Rare Item Analysis: The Ghost Annotators of Coleridge’s First Edition of Biographia Literaria Explained?
by Jennifer Reeves, Abigail Thompson, and Ben Koshy
This first edition of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria: or Biographical Sketches of my Literary Life and Opinions with marginalia was owned first by Fanny Scroope (1794-1858), then likely Alexander John Scott (1768-1840), and finally Margaret Scott (1809-1873). It was published by Rest Fenner in 1817. This item was purchased by the Armstrong Browning Library from Blackwells, a rare bookseller in Oxford, England, and is now held in the Nineteenth Century Collection of the Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor University.
This rare item was first owned by Fanny Scroope according to an inscription on the title page dated 1820. There is another inscription with the name “Margaret Scott” which is speculated to be Margaret Scott Gatty, who was a bestselling author of children’s books on science and religion in the mid to late Victorian era. Prior to her ownership however, it is also likely that her father, Reverend Alexander John Scott, possessed the work himself. There is a letter written on the flyleaf, most likely around 1831, which may have been written by him, given its content. These three owners provide us with avenues in which we can view his influence in their lives and works and also we can gain a glimpse into how Coleridge was viewed amongst his contemporaries.
The proposed first owner of our first edition is Fanny Scroope, or Frances Scroope. She was born on November 28, 1794, in Danby, Yorkshire, England, and she died on June 6, 1858. She is the daughter of Simon Scroope (1766-1838) and Catharine-Dorothy Maynell (1768-?). Her family was mentioned in Shakespeare’s play, Richard II, and interestingly enough, she was also related to Henry Percy, “the Hotspur,” who led rebellions against Henry IV of England in 1403. Although there are not specific, copious amounts of information available about Fanny, her family was Catholic which absolutely influenced the way in which she perceived the world and all of its facets. Coleridge himself also had a religious approach to poetic inspiration and imagination. Within Biographia Literaria, he discusses three separate types of imaginations: primary, secondary, and fancy. Primary imagination is the involuntary act of sight. This occurs when the brain intakes information around one and makes sense of it. He believed that God is the mind who created the world and sustains it, and similarly, we, on a very small scale, are doing that which God does. Just to see things is a small act of creation. Then, secondary imagination is a voluntary act. You break down the world you know and you put it back together again in a new way. It is the creation of something new that was not previously there. It usually involves the combining of things we usually think of as opposites. Finally, fancy consists of a mental activity that links and puts things together that are already in our memory without the formation of anything new. This is not the type of creation that Coleridge aimed to use, nor a type by which he was inspired. He viewed fancy as silly and uncreative.
Again, this is only speculation, but it is very likely that judging based off of Fanny’s Catholic religious background and experiences, she might have denoted these particular sections of the text. There is a pencil line in the right-hand margin on page 84 that continues on to page 85 that concerns the poetic psyche, “the depth and height of the ideal world around forms, incidents and situations, of which, for the common view, custom has bedimmed all the lustre” (Coleridge 85). I believe this section is speaking about Coleridge’s primary imagination in which the simple act of sight is of divine nature. Fanny has likely marked this section of text in that it essentially states that without the presence of God in one’s life, the world is lackluster and dull. The common view is lesser than the Christian view, or the one enhanced by God. Then, on page 122, there are pencil lines in the left-hand and right-hand margins marking this section of text, “…possible exceptions, independent of his particular system. So true it is, that the faith, which saves and sanctifies, is a collective energy, a total act of the whole moral being; that its living sensorium is in the heart; and that no errors of the understanding can be morally arraigned unless they have proceeded from the heart” (Coleridge 122). In this section, Coleridge is responding to David Hartley’s theories, most specifically the disjunction between the first and second volumes of his Observations on Man, his Frame, his Duty, and his Expectations. Coleridge points out the dissonance between the scientific approach to man as a mechanism for study and the religious approach to man as a member of the body of Christ. Hartley attempts to synthesize these two “by showing that bodily ‘frame,’ moral ‘duty,’ and religious ‘expectations’ all converge on the same point” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). This section of text would have been of interest to Fanny because it discusses the idea that God cannot be compartmentalized of isolated to one part of man’s being. The influence of God is unavoidable and not something that can be reduced to only one facet of man. The whole being is affected.
The assumed second owner of this text was Reverend Alexander John Scott. Scott was born on July 23, 1768 in Rotherhith to Lt. Robert and Jane Scott. He lost his father when he was two years old. Growing up, he was very interested in the arts and classics and that carried over to his university studies. He was a lover of languages as well, learning Italian, Spanish, German and French. In 1792, Scott was ordained as a priest and by February of 1793 was offered he chaplaincy of the Berwick. He sailed on many ships as chaplain including Admiral Horatio Nelson, who was a notable leader in the Napoleonic Wars and specifically the Battle of Trafalgar where he also lost his life. Rev. Scott was actually with his friend Nelson in his last hours, fulfilling his duties as chaplain and friend. Scott, eventually settled down in Catterick and became the chaplain to the prince regent. Around this time, Rev. Scott also married and had a daughter. He also began to continue his early pursuit of knowledge by amassing a large library.
Rev. Scott was a learned man and one of the books thought to be in his collection was Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria. The Armstrong Browning Library holds what is highly suspected to be this first edition copy that Rev. Scott once owned. On the flyleaf, there is an inscription which we presume, though not with full certainty, to be written in the hand of Rev. Scott. He refers to multiple famous figures in his society, most notable though Sir Humphry Davy. Sir Humphry Davy was self-educated in the sciences of botany, anatomy, physics and mechanics but also read the works of philosophers such as Locke. His work was well-known at the time and he was close friends with Coleridge. This connection was highlighted in Rev. Scott’s flyleaf inscription. Davy was crucial in making laughing gas less poisonous which eventually led to its use as anesthesia. Perhaps it was this laughing gas that made the bond between Coleridge and Davy strong. With his long history of being a chaplain, it is very interesting that Rev. Scott would be so open to the work of Davy and Coleridge. Religion and science were constantly clashing so Rev. Scott’s receptiveness is unique and must have allowed him to influence people in his circles, circles that were very likely made up of well-educated and/or religious figures in their society. This speaks to the power and influence of Coleridge’s work, as well as Davy’s. People like Coleridge were shaping a new way of thought in society and we see that there was a strong reception. The book we assume based on sources was passed down to Margaret Scott Gatty, Rev. Scott’s daughter, so Coleridge lives on in this family through the willingness and receptiveness of Rev. Scott.
Another owner of the book who we explored as a potential annotator, due to her name inscription in Biographia Literaria, was Margaret Scott Gatty. Margaret was born in Burnham Essex in 1809 and the daughter of Reverend Alexander Scott, the same reverend who was previously mentioned. We know this because there are several scholarly resources that explicitly say that they are related. It can also be assumed by the connections the two share in regard to education and interests in science. Due to her Father being a linguist and scholar, Margaret began a love for languages, she often translated German and Italian poetry and was an avid reader. She went on to marry the local curate Alfred Gatty on July 8. 1839, who also shared her passion for learning being a well-educated man himself. Alfred was the chaplain for Lord Nelson during the Napoleonic Wars, and therefore was from a very well connected family in Sheffield (Hey). Despite Margate’s gender and place in the world of religion, she was quite ambitious and curious about the natural world that surrounded her. In 1848, she spent the winter in Hastings and embarked upon her “lifelong passion for the collection and classification of seaweed” oddly enough. She collaborated with a network of scientific friends who also shared this passion and their own expertise on the subject. In 1851, Margaret tried her hand at children’s literature in the form of “didactic fairy tales” as well as some scientific works, and thus a writing career was added to Margaret’s already bursting C.V. Amongst some her most popular and well received works were Parables in Nature, The Fairy Godmothers, The Poor Incumbent, An Irish Holiday, Proverbs Illustrated, Legendary Tales, The Human Face Divine, and History of British Seaweeds. It is interesting to note that throughout her works, it is clear that Margaret seeks to explain the importance and relevance of nature, and its cohesion with religion. In other words, she believed that God and nature should not be at battle with each other, and probably was alone in thinking this among the majority of people at the time—that is, of course aside from the Romantics (Drain).
This being said, it is clear that Margaret exudes romantic ideals in most all of her works and ways of thinking. An obvious example of her attaching a poetic or romantic definition to common ideas is seen at the beginning of her book entitled Worlds Not Realized, where she quotes William Wordsworth and Lord Alfred Tennyson. Her fascination with the merging of these romantic ideals into religious and Children’s literature leads us to believe that she was greatly influenced by Coleridge’s philosophies, with the most overlap coming from her edition of Biographia Literaria. She states “My object has been, rather to lead the young to find interest and pleasure in contemplative thought, than to offer them new facts and information” in regard to her reason for writing Worlds not Realized and Parables from Nature (Gatty x). While The annotations within this text point to ways that each figure could have been influenced by Coleridge’s words, it is interesting to think that perhaps Margaret was the one who actually carried them out by way of her books.
For instance, her children’s book, Parables from Nature, which consists of a series of parables narrated by various creatures inspired by nature, one can see clear examples of influence that could be directly linked to Coleridgean ideals. One passage from the chapter Knowledge Beyond Belief stands out in particular:
Bookworm: “I do not mean to be rude, I assure you. You are both of you very beautiful creatures, and, I dare say, very useful too. But you should not fancy either that you do know everything, or that you are able to know everything. And, above all, you should not dispute the superiority and powers of another creature merely because you cannot understand them.” (Gatty 36.)
This quote from Parables from Nature seems related to the inscription on page 300 in volume II of the Biographia where the section stating “O we are querulous creatures! Little less/ Than all things can suffice to make us happy:/ And little more than nothing is enough/ to make us Wretched”. This quote from Coleridge’s Biographia came from his own play, Zapolya, which was not very successful. Even still, the usage of Coleridge quoting his own work in this text must mean that this phrase mentioned above rang very true to him, and Margaret possibly picked up on this plea of the fault of humanity he does so well to reiterate in this section of the Biographia. The Armstrong Browning Library currently holds the first edition of Coleridge’s play, Zapolya, in their nineteenth century collection, which contains his own annotations and remarks/corrections giving interesting insights into how the quote relates to the context of Coleridge’s theme of imagination and the “suspension of disbelief” in Biographia Literaria (Coleridge 300).
It is quite possible that this edition of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria sat on the book case of Margaret’s father’s study and she grew up reading it or suddenly came into its ownership after her father died. She may have versed herself in its teachings on imagination and its recurring notion of this attachment of a poetic and religious view on imagination and the vastness of nature and the human mind. She clearly understood the underlying theme Coleridge was protruding in this work, and it is evident in her works like Parables from Nature in the way she explores the issues of humanistic limitations, which again, is voiced through the inscription on the quote “Oh querulous creatures”. Margaret’s interest in botany and the natural world in combination with her career as a writer has led me to believe that she identified with Coleridge and his work in the Biographia, because it supported and or fueled her desire for people to view the world as she did; and not become limited by knowledge but freed by imagination in occurrence with God and Nature.
Biographia Literaria was a very well-known book when it was first released and the ideas addressed have the potential to impact people’s beliefs. This edition of the book was owned by three people: Fanny Scroope, Margaret Scott and Rev. Alexander John Scott. Though identifying which owner of the three mentioned were the hands behind the annotations is ambiguous and leaves little room for concrete proof, it is fascinating to discover how each of these people may have used the text in their lives. The impact has been evident in their lives through their religious beliefs and their occupations. Furthermore, we also gain insight into the perception of Coleridge amongst his contemporaries. As like much of literary research, this study of this edition of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria will be continued by other scholars, teachers and students. There is much to be said about these owners’ works, whether that be letters with Reverend Scott or other writings of Margaret Scott Gatty, and more that could be pursued. Another path that could be explored would be delving deeper into Reverend Scott’s tolerance and pursuit of knowledge of both religion and science. This could add to the discussion of the interaction between religion and science during this time period. This interaction has generally been a point of contention across the board but understanding Reverend Scott’s attitude towards this could add more to this complex discussion. In further discussions of this work, classrooms and the like may use our research as a launching point for further studies into the supplemental materials, such as the work from his contemporaries like Margaret Gatty, to advance our understanding of how Coleridge’s work was viewed and understood.
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