Letter from Elizabeth Macauley to Smith, Esqre
By Lauren Nicolle
This letter was written by Elizabeth Macauley, a woman who worked for twenty years as an actress before turning to political and autobiographical writing. It is dated as February the 25th, 1824 and addressed to a Smith Esqre.
On the first page, Macauley addresses her letter simply to a “Smith Esqre” at the Print Rooms in the British Museum. The abbreviation “Esqre” following the name of the addressee identifies him as “a member of the English gentry” (Merriam-Webster) and most likely as a scholar presiding over the British Museum’s Print and Reading Rooms. It is very possible he, who is merely referred to as “Smith” by Macauley, is John Smith Esqre, a man who worked for the British Museum as the “keeper of prints and drawings at the British Museum in 1816” (Peltz).
On the second page, Macauley identifies herself as writing from “No. 2 Somer’s Town Terrance” located in the inner-city district in North West London that is now part of the London Borough of Camden. Charles Dickens once lived in the area, and often mentioned it in his writings, like “The Pickwick Papers” (1836) and “David Copperfield” (1852).
Macauley writes to Smith with the request that he allow the man who comes bearing the note, a Mr. Moore, a tour and access to Reading Rooms within the British Museum. This reveals the note was delivered by hand by Moore instead of being sent through the post, also revealed by the lack of stamp and postage on the note itself. This Mr. Moore, who Macauley identifies as “a young Chinese” appears to be an academic who, while taking a sabbatical from his studies at college, has requested access the British Museums Reading Rooms to study what she simply refers to as “the classics”. Since the Reading Rooms at the British Museums were completed in 1857, it must be presumed that this is an application to enter what must have been the earlier iterations of it. Since no one was allowed to check out books from this library, they instead required a pass that would allow them access, a pass it appears Macauley is requesting on Mr. Moore’s behalf.
Finally, the letter is signed “E W Macauley” as Elizabeth's middle name was Wright. The simple, straightforward use of language leaves no room for personal information or tidings, suggesting that the two might be colleagues of some sort, used to working in cooperation with one another, and especially so since Macauley felt comfortable enough request the favour of Mr. Smith, to whom she considered herself “much obliged” and politely referring to him as “dear Sir”. The fact that Macauley was using her social status and connections to help connect two scholars also says a lot about her influence, while also indicating her personal priorities as being strongly anchored in the arts.
Visually, since the letter is written in a casual scrawl and leaves very little blank paper at the bottom and around the margins, it is clear the letter is not a particularly formal request, more likely quickly written than carefully thought through, suggesting again at a level of casual familiarity while also respecting a certain level of respect and decorum. The note leaves no room for flowery language or official titles, getting straight to the point without making a big show of formality or ceremony, again indicating to a degree of professional comfortability between her and Smith. Macauley also appears confident in Smith’s cooperation, following the request with “I feel assured of your kindness”.
Portrait and Background
A portrait of Elizabeth Macauley is also included, showing the author dressed in finery, with flowers in her perfectly ringleted hair, depicted staring directly at the artist with a kind of bold confidence that might have come from her former career as an actress. On her face is a mischievous grin that may explain the title of the portrait – “Miss Macauley as the Comic Muse.” Macauley began acting by performing in barns all over Kent, but moved to London in 1805 where, for the next twenty years, “she went from one low-paid and badly reviewed theatrical production to another… [until] eventually a long period of unemployment forced her to depart the stage” (Taylor). She began writing to fire back at her “more illustrious male colleagues” for their selfishness and the “philistinism of the metropolitan theatre owners” and eventually became a well-known lecturer, “delivering lectures on subjects as varied as financial reform, child development, the evils of Christian orthodoxy, and women's right to full social equality”. By 1835 she published her memoirs from “a cell in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison” before dying in 1837 in York.
No. 2 Somers Town Terrace
My dear Sir
I shall feel greatly obliged
if you would give a presentation
to the Reading Rooms, to the
Bearer — Mr Moore — he is a
young Chinese — he is desirous
while absent from college,
to have access to the classics — I feel
assured of your kindness in this
I remain Dear Sir
E W Macauley
A portrait of Elizabeth Macauley is also included, showing the author dressed in finery, with flowers in her perfectly ringleted hair, depicted staring directly at the artist with a kind of bold confidence that might have come from her former career as an actress. On her face is a mischievous grin that may explain the title of the portrait – “Miss Macauley as the Comic Muse.”
“Esquire.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/esquire. Date of access 27 Sep. 2021.
Taylor, Barbara. "Macauley, Elizabeth Wright, actress and socialist." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Date of access 28 Sep. 2021, https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-53247
Peltz, Lucy. "Smith, John Thomas (1766–1833), printmaker and draughtsman." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 04. Oxford University Press. Date of access 12 Oct. 2021, https://www-oxforddnb-com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-25867