Welcome to Unlocking the Mary Hamilton Papers!

This ambitious project exploits an almost untouched archive to answer important questions about reading, letter-writing and everyday language in Georgian England and the contribution made by social networks to these significant cultural practices. The Mary Hamilton Papers are scattered over eleven libraries in Britain and the US: this project reunites these papers in a complete, open-access scholarly edition. We are reconstructing and analysing Hamilton’s social networks. The remit of the project includes literary, historical and linguistic research, including forms of address and expression, and sociable reading practices, within and across those networks. The project builds on the earlier work of the Image to Text project, which began the important work of transliterating the Mary Hamilton letters in the John Rylands library.

What will we be doing?

In the early stages the team focussed their energies on transcribing, tagging and coding the letters in the John Rylands archive, using high-quality images produced by the library, for the purposes of the online edition. We have transcribed Hamilton's diaries, and a number of letters acquired from other collections. We have constructed a ‘personography’ of participants and people mentioned in the Papers, in order to trace Hamilton’s social networks, which can be viewed (minus encoded relationships and notes) here. We have also built a 'Literary Encyclopedia' to track reading experiences of correspondence. We will continue hunting for further Hamilton material not yet known to the project, so if you know of a Hamilton letter or letters that we may not be aware of, please get in touch! You can do this by using the contact form.

We have been working on our four main research strands, which you can read about below. Follow our blog or join us on Twitter/X for updates and snippets of what we find!

Research Strands

Our research starts from the premise, increasingly important in various disciplinary fields, that social networks are crucial to the maintenance and change of both linguistic and cultural behaviour. Having constructed a ‘personography’ of writers, addressees and others mentioned in the Papers, we are mapping the social networks Mary Hamilton belonged to. This strand will subsequently include a ground-breaking comparison of the operation and effects of social network membership across the different domains of reading practices, letter-writing and grammatical structure, where we are carrying out more specialised investigations.

We will make a comprehensive analysis of accounts of reading practices mentioned in the archive, ascertaining whether patterns of circulation, reception and response show any significant differentiation in line with the genre of a text, or the class/gender/perceived character of that text’s author. We will distinguish print and manuscript texts throughout. This strand will contribute to our understanding of, inter alia, eighteenth-century canon formation.

In the late Georgian period, politeness was of central importance not just as a sociocultural phenomenon but in language use. The correspondence will be examined from several angles to track the influence on usage of normative rules in historical grammars and letter-writing manuals. We will analyse how gender and social status, including social network relationships, bear on forms of address and thus contribute to politeness strategies. This strand of the study will add to our knowledge of sociolinguistic and sociopragmatic factors in the history of Late Modern English, and the history of language standardisation.

The Mary Hamilton Papers cover a crucial period in the history of English verb structure, particularly changes in usage of be as auxiliary, such as the loss of your being looking well and the advent of was being debated, two symptoms among many of a major but relatively neglected realignment of the auxiliary system. We will make a fine-grained analysis of the progress of change both across social networks and during the lifetime of individuals, leading to a better understanding of the language of the period, the history of English and mechanisms of language change generally.