Works: Commonplace books

 

In the John Murray Archive at 50 Albemarle Street, London, are two hard-backed leather-bound books, one in bottle-green morocco and one in navy blue. The green book, approximately 21cm x 25cm and 4cm thick, is embossed in gold with the letters “W. L.” The blue book is of a similar size, marginally slimmer, and has a small lock binding the covers. These books are archived as “Lady Caroline Lamb’s commonplace books.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a“commonplace book” as containing interesting passages or other matters transcribed so that they could be “especially remembered or referred to, with or without arrangement.” Lamb’s green book in the Murray Archive contains mostly literary passages, and is arguably a more literary text than a “commonplace” book would generally be. Lamb probably took the green book to social events to transcribe bon mots, verse, and literary passages. It contains sketches, watercolors, Greek translation exercises, original poetry, newspaper clippings, rebuses, silhouettes, limericks. It also contains passages transcribed from the works of other writers, with annotations, andpoems and messages written by friends and acquaintances. The green book gives us a sense of Lamb’s hobbies, reading, and social activities.

The blue book is a less conventional work because it is essentially a communiqué intended for her former lover. Each “commonplace” in the blue book is addressed directly to Byron and concerns their affaire of 1812. She prefaces and concludes the blue book with letters to him. Given the loss of both Byron’s and Lamb ’s journals, and the disappearance of most of their correspondence of that time, this book is one of the few surviving artifacts of their liaison. It also shows how adept Lamb was at putting on the literary dress of other writers, male and female.

Rosemary March, doctoral candidate at Oxford University, has contributed an essay to the Caro Website on the subject of these very interesting books. It is entitled, "The Page Affair: Lady Caroline Lamb’s Literary Cross-Dressing."

Open essay as PDF file (90 KB)

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