Common Place Books

My  research and development has  focused on the history of Common Place books as a direct relationship to popular culture.Following my main research interests of 19th women’s social history, folk lore and the art form of puppetry.  I have discovered links between the feminine practice of documenting in the 1800’s and my own continuous use of scrapbooks, journals etc.

Commonplace book (n.): an edited collection of striking passages noted in a single place for future reference.

“Commonplaces are small nuggets of language that carry a lot of weight for a particular group or in society at large, at a given time. They can be slogans, bumper stickers, catch-phrases, or simply pieces of language that we use all of the time, but which are more complicated than we realize, perhaps because they are so very common. “ Prof J Hilgart, Rhodes College & Prof V Hillard

“Commonplacing is the practice of entering literary excerpts and personal comments into a private journal, that is, into a commonplace book or, to use a 17th century synonym, a silva rerum (“a forest of things”). Typically the excerpts were regarded as exceptionally insightful or beautiful or as applicable to a variety of situations, and so as such they are often especially quotable. . . . The practice of commonplacing can be traced back in the European tradition to the 5th century B.C.E. and the Sophist, Protagoras.”

“Boys … had to keep notebooks or commonplace books in which to record, and then learn, idioms, quotations, or figures useful in composition or declamation. Not a little of that wide learning and impressive range of quotation adorning Elizabethan literature comes from these commonplace books.” Schools in Tudor England, by C R. Thompson (Washington: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1958)

“Students with literary tastes, in days when books were hard to come by, kept ‘commonplace’ or notebooks into which they copied out verses or prose extracts that particularly appealed to them.” The Intellectual Life of Colonial New England, by S Morison (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1965)

“Commonplacing–The commonplace book began blank. The reader used it to collect premises, arguments and other quotes from the various books read. The common place book was always at hand for the next addition or as a conversational prompt. It might well fill up with contradictory snipets.” Norman  Anderson, Commonplacing in the Spiritual Traditions

“Time was when readers kept commonplace books. Whenever they came across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook under an appropriate heading, adding observations made in the course of daily life. Erasmus instructed them how to do it . . .The practice spread everywhere in early modern England, among ordinary readers as well as famous writers like Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, John Milton, and John Locke. It involved a special way of taking in the printed word. Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end, early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality. . . . The era of the commonplace book reached its peak in the late Renaissance, although commonplacing as a practice probably began in the twelfth century and remained widespread among the Victorians. It disappeared long before the advent of the sound bite.” — Robert Darnton, “Extraordinary Commonplaces,” The New York Review of Books, December 21, 2000

The commonplace book is a way of memorialising those striking passages so that one can return to them for renewed inspiration.-

 “There is real benefit in the habit of entering such memoranda in ones commonplace book, sometimes as a clue to guide the mind back to former trains of thought, sometimes as a light pointing in the distance to something worthy of being traced at convenient seasons” Mrs Anna Jameson

I have concentrated mainly on research into Anna Jameson’s ‘A Common Place Book of Thoughts, Memories & Fancies’ 1854 and Eliza Broadhurst’s scrapbook ‘Queer, Quaint & Curiose Pages’ 1880-90

Anna Jameson was born in Dublin in 1794. In 1820, Anna became engaged to a lawyer, Robert Jameson, By June 1821, however, she had broken her engagement and had set off for Italy to be a governess. Returning to London a year later, she continued this position. But in 1825, she finally married Robert and her first major work, The Diary of an Ennuyée, a fictitious account of her travels in Italy, was also published. Her marriage was not happy, Robert was a poor husband and moved, without Anna, first to the West Indies and then to Canada.  In 1837, in a last attempt to resume her marriage, she made the trip to Canada before heading to New York and then back to England. Jameson had agreed to a formal separation and undertook to pay her an allowance, a commitment he did not uphold years later. In 1846, while staying in Paris en route to Italy, she chanced to meet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert and assisted them in their flight to Italy. She travelled between England and the Continent for the remainder of her life, while she worked on her series of art histories such as Poetry of Sacred & Legendary Art 1848 and Characteristics of Women 1832 looking at Shakespeares women in theatre. She deepened her involvement in the feminst movement, “woman question,” researching and writing Sisters of Charity which, when it was refused by the Edinburgh Review, she gave as a lecture, before it was published in book form. It was followed by another lecture and publication, The Communion of Labour. Anna Jameson’s social network was extensive; it spread through her constant travelling across England, Scotland, the United States, Germany, Italy, and France and it cut across literary, political, artistic, philanthropic, and feminist circles. Jameson had at least three intimate friendships with women–Lady Byron, Elizabeth Jesser Reid, and Ottilie von Goethe.  Jameson had the gift of forming friendships with young women, the daughters and nieces of her female friends. In her later years, she enjoyed the company of Adelaide Procter, Anna Mary Howitt, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, Bessie Parkes Belloc and others of this group of early feminists. It was Jameson who encouraged Parkes and Bodichon to proceed with the English Woman’s Journal and she critiqued each number as it appeared until her death on March 17, 1860.

Eliza Broadhurst was born in Ireland in 1839, was well educated and gifted at music . She married Charles Broadhurst and emigrated to Australia in 1865, enduring a long uncomfortable voyage 7 months pregnant with her daughter, who was the first European girl born in the north of Australia. Initially she put up with incredible hardships, but had a strong pioneering spirit. She took her piano with her and was well known for her singing voice and social graces.

Her husband went pearling, using the services of local Aboriginal people in an industry noted for its brutality and abuse, particularly of Aboriginal women. In 1867 Eliza left the North after famine and disastrous losses, the family moving to Perth, WA. Charles was away working all the time, going to Scotland in 1871 and bringing back the SS Xantho, the first steam ship to WA. His arrival to great public acclaim, was also to the news their son Ernest had died at just 12 months old. The ship sank and after failing to pay his pearl divers, the family became bankrupt. Eliza held the family finances together, teaching and often over worked & ‘fagged out’. However her home became a haven and meeting place for the young society women of Perth, and she was a leading figure in drama and music circles. She and her daughter were active in the growing womens movement and later Catherine became a suffragette, tied herself to the railings of Parliament House in London, was imprisoned, went on hunger strike and was force fed. In 1889, she retired to Bournemouth with Charles and died in 1899 aged 60.

 

“The collection here has the feel of a notebook, an album. A scrap book, a treasure drawer, an old shoe box filled with much loved items. It resembles a so-called ‘commonplace book’ in which children and adults used to keep quotations and adages and cuttings and mementoes; originally, when someone like the great scholar Erasmus was urging people to keep such records of their thoughts and readings and experiences, the objective was improvement, and the practice belonged to a Protestant work ethic that everyone should cultivate their sense of self in relation to God and to his creation and not waste time or fail to lay up moral and mental capital. But gradually commonplace books became stores of memories and pleasures, and turned into idiosyncratic personal hoards of private-even secret-instants of recognition and delight. The exalted Memory Palaces of Renaissance thinkers have become democratic. They have moved house, and taken upresidence in that old shoe box or biscuit tin, which has gradually filled to over flowing with lovely odds and ends to form an account of life, a map of likes and fancies, a small cabinet of wonders,or a kind of vernacular shrine.” Marina Warner intro for Sara Fanelli: Sometimes I Think, Sometimes I Am

 

A commonplace book was once called a ‘silva rerum’ or a ‘forest of things’

In gathering and collating these things a unique imaginative pathway or journey is taken, individual to self – this leads to new perspectives and can access esoteric knowledge, as ‘the forest of things’ is a liminal place – sacred, alluring and sometimes dangerous. As in the traditional introductions to fairytales – European ‘Once upon a time’, ‘Once there was and there was not’, the Arabic ‘It was and was not so’ or the Aboriginal Dream time ‘Always and nowhere’ we are entering a timeless, and magical place.

 

The journey – travelling is also a liminal world, being in between places. A no-mans land. A state of mind which transposes distance and time, arriving often at the sea shore or side, another liminal place neither land nor water. Children inhabit a liminal state, accessing places adults cant in the imagination.

 ‘the best childrens fantasy roles are characterisations of the real world, fantasy captures the notion of childhood innocence’. AS Byatt

 This eclectic form of keeping records of thoughts and experiences, whether in image or text, often releases the unconscious mind and what is hidden underneath, the things unsaid are made apparent.

 

“The collective unconscious is common to all, it is the foundation of what the ancients called ‘the sympathy of things’. Carl Jung – memories, Dreams, Reflections.

 

Within the art form of puppetry is an inherent liminal state – when the object is used as a metaphor, we proceed from the known to the unknown, the transformation of the everyday to the extraordinary. Thru improvisation, the open minded, child like play reacts to instinctual processes, with unknown outcomes.

 

Lubaina Himid

The themes connecting Anna Jameson and Eliza Broadhurst in their lives, reveal similarities in their need to move from the boundaries of their middle class upbringings and revel in their freedoms available to them. Both women came from Ireland and emigrated to new worlds, both had an intense pioneering desire to travel, document their journeys and the changing world. They both shared an intense interest and love of the arts, literature and history and mentored younger women to achieve higher goals in life. Their husbands were both away most of the time and they had difficult marriages.

Finally, they were both involved in the new womens movement – feminism of which the Suffragettes were born, thru their support and activity. In keeping a commonplace book, they are able to communicate their thoughts and ideas in another time and place beyond their lifetimes.

Research References

–    small blue commonplace book at Harris Museum & Art Gallery with  Laura Briggs, Curatorial assistant, History.

–         SS Xanthos shipwreck and history of the Broadhurst family at the Westen Australian Shipwreck museum, Perth

–         Women Pioneers Memorial , Kings Park, Perth

–         Own scrapbooks, journals and sketchbooks.

–         Puppet sports, improvisational game at UNIMA Int. Conference

–         Creative Play workshops with Early years at Eureka! childrens museum, Halifax

–         Filming improvised play with objects, collaborating with Chantal Oakes, digital media artist

 

Methods

–         collecting & collating visual images and objects

–         written accounts and experiences

–         quotations and inspirational texts.

–         collage and assemblage

–         object manipulation

–         film & sound

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