Alethea’s Book: A Philosophy Primer in the Russell Archives

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An ancestral manuscript on philosophy has recently been acquired by the Bertrand Russell archives: 12 × 18.5 cm; 151, [2, index] pp., pencil annotations on endleaves; bound in half-red morocco with marbled boards. The manuscript was written in 1834 by the Whig politician John Thomas Stanley (1766-1850), 1st Baron Stanley of Alderley, for his newborn granddaughter, who would grow up to be the women’s welfare activist the Hon. Maude Alethea Stanley (1833-1915). To put this into a larger Russellian context, John Thomas Stanley was Bertrand Russell’s great grandfather on his mother’s side. Maude Alethea Stanley was the third daughter of the 2nd  Baron Stanley of Alderley (Russell’s maternal grandfather). She was also Russell’s unmarried aunt, the sister of his mother, Viscountess Kate Amberley. Stanley begins his manuscript in a skeptical Russellian tone: “Aletheas Book, (for so I will call this, as it was hers) should contain Truth only…. the Peasant says he knows the sun moves each day from east to west. A child believes he can grasp the rainbow, and there are few who are not under the conviction that the waves of the sea are not water moving towards the shore.” The index has the following headings: Truth, Language, Good & Evil, Sensation, Knowledge,Verses on the Edda, Government of the World, Continuation of Self Individuality, Prudence, Will & Desire, Merit, Credulity, and Metaphysicks.

A British peer and politician, John Thomas Stanley married Lady Maria Josepha, daughter of John Holroyd, 1st Earl of Sheffield, in 1796. Stanley was also a poet, a naturalist, a translator, an authority on Norse literature, and the author of An Account of the Hot Springs in Iceland with an Analysis of Their Waters (1794) and Conversations on the Parables of the New Testament: for the Use of Children (London, 1828). Maude Alethea Stanley, the owner of the manuscript, devoted a significant amount of her time to benevolent work, especially to the care and upbringing of working-class young women. She was the author of Work about the Five Dials (1878) and Clubs for Working Girls (1894). In spite of the fact that she was an ardent churchwoman and opposed Russell’s marriage to Alys Pearsall Smith, Russell considered her to be the perfect aunt and an embodiment of kindness. “I used to enjoy going to see her when I was a child,” Russell recalled in The Amberley Papers, “because she had a parrot that talked, and because she sometimes gave me marrons glacés.” During the Easter vacation of 1894, when Russell was an undergraduate at Cambridge, he travelled with his aunt Maude to Rome and stayed with an uncle, Algernon Charles Stanley, a Monsignor in the Roman Catholic Church.

It may seem rather odd that a Baron should pen a book of philosophy for his granddaughter. Even more coincidental in view of Russell’s status as one of the premiere philosophers of the twentieth century is that Stanley’s book is on the subject of philosophy. Russell’s own father, John Russell Viscount Amberley, indulged the last years of his short life in the writing of An Analysis of Religious Belief (1876). Alethea’s book, never read by Bertrand Russell, deserves closer examination and study.

by Carl Spadoni