Found letters!

When working on a longer project, we all have the problem of what to put in and what to keep out.  When I was working on the biography of Margaret Murray, I found that she did not save many of her private writings; therefore, I did not have the same dilemma as someone who might work on, say, Charles Darwin.  The part that was hardest for me was finding her in the archives at all!

Recently, however, I’ve been diving into a new project (more about which later) and am finding Murray’s letters randomly in other archaeologists’ collections.  (When I say “letters”, I mean I’ve found 3.)  Recently, while scouring in the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, I found two letters from Murray to James Henry Breasted, the first American university-trained Egyptologist.  Oh, what a sight for sore eyes to see her careful, clear, familiar, handwritten letters.  I thought there was no way that there could be any new information about Murray in these letters.  Surely, as her biographer, I knew almost everything that she had done in her life.  But, I also knew that there were parts I didn’t know about because she simply had not written about them, nor mentioned them to anyone who had written about her.  Could I dare to dream?  (Okay, I’m getting a little dramatic–but it’s the ARCHIVES!)

Murray wrote to Breasted in February of 1914 to ask his advice about a possible speaking tour of universities in the eastern US.  She wished to follow in Amelia Edwards‘ footsteps.  Edwards had done a speaking tour in the early 1890s, and Murray told Breasted that she wanted to “do something towards rousing up people to take an interest in Egypt.”  Breasted responded (in March) that if she decided to do the tour, he would support her as much as he could, but that it might be futile.  He told her that since Edwards had come, there had been “an enormous increase of American tourist travel in Egypt…” so many Americans were already getting a first-hand account of what Murray would come to lecture on.  Secondly, he said, the improvement in photographic and moving picture technology had allowed for “popular lecturers of the newspaper type” to “commercially exploit” Egypt all over the US.  Their shows contained “the most magnificent stereoscopic photographs, richly colored, as well as…plentiful motion pictures of Cairo street life, excavations in progress…” and more.  The sad result, he told her, was that “we quiet academic people with our uncolored slides and our unsensational presentation, are thrown altogether in the shade.”  In the end, he couldn’t advise her to come.  Murray responded to his letter (8 April), that she appreciated his advice and that she likely wouldn’t come because that style of lecturing would go too much “against the grain” for her.  (Clearly, Breasted didn’t know about Murray’s unwrapping of the Two Brothers at Manchester in 1908.)

This short exchange offered all sorts of news to me!  I had never known that she had tried to come to the US–she never made it, which is likely why she never mentioned it.  It also made me wonder why, as late as 1914, that Breasted had not yet met Murray.  Breasted had spent considerable time in London from 1895-1905 and had met Murray’s mentor and boss Flinders Petrie and Hilda Petrie, her colleagues Francis Griffith and Walter Crum, and many more people that Murray knew and worked with on a daily basis.  She was never mentioned in Breasted’s letters home, and it is clear that her absence from these London scenes was simply because she really wasn’t there and not just because she was being overlooked.  It is possible they had met in passing, but maybe not.  With archives, you always have to have that smoking gun of proof.

Finally, and quite significantly, Murray mentioned for the only time (that I have seen) the death of her mother.  In my book, I mention that Murray stayed in London from 1904 to take care of family matters, which meant caring for her mother.  I also had assumed that her mother must have died not long after that, but there was no record of it that I could find.  In her last letter to Breasted (8 April) she wrote in response to Breasted’s losing his nephew.

“Please accept my sincere sympathy in your sorrow.  I also have suffered bitter grief this winter.  My mother died shortly before Xmas [sic], leaving me absolutely alone in the world.  Life is very dark at times for all of us.”

Here we have not only an approximate date of her mother’s passing, December 1913, but also a glimpse into Murray’s sorrow about it.  As far as I had been able to ascertain, she had not mentioned this to anyone else in print.  Nor did she really ever get emotional in her letters, even to her closest confidantes.

Because Murray did not leave diaries and I am still in the long process of tracking down many of her personal letters, this letter has become invaluable to completing the story of her life.  There are still more holes to fill, but this one is starting to come together.

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One Response to Found letters!

  1. Pingback: Margaret Murray: Outside UCL, Part 1 | Adventures in History and Archaeology

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