Great Scott (Not!)

“Sir, I have very ungraciously left unacknowledged your present of the Landscape Illustrations of Waverly.”

So begins an undated letter by Sir Walter Scott to Mr. Charles Tilt, Bookseller. Scott probably wrote it in 1830, thanking Tilt for sending him a copy of Landscape Illustrations of the Novels of the Author of Waverly: With Portraits of the Principal Female Characters. The Huntington happens to have its own copy of the three volume edition of Landscape Illustrations, published in 1833. The 17 Waverly novels, written from 1814 to 1829, each feature a Scottish historical setting and include Waverly, Guy Mannering, and Ivanhoe.

As for the letter, it lay unidentified for many decades, part of a “hidden manuscript collection,” which Huntington curator Jennifer Goldman describes as “a collection that is largely unknown to researchers, usually because it hasn’t been processed (arranged, described, conserved).”

But, as it turned out, the Scott letter provided one further surprise: it is not an original autograph letter at all, but rather a facsimile (a printed copy), and one of the best facsimiles I have ever come across while cataloging. I had enlisted the help of Dr. Thomas McLean to try to date the letter, and he discovered that the original autograph letter is now part of the National Library of Scotland manuscript collections, whose catalog record states there are “many facsimiles in libraries all over the world.” I am sure the original collector of this Scott letter did not realize it was a facsimile, but it does serve as a reminder that it is not always easy to spot a copy.

The Scott “letter” is part of the Kane Literary collection, which was acquired by the Huntington Library in the early 1960s, part of a much larger group of material collected by Gerald John Kane. This particular collection is what is known as an autograph collection, and Kane spent years collecting autographs of famous people while also acquiring the collections of other autographs seekers.

Requesting autographs of famous people was a very popular pastime, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and it was very common to write to anyone even remotely famous to try to acquire a signature, famous quote, photograph, or poem. The Kane Literary collection spans centuries and technology: from a 15th-century manuscript written on vellum to a 1951 typewritten letter. It includes land deeds, poems, letters, photographs, government papers, and royal proclamations signed by, among others, actors and actresses, authors, explorers, kings, magicians, queens, politicians, scientists, singers, and soldiers. Among the holdings are autograph items of Joanna Baillie, Alice Stone Blackwell, W. E. Gladstone, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Washington Irving, Lillie Langtry, Louis Napoléon, Upton Sinclair, Queen Victoria, and the Duke of Wellington.

The collection remained partially cataloged for many years and was known, mainly, to manuscripts staff and a few researchers because it lacked an entry in the manuscripts card catalog, a finding aid, or an electronic record. But for the past five months or so, I have been working to fully catalog it and within the next six months will complete the work to bring this “hidden collection” to a wider research audience. Much thanks to Dr. Thomas McLean for his important assistance in dating and identifying the true nature of the Scott letter.

Gayle Richardson is a library assistant at The Huntington.

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