Monday, August 7th, 2017...9:30 am

A Curious Manuscript

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This post is part of an ongoing series featuring items from the exhibition Open House 75: Houghton Staff Select on display in the Edison and Newman Room from May 8 – August 19, 2017.

Melesinda Munbee’s Miscellany found its way into my hands one day  in 2002 when I was browsing our stacks, looking for manuscripts to show to a class. This miscellany consists of  two handwritten volumes of poems inscribed in 1749 by a five-and-a-half-year-old girl and dedicated to her father, Valentine Munbee, who taught her how to write. That’s what the dedicatory poem says, and maybe that’s just what it is. But I was intrigued by it from the moment I opened up the first volume and read the title-page:

munbeetp

MS Eng 768 v. 1 A collection of various kinds of poetry : title-page.

That handwriting looked much too practiced and elegant for such a young girl. I wanted to learn everything I could about Melesinda and the family that produced her and the Miscellany. Our catalogue record was skeletal and there was no curatorial file to flesh it out. But the more I studied its contents, the more curious I grew.

With the exception of the dedication, a pastiche of phrases borrowed from Swift and Roscommon, mixed with strikingly direct and apparently personal sentiment, the poems are not original; most are well-known verses culled from printed anthologies of the time. Some of them are far from suitable for children.  I began to wonder if Melesinda Munbee was a fictional creation rather than a girl who once lived and breathed and wrote. Her name was certainly novel-worthy.  But why would anyone have gone to the trouble of inventing an artifact like this?

Genealogical websites led me to a published transcription of her father’s plaque in a church in Horringer, near Bury St Edmunds, and a letter I wrote to the local historical society brought in return an invitation to visit Horringer House. That’s how I spent my next vacation.

Horringer House, near Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, UK

Horringer House, near Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, UK

The tower is a Victorian addition, but the rest of the house is where the family lived and Valentine Munbee died, just two years after the miscellany was made for him, followed by his wife two years later. The family who welcomed me at Horringer House was not related to the Munbees, but they showed me extracts from Valentine’s will, quoted in deeds proving title to the house.  The document pointed to a fortune that had been made in Jamaica, Valentine Munbee’s illegitimate birth and his own avoidance of the marriage tie. I also found some of the Munbee children listed in parish records  as “base-born,” and learned their mother’s far-too-common name, Elizabeth Warden. It would prove difficult to trace her origins, whether Jamaican or English.

The next year a Harvard College Library grant allowed me to return to England to look at Valentine Munbee’s original will in the National Archives at Kew, and yes, he did devote a paragraph to praise the non-coerced blessings of common-law marriage. There was also a packet of letters still tied in official red tape, untouched since the probate case when they were presented as evidence. These were letters from the guardians appointed to look after the Munbee children’s interests after their parents’ death.  I found no letters written by Melesinda either to prove or disprove that the Miscellany was her handiwork, but at least here was evidence that she was real:  the guardians’ lamenting her absence from her father’s will (written before her birth and never revised); accounts of expenses incurred, including a cobbler’s bill of 3p. for mending Miss Melesinda’s boots and 6s. for making her damask slippers. The letters also told the sad tale of her being bounced from one household to another because of her lack of funds and bad behavior, which descended as far as threatening to bite one of her caretakers.

When I returned I found a listing in an on-line library catalogue for letters written by Elizabeth, her oldest sister. The photocopies I ordered were wonderful to read, depicting a world straight out of Austen, but there was no mention of Melesinda in them. At least I could rule this sister out as the true scribe of the manuscript, since the handwriting was not at all similar.

I tried searching for clues in the provenance of the manuscript, which bore the bookplate of a man named Charles Shoppee, a London surveyor whose usual collecting habits reflected his interest in architecture. But if this manuscript had come down to him because of a family tie to one of the Munbees, I couldn’t find the trail back.

But I went back again, this time to Ickworth House, which now belongs to the National Trust, but was once the seat of the Hervey family, earls of Bristol, about half-a-mile from Horringer House. Was their fine library the source of the poems copied into Melesinda’s manuscript? I worked out just which editions were used as copy-text-in-reverse, and then found dog-eared pages in just the right places in surviving copies in the Hervey library, but these were very popular poems in their day, and the Hervey family papers didn’t breathe a word about any Munbee connection. No conclusion there.

I finally found the ending of Melesinda’s story (though not the answer to my original question): in the register of the St. James Parish in Bury St Edmunds under the date April 22, 1763, a burial record for “Mrs Mellesenda Munbee.”  If we can believe the title-page of our manuscript, she was 19 years old.

Susan Halpert, Reference Librarian, contributed this post.

 

MS Eng 768 v. 1 f. 5v (detail)

MS Eng 768 v. 1 f. 5v (detail)

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