grandson died, that generation decided to leave Wordsworth’s papers to the Wordsworth Trust. So in 1935, we received the family’s collection of notebooks and letters. Something like 90% of Wordsworth papers came to Grasmere in 1935. So the first museum was opened.
Since that time, it’s grown slowly. We’re surrounded by an amazing collection of books, and this was increased immeasurably in 2005 with the Sir Geoffrey Bindman collection. So we have a great collection of Shelley and Keats, as well as Wordsworth and many other writers. And then more recently, our watercolour collection has grown. So we have Turners. We have Constable. We have Gainsborough. And that’s probably our growth area at the moment. So it covers all three areas, really. So you’ve got a terrific collection of manuscripts, of fine arts, and of printed books. And obviously, though it’s a historic collection, it’s housed in up-to-date, state of the art conditions.
Well, this building, which opened in 2005, was opened by Seamus Heaney, it has what, for the time, was the standard security and air conditioning and research facilities. So we still think of it as a new building 10 years on. It’s still a pleasure to come to every day. And can anybody visit the reading room here? Anybody can come. We’re open most of the year. Christmas Day, Boxing Day, I think we close. But we’re open the rest of the year. And we have– as well as the special collections, we have a reference collection. So anybody is very welcome to come and look. You’ll understand that, for preservation purposes, not everybody can come and handle Dorothy’s Grasmere Journal.
So we have to put restrictions simply for that. But we allow as much access as we safely can. Of course. So a visitor to the site would see Dove Cottage, Wordsworth house. They’d see the museum you’ve got here, the exhibition space. And then they could access to this room and to the materials you’ve been discussing. Absolutely. It’s a phone call or an email. That’s all it takes. And we’d be very pleased to welcome people for whichever interests they have. That’s superb. So on the table in front of us now, we’ve got two of your treasures. Is this how you keep them in these so specially made boxes? Each item, each special item, has its own protected box.
It’s to protect from dust, from light, from just being knocked, really. And so, when we open them, there’s always that moment of delight, when you see the treasure inside. And so this is one of the notebooks that would have come to us through the poet’s grandson. So it’s from the family collection, and it dates from about 1800. And as you can see, there’s a– So I just noticed you’re not wearing gloves there. Gloves aren’t necessary? Well, it’s advice that we received from our conservator. And his advice is that with white gloves, with cotton gloves, your fingers are so much less sensitive. So it’s very easy to catch any of these loose fragments. It’s harder to turn the pages.
So the advice that we’re given, and which we take, is that clean dry hands are really the best thing for it. So the notebook, as you can see– I’ll just move that out of the way. I mean, the first thing you notice about it, I think, is perhaps what isn’t here. If you look at the end of it, you’ll notice that there’s any number of pages that have been removed. And it’s clues like this that tell us so much about how Wordsworth worked as an author. So there we are. So we’ve got pages there that have been completely sliced out. Absolutely. And sliced is the word. I mean, cut very carefully. And so one of the questions is well, why?
Why would you take the pages out? And it could be to give to somebody. It could be to discard, or it could be to cut and to copy those lines from somewhere else. And maybe the lines that were on there have reappeared further on in the notebook. So we can see here lots of revisions, lots of crossings out, lots of– I mean, they look almost like the same word being repeated several times there. In that case, it is. That’s the little word, amen, that if I turn it, you can perhaps see. That is a word that Dorothy used, Wordsworth’s sister of course, in practicing a new pen. It was her way of testing it. And whose writing is this, Jeff?
This is Wordsworth. This is words that work. As you can see, many crossings out. And one of the phrases we like to think of is that the handwriting mimics the texture of thought. So that if Wordsworth is in an anxious state, or a calmer state, you can tell by looking at the handwriting. You know, is it very straight lined, you know? Sometimes his words are almost like a straight line. Maybe it’s, perhaps, the energy and the eagerness with which to put them on paper. So one of the things this shows is the extent to which Wordsworth revises his work? It does.
And this, of course, was the process, that there would be a rough draft, and then it would be copied out neatly onto fair copy. And then that would be revised. And then the process would keep going until it had to go to print. And that was almost the final point. Once it went to print, there was no more he could do. But until that point, the revisions would continue. But you also notice there’s other handwriting in the book. So this is Mary Wordsworth, where they’ve copied out a poem of Coleridge’s. And if you think, you couldn’t simply email somebody a poem you’d written, or photocopy it. You had to physically write it out.
So this includes Coleridge’s poems, or a Coleridge poem, as well as Wordsworth’s. And so this would be a great example of what we mean by the word “manuscript.” Yes. A manuscript we could define as a notebook with individual handwriting, and unique in that sense. And so by looking at this, as we’ll be doing throughout this MOOC, we’re able to learn a lot about Wordsworth’s process of writing. Well, if you imagine that all we had was the printed poem, without the clues that a notebook like this affords, you really would have much less sense of how he came into being and how Wordsworth worked.
And so by looking at the original drafting, looking at the fair copies, and the different handwritings– the fact that his sister and his wife played their part in handwriting Wordsworth’s poems– then yes, you get a sense of the man. And is there– should we move to the second treasure? Is this another manuscript, Jeff? This isn’t a manuscript. It’s equally protected. In fact, you might say it’s even more protected. It’s got a very fancy box. Oh, yes. Yeah, a beautiful thing in itself. I guess it shows that it is a precious thing. This was in this box before it came to us. So the owner must have thought this was a way of signalling its significance.
It’s always a nice thing to do, because it’s like unwrapping a present almost. And then we have– now, oh, there we are.
So it doesn’t look that special. It doesn’t, does it? No. And yet, the fact that it looks so ordinary is what makes it so special. This is Lyrical Ballads of 1798, the first main publication of Wordsworth and Coleridge. And there will be 500 printed, and many of them will be printed with these very simple cardboard covers. And, in time, most people would take the cardboard covers and replace it with something grander, something that might suit their library. So there are a few that have survived in their original state. So this is remarkable, that it survived in such a state. It even looks as if someone had placed a glass or a mug on it.
Well, if it was the paper back of the day, that’s what you would do. It would be protecting your perhaps dining table, or what have you, by putting your cup or your glass on top of that. I think adds to the specialness of it. It’s just a wonderful thing. So this is the, as you say, the great volume of 1798. Lyrical Ballads, first edition, jointly published by Wordworth and his friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. So poems like “The Ancient Mariner” in there by Coleridge, Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey.” Great poem. Yeah. Can we open it up and have a look at those? Well, you see, that’s where I have to get difficult.
Because this is a book that is so important in the condition that it’s in that it’s a book that we don’t ever open. So as a museum, rather than a library of books to be read, this one we keep for the state that it’s in and what it shows us about the publishing process, rather than the poems to be read. We have other copies that are in a stronger condition. We’d be very happy for you to read those. But this is a book that we’ve opened once to catalogue it, and we haven’t opened it since. That’s absolutely fascinating. Thank you very much.
Thank you for bringing these treasures along to show us today, and thank you for sharing your expertise with us. We’re very much looking forward to working with you through the rest of this MOOC. It’s a great pleasure.

Watch this video, which introduces the Jerwood Centre, the archive of the Wordsworth Trust, which holds ninety percent of William Wordsworth’s manuscripts.

We will be visiting the Jerwood Centre on each week of the course.

In this video, Professor Simon Bainbridge talks to the curator of the Wordsworth Trust, Jeff Cowton MBE. Jeff will join us throughout the course to show us the treasures of the Wordsworth Trust’s collection and to help us understand how Wordsworth wrote his poetry.

As you watch this video, you may like to take notes – the next step after this one will be a quiz on what we have covered so far.

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#jerwoodcentre #wordsworthtrust #dovecottage #grasmere #bookconservation

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William Wordsworth: Poetry, People and Place

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