In the early days of my research into the character of Angelo Poliziano (1454-1494) I came upon the work of a scholar called Juliana Hill Cotton. In particular her paper Death and Politian, published by Durham University in 1954, was so dense with useful information that, having underlined everything I needed, I found it would have been quicker to underline the three or four sentences of no interest. What I have is a photocopy neatly underscored throughout in blue ink, a striking document I refuse to be parted with, no matter that I have a husband with a whizz-bang new scanner and a desire for a paperless future.
It is lofty in tone and full of phrases which imply much without actually saying anything concrete. You can’t get to the end of this paper without believing that Poliziano was murdered, one of several unexplained deaths in the same year that Juliana was the first to notice. In Appendix IV she tabulates all the ‘murders’ of 1494, and it’s quite a celeb list. Read Hill Cotton, you believe in murder, and you get to think that the prime suspect is Piero de’ Medici, but she never ever states this explicitly. Read Hill Cotton and you become fastidious in reading footnotes, trying to find out how she’s got this stuff into your brain without committing herself. She is the mistress of suggestion.
I was young; I was ill-educated; I was in awe of all scholars but JHC was at the top of the pile. Over my years of research I met many scholars and all turned out to be helpful, kind, sympathetic, even a bit jealous that I was writing a novel. (It seems everyone wants to write a novel, really.) Anthony Grafton, F W Kent, everyone involved with the great Ficino project at the School of Economic Science, and Albinia de la Mare, Keeper of Western Manuscripts at the Bodleian Library, all looked benevolently on this oik who was writing fiction and did their best to help.
I got to know Albinia (Tilly) quite well and each time I was in Oxford (I lived in London at the time) I took her to tea at the Nosebag. I asked her once about the mysterious Juliana Hill Cotton who was apparently writing a thesis on Poliziano. Tilly promised to let me know if she heard anything about her.
One day I got a call — get to the Duke Humphrey Library tomorrow, Juliana will be there.
I arrived at the Bod the next day and Tilly introduced me to an elderly woman with long grey hair done up in a bun, every inch as formidable as I had expected. Here was the scholar I had always feared to meet, the one who would fulfil my forebodings.
She was nice enough at the start. We went to the King’s Head for a cup of coffee and must have talked affably although I have no recollection of the conversation. Undoubtedly it would have been about Poliziano, to whom she was as violently attached as I was, even if she did say spiteful things about his character. I do remember her saying, as we walked back to the Bod, that I should drop all this academic stuff and get married and have a life.
She had her thesis with her; I asked if I could look at it. I was duly deposited in the Upper Reading Room and there, in studious hush, I was given five minutes. Five minutes!
Of course, this work was like her paper only with knobs on. If I’d have had blue ink and a ruler… but no, I limited myself to making a note in my notebook. Suddenly there was a screech and she was flying at me like a banshee. From behind some stack close-by, she had been watching to see if I lived up to her worst fears, and I did. I was plagiarizing her work! Stealing it! What happened next was a full-blown row in the Bodleian Library which took the Keeper of Western Manuscripts to calm down.
‘Don’t worry!’ Tilly whispered to me as we were pulled apart, all flailing arms and loosening hair, ‘she’s not going to be with us long and her papers will come to us when she goes.’
I gave it about 20 years before I dropped in at the Duke Humphrey to ask. They remembered Tilly de la Mare, of course, but had no recollection of Juliana or any record of a deposit of her thesis. I toyed with the idea of finding her thesis and completing it and publishing it (under her name, needless to say) because, without doubt, it will be the best, most detailed work about Poliziano ever. Pamela Tudor Craig and Carol Kidwell both put me off that idea, telling me to get a life (I’d already got married by that stage).
So all went dormant until recently when one of our esteemed Commentators on this blog, Judith Testa, became interested in the story and I promised to make some enquiries.
I went to the Bod this week to get a new reader’s pass. There have been many changes in that ancient building, including the installation of a lift for which I am mighty thankful, because each time I go enquiring about Juliana, it’s the same process, only the length of time in between visits is such that I forget the protocol. So you swipe yourself into the library with your card, and walk up the many flights of stairs to the Duke, stairs made for little medieval legs that are quite tiring for modern ones, and when you get there they say, ‘You can’t bring your bag in,’ so you go back down to deposit it, then make your way up again. Then they tell you to swipe yourself in, with the card which is in your bag downstairs. I tell you, I’m not the only person gasping and wheezing on those stairs. So now there is a swanky lift and I didn’t think twice about using it when I had to go back down for the card.
Safely entered, I spoke to a lady on the desk and explained my quest. A lot of the pomposity has gone from the Bod — Debbie said she’d make enquiries and would email me. Which she did, the following day. She wanted to know if I knew when Juliana died.
I started googling. Half an hour later, this person emerged from the ether, a Juliana I did not know and would never have known, who lived locally and not remotely, who had a dear, sweet husband who established the Sudan Archive at the University of Durham. In his retirement, Richard worked with her on her researches. According to his obituary in the Independent, ‘They made a touching pair, working together at the Bodleian, she sitting beside him after she could no longer work.’
I feel sick that we lived in the same city and I did not know, did not become her friend. There’s no mending that now, but at least I’ll pursue my enquiries to the end this time. Next stop, probate office, to find out who got the papers. I find it improbably that Richard did not deposit them somewhere safe, and where would be safer than the Bod?
Or did someone tell him pompously that they would not accept unfinished theses? I shall find out.
Meanwhile on a US forum for Italian Studies, it seems that the papers of JHC are sought-after, given the difficulty in locating them, especially the appendices. I have almost the full set, so if anyone needs them for serious research, get in touch. I’ll be putting a full bibliography up on my website, lindaproud.com (under Notes).
Of the trilogy, it is in The Rebirth of Venus that I am most indebted to the work of Juliana Hill Cotton. As a novelist, I don’t have to suggest anything, I can state my ideas explicitly, but I felt very nervous of accusing an historical figure of murder, even in fiction. When I found the real murderer, however, such sensibilities went out of the window. All I’ll say here is that it wasn’t Piero de’ Medici.