19th Century

A Victorian “Commonplace Book” | Stephen Basdeo

By Stephen Basdeo

I recently got hold of a “Commonplace Book” which dates from 1859.

Commonplace books have been a feature of home life since at least the 1600s. Most often women—though not exclusively women—would compile various poems, drawings, or copy out “advice columns” from books and newspapers into these books for keeping later on.

I like to think of them as early modern, hard-copy Tumblr accounts (though less public than that particular social media platform), although I’m sure there’s a monograph (or five) out there with a more scholarly description of their function.

This particular Commonplace Book was owned, it seems, by three different people as there are three different styles of handwriting evident in the book.

We have the name for (I presume) one owner: Emily Maxwell (though we have no other information about her).

While a lot of commonplace books copied out poetry from various sources, some of these poems seem to be original, and the titles are interesting. There’s one called ‘Strong-Minded Woman’, another poem about fighting with her brother, and there’s also a few lines written out in pencil with the words ‘Have Pity Upon Me’ repeated over and over again.

The book is bound in contemporary brown leather and measures 14cm (length) x 9.5cm (width) x 1cm (height).

Emily Maxwell’s “Common Place Book” (1859) This PDF is the complete Commonplace book in one file — It may take a while to download as it’s a large file.

For those who have a slow computer, I also split the PDF into two parts (which may make for a faster download!):

Emily Maxwell’s “Commonplace Book” (1859) Part 1

Emily Maxwell’s “Commonplace Book” (1859) Part 2

Feel free to reuse the Emily Maxwell Commonplace Book in any way you wish.

Lecturers, researchers (and any other educators), drop me a line on the comments box below this if you ever find yourself able to use this resource to teach undergraduate poetry — it would be wonderful to know it’s being used!)

If you would like better images then email stephen.basdeo@outlook.com


1 reply »

  1. Your find is an interesting one. I was shown reproductions from a commonplace book, from 1819, kept by an employee of the British East India Company or his wife or some other relative, male or female. The handwriting is stunningly beautiful, full of stylish arabesques. The writer entered poem after poem, mostly from the mid- to late-eighteenth century, all English, mostly neoclassical, mostly canonical but some non-canonical. He/she seems to have had no interest in the Romantics. The man who shared the book with me–a neighbor of a friend of mine–is an Indian-American, whose father bequeathed it to him. The son has no idea how the book came into his father’s hands.