I suppose that most scholars of literature, and many historians, have shared a disconcerting realization of the large spiritual gap separating them from the objects of their study and admiration. How can anybody write about Shakespeare, for example, without feelings either of inadequacy or of fraud? How could any academic essay on King Lear actually enlarge King Lear? I spent a lot of time teaching Chaucer to undergraduates, and writing about him for the scholarly press without ever getting in hailing distance of the man’s geniality or the scope of his genius. Just very occasionally, however, one encounters something approaching a just symbiosis of the writer and the object of the writing — in Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne, perhaps, or in the fourth gospel.
When I was writing my most recent book I encountered a fine example of this happy phenomenon relating to Valentine Greatrakes, the “Stroker”, a faith healer who baffled some of the great minds of the early Enlightenment in England. It was then that there came into my hands a big octavo entitled Conway Letters: the Correspondence of Anne, Vicountess Conway, Henry More, and Their Friends, 1642-1684, edited by Marjorie Hope Nicolson (New Haven, 1930).*
Anne Finch, the daughter of Sir Heneage Finch, who for a time in the reign of Charles I was the speaker of the House of Commons, was born in 1631. At the age of twenty she married Edward Conway, later Earl of Conway, the heir to an imposing country house, Ragley, in Warwickshire. From the intellectual point of view Lord and Lady Conway were one of the premier power couples of her age, or any other I suspect. Lord Conway amassed at Ragley an imposing scholarly library. It was still a time when a voracious scholar could hope to be familiar with almost every important book issuing from the press, and his book agents scoured the bookshops of the continent for new works in every field of learning.
Yet in this close and loving marriage the distaff was mightier than the spade. At a time when women were subordinated in all walks of life, excluded from the universities and the professions, disabled by custom and by law, Anne Conway has to be reckoned one of the great intellectuals of her day. Latin, Greek, and Hebrew she mastered at a high level. Wholly on the basis of recognized ability she was accepted as a private pupil by Henry More, the Cambridge platonist, who judged her the ablest interpreter of the philosophy of Descartes he had ever met. More and other famous scholars and philosophers like Ralph Cudworth made of the Ragley dining room a kind of running salon of virtuosity.
Many of the familiar letters that passed among this elite group were used by their less impressive posterity to kindle fires or polish furniture! By extraordinary good fortune, however, a substantial number were preserved in a great wooden chest, eventually falling into the rescuing hands of Horace Walpole, a man who knew a thing or two about letter-writing and the value of letters.
Only in the 20th century, however, did they get their due when Marjorie Hope Nicolson took them up as a scholarly project. In Professor Nicolson Lady Anne Conway found her match, or at least her modern analogue. Nicolson (1894-1981) was a brilliant scholar of 17th and 18th century English literature who, like Conway, was a bold pioneer in what in the upper echelons of American higher education was still pretty much a man’s world. Her list of “first woman to…” is impressive. She was the first woman to take a doctoral degree in literature at Yale — which she did in two years — the first woman to teach on the graduate faculty of an Ivy League institution (Columbia), the first woman President of Phi Beta Kappa, the first woman president of the Modern Language Association. She declined the invitation to become the first woman president of Smith, where she had served as a distinguished professor and dean.
Her scholarship, too, was pioneering, and revolutionary. She had a rigorous philosophical mind and a deep knowledge of the history of science. She was thus perfectly prepared to undertake investigations of the extraordinary impact on the literary imagination of the scientific explosion of the 17th century and the later Enlightenment. There are not a great many books that I myself remember vividly from graduate school in the early sixties, but two of them were by Nicolson: Newton Demands the Muse: Newton’s Opticks and the Eighteenth Century Poets and Science and Imagination. I met her once, in 1961. She gave a lecture at Princeton, an institution at which there was not then a single woman student or faculty member. Yet I remember that one of my heroes, the genial Louis Landa, no slouch of a scholar himself, introduced her as the greatest of living American literary scholars.
The Conway Letters naturally have of themselves the fascination of bringing to life the rather amazing life and thought of a unique community of English aristocratic and philosophical thinkers three centuries and more ago. But their organization, edition, and introduction by a modern scholar who lived and breathed the 17th century and who wrote with the sparkle of a wizard and the clarity of an angel makes of them something of a modern masterpiece as well. I think Lady Anne would be most pleased.
*Oxford brought out a renewed edition in 1992.