Literary detectives unravel famous Ben Jonson mystery


Ben JonsonThe amazing chance discovery of a manuscript hidden among papers in an ancient family archive is shedding new light on the legendary career of William Shakespeare’s biggest rival, the poet and playwright, Ben Jonson.

As portrayed in the new Hollywood Shakespeare movie Anonymous, out in cinemas this Friday 28th October, Jonson was the leading wit of his time and lived a life full of notoriety and intrigue. Weighing in at just under 20 stone, he famously completed a walk from London to Scotland in 1618 but because his own account of the journey was destroyed in a fire at his house a few years later, no direct record of the trip has existed… until now.

Researchers from The University of Nottingham and The University of Edinburgh are now examining the anonymous 41-page journal in a major research project which will reconstruct a large missing piece of the colourful jigsaw of Ben Jonson’s life story. Dr James Loxley, Head of the Department of English at the University of Edinburgh, and Professor Julie Sanders, Head of the School of English Studies at The University of Nottingham, are working with a postdoctoral fellow, Dr Anna Groundwater to unlock the meanings and significance of this intriguing document.

The 7,500-word handwritten manuscript was found by James Loxley among papers in the archives of the Aldersey family of Aldersey Hall in Cheshire in 2009. Jonson is historically believed to have walked to Scotland alone but the title of the newly-discovered document, ‘My Gossip Jonson’s foot journey and mine into Scotland’ says otherwise. The identity of the previously unsuspected travelling companion may remain a mystery, depending on what further detective work reveals, but the manuscript is hugely significant as the only surviving first-hand account of the legendary journey.

The researchers have won a large grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to transcribe the account for inclusion in a new Complete Works of Ben Jonson by Cambridge University Press, due out next spring. A separate annotated edition of the manuscript with newly-commissioned essays on cultures of travel including other literary walks of the time will be published in 2014. This new book will provide a fascinating insight into Jonson’s 1618 marathon for anyone with an interest in British cultural history.

Professor Julie Sanders from The University of Nottingham’s School of English Studies, said, “It’s exciting to think of Jonson at the forefront of a tradition of literary walkers that comes right up to date with figures like Iain Sinclair and Will Self. His encounters with the regional and cultural geographies of England and Scotland had a profound impact on what he went on to write afterwards and the manuscript allows us new insight into his work and the society of his time as a result.”

Dr James Loxley from The University of Edinburgh said: “Jonson’s ‘foot voyage’ has long been thought of as one of the more striking episodes in a sumptuously colourful life. This newly discovered account is a treasure trove of detail on Jonson’s famous walk for anyone with an interest in British cultural history.”

Source: University of Nottingham

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