I gave a talk on my new book at The University of Texas on Friday. My friend and former student, Deborah “Warrior Marks” Nguyen, snapped a picture of me so I thought I’d post it along with a short excerpt from the talk.
"In 2006, I traveled to the National Library of Wales to read 18th-century garden designer Mary Delany’s voluminous correspondence. The National Library of Wales, despite its official-sounding name, is an endearingly populist institution. Located not in glamorous Cardiff but in Newton, a small provincial town about a thirty-minute train ride outside the capital, it is really just a collection of materials inside the regional public library, housed in a small strip mall above a fish and chips takeaway. One memorable day I seated myself between a teenager surfing the Web on a library computer and an elderly gentleman reading the paper on a long wooden spindle. The librarian eventually rolled out the cart stacked high with boxes and I nervously spread the precious papers in front of me, trying to avoid the teenager’s soiled and soggy backpack.
These letters have only been published once, in 1861-2, edited by a great-niece with an eye to the family name. Reading her edition, one letter in particular had always intrigued me. In 1732, Delany writes to her sister from Dublin, saying that she is not going to bore her correspondent with accounts of the men she meets, but rather give her a detailed account of her new women friends. In the published version, one sentence reads: “Letty Bushe is [a] very good humored agreeable Girl with abundance of fancy.” In manuscript, the sentence is longer: “Letty Bushe is [a] very good humored agreeable Girl with abundance of fancy makes violent Love to me so we never meet without giving the company a great deal of entertainment.”
I found this exciting. I looked to my left...the old man was not interested. I looked to my right…the teenage boy was likely to be only too interested. I stepped outside and made a very expensive phone call home to share the news.
Of course, the phrase “make love” as a euphemism for “have sex” dates only from 1950. The sense “pay amorous attention to,” however, dates from 1580 and is to me at least, clearly the sense meant here. Letty Bushe is engaging in amorous behavior toward Mary Pendarves when they are with their friends. Their friends find this not shocking or disgusting, but entertaining. Such is the world of the cosmopolitan eighteenth-century bluestocking."
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