Over the last few weeks, prompted by a visit by a researcher, I have worked on rehousing the Margaret Jane Mussey Sweat collection. Periodically, this kind of work allows me to get to know a collection, and gives me the opportunity to assess the condition of materials. In this case, I knew that many of the volumes had leather covers that were deteriorating. What I found was that a large portion of these covers were splitting because of the age of the leather. Since this collection has received a good deal of attention over the last few years, I am going to have some of the volumes conserved. It seems, too, that this collection is an excellent candidate for digitization.
The travel diaries in this collection chronicle Sweat’s journeys across many continents; some, like the journal from Mexico above, contain fading photographs of the locales that she visits. In one of the early entries to the Mexico journal on March 7, she describes the scene in towns through which her party travels.
“The group of shop umbrellas shone white in the sunshine at one of the way stations + the slender stock of wares did its best to attract our attention. At every pause in our journey there is something picturesque, beautiful or grotesque + novel. The foliage is unlike our own, the sunlight is more vivid, the towns more huddled.”
She goes on to make all sorts of judgements about the people in the towns, writing, “Children + dogs + hens give a lively effect to these otherwise forlorn shelters. I fancy no native ever invents anything or develops any improvements in his surroundings no matter how devoid of comfort they may be. They all seem to accept privation + filth as necessary + inevitable human conditions. The mortality among them is frightful, chiefly from lung diseases__”
While these entries offer little to admire in her attitudes toward the villagers in the towns through which she travels, the diaries chronicle a way of seeing the world that was characteristic of her class and time. They help us understand a certain way of being in the nineteenth century, and, when contrasted with other diaries in our collection by women of ordinary means in Maine, we can begin to see the fuller picture of life in that time.
The Maine Women Writers Collection acquired the Sweat collection in 1964 and 1965–the first acquisition is listed in the administrative files of the Collection as a purchase, the second is listed as a gift from the Portland Society of Art.
These two newspaper articles describe the collection as “a most valuable acquisition” and “a valuable addition to its collection of manuscripts.” This is true because the collection so richly documents Sweat’s life and her varied activities, including the founding of the Cobweb Club, which later became the Washington Club, “a woman’s literary club of much prestige.” The Sweat collection continues to garner interest from researchers both in Portland and across the country.
Sweat’s novel Ethel’s Love Life, published in 1859, is a piece of interest because of its outspoken depiction of love between women. As I’ve met more people researching Sweat, this is one of the points of conversation that inevitably arises. For more on this, see Cliff Gallant’s recent article in the Portland Daily Sun: http://www.portlanddailysun.me/index.php/opinion/columns/8143-margaret-jane-mussey-sweat.
She is an intriguing figure, and one who seems to be getting more and more attention. We will be working to make her papers even more accessible to researchers outside of Maine, and I will certainly post updates as that process gets underway.