Author and guest blogger Aislinn Hunter continues on from an earlier post.
The walk from Witley to Aldworth was, if our real-life Cowtan went directly, probably about six and a half miles or thirteen miles round trip. Depending on the route and Cowtan’s intentions this could easily have been a much longer trek. Add Cowtan’s age to that and it seems his belief in his great powers of walking were justified. As to his intentions we can only guess. Did Cowtan happen upon Aldworth or did he go there knowing it was the home of one of the era’s greatest poets? Cowtan, as previously mentioned, was a British Museum librarian and author who wrote a number of books on the Museum and its people (‘Memories of the British Museum’ and ‘A Biographical Sketch of Sir Anthony Panizzi’) before his admission to Bethlem. He was also the author of ‘The Autobiography of a “Man of Kent”’ a first-hand account of his life from 1817-1865; an account that references Tennyson twice – a sure sign that Tennyson and his work were on Cowtan’s radar.
What amazes me most about Cowtan’s casebook records is the very hazy line between statements of potential fact and ones of potential fiction. One of the signs of Cowtan’s dissociated state is that he claims to have been personally acquainted with the Queen – a completely incredulous idea if one presumes they are reading the casebook of an ordinary citizen – but one not as far-fetched when we discover that Cowtan was very well acquainted with a Mr Williams who was the ‘Librarian in Ordinary to Her Majesty Queen Victoria’ – a man he describes (in ‘Memories of the British Museum’) handling the precious volumes in the Royal Library – a description that places Cowtan there. Indeed, the records that do come up around Cowtan when one starts digging show him to have been a regular correspondent with dozens of important figures in the day (including Charles Dickens who was a ‘subscriber’ of Cowtan’s autobiography and who wrote to Cowtan at least once in 1867). A good number of these correspondences might have been related to Cowtan’s work at the library, or they may have been related to what appears to be a penchant for autographs – regardless, the letters demonstrate that Cowtan had access to, and interactions with, literary and societal circles that wielded significant influence in his day. This is not to say that Cowtan didn’t have a breakdown or suffer profoundly from the overwork his casebook describes, it’s simply to say that his story, like all patient’s stories, is far more nuanced than it might first appear.
I have always been obsessed with lost histories. It is one of the reasons I write and a theme that runs through my first five books and my current novel-in-progress. In finding Robert Cowtan I felt like I enacted what my fictional archivist Jane is seeking to do: give the dead back their stories. That afternoon ten weeks ago in the small back room of Bethlem’s archives was a pivotal one for me as a writer and as a human being. I felt in a small way like I’d re-tied a rope or knit some of the strands of one man’s life back together. A small thing perhaps, but part of what I, as a writer, hope to do: create resonance, take what those who came before us have done, and who they’ve been, and stitch some evidence of their lives back into the larger human story.
Aislinn Hunter is the author of two books of poetry, two works of fiction and a book of lyric essays. Her first novel Stay is due to begin filming in Ireland in the spring. A novel entitled And Then It Will Be Us is nearing completion.