Blind accumulation of material is far easier than selection, and the roadmap is subject to change—these have been my first lessons in developing an online exhibit on “Dispatches from the Cockney School: The Romantics for Our Time.” During the latter half of June, I waded through the Special Collections’ digitized Leigh Hunt collection, trying to piece together modern-day meaning-making from hundreds of pieces of correspondence between various members of Hunt’s social circle. This meant that as a nineteenth-century British literature scholar, I was spoiled for choice—personal letters and photographs passed between some of the people whose influential stories I want to help preserve and pass on.
The challenge has been to decide which of these letters are relevant to the project, both in terms of content and public interest—on one hand, in a project about journalism, illness, and politics, a letter from Charles Dickens where he wittily turns down an invitation to tea as a conversation opener is not as directly relevant as correspondence where Hunt explains his recent illness and difficulty meeting a deadline. On the other hand, it’s a humanizing and fun moment between long-dead and often distant-seeming writers, the kind of moment which I consider foundational to academic work and public-facing scholarship. I have decided to keep this letter on the site, but other such darlings may have to be more carefully chosen from and some discarded.
I believed at the start of the project, as I do now, that the Romantics are at their most accessible today, when—like 200 years ago—conversations are full of fears of illness, journalistic quandaries, and political upheaval, all woven into everyday life and concerns. Although discussions of sickness and health are a consistent theme in these notes, I also want now to explore mental health in the Cockney School. The famously social Hunt was literally isolated from the outside world during his imprisonment, and the tone of his periodical writing and some letters often reflect a sense of loneliness and frustration. We have only begun scratching the surface of the pandemic’s long-term effect on mental health, and I want to shift the tone of the health and illness narrative to include discussions of how these Victorians dealt with their mental health in isolation.