What Digital Does: Queen Charlotte Online
by Karin Wulf
See also An Analog King in a Digital Age
Scholars of women, gender, family, domesticity, fashion, food, and so much more will have plenty of fodder in the Georgian Papers Programme. Queen Charlotte was invested in literature and learning, for herself and her children. She and the women around her generated important materials that will reveal a great deal about not only her life and that of her family and courtiers, but the men and women who came into even attenuated contact with them through the goods and services they provided to the royal family and household.
Among the first of the newly released materials is Queen Charlotte’s diary for the years 1789 and 1794 (Diary of Queen Charlotte,
1789, RA GEO/ADD/43/1, Royal Archives). These diaries were also published recently as part of the Memoirs of the Court of George III under the general editorship of Michael Kassler. With the digital images on the Royal Archives site, access to the published volume offers an opportunity to see, side by side, the original and an edited transcript. This exercise quickly reminds us that a published edition, no matter how faithful the transcription, is still the product of interpretive choices. Having produced two scholarly editions myself I can say that the ability of a publisher to show how in print the manuscript words were originally arranged on the page, for example, indicates a faithfulness to the original, material object. Yet no matter how well one renders it into print, it cannot replace the manuscript version in look or feel. The physicality is important, and often offers clues to the writer’s meaning. A piece of writing, in other words, is not the same as reproducible text.
Published editions often offer some important benefits to readers and researchers, including annotations and subject indexing. Highly skilled editors with a strong background can provide invaluable context within annotations. The Association for Documentary Editing highlights both best practices and some of the best online editions.
Unfortunately, the Kassler edition of Queen Charlotte’s diaries does not include subject indexing (only name indexing, which is important, too). Once we have transcriptions available for these materials the full texts will be searchable. (Some of the early sample transcriptions from work being done for the Georgian Papers Programme at King’s College and at the Omohundro Institute and William & Mary is here.)
Why would you want subject indexing? A historian of the eighteenth century would, for example, index “bathing,” knowing that bathing was an important medical as well as recreational event for royals and commoners alike around the Atlantic World. Within Queen Charlotte’s diaries are an important number of references to bathing routines at English spas. In September of 1789 the royal party was at Weymouth, where the Queen reported carefully on the number and sequence of their baths. Now, with the digital images any interested reader can see these reports. And soon, with searchable text, readers and scholars will be able to chart and map bathing practices—an indicator of seeking health and wellness in that era, as well as leisure.
I’ve suggested here some of the different forms and functions of the archival materials, including the importance of the digital images and their relationship to the material object they represent, the ways that printed editions can illuminate some aspects of those texts, and the potential for transcriptions and enriched metadata cataloguing for revealing even more. But the truth is that like the Georgian Papers Programme in its entirety, we are only hinting from past and present experience at a future that is likely to be very surprising indeed. The materials contained in the Royal Archives will surprise us; so, too, will their digital uses.