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Southey’s Letters to Espriella

Letters from England: Translated from the Spanish by Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella (Robert Southey)

Manuscript in author’s hand

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In 1808 the Poet Laureate Robert Southey (1774-1843), published an account of a tour of England written under the guise of an imaginary Spanish traveller, Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella, who wrote a series of letters back home recording his impressions. The idea was to provide a foreign viewpoint, one that would be distinctive and fresh.

Southey’s account of the newly industrialised town of Manchester was uniformly unfavourable: ‘a place more destitute of all interesting objects than Manchester it is impossible to conceive.’ The sight of children and adults employed in the cotton mills and the condition of their dwellings depressed him and he was glad to leave the town after only a short stay.

One thing and one thing only made a positive impression on Southey. ‘The most remarkable thing which I have seen here is the skin of a snake fourteen English feet in length, which was killed in the neighbourhood and is preserved in the library of the Collegiate Church.’

Not only did Southey manage to get the library’s name wrong, he must have been a little perplexed to think that any native snake could grow to fourteen feet in length. Unfortunately the snake no longer resides at the Library.

The Library holds four manuscripts belonging to Robert Southey. In addition to ‘Letters to Espriella’, we also have the catalogue of his library, c. 1840, a miscellaneous manuscript consisting mainly of notes on various texts, and the manuscript of ‘The Doctor’, a long-gestated, seven-volume work which includes the very first telling of the story of The Three Bears. Southey’s library contained nearly seven hundred items on Spanish and Portuguese languages.

All these works were bought from the Manchester bookseller Thomas Hayes in 1879. ‘The Doctor’ includes a manuscript version of the story of ‘The Terrible Knitters of Dent’, in the hand of Sarah Hutchinson, sister-in-law to William Wordsworth. Dove Cottage in Grasmere owns a large number of works from Southey’s collection, including books which Southey’s wife and daughters bound in cotton from old dresses.