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T. C. Boyle papers, now open for research, show his passion for literature and literacy

By Katherine Mosley

In a contribution to George magazine titled “If I Were President,” T. C. Boyle states that as President of the United States, he would establish a litocracy, fight to change the illiteracy that has America in its grip, and replace currency with books.  Although Boyle has not achieved the presidency, he has used his roles as an author and teacher to advocate for a more literary society.  The correspondence in the T. C. Boyle papers at the Ransom Center provides evidence of Boyle’s tireless promotion of books and reading, and not just of his own (although his often hilarious promotional letters to Viking representatives and booksellers show that as well).


Boyle writes to one of his former high school students, Chris Finer, now a high school librarian in New Hampshire, that “My object is to fire people up about literature.”  Students in English classes from around the country send letters to Boyle, and his responses are often included in the archive. In a letter to a class at Weymouth High School (East Weymouth, Massachusetts), Boyle tells the students—half of whom intended  to enroll in junior college after graduation and half with no plans for the future—that he had not read very much as a teenager, either, but later discovered that “reading and books were my weapons against the world. I could take myself away from my life, I could learn things school didn’t teach me, I could seize power and grow into the monster I now am.  All because of reading.  And, of course, writing.”


Boyle encourages not only readers but also writers, from students to colleagues to strangers from all walks of life.  He praises their work, exhorts them to write, and sends blurbs to their publishers.  One reason Boyle is supportive of other authors is because as a young man, he himself had received inspiration and encouragement from older mentors, the teachers and writers whom he has referred to as “guiding lights” and “heroes.”  In 1971, he wrote to Harry Roskolenko asking for career advice and direction.  Roskolenko wrote back with praise for Boyle’s talent, contact information for a magazine editor, and especially the advice to “WRITE.” Boyle followed both Roskolenko’s advice and his example of supporting aspiring writers.


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Boxing Up: T. C. Boyle writes about sending his archive to Texas


Top image: T. C. Boyle tours the Ransom Center in 2012 with Megan Barnard, Assistant Director for Acquisitions and Administration. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.


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Collection of diplomat’s seventeenth-century newsletters reveal insights into early English history and statecraft

By Elon Lang

I must thank you for the chocolate and snuff you intend to send me, if it be perfumed with anything but orange or jessamin [jasmine] flowers, I had rather have plain, for I find all musk etc. hurts my head.

William Bridgeman, Clerk to the English Secretary of State, London, to Sir Richard Bulstrode, Brussels, May 23, 1686 (PFORZ-MS-0317)


In a series of over 150 letters that the Ransom Center is publishing online as part of the Carl H. Pforzheimer collection of English manuscripts, clerks from England’s Office of the Secretary of State reveal the intimate relationship they enjoyed with one of England’s chief diplomats in Northern Europe during the last quarter of the seventeenth century. This diplomat was Sir Richard Bulstrode, a nobleman loyal to the Stuart dynasty throughout his life, who fought on the side of the Royalists during the English Civil Wars and supported the Jacobites after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. He was an immensely pragmatic and skilled lawyer and politician who managed to maintain official government positions even during the Commonwealth Period.


Passages from letters like the one quoted above illustrate just how Bulstrode’s political savvy operated. He and his agents took care to interweave practical and personal matters into his official dealings with his government superiors and their clerks. For example, it seems like it was quite common for Bulstrode to procure luxury commodities from the markets of Europe for these clerks as a favor for keeping him up to date on significant political news from London. As can be seen in the second item pictured below, which is part of a series of official communiqués that ask him to perform certain diplomatic tasks for the realm, the clerk acknowledges receipt of a chocolate and snuff shipment in between news about the apprehension of a military embezzler in Bruges and the results of an important trial involving the Church of England (PFORZ-MS-0318).


Newsy tidbits in letters were not the only way Bulstrode kept his finger on the pulse of English politics, though. These letters represent just one small part of how Bulstrode sought to satisfy his voracious appetite for news. His main sources for current events from his homeland were handwritten newsletter services. At the Ransom Center, 1,469 newsletters that were sent to Bulstrode between 1667 and 1689 comprise the largest portion of the Pforzheimer collection of English manuscripts. Originating in London, these newsletters form direct parallels with the letters from the Secretary of State’s office in that they reveal the same sorts of personal relationships that Bulstrode fostered with his official correspondents. For example, in two newsletters from 1679 (PFORZ-MS-1008 and PFORZ-MS-1023), a clerk includes personal notes thanking Bulstrode for sending chocolate to him and his boss, Sir Joseph Williamson. Williamson was able to provide his subscribers an insider’s perspective on current events because, along with his journalistic enterprises, he also served a term as Secretary of State and maintained a high position at Court.


Surviving manuscript newsletter collections the size of Bulstrode’s are rare and significant to historical research. This is because, until 1695, there were no independently printed newspapers in England and only one official Gazette controlled by the government. People in Bulstrode’s era who wanted uncensored news had to rely on what could be gathered from personal correspondence through the thrice-weekly post. To meet the growing demand for reliable reporting, a few entrepreneurs in London set up newsletter services to mail proprietary information to subscribers about proceedings in parliament, activities of the military and royal family, and court gossip that could not be printed in the public newspaper.


Bulstrode subscribed to two different newsletter offices that are represented in our collection. The smaller of the two sets is from the office of Edward Coleman, who was executed for treason during the anti-Catholic fervor stirred up by Titus Oates in the autumn of 1678. The larger set is from the office of Sir Joseph Williamson, who, as an entrepreneur, was deeply connected to the burgeoning printing industry in London, and, as mentioned above, also served as Secretary of State from 1674 to 1679. The way Williamson set up his service, subscribers paid annual fees based on how frequently they wished to receive newsletters, but they were also obliged to mail accounts of news and politics back to London from their estates around the realm or stations in Europe. If subscribers were diplomats like Bulstrode, they received discounted service rates but were asked to send both first-hand accounts and printed newspapers from their localities. This information not only provided newsletter offices with news for future letters, but—for Williamson—it also provided valuable intelligence for his statecraft.


Taken together, these letters and newsletters in our collection preserve one of the world’s largest records of early correspondence journalism. Historians like Professor James Winn of Boston University are using the wealth of information in the collection to study the details of the Restoration period of English history. In his forthcoming book on Queen Anne of Great Britain, for example, Winn is using these documents to help pin down the precise course of events that led to Anne’s marriage to Prince George of Denmark. This match for Anne occurred after a rumored engagement to Prince George of Hanover (who became her successor to the throne), and an unwanted courtship by the Earl of Mulgrave.


In the two newsletters from February and December 1680 pictured below (PFORZ-MS-1133 and PFORZ-MS-1219), the writer reports about Anne’s rumored engagement to George of Hanover—which turned out not to be true. Newsletters from autumn 1682 (such as PFORZ-MS-1392) reveal how Mulgrave’s pursuit of Anne may have gotten him expelled from court. Fortunately for Mulgrave, after Anne’s marriage to George of Denmark in July 1683 (discussed in PFORZ-MS-1460), Mulgrave staged a political comeback. As the newsletter from August 20, 1683, describes: “The Earl of Mulgrave has kissed the king’s and duke’s hand, and does now make the Court very constantly” (see PFORZ-MS-1466).


The newsletters also illustrate how such seemingly petty politics in the late years of the Second King Charles’ court were conducted against the terribly bloody and vindictive background of the Duke of Monmouth’s Rebellion in 1683. As the newsletter below from August 24, 1683, offers:


There was a very warme discourse the beginning of this weeke, that the duke of Monmouth would surrender himselfe, but it seems it was a mistake; but this much [break] I am informed from very good hands, that the duke of Monmouth has offered to come in & declare all he knows upon promise of pardon, but that it was rejected; & certainely the duke of Monmouth after the ill steps he has made ought not to pretend to capitulate with the King, ag.t whom he has in so high a degree offended.

Newsletter from the office of Sir Joseph Williamson, Whitehall, to Sir Richard Bulstrode, Brussels, August 24, 1683 (PFORZ-MS-1467)


The Ransom Center’s digital publication of the Bulstrode letters and newsletters marks the first time a large collection of seventeenth-century newsletters has been made freely available to a mass viewing audience with item-level descriptions. While the newsletters have been commercially microfilmed and partially transcribed in the past, these publishing efforts have all been incomplete and out of chronological order. This has made using newsletters for research incredibly difficult for scholars. As part of the Ransom Center’s effort to describe and digitize the Pforzheimer collection, the Center reorganized all 1,469 letters by date and recorded all of the days mentioned in each newsletter in database records for each individual item. One consequence of this activity has been the discovery of over two dozen “lost” newsletters that had been neither microfilmed nor transcribed in the past.


The Center’s cataloging and digitization efforts will provide unprecedented levels of access to primary source documents for seventeenth-century history. The online publication of the Bulstrode newsletters, along with the Pforzheimer collection of English manuscripts, will provide a needed service to scholars and teachers and open up information to readers looking to discover important details and ephemera about English politics and culture during the Restoration. As other archives that hold major newsletter collections—such as the Folger Shakespeare Library—begin to publish them with item-level descriptions online, the Ransom Center will be able to open the door to a reexamination of an origin narrative for independent correspondence journalism in England.


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Letter reveals lessons in seventeenth-century home economics in London

By Elon Lang

According to Mary Evelyn, the wife of John Evelyn, a renowned English intellectual, diarist, and horticulturalist in the late seventeenth century, it cost £313 and 1 shilling to set up a proper upper-class household for eight people in London in 1675. In today’s dollars, the dishes, silver, glasses, linens, and kitchen equipment required would cost approximately $62,000—without buying any furniture. It would then cost £480, 4 shillings per year (approximately $95,000/year today) to maintain and staff that house and a small, two-horse stable. This household would then have a weekly budget of £2, 13 shillings, 4 pence for meals and £4, 12 shillings, 3 pence for other household supplies like soap, candles, and fuel (approximately $1,444 today).


On her own account, this imagined household was quite frugal. Mary Evelyn wrote this set of itemized household management instructions to the Evelyns’ young family friend, the newly married Mrs. Margaret Blagge Godolphin, who was about 22 years old at the time. (The document can be viewed in full in the Ransom Center’s Carl H. Pforzheimer digital collection.) As she remarks in a short preface, Mary Evelyn provides in her accounting for “some variety, but [no] Dainties or Entertainments,” because Mrs. Godolphin has such a “just & regular life” and her husband is “so good & soe reasonable.”


Dear Child, Of ye 500 [pounds per annum]. which you tell me is what you would contract your Expenses to, and that you are to provide your Husbands Cloaths, Stable, and all other House-Expences (except his Pocket-money) I leave you 20 l. over, and for your owne Pocket [etc].40 l. (in all 60 l.) and that little enough considering Sickness, Physicians, and innumerable Accidents that are not to be provided ag[ain]st with any certainty. But (as ye Proverb you know is) I am to cut ye Cloake, according to ye Cloth; and I have done it as near as possibly I could, with some variety, but without Dainties or Entertainments; you living so just & regular a life, & having so good & soe reasonable a Husband; and I pray God to bless you both & pardon ye defects of my Obedience to your earnest Desires, who shall ever remaine,

Dear Child,

Your M.E.

April 13. 1675


While Mary Evelyn cautions her young friend that she must always be wary of surprise medical expenses that could impact her budget, she goes on to illustrate the variety of fare the Godolphins might enjoy on such a budget with a sample week-long menu of three-course meals. She summarizes these courses in a table as follows:


Mary Evelyn’s chart of weekly food expenses
Mary Evelyn’s chart of weekly food expenses


Additionally, Mary Evelyn provides the young Mrs. Godolphin with some very sound advice about how to pick a head housekeeper, advising the young woman to insist on firm bookkeeping practices without trying to micromanage her servants:


if you have a faithful Woman, or Housemaid it will cost you little trouble. It were necessary yt such a one were a good Market-woman, & whose Eye must bee from ye Garret to ye Cellar; nor is it enough they see all things made cleane in ye House, but set in ord.r also; That if any Good be broken or worne out they shew or bring it to her that she may see in what Condic?n it is, that nothing bee hid or imbezel’d. Use as seldom Charewomen and Out-helpers as you can they but make Gossips. She should bee ye first of servants stirring and last in bed, & have some authority over ye rest, & you must hear her and give her credit, yet not without your owne Examination & inspection, that Complaints come not to you without cause. It is necessary alsoe she should know to write and cast up small sums & bring you her Book every Saturday-night, which you may cause to be enter’d into another for your Selfe, that you may from time to time judge of Prices & things are continually altering. This Servant is to keep your Spicery, Sweet-meats Cordial waters [etc.] & ye rest of ye Servants are to account to her; & such a Server (I tell you) is a Jewel not easily to be found.


The recipient of these instructions, Margaret Blagge Godolphin, was renowned in her own time for both her beauty and religious devotion. In her teenage years, she was a Maid of Honor to the Queen in the court of Charles II. Her letters demonstrate her success at establishing a circle of admirers and friends at court, John Evelyn among them, but they also reveal an extreme frustration with the moral depravity of her fellow courtiers. She was especially impatient with her superiors’ endless card games and fashionable worldly activities that kept her from her prayers. After several years she managed to get away from the Restoration Court to serve Lady Berkeley but was soon obliged to go abroad with her while Lord Berkeley served as the English ambassador to the court of Louis XIV. From Paris, she wrote to John Evelyn of her admiration for the cloistered life of nuns even though life among Catholics exposed to her the superstitions of the Roman Church and confirmed her Protestant faith. Despite her desire to dedicate herself to a life of religious devotion after her time in Paris, John Evelyn—who had become a sort of spiritual mentor to her—persuaded her that her most pious act as a 22-year-old woman would be to follow through with a long-term engagement to be married to Lord Sidney Godolphin, the King’s Master of the Robes.


Not long after marrying, Margaret Godolphin asked the Evelyns for help with her home economics. This seven-page document thus reveals Mary Evelyn’s attempt to help her devout young friend establish a household that would provide her a refuge from the world of high society she found so tiresome. By Margaret Godolphin’s own account, it worked.  She wrote of her thankfulness for the blessings she was able to enjoy after her marriage: her health, her husband, her time to herself, and her “house quiet, sweet, and pretty.”  Sadly, Margaret’s enjoyment of this place of respite and meditation was cut short when she died after giving birth to her son Francis in her third year of marriage.


These household management instructions by Mary Evelyn were among Margaret Godolphin’s papers that John Evelyn set in order upon her death. Evelyn eventually turned these into a biography that remained unpublished until the nineteenth century. The Ransom Center possesses the instructions, which were enclosed in a letter sent to Samuel Pepys by Evelyn in 1685. Evelyn’s cover letter offers some humble commentary on the utility of the instructions that is tinged with regret for the loss of his dear young friend. Evelyn expresses his hope that the methodical recommendations of his wife might be helpful to other virtuous women Pepys knows. Evelyn hesitantly offers his own daughter, Susanna, as an example of such a virtuous woman who might benefit from these instructions. In parentheses, though, he adds a caveat that thinly veils a regret-filled critique of his other daughter who had recently eloped without the family’s consent and subsequently died of smallpox: “if God give her [Susanna] Grace to make a fitter Choice than her unhappy sister.” Evelyn’s rather bleak references to his own kin in this letter are strikingly juxtaposed against powerful and wistful expressions of love for Margaret Godolphin, now deceased for seven years, whom he calls “that concealed saint, and incomparable Creature, so well known to me, & my wife in particular.”


Thus, this document reveals the trust John Evelyn placed in his wife Mary’s expertise in planning, budgeting, practical math, and management skills, and provides a fascinating glimpse into the details of how a small upper-class London home operated in the late seventeenth century. Its cover letter to Pepys also provides a context that allows us to glimpse this document’s status in its afterlife as a kind of talisman that preserved for the Evelyns a tiny bit of the intimacy and spirituality of their friendship with the young Margaret Blagge Godolphin.


Transcriptions of Mary Evelyn’s Household Management Instructions are provided by Catherine Harris and Patrick Naeve, student volunteers from The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Liberal Arts Plan II Honors Program.


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Archivist declares medieval manuscript fragment crowdsourcing project success

By Micah Erwin

During the late medieval and early modern period, it was a common practice for bookbinders to cut out the sturdy parchment leaves of outdated or unwanted handwritten books to reuse those leaves as covers or binding reinforcements in new “cutting edge” printed books. This practice lasted until roughly the seventeenth century, when the sources of handwritten books began to dry up and binding practices continued to evolve.  Today, many of these medieval fragments—or “binder’s waste”—can still be found within the bindings of early printed books in collections throughout the world.


In July 2012, Cultural Compass posted a story about a project in the archives and visual materials cataloging department to survey medieval binders’ waste. As an outgrowth of this project, we took images of those fragments and posted them to a Flickr account in an attempt to “crowdsource” the identification of their texts. We also created a Twitter and Facebook account to broadcast our progress. At the time of that 2012 blog post, the response was promising but not conclusive. Around 16 of the 40 items had been identified in the first few months, but there were many more fragments to identify.


Now, 369 images, several conference presentations, and more than 67,000 views later, there’s evidence that crowdsourcing can work with even the most archaic of subjects. Twenty-eight individuals (from amateur enthusiasts to established scholars) contributed to the project by providing input via comments on the Flickr page. A number of other individuals assisted through emails or phone calls. Thus far, 94 of the 116 identifiable fragments have been identified, and nearly 57 percent of those were identified through crowdsourcing (by date, region, or the text itself).


The fragments span several centuries, regions, and genres. Ranging from choirbooks to Hebrew commentaries to philosophical and legal texts, they provide valuable insights regarding the fate of handwritten books after the introduction of printing. And, thanks to the number of views, a relatively obscure subject has received generous attention. Readers may be interested to note that Google Books played a significant role in identifying many of the texts. While a few items remain unidentified and we come upon new fragments with some regularity, the bulk of the work is complete.


I would like to take this opportunity to express our deepest gratitude to all those who followed or contributed to the success of this project.  We did take the time to confirm each and every attribution, and the degree of accuracy has been quite impressive. It is my hope that people will continue to assist in this effort when new fragments are uncovered.


Crowdsourcing is now moving beyond the introductory phase. And although it is not an appropriate solution for every problem, there is no question that it has the power to bring together diverse groups of individuals to collaborate in ways not previously thought possible. There are many more fragments of medieval manuscripts scattered throughout the world’s great libraries—collaboration and discovery await!


Related content:

Rare French “Cisiojanus” fragment identified in bookbinding through crowdsourcing project


Image: These four volumes of German poetry are wrapped in manuscript waste materials written in Hebrew. Photo By Alicia Dietrich.

New inventory of manuscript collection reveals unprecedented level of detail for scholars of British history

By Elon Lang

The Ransom Center recently published a new finding aid for one of its richest collections of early manuscripts: the Carl H. Pforzheimer collection of English manuscripts. The bulk of the manuscripts were acquired in 1986, along with 1,100 other rare early printed editions of English literature that form the Pforzheimer library. The manuscripts include nearly 2,000 items dating from 1485 to 1844 that feature original correspondence from European monarchs, nobles, and aristocrats. Represented are works and letters by notable figures in British history such as Oliver Cromwell, John Donne, Queen Elizabeth I, John Evelyn, John Locke, Samuel Pepys, and Sir Walter Raleigh.


The new finding aid represents the first-ever online description of the Center’s Pforzheimer manuscripts and provides a new wealth of detail about the collection. Each manuscript has been individually cataloged, and digitization of all of the Pforzheimer manuscripts is ongoing. As digitization is completed, the descriptions and images will be added to the Ransom Center’s publically available digital collections.


The Pforzheimer manuscripts have several thematic strengths. For example, there are letters signed by Queen Elizabeth I relating to the ultimately failed negotiations for her marriage to François, Duke of Anjou. Another theme encompasses letters and documents signed by participants in the regicide of King Charles I of England, including two letters by Oliver Cromwell. Another grouping is anchored by a significant collection of letters by philosopher John Locke and additional letters by other English Enlightenment-era thinkers from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Several founding members of the British Royal Society are represented in this group, especially Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn—two famous diarists of the period who provide modern-day historians with first-hand perspectives on English culture, politics, and science in the period. Among Evelyn’s materials are original hand-drawn sketches of gardens and naval battles, and letters to colleagues discussing the classification of herbs.


Another highlight is a beautifully extra-illustrated 1833 biography of Sir Walter Raleigh, created by nineteenth-century collector John Dillon to hold his extensive collection of original manuscripts by Raleigh and his contemporaries along with nearly 500 rare prints and original art. Other items of significance to the history of art and literature include letters by seventeenth-century poet John Donne and eighteenth-century playwright William Congreve; a rare early seventeenth-century copy of Edmund Spenser’s Shepheardes Calendar translated into Latin; and a vellum handwriting showcase book from 1606 by Esther Inglis, one of very few known women calligraphers of her era. There are also two letters by members of the early Quaker religious movement, Margaret Askew Fell Fox and Isaac Penington.


The largest group of manuscripts in the collection originated from the Bulstrodes, an aristocratic English family prominent in Middlesex in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. By far the bulk and the most significant of these manuscripts are 1,469 handwritten newsletters dating from 1667 to 1689 received by Sir Richard Bulstrode (1610–1711) while he was stationed in Brussels as an English diplomat. These newsletters provided Bulstrode with information from England that could not be printed in public newspapers, such as parliamentary business. The reportage in the newsletters offers today’s readers a first-hand insider’s perspective on English history and London culture in a tumultuous time. Readers will find reports on England’s involvement in North America, hostilities with the Dutch and French, court hearings about government censorship, parliamentary debates on the right of habeas corpus, the formation of the Whig and Tory political parties, the Popish Plot and persecutions of Catholics, the uneasy succession of Charles II by the Catholic James II, the Rye House Plot, the Duke of Monmouth’s Rebellion, the Glorious Revolution of William and Mary, and accounts of court gossip in the 1670s and 80s that involved Mary’s sister—the future Queen Anne.


Supported by additional correspondence between Bulstrode, the newsletter office owner Joseph Williamson, and some of Williamson’s clerks, the Pforzheimer collection preserves one of the world’s largest records of early correspondence journalism. And through its digital collections, the Center will provide access to a large collection of manuscript newsletters from this era, showcasing the immense value these documents have as primary sources for historical and cultural research.


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Digitized access to Frank Reaugh art collection allows viewers to peer beneath the frames

By Jennifer Tisdale

A new digitization project provides unprecedented access to the entire Frank Reaugh art collection at the Ransom Center.


A one-year, grant-funded project to digitize, catalog, and process the collection is complete, and the collection is accessible via the Center’s new digital collections website. The online resource includes images of the fronts and backs of 217 artworks that comprise the Frank Reaugh art collection. Viewers are able to see both framed and unframed images of the works.


During the 1930s, artist Frank Reaugh (1860–1945) earnestly sought an institution in the Southwest to preserve his artwork.  In 1937, eight years before his death, he gave a portion of his private collection to The University of Texas at Austin.


Interest in Reaugh has grown steadily over the years.  Today, Reaugh is considered an influential artist of his time, and his artwork is sought by private collectors and museums alike.


The works in the Reaugh collection are primarily pastel landscapes of the American Southwest, spanning the duration of his career from his early field sketches to his later large-scale works. The native Longhorn, one of Reaugh’s favorite subjects, is often present in his work. Reaugh’s life and work will be the subject of a 2015 Ransom Center exhibition and publication.


“A unique element of the Frank Reaugh project was how we decided to photograph and present each artwork as an artifact,” said Ransom Center digital collections librarian Elizabeth Gushee. “The project revealed previously unknown notes and sketches on the backs of paintings, and it also told us a lot about the materials that the artist used to create his frames. By giving this level of detail about Reaugh’s creative process, we hope to provide opportunities for scholarly interactions with the collection that have not been previously possible.”


The project also enhanced cataloging information to facilitate access to the collection, including the creation of a finding aid for the collection.


The process of removing these delicate pastels from their frames, many of which were still within their original mats and frames constructed by Reaugh, presented some challenges. Each artwork posed unique needs for handling and photographing, especially the largest pastels, some of which were nearly 50 inches in length.


The project to digitize and catalog the Frank Reaugh art collection was made possible with support from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Texas State Library and Archives Commission.


Related content:

Frank Reaugh project reveals new details of the artist’s process

Image: Library Assistant Megan Dirickson works on a project to digitize and catalog the materials of artist Frank Reaugh, including rehousing works after they have been documented. Photo by Edgar Walters.




Zarzuelas: The music of the sueltas

By Paloma Graciani Picardo

As cataloging of the Texas collection of comedias sueltas continues at the Harry Ransom Center, new features about these plays continue to be identified. The sueltas collection comprises nearly 14,000 titles published from the second half of the seventeenth century through the early twentieth century. More than half of the collection’s cataloged works were published between 1850 and 1900, which isn’t surprising as theater was the center of cultural and social life in nineteenth-century Spain.


The nineteenth-century witnessed the building of new theaters, a growing audience, an increasing number of highly prolific writers, and the development of new techniques of staging and dramatic performance. One of the most prominent developments, however, was the blossoming of lyric theater, which in Spain reached its pinnacle with its very own national genre: the zarzuela.


Lyric theater has existed in Spain since the 1630s, when King Philip IV started hosting performances at his hunting lodge near Madrid, known as La Zarzuela because of the brambles (zarzas in Spanish) that surround it. One of the earliest known performances of this genre is El jardín de Falerina written by Calderón de la Barca with music by Juan Hidalgo. In fact, Calderón became the most prominent lyric theater author, and some of his later works, such as El Laurel de Apolo, were already being referred to as zarzuelas.


When Italian opera was brought to Spain at the beginning of the eighteenth century, its popularity overshadowed the baroque zarzuelas. In the 1850s, while some intellectuals in Madrid were trying to create a truly national Spanish opera, other less ambitious composers revived the zarzuela. It was in the second half of the nineteenth century that zarzuelas would reach their Golden Age with authors such as Francisco Asenjo Barbieri, Tomás Bretón, Federico Chueca, Amadeo Vives, and Ruperto Chapí.


Differing from opera because it included dialog alongside singing, the new zarzuela had an excellent reception in Spanish society. At that time, Spain was going through a tumultuous period marked by the Revolution of 1868, an economic crisis, political instability, and the eventual crisis of identity brought on by losing the Spanish American War of 1898. Zarzuelas were an escape for the nineteenth-century Spanish theatergoers, much in the same way that musical films were for the American postwar public of the 1940s and 1950s. Zarzuela themes—usually love stories—were based on Spanish folklore and set in familiar Spanish locations. The plots, set mostly in the working-class districts, ranged from the buffa, or comic style, to the extremely dramatic. They were sung in Spanish and frequently included folkloric dances and costumes. Some of the most popular titles like La verbena de la Paloma, La Revoltosa, La Gran Via, or El barberillo de Lavapies are still being performed today in Madrid at the Teatro de la Zarzuela, open to the public since 1856.


The librettos and music were generally sold separately, and the rights of reproduction were held by different entities, as can be inferred from the catalogs printed on the wrappers and the dealers’ stamps found in the cataloged zarzuelas. However, some of the copies in the Ransom Center’s collection include additional pages with printed or handwritten scores and lyrics.


The hundreds of zarzuelas in the Ransom Center’s sueltas collection provide an excellent example of this genre’s popularity and reach. Without a doubt, these works constitute a valuable source for the study of Spanish popular culture of the period, as well as for the understanding of specific matters related to nineteenth-century theater as an organized entertainment industry.


The cataloging of the comedias sueltas is supported by a grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives.


Related content:

Ransom Center receives grant to catalog Spanish comedias sueltas

Stories from the Sueltas: Cataloger sheds light on gems in the Spanish comedias sueltas collection

Illustrating the Sueltas

Sueltas feature cartoons by Spanish caricaturist Manuel Tovar


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