Life Writing and Lichfield Literary Culture, 1775-1835


Project background

The Birthplace of Samuel Johnson is a Grade I listed historic house and now an Accredited Museum housing over 8,000 collection items including archive, manuscript, and library items relating to Samuel Johnson, his circle and the wider 18th century. The Birthplace is a lively small institution welcoming over 20,000 visitors in a normal year.

In the eighteenth century, Lichfield was establishing itself as a hive of provincial intellectual and artistic creativity. While scholarship has paid attention to local individuals, such as Anna Seward and Erasmus Darwin, there has been a gap in knowledge regarding the lines of influence between those in, or associated with, the Lichfield set. This collaborative PhD aims to demonstrate that the collaborative writerly relationships within the network effected developments in experimentation in biographical genre, attitudes to literary legacy, and textual editing in the late Georgian period. 

Research Team

  • Lead Researcher: Emma Stanbridge, English Literature (Keele University, English, School of Humanities and Social Sciences).
  • Academic Supervisor: Professor Nicholas Seager, Professor of English Literature and Head of the School of Humanities.
  • Industry supervisor: Joanne Wilson, Museums & Heritage Officer. 

Research approach

This project is a historical approach to the evolution of a genre, literary biography, which adopts a capacious understanding of that genre in the wake of Johnson’s examples. It will analyse a range of literary biographical writing, including memoirs, anecdotes, editions, life-and-times publications, and marginalia, as distinctive forms of life-writing in a crucially important period for this genre’s development. Collection items held by the Birthplace Museum, such as Seward’s copy of Boswell’s Tour to the Hebrides and Hester Piozzi’s annotated copy of her Anecdotes of the late Samuel Johnson, provide the basis for this research. This project has four distinctive aims:

  • To produce new readings of important writings and editorial publications by those in, or associated with, the Lichfield set, such as Anna Seward and Erasmus Darwin.
  • To intervene in debates about Romantic-period sociability, creative networks, and artistic influences by examining a literary set that has never attracted particular attention.
  • To contributes to scholarship that tackles the rise of professional female authorship and traces lines of influence between male figures and women writers.

Collection items and research findings will also inspire a series of events for post-16 students studying English or History, small displays, and a learning event for Birthplace Museum volunteers. 

Expected impact

The project will bring scholarly attention to a significant but little-known collection and will provide new research and insights to the collection. The collaboration also provides the opportunity to update collections information both in-house and online and interpret the collections for new audiences through planned workshop events, small exhibitions and blog posts. 

The PhD project will provide a unique opportunity for the University and the partner to collaborate on a series of public engagement outputs and share research with new audiences. The project will also enhance Keele’s reputation for eighteenth-century and Romantic-period literary studies, and consolidate strengths in scholarship on prose genres, literary history and afterlives, textual studies and editing, and women’s writing.