In 1996, a graduate student named Mark Robson was creating a digital catalog of the University of Leeds’ Brotherton Library when he discovered a small manuscript on the shelf. The elegantly titled “Poems Breathed Forth by the Noble Hadassas” contained 120 poems and a half-finished prose romance.
As far as Robson could tell, the manuscript hadn’t been read in over 250 years. He hadn’t heard of the “Noble Hadassas” – nor had anyone he asked.
But a riddle scribbled in the manuscript offered a hint about her true name: “Marvel not my name’s concealed / In being hid it is revealed.”
In the Biblical story of Esther, “Hadassah” is Esther’s Jewish name. In early modern England, “Hester” and “Esther” were versions of the same name. They’re also anagrams. That allusion to “Esther” – in addition to a couple of references to an estate named Broadfield – gave scholars just enough evidence to search public records for possible authors.
The mystery manuscript turned out to be a collection of poems by a 17th-century English woman named Hester Pulter.
At first glance, the verses of a self-taught, unpublished poet might not seem remarkable. But Pulter was writing in an era of chaos and change in England. She was eager to explore some of the most exciting scientific ideas of the time. And in a time when women were expected to be silent and chaste, she took risks in her poetry and confidently expressed her ideas.
Now, a collaboration between literary scholars across the globe is bringing Hester Pulter’s poems to the public, in the form of an open-access digital edition called The Pulter Project, which launched on Nov. 15, 2018.
Who was Hester Pulter?
Pulter was born into the aristocratic Ley family in 1605 and married Arthur Pulter when she was relatively young. After marrying, she spent much of her life at the isolated Pulter estate, which was over a day’s journey from London. She wrote most of her poems at home and would occasionally travel to London to visit other family members.
Since Pulter mainly kept to herself and rarely left her home, most of what we know about Hester comes from public records. She gave birth to 15 children, only two of which survived to adulthood, and lived through the English Civil War, which lasted from 1642 to 1651.
Literary scholar Alice Eardley, who produced the first scholarly edition of Pulter’s works in 2014, has suggested that Pulter’s relative isolation inoculated her from pressure by readers or literary society to conform to a certain style or subject matter. It gave her the freedom to write innovative, opinionated, emotionally complex poetry.
Pulter’s poems, which range from the political to the autobiographical, appear to have been written throughout the 1640s and 1650s. In the 1660s, Hester worked with a scribe to create a presentation copy of her draft poems, making notes and annotations on the manuscript.
It’s likely she never intended to publish her poems, however. In 17th-century England, women who published risked being seen as vulgar and sexually suspect. In order to avoid slander, the few women who did publish usually wrote about topics more aligned with proper womanly values: household guides, devotional books and diaries or memoirs of their husbands.
An aristocratic woman like Hester would have been expected to behave modestly, keep quiet and focus on her household rather than write about political conflicts and scientific experimentation. Pulter’s small family may have read her work, but it seems that her poems sat untouched after her death until they were rediscovered in 1996.
Poetry that’s observant, personal and political
Although Pulter lived a relatively isolated existence, her poems reveal a deep intellectual engagement with the most pressing issues and ideas of the mid-1600s. From the references she makes in her work, it’s clear that she had read works of natural history, alchemy and descriptions of America like William Wood’s “New England’s Prospect.”
She also appears to have kept up with major scientific discoveries, including Galilean astronomy and the microscope. In “Universal Dissolution,” she acknowledges Galileo’s discoveries, describing the sun as the “front and center of all light,” the star around which all other “orbs perpetually do run.”
Pulter was also a keen observer of nature. In “The Pismire,” she describes watching an ant colony at work for an afternoon. “View But This Tulip” shows off her familiarity with alchemy and early experimental practices, and in it she begins to think about the human body as composed of recyclable atoms. These poems place her within a culture of experimental observation that was part of the rise of modern science.
And she certainly didn’t shy away from expressing her political views.
Hester’s parents were Royalists – supporters of Charles I – and she remained a Royalist even when many of her extended family and neighbors supported Parliament instead. Many of her poems express grief at the havoc the civil war caused in England, and mourn a breakdown of religious and social hierarchy.
In “On that Unparalleled Prince Charles, His Horrid Murder,” she compares a country without a king to the universe without a sun, both of which fall into chaos.
But her political poems avoid outright tribalism. Instead, they’re nuanced and well-informed, and they critique the ruling class for their role in social collapse.
Pulter is equally comfortable writing about personal experiences like her illnesses or a child’s death. She surveys the effects of time on her body in “Made When I Was Sick, 1647,” and in “Upon the Death of My Dear and Lovely Daughter, Jane Pulter,” deals with the grief of losing yet another child. It’s tinged with envy of parents with healthy children:
All you that have indulgent parents been, And have your children in perfection seen Of youth and beauty: lend one tear to me, And trust me, I will do as much for thee, Unless my own grief do exhaust my store; Then will I sigh till I suspire no more.
She also expresses early feminist ideas, and addresses, in complex ways, how society constricts women’s behavior, devalues their work and diminishes their intellectual value.
From “Why Must I Thus Forever Be Confined?”:
Why must I thus forever be confined Against the noble freedom of my mind? Whenas each hoary moth, and gaudy fly Within their spheres enjoy their liberty.
Reaching new readers
Hester Pulter is clearly worth knowing. Her works speak to the major issues of 17th-century England and provide a rare lens on English culture.
In an effort to bring Pulter’s poems to the public, early modern literature professors Wendy Wall and Leah Knight created The Pulter Project. They collaborated with a host of other scholars from the U.S., Canada, Australia and England to create a free, digital edition of Pulter’s works.
The Pulter Project allows readers to toggle between scans of the manuscript, basic and annotated editions of poems, and explanatory notes. Readers can also explore “curations” for each poem, which are images and selections from texts relevant to the content of a given Pulter poem.
Editors draw on their expertise of 17th-century English culture to contextualize the poems and also make connections to modern culture. The curated materials for “Made When I Was Not Well,” for example, discuss “invisible woman syndrome,” the social phenomenon of women disappearing from public view when they reach middle age, or are ridiculed and criticized for attracting public attention.
Curations for “My Love is Fair” explore racialized beauty standards, topics just as relevant for 17th-century readers as they are for today’s intersectional feminists.
The Pulter Project shows what’s possible when the literary canon is expanded to include new writers and more women. Poets like Hester Pulter change our understanding about who could – and did – participate in the scientific, political and intellectual debates of centuries ago.
Johannesburg was always a much photographed place from its earliest days. It was a city that grew up with photographers and their cameras. As a town of migrants and immigrants, people wanted to send postcards and photographic souvenirs back home.
Some proof is in a new book, Johannesburg Then and Now, by history blogger, Marc Latilla. It is a series of photographic juxtapositions of early photographs of the city – dating from the 1880s to the 1940s – with contemporary images of the same street scene or building by photographer Yeshiel Panchia.
The book is descriptive rather than analytical, with the emphasis on Johannesburg buildings, places and streets and not its people. Latilla’s love and passion for his city comes through in his descriptions.
At a mere 132 years Johannesburg is a young city compared with cities of the world. London and Rome go back over 2000 years.
It started as a mining camp with a gold bonanza once George Harrison had found gold on the Main Reef in 1886. The new mining settlement was named Johannesburg – the origins of the name and who precisely was the “Johannes” of Johannesburg is still in dispute. The camp grew over time to a city. Today it is a metropolis that dominates the province of Gauteng, both as the provincial capital and the financial heartland of South Africa.
Johannesburg is a fractured city, divided in all sorts of ways. Geographically it’s split by the mines of the Witwatersrand – one can still see their remains south of the city while the north has a very different landscape.
Another divide was created by the railway which cut the town in half with the most affluent suburbs to the north and the less affluent to the south.
The city’s economic divide was also evident in the architectural styles of the residential areas which reflected status: from the working class, to the lower and upper middle class, and then at the very top end the grand estates on the northern ridges for the Randlords and newly enriched capitalist class.
The town was also divided by race from its earliest days. While there was always economic integration, segregated residential areas for different racial groups were the norm. The township of Soweto was created in the 1930s when the white government started separating black people from white people.
This policy of racial and class separation was perpetuated further when apartheid became official policy in 1948. It also led to forced removals of black people to townships outside the “white” city.
Growing in circles
Johannesburg has always grown in concentric circles. Municipal boundaries were periodically extended, mapped and basic services of water, sewerage, lighting, tramways financed by an increasing number of ratepayers brought into the net to support the city. Soweto, once the internationally recognised site of the 1976 youth uprising, is now part of the city, but so is the glitzy new glass and concrete post-modern city of Sandton.
The Johannesburg that has been captured in this book though is the old Johannesburg; what was called the Central Business District and its surrounding suburbs. This is Johannesburg from 1886 to a date more or less 50 years later when the city celebrated its jubilee with the Great Empire exhibition at Milner Park in 1936.
I should declare an interest – I was first asked by Penguin Books if they could use an image of an old early title deed that I had written about and then to give the book a preliminary early opinion. As historian I found myself drawn in to assist in some fact checking and comments to help the author. Of course the selection of photographs and his commentary remain his entirely.
The old photographs were taken by countless unknown and mainly anonymous photographers. They are remarkable in their own right. It was so much more difficult to take and make a photograph in 1900 than in our digital age. Those old photos in black and white are works of art as much as are the perfect colour and light reflected images of today. The sources of the old photographs are primarily from collections held by the University of the Witwatersrand, Museum Africa and the Transnet Heritage library. The early photographs are tend to be undated, so that the “then” can be any time from circa 1890 to the 1930s and even later, while the now photographs are all in colour and clearly belong to the last few years.
My favourite photo is the old aerial view of the Harrow Road redevelopment when the first Johannesburg freeway was engineered (Harrow has since been renamed after a famous Johannesburger, the liberation struggle stalwart Joe Slovo). The photo allows us to see precisely how Harrow Road was widened and changed direction in the fifties. This single photo is a superb find.
A book such as this makes a contribution to heritage because it captures, assembles and documents the old and now the new. Where old photographs have been found recording what a particular building looked like and the building is still there, such photographic documentation strengthens the heritage preservation case.
However, none of the grit, crime, grime, litter or lack of maintenance we battle against today is visible in the modern photographs. This is the Johannesburg we don’t see: the crisis of homelessness and densification of dwellings. Who, for example, would know in the photo of Plein Street park that it is actually now a dormitory area for dozens of homeless people without jobs? Is it the city or history or harsh economic realities that has failed them? Of course one can argue that modernization and urbanization always left victims and the city of gold did not bring fabled wealth to all .
Johannesburg Then and Now is a fascinating book. It’s important for cities to preserve their pasts , because “Roots” matter as much as “shoots”. This book can perhaps start a discussion about what ought to be appreciated and “saved”. The book will remind city planners to include heritage in their planning for a 21st century city.
Johannnesburg Then and Now is published by Penguin.