We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

The Plantation 2007 -- and 2 18th Century women's memoirs · 21 January 07

Dear Marianne,

I braved the freezing cold this week and managed to read a small 2 volume mid-eighteenth century biography, Memoirs of Catherine Jemmat (1762) in a marathon read from 9:30 to 4 on Thursday in the Library of Congress and begin reading a long 6 volme mid-eighteenth century biography, An Apology for the Life of George Anne Bellamy (1761, 2nd ed. 1771) in the Folger Shakespeare Library. I took stenography notes until my hand ached. This is part of my project on a second paper on Anne Halkett which I’ve returned to, and I thought I’d talk about this tonight as well as my adventures at the Library of Congress on Thursday.

I kept putting off going to the Library of Congress where I knew this book was because I really dreaded going there. The last time I was there I had been driven there too: In the summer of 1999 I wanted to write a chapter of my book on Trollope on the original illustrations to his novels, and knew the Library of Congress had copies of the original issues of his novels with the illustrations. No one else in the DC area did, and I had the good fortune of being near them once again. Before that I hadn’t been in the place for about 4 years. Why?

In the early 1990s I had been a "reader" with a shelf and stack pass at the Library of Congress for some 6 years. I did a lot of reading of rare and hard-to-find books and essays and materials, spent long hours in microfilm rooms, and had made a few acquaintances there too. I had a shelf. I was comfortable and happy there.

Suddenly the place altered dramatically. Inside one week all rules were altered so that you had to put not only all your books in basement lockers for the first time, but also your handbag and were not permitted to take more than pencils and pieces of paper upstairs to do work. No books of your own. You had to go down to a basement to register and get a card and the basement procedures were a hassle. All this would not have been so very bad (except that my stack pass was suddenly taken from me—see below for why this is so counterproductive for a researcher), if the atmosphere had not gone suddenly so hostile. The guards (mostly black people) were overtly suspicious of everyone suddenly; the feel was of them bullying and looking menacingly at the readers and all who came into the library. Some of these people carried and still carry loaded guns. Suddenly the corridors were empty of people, In brief, it was hard to go upstairs into the reading room and where the computers were, and very unpleasant. The librarians (mostly white people) seemed to try to pretend nothing new was happening, but it was clear they couldn’t carry on in the way they had and there was a look of helplessness on some faces.

A frightening incident happened to me too. When I was leaving the Library I handed my bag over to a guard to be searched, and he became obstreperous and began to shout at me indignantly. He had a loaded gun. I had to behave superdocile suddenly: he had taken my behavior to be "uppity" (he was black) and was incensed. I thought to myself, this man could kill me. I wrote a letter of complaint and got back a denial that any such incident could have happened the way I described it. I was exaggerating. However, when I came to the Library for 3 times after that I was met by a male librarian (white) who walked me in and out of the library. Thus if I met this man in the entrance way nothing untoward could happen.

I have told the races of these individuals & groups for what happened was the result of years of seething resentment based on a racial and class divide in the library. I soon learned (from friends and a couple of librarians in scattered talk) that the people with low prestige and low paid of the library (people in the stacks, cleaners, cafeteria staff; those who fetch and carry, pick up books from the stacks, cleaners, and most of all guards) were in the 1980s just about all black and in indignant revolt against the upper class of the library (librarians, administrative staff) who were just about all white. They had were able to use a couple of incidents of stealing (not uncomon) to put in new Draconian rules which made the guards the powerful police of the library space. I heard a word used for the first time during this crisis (I’ll call it). The plantation. Apparently many black people working at the library called it the plantation. As far as I knew there were no negotiations for better salaries or conditions for the non-professional people in the library, but I surmized that eventually this is where this new pressure from the guards would lead to.

The readers were caught up in this. No longer could anyone take a book from the stacks. No more stack passes. This is a real loss for if a reader sends a slip down and the stack person can’t find the book, the reader can wait for hours and get nothing. If she goes down to the stacks and can’t find that one herself, she can take another on the same subject. No long wait either. Readers were really searched at intervals with no cause. (This before 9/11 so it was a new thing.) Readers were treated like suspect persons everywhere but the rare book room. I felt the guards glowering at me as they sat in new high stools at the doors.

A story did appear once in the Washington Post about the situation, but I never came across a second story.

I simply stopped going to the Library of Congress. I had finished my project on Anne Finch for the moment and begun to do all my work on Vittoria Colonna and Veronica Gambara at the Folger. Then in 1999 I needed to use the Library again.

I found the place not as tense, but a great deal of institutionalized bullying was happening. Artificial rigmarole routines were imposed. All sorts of forms to be filled out. It took me 3 hours to get a pass (in a sub-basement deep in the library bowels of the Jefferson). I had put all my things but one pencil and three sheets of paper to take with me to the rare book room to read & study the original installments of Anthony Trollope’s novels. Once I got into the rare book room, the atmosphere was pleasant and reasonable as it had been throughout the library in the 1980s. So I did go every day for about 2 weeks. But I was then relieved not to have to return and hoped from then on all I would do I could do in the Folger.

But now there was this mid-century memoir which I knew was important for me to look at. Catherine Jemmat’s Memoirs. Now the Folger had no copy; the L of C did. The Folger specializes in Renaissance and early modern Europe (17th century) and all having to do with Shakespeare out of those periods. Nothing else will be there but by chance. The Library of Congress has enormous holdings in many many areas.

So I went back again.

I’m glad to report things have improved somewhat at least for someone with a registration card already who is just using the rare book room. I don’t know what it’s like to use the large reading room and use the computers upstairs to find items. Nor the microfilm reading room. It may be you still have to leave just about everything in a locker in a basement and are subjected to suspicion or searches at random. Probably not. I suspect the stiff flexibilities and new things I saw at the rare book room (such as their own local lockers) are in place in the other areas of the library. I imagine stack passes are available for longtime readers and researchers again, though I worry that now you must have some institutional affiliation (which you didn’t before). By 1987 I had an affiliation but not everyone who wants to do research does; for the first 3 years I was there I had no affiliation (no job).

To my adventure: I came in to the central entrance and had had the wisdom to bring with me my registration card from the time I read the Trollope issues. I discovered this was an open sesame card. The guard at the front door of the building saw it and said, ah, we need not search you, and I went through the framedoor without a search. My books and bags were x-rayed by the feds (who are also at the doors of the L of C nowadays), but I was pushed then ahead and went to the Information desk. There I met two librarians (middle aged, white, a man and a woman) and showed my card. They said, oh, you can go straight to the rare book room. Imagine my delight, Marianne. They did fret for a few minutes about whether my card needed to be updated, but finally both hoped it did not, and the man said, "go for it."

So I did.

I got upstairs and found the Rare Book room. Then I did have to endure some rigmarole. A young guard-type woman was in charge of the desk and looked at me guardedly. I was asked to fill out two forms and then produced a print-out of the name of the memoir and call number. She said I would have to put my stuff in a locker but that nowadays lockers were provided in the same hall area as a reading room. Nowadays no one watches you use your locker. (This is what they were doing in the early 1990s.) So I got a key, walked over to the locker, put all my stuff away but two books and papers and pencils. I walked back. She looked at the books suspiciously. She wasn’t sure I would be allowed to have those. Great consultation with a man sitting at a computer (both people were black). Well, if I must, and then I must make out another form. They have paper and small pencils. I said I would prefer my own sten pad and long pencils. Another consultation. Again permission was granted. But suddenly she was appalled. At what? I had my handbag. That certainly had to go into the locker. I walked back and put it away.

I came back. Now I was told my card was obsolete and needed to be updated. I had to go to a room on the second floor of Madison. I said, you mean put my coat on, go outside and find this room. "You need not go outside. You can use the tunnel." But it was not her business. Impassive face. I was permitted to leave my stuff in the locker. I need not give up the locker, and key and get a new one when I returned. Gee thanks. I have bunions, and had hurt my feet, so it was hard to walk all the way round but I did it. I used the elevator down to the tunnel.

Once in the tunnel I was in familiar territory. I used to go here to eat in the staff cafeteria in the 1980s. A friendly man (black) helped me find my way to the Madison. I did notice that many of the guards were white—this was new and a good sign. It was probably part of the reason for the defusion of tension I noticed. I finally found the room for registration in the Madison. There were stations you had to go through, but the atmosphere was not as bad as it had been in the basement years ago, and all that was done was one woman at the final station hit a key on a computer and my card was updated. I was not required to take a new photo.

I made my way back to the Jefferson Building and rare book room. The young woman had not gotten the book while I was gone. She didn’t look pleased to see me. I had to wait for her to get it, and it seemed to me she liked making me wait. I asked Jim when I got home, what kind of gratification could she possibly get from all this. He said none. She just hoped you wouldn’t return so she wouldn’t have to get the book.

I had arrived early, 8:30 am precisely. I had lost but an hour in all this and began. As I sat there I noticed the librarians (all white) I had known before were still there. One man is gentle and friendly and he asked me how I was doing, and at one point, said to me as he went out to lunch, "Enjoy!" It was he who brought me the Trollope issues 8 years ago and I remembered we talked about illustrations. He helped other people while I was there. The young woman who gave me the hard time appeared to have little to do. At one point she went out to lunch with the man sitting at the computer. He too seemed to have little to do. But their presence made the room staff less racially singular (not all white). I should say one of the readers sitting at a desk reading a rare book was an elderly black man.

At 4:00 I had finished, and despite my back hurting, decided I would go to the Folger to get my rare book out so I could come back Saturday with it there. The black man sitting by the computer took my book and said "you won’t be back with us tomorow?" He smiled, slightly friendly for the first time. I said no. I gave him back the rare volume by Jemmat—I had learned much from my day with her.

Catherine Jemmat was a respectable gentry woman who is today a respected minor poet, and she wrote a non-scandal intelligent Memoirs about how her father coerced her into marrying a man who turned out to be a brutal bankrupt. She is candid about the beatings her husband inflicted, the casual negligence and cruelty of her father, the sexual harassment she was subjected to by an older man who was her father’s first candidate for her husband. It’s not melodramatic; it’s not an apology. It’s not religious rant (spiritual autobiography).

The book itself was revealing. She has a couple of hundred subscribers and many of them people from the theatre and nobility and politicians the like of Fox. She has a specific purpose: she wants people to support her bid for getting an allowance from her father and the only way she can think to do this is shame him in front of others she knows. She also wants to justify how she is living at the time of writing. I assume with a partner, a male. It was a common way for women to survive. Well, the way to do this is make public how she had been treated by her husband and how violent he continued to be. He was as half-mad as the Duchess of Mazarin’s husband: the incidents show a pattern of unreasoning sexual jealousy; he then attempts to trap her in incidents where she will reveal she’s had sex with someone, and then he proceeds to beat her. It’s a tiny relatively inexpensively bound book. Poor woman. She fills it out with poems. It is itself a site of desperation. But her tone is witty, prosaic and for the most part highly controlled.

The book has flaws: she will instead of telling the truth about an incident, substitute a supposedly entertaining novelistic rehash of the real incident. All this does is obscure the hard reality. She justifies herself by citing Richardson’s novels. But she is not writing a novel. That’s why her book is significant and has power.

I got my stuff from my locker, returned the key to the young woman (standing there waiting for it when I returned) and went to the back entrance of the library prepared to be searched. But the guard (black) was going through someone else’s stuff and assumed a friendly posture towards me, and waved me on. He didn’t even look to see if I had a registration card. Thus both going into the library and out of it and through the tunnel showed that this searching into one’s bags (and thus the whole rigmarole of lockers where no one watches you) is serendipitious and therefore as useless as at the airport.

What a relief to go into the Folger and be smiled at by everyone casually. Yes you have to put your briefcase away, but if you want to bring books and papers with you, it’s understood that’s natural. Within twenty minutes I had before me 6 volumes of an elegantly printed autobiography, An Apology for the Life of George Anne Bellamy, another mid-18th century autobiography by an intelligent woman that is not a scandal chronicle, not a spiritual autobiography: I read about an hour on Thursday (though my back was hurting) and three today from 9 to 12. I’m learning a lot.

For example, I know see that by mid-century autobiographers were beginning to imitate the popular novel. This weakens their books as they are partly fictionalizing sometimes; they have not yet developed structures and forms of their own once they leave the diary mode. In the 19th century new appropriate autobiographical patterns would emerge. They hadn’t yet. I learned more about the realities of middle class life for a gentry-level woman of the period. I will perhaps go into more specifics about this another time as my letter is getting rather long. This is a kind of statement G.A.B. often says at the end of her letters to an imaginary friend too. I am loving this autobiography. The excerpt I had had was not representative: the editors chose a piece where Bellamy was catty, resentful, hitting out at another woman over theatre politics (jobs). The typical tone of the book is grave, serious, earnest, and while she wants to confess her discretions (sexual) and also indite the people who have victimized her with impunity, the ultimate reason for this very long book is to win back her life through reliving it, to recognize herself as she defines herself, to become the ideal self she wants to be. It’s a beautiful comparative work for Anne Halkett’s sadly maimed 17th century effort.

By contrast to Jemmat’s book, Bellamy’s is beautifully, expensively bound. The lettering is in gilt. She has two prefaces to noblemen. Her tone and lexical complexity reveals an intelligent mind working at ease. She is well-read. The book was translated into French and the French translation is in the Folger as well.

The reason it’s in the Folger is Bellamy was an actress who performed important Shakespeare roles. She was painted.

George Anne Bellamy (1731?-1788) by F. Lindo

I’ve discovered another memoir in the Folger of an 18th century actress who performed Shakespearean roles: The Case of Catherine Clive. I’ve found two rare books on her. Also a book of miscellaneous prose and verse by Catherine Jemmat. Here is a poem by Jemmat I copied out:

Question, on the Art of Writing

Tell me what genius did the art invent,
The lively image of a voice to paint?
Who first the secret how to colour found,
And to give shape to reason, wisely found?
With bodies how to cloathe ideas taught,
And how to draw the pictures of a thought?
Who taught the hand to speak, the eye to hear,
A silent language roving far and near?
Whose softest notes out-strip loud thunder’s sound,
And spread their accents thro’ the world’s vast round?
Yet with kind secrecy securely roll,
Whispers of absent friends from pole to pole.
A speech heard by the deaf, spoke by the dumb,
Whose echo reaches far in time to come;
Which dead men speak as well as those that live:
Tell me what genius did this art contrive?

I probably will not have to return to the Library of Congress for my Anne Halkett project as Anne herself is a 17th century woman and they have the biography of her and her meditations at the Folger too.

The situation across the street (the way the Library of Congress is referred to from the vantage of the Folger) does make an obstacle on Saturday for me. At one time I could have stayed all day at the Folger on Saturday. The Folger closes for lunch on Saturday as they have only a skeletal staff. Once upon a time, I would have spent the hour in the Library of Congress. I would have taken a book with me from the Folger that I own (say Janet Todd’s At the Sign of Angellica which a very few people on WWTTA are reading together) and read in the great reading room. I’m not enthusiastic about eating lunch out ever, and in this area the restaurants are few, and some of them expensive where I find myself given what I don’t want to eat.

Well, I didn’t know that I could have gone in and sat in the reading room of the L of C without all sorts of rigmarole. Maybe this time I would have had to go back to that awful basement to get another locker, and then (if the guard wanted to make trouble) have to go back and forth until what I was holding suited whatever guard was standing at a door. My feet are bad, it was freezing cold, high winds, and so I decided instead to go home and return on Tuesday.

Why have I told this full story? I was forced out of a place I once loved and find I still cannot use it with ease. I have since that time occasionally spoken with people about using the L of C and gotten vibes and comments which tell me I am not unusual in my response. The story in the Post so long ago was about how hard it was to do research at the time.

Has what was done in response to probable slights, humiliations and injustice removed those slights, humiliations, and economical as well as social disparities? I don’t know. I can see that white people are now being hired where they once weren’t so that they have access to more jobs than they did. I saw an attempt at a new veneer upstairs and perhaps more jobs for black people in the more respected niches. This is also a story about race and class in the US today, a fraught situation about which one finds hardly any candour in public.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. Excellent entry; harrowing tale. "Institutional bullying" is something that I first tasted at a public library, and I’ve never spent any time in them. I would rather go without.
    R J Keefe    Jan 22, 3:56pm    #
  2. Dear RJ,

    Your remark prompted me to go look at Johnson’s couplet in the "Vanity of Human Wishes" to see if he included what I’ve experienced in trying to get into private libraries (I included that in "Crossing that Threshold" which is linked in) and using public ones.

    Partly. "Patron" includes the Folger and the peope at the Library of Congress are functioning like the patrons of rich libraries of old:

    "There mark what Ills the Scholar’s Life assail
    Toil, Envy, Want, the Patron, and the Jail."

    Elinor    Jan 22, 11:03pm    #
  3. From Kathy:

    "I read your blog and was shocked that the Library of Congress has armed guards. Is it in a rough neighborhood or is this standard practice?

    I’d love to go to the Folger.

    It’s awful when one has to leave one’s bag in a locker. I’ve been to libraries when you can’t even take your own pencils in. What are you going to do with a pencil? They give you those tiny pencils at the door."
    Elinor    Jan 23, 1:24am    #

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