Treasure under a desert sun

Nicola Freegard shares her research in Balliol’s Historic Collections and the remarkable story of the gift that she gave to the College in return:

The annual car enthusiasts’ yard sale was an unexpected stop for me that winter day in 2015.  Set up outside on the pavement around the Shriner Temple, just a few hundred yards from my home in Tucson, Arizona, lay a collection of old army jeeps, 50’s cars, bumpers and unrecognizable pieces of car parts and road signs for avid collectors.  Under the cover of a torn tarp, shadowing a warm winter desert sun, I came across a small, brown leather-bound book laying hidden in a plastic crate of car parts.  Excited by my find, I flipped the book open and saw the brown ink of verse fall across a page, and quickly closed it. Instinctively, I rushed enthusiastically to purchase it when the seller said his asking price was $5.00, and the only information I got from him was, “That one’s old.”  I tucked it in my handbag and hurried home.

Back in my writing studio, I cautiously opened the book and began to read.  The pages were clearly legible and unfaded, lightly yellowed with age and filled with a beautiful, cursive handwriting, permeated with the dusky aroma of another time. At the top of the inner first page was the handwritten year 1797, and a name: ‘Fanny Merivale’.  The first entry was a poem – “The Exile” – and the entry dated March 1797. The notebook contained around 80 pages of poetry and verse.  Some original, some (as I later discovered) by the writer’s brother, John Hermann Merivale, and some by Robert Burns, Lord Byron and other popular poets of the day. The authors of some still remain mysterious.  Over the coming months, I would spend hours researching through ancestry sites to find any information I could that would help me understand who Fanny Merivale was and why this journal was in Tucson.

After an extensive google search, I stumbled upon the digitized materials of Balliol College Library which mentioned her name in a ‘Family Memorial’.   This book, documented by several generations, covered her ancestry through her grandparents, parents, her siblings and then her nephew and niece.  I read it hungrily from cover to cover, learning about the family secrets, hardships and celebrations, and fascinated by the vivid descriptions of a warm and loving young Frances (Fanny).  I was now led deep into a story of a family that intrigued me. I found myself impossibly entwined because, as I dug further, I discovered we held some blurred connections which gave cause to wonder –  had Fanny been reaching out that day to me, to pull her from the box of car parts?

Being British born and having emigrated to the United States in the early 1980’s myself, I was also drawn into the provenance of the book and how it had arrived, in a box of discarded items, in this small Arizona city.  Every friend I told the story to, had asked me, “But how did it get to Tucson?”  I was not able to reach out to the man who had sold it to me at the yard sale, and I felt some guilt because I had not done my due diligence in asking more questions.  I had to dig deeper.

My curiosity only grew when I learned Fanny had lived just a few streets away from my father’s house in Highgate, London; albeit 230 years earlier.  Her nephew had attended the very same small school, in Hertfordshire, that my father and brother had attended, when it had made its transition from the East India Company College to the public school that is now known as Haileybury. Her nephew had walked the same cloisters as they.  Her mother was a German who had moved to England, as was mine.  Frances had spent holidays in Hastings, East Sussex (then the hot new tourist destination for Londoners looking for some fresh sea air) where my mother also had been living for the past 40 years.   There were enough parallels to get my attention and lead me to pursue the idea of unravelling Frances Merivale’s story, with a creative purpose of seeking out a motive for either a book or screenplay treatment. Perhaps, had I found this notebook in a market stall in England, I would have been less surprised by our comparative connections; but it was undeniably remarkable that my fellow countrywoman had appeared in Tucson two centuries later, echoing similarities of my own family story.

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‘Sonnet by Miss Hole — 1793’ – one of several poems attributed to female authors in Frances Merivale’s commonplace book.

In 2016 I wrote to an email address on the Balliol College Library website to discuss this notebook.  The curator responded with interest.  Subsequently, on my next visit to London, I made the journey to Oxford with my then 14-year-old son to take the notebook to the curator for review, and to confirm that it was authentic, and not my imagination playing tricks.  The added experience of sharing the history of Balliol College and Oxford’s libraries with my son was worth the long journey.   This small purchase led us to stand in front of an impressive exhibition, on display at the Bodleian, of the original Magna Carta, as well as first and second edition William Shakespeare publications, making it a memory which is now etched into our own collective family experience.  My son put down his phone.  He took notice of the grand scheme of things, and as a parent, it felt like an event of immense value.   Even he, with his American teenage attitude, was impressed by this experience.  It was the moment when it occurred to me that this was the best $5.00 I’d ever spent!

Over the following two years, my research continued whenever possible.  The curator at Balliol confirmed the common notebook’s authenticity, inspiring further reading through a multitude of digitized documents. I was led through the tranquil life of Frances Merivale’s childhood in Devon, when she had started the notebook, to its final entry of verse in July 1816, entitled “Lines on the Splendid Funeral of R. B. Sheridan”. This was penned shortly after her sister’s own death, which was, by accounts, a tragic and life changing loss to Frances, throwing her into deep depression.  It was this that sparked the family’s need to help her move on, and after introductions, she was proposed to by a young man who was recently widowed, John Lewis Mallet.    There was record of an etching completed by Frances (a competent art student) held in archive at the Tate Gallery.  Reading further of her brother’s close friendship with Lord Byron at Cambridge, her family life, and her eventual marriage to John Lewis, son of the renowned French political journalist of the time, Jacques Mallet du Pan, I was compelled to continue.

Through those digitized files held in Balliol’s Historic Collections, I was able to research her childhood home, discovering portraits of her father, husband and family members (although sadly, I have not yet found a portrait of Frances).  I read in detail about her tranquil life before marriage, then about the move to her first married home in Russell Square, where she wrote descriptively of the fields that surrounded them when they first moved in – now hard to imagine; I learned of the subsequent and final home she shared with her husband for the last half of her life, not far from Windmill Hill.

She was raised into a society filled with art and poetry, like many young women of her day, yet she was surrounded with some of the most eminent creatives of her era, and the influence of that was deeply evident.   As a writer in research, I was driven to find something more than her quiet life in Exeter, and her painting excursions along the muddy banks of the River Exe.  Her young adult life was tranquil and full of love for her family.  However, I did not want to recreate Little Women.  Frances’ life was a period piece captured with both charm and comfort.

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Frances Merivale’s commonplace book includes poems by famous writers such as Robert Burns.

This past summer, I took a leap of faith and funded a trip specifically with the purpose of going deeper.  Research required I go to Balliol’s Historic Collections in St Cross Church in person.  With the help of the library staff, I spent a focused week pouring over the sections of the Mallet family archives that related to Frances and John Lewis Mallet in person.  Not really knowing what to expect or find, I was treasure hunting again, reading many letters (mostly scribed in French in very tiny spidery penmanship).  A few days in, among the boxes of letters and transcripts, lay the autobiography of the story that captured me.

Frances had led me here to her husband, John Lewis Mallet, who in later life served as a rising star of the Whig party and a respectable civil servant of colonial Britain.  Mallet had published an autobiographical book specifically for his family’s own reading and sense of their place in history, outlining a compelling story of his life as a young man, at the beginning of violent change in his then home town of Paris, in 1792. Here he stood alongside his father, Jacques Mallet du Pan, who, under strict instruction from Napoleon, was to be executed or exiled from France in response to the publication of du Pan’s liberal published journal criticizing the Revolution. The Revolutionary Tribunal at the Bastion in 1794 was the turning point for John Lewis (then John Louis) and his father, whose friends included Voltaire, among other influential philosophers. In du Pan’s own words: “Like Saturn, the Revolution devours its children.”  Father and son fled Paris on foot in the dark of night, leaving family and friends, in the hopes that they could seek refuge within Switzerland, the birthplace of Jacques Mallet du Pan, with a loose plan to reunite with loved ones later.  Without a firm destination, John Louis recounts his story as a young man finding his place in an upturned world, with a tough journey of self-discovery, but also of his passage towards a new life in a vastly changing Europe.

Because of Balliol’s Library resources, an intimate world opened wide, and travels to locations I was compelled to experience through his eyes:  Geneva, Switzerland, Northern Italy, Paris, France as well as my home town of London.  The depth of my subjects’ own words, the descriptions of the times and textures of the characters surrounding them, breathed life into this valuable history lesson, and insight into the suffering that occurred through the rise of nationalism. He eloquently revealed how the Revolution unfurled a particular cruelty among the nobles and working class of Europe. These documents have provided me with a complex foundation for the story that I became inspired to tell by this research. My work is still in process as I write this, and I anticipate its first draft completion in the coming year.

Balliol’s Historic Collections have provided me the luxury to delve into a deeply personal creative experience and uncover a moving historical personal story of courage and strength in a time of far reaching social and political upheaval.   Without such archives, I have no doubt I would have held onto Frances Merivale’s common place book, and it would have remained in my own library, another remnant of an unknown and disconnected past collecting dust. Because it sparked curiosity, it has given so much in return.   I am still working on the ‘How did it get to Tucson?’ part, and that may end up revealing itself soon.  I’ve learned that several of the Mallet family future generations also emigrated to the United States in the late nineteenth century.  Another parallel I could not brush off.  I will continue to follow this lead as I work on the next chapters.

I had no plan to become a savant of the Mallet family when I started this journey.  It’s the fourth year into the project, and now the Mallets have become a part of my everyday life –  a reminder that their history is entwined in our present; that the common experience of social upheaval set 200 years earlier is not much different than the current political climate.   They are now familiar friends from another time; discovered through a notebook found in a box of car parts under the desert sun.  This commonplace book now resides in the care of Balliol’s Historic Collections, digitized to share, where it will remain in safe keeping with the remnants of Frances’ letters and the volumes of work of the Mallets family archives. Now I am telling their story.

We are grateful to Nicola Freegard for her discovery and subsequent gift. Frances Merivale’s commonplace book is now Manuscript 477 in Balliol’s Historic Collections. It has been fully conserved and digitised by the Oxford Conservation Consortium, with a view to making the images available online in future.

 

 

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