Our unrelenting appetite for historical drama is fed by a ceaseless stream of novels and dramatisations – usually, these days, something to do with those naughty Tudors. Perhaps it is how my generation, dosed on pick n’ mix modules and special options (Industrial Revolution or Origins of WW1 anyone?), recovers lost ground. But it is unmediated history taken straight from the page that gives the real jolt. I recently acquired for the Bodleian a journal kept from 1813-1818 by the engraver and antiquary James Basire (1769-1822). His father was the more famous artist, closely associated with William Blake. Nevertheless, the journal seemed worth having for all the right academic reasons. It would complement those of our collections relating to the history of printing techniques; add factual detail to the biography of a noteworthy if obscure figure; and expand the library’s roll call of antiquaries and artists who had depicted the city of Oxford. It does all of these things. But what it also does, sans blurb or wardrobe, is take us smack-bang into the guileless, bewildered, half-melancholic, half-hopeful life of a man trying to make sense of a haphazard present. Here, after ‘the greatest Journey in all my life’, he catches up with sorrowful events. Wrap up warm and hang on tight.
Friday January 14th, 1814
At the commencement of a New Year it is natural for us to form new plans & look forward when we expect to put them into execution – little considering what a day or hour may bring forth – this I was forcibly reminded of from a quarter little indeed expected – The morning of January 11 when busily employed in sorting and looking over my Print in my little room at the top of the house I was surprised at the presence of my dear Wife who came to me & put a letter into my hand – it was from Mr Rob Chesnutt, Mr Chesnutt’s brother, informing me of the sudden death of my poor Aunt – it was, I felt it so, an admonitory indeed – & that of our Saviour to Martha could with great propriety be applied to me – It gave no particulars but stated only that she died on Tuesday 4th and that it would be gratifying & a relief to Mr Chesnutt’s mind if I could make it convenient to come to the funeral – Tuesday the day fixed I had no time to lose – as I did not chose travelling on a Sunday I wrote to Mr Chesnutt to know if I should be on time if I set off by the mail on Monday night – I received an answer in the affirmative – my poor dear was full of fears about the journey – such dreadfull weather for travelling the whole country covered with snow – the cold being intense – but I took my place in the Norwich mail from Lad Lane as I had a great desire to see the last of the only relation so near to me – I wrapped myself up as warm as I could – and started for Norwich from the post office Lombard St a little after 8 O Clock Monday Evening – the night was very severe indeed, the snow which covered the ground made it so light that I could see the time by my watch any part of the night – we supped at Ingatestone & breakfasted at Ipswich – the one near 12 at night the other little after 6 in the morning – I got out several times when they changed horses but could not discover at this unseasonable time any particulars of the towns through which we passed – we arrived at Norwich a little after one O Clock the next day – Mr Chesnutt’s relations who was to have met me at the Inn being informed we should not be in before two O Clock – I had to inquire my way to his house which I soon found – Mr Chesnutt seemed overwhelmed with grief – my aunt’s death was unexpected by them all – she had been ill with her breath about a week and confined to her room though not to her bed for she was up & seemed something better the day before she died – her illness was a bad asthmatic cough – and she was so weak at last as not to be able to expectorate – this was we suppose the cause of the sudden deprivation of life – I saw her in the coffin – her countenance looked pleasing – Mr C told me she said but little about any one she little thought death was so near – The funeral was deferred till Wednesday my coming so late they could not get the leaden coffin soldered up in time for internment this day – Wednesday Jany 12 – about ½ past 11 O Clock 15 of us followed the remains of my dear Aunt to the silent Tomb – we went in two coaches Mr C his niece Patty her Father & Mother Mr C’s Brother & his Wife & myself went in the first Coach – Patty’s Brother & 4 Sisters Mr Rob C’s son & Two female Friends were in the 2d coach – every mark of affection & respect was shewn by Mr Chesnutt in the last offices to my poor Aunt that could be done – She was buried at St Giles Church in the new Vault made in the Church Yard – here in this quiet resting place was the body deposited – the ground was so slippery & the snow so deep that it was with the greatest of difficulty and danger the men were able to carry the coffin from the church to the grave …
Dr Christopher Fletcher is Keeper of Special Collections at the Bodleian Library