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Of Suppressors And Dilapidators Of Manuscripts
by [?]

The late Duke of Bridgewater, I am informed, burnt many of the numerous family papers, and bricked up a quantity, which, when opened after his death, were found to have perished. It is said he declared that he did not choose that his ancestors should be traced back to a person of a mean trade, which it seems might possibly have been the case. The loss now cannot be appreciated; but unquestionably stores of history, and perhaps of literature, were sacrificed. Milton’s manuscript of Comus was published from the Bridgewater collection, for it had escaped the bricking up!

Manuscripts of great interest are frequently suppressed from the shameful indifference of the possessors.

Mr. Mathias, in his Essay on Gray, tells us, that “in addition to the valuable manuscripts of Mr. Gray, there is reason to think that there were some other papers, folia Sibyllae, in the possession of Mr. Mason; but though a very diligent and anxious inquiry has been made after them, they cannot be discovered since his death. There was, however, one fragment, by Mr. Mason’s own description of it, of very great value, namely, “The Plan of an intended Speech in Latin on his appointment as Professor of Modern History in the University of Cambridge.” Mr. Mason says, “Immediately on his appointment, Mr. Gray sketched out an admirable plan for his inauguration speech; in which, after enumerating the preparatory and auxiliary studies requisite, such as ancient history, geography, chronology, etc., he descended to the authentic sources of the science, such as public treaties, state records, private correspondence of ambassadors, etc. He also wrote the exordium of this thesis, not, indeed, so correct as to be given by way of fragment, but so spirited in point of sentiment, as leaves it much to be regretted that he did not proceed to its conclusion.” This fragment cannot now be found; and after so very interesting a description of its value and of its importance, it is difficult to conceive how Mr. Mason could prevail upon himself to withhold it. If there be a subject on which more, perhaps, than on any other, it would have been peculiarly desirable to know and to follow the train of the ideas of Gray, it is that of modern history, in which no man was more intimately, more accurately, or more extensively conversant than our poet. A sketch or plan from his hand, on the subjects of history, and on those which belonged to it, might have taught succeeding ages how to conduct these important researches with national advantage; and, like some wand of divination, it might have

Pointed to beds where sovereign gold doth grow.[3] DRYDEN.

I suspect that I could point out the place in which these precious “folia Sibyllae” of Gray’s lie interred; they would no doubt be found among other Sibylline leaves of Mason, in two large boxes, which he left to the care of his executors. These gentlemen, as I am informed, are so extremely careful of them, as to have intrepidly resisted the importunity of some lovers of literature, whose curiosity has been aroused by the secreted treasures. It is a misfortune which has frequently attended this sort of bequests of literary men, that they have left their manuscripts, like their household furniture; and in several cases we find that many legatees conceive that all manuscripts are either to be burnt, like obsolete receipts, or to be nailed down in a box, that they may not stir a lawsuit!

In a manuscript note of the times, I find that Sir Richard Baker, the author of a chronicle, formerly the most popular one, died in the Fleet; and that his son-in-law, who had all his papers, burnt them for waste-paper; and he said that “he thought Sir Richard’s life was among them!” An autobiography of those days which we should now highly prize.

Among these mutilators of manuscripts we cannot too strongly remonstrate with those who have the care of the works of others, and convert them into a vehicle for their own particular purposes, even when they run directly counter to the knowledge and opinions of the original writer. Hard was the fate of honest Anthony Wood, when Dr. Fell undertook to have his history of Oxford translated into Latin; the translator, a sullen, dogged fellow, when he observed that Wood was enraged at seeing the perpetual alterations of his copy made to please Dr. Fell, delighted to alter it the more; while the greater executioner supervising the printed sheets, by “correcting, altering, or dashing out what he pleased,” compelled the writer publicly to disavow his own work! Such I have heard was the case of Bryan Edwards, who composed the first accounts of Mungo Park. Bryan Edwards, whose personal interests were opposed to the abolishment of the slave-trade, would not suffer any passage to stand in which the African traveller had expressed his conviction of its inhumanity. Park, among confidential friends, frequently complained that his work did not only not contain his opinions, but was even interpolated with many which he utterly disclaimed!