Eileen M. Curran, Emerita Professor of English at Colby College, tireless and resourceful investigator of the Victorian periodical press, longtime contributor to VPR, and early member of RSVP, died in Scarborough, Maine, on April 22 at the age of eighty-five.
A few years ago, doing some research into the history of that monumental achievement, the Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals, I stumbled upon a December 1958 letter from the index’s guiding genius, Walter Houghton, to fellow Victorianist Richard Altick. Houghton had written excitedly of a newly discovered ally for his fledgling project: “I’ve found a demon at Colby who eats, sleeps, talks, dreams nothing but contributors to Victorian journals, and already, aged 30, has a tremendous knowledge of British archives. Name: Eileen Curran.”
Eileen was touched when I showed her this passage. She vividly remembered Houghton’s offer of an editorial position with the new project a few weeks after he had written this letter. She also remembered her own sense of discovery: Curran, it turns out, had been as glad to find Houghton as Houghton had been to find Curran. Recently hired by Colby College in Maine, she was on the lookout for someone who shared the passionate interest in Victorian periodicals that she had cultivated under the guidance of Francis Mineka, who had supervised her dissertation (on the Foreign Quarterly Review) at Cornell. Mineka, in turn, had been one of that remarkable group of graduate students working with Emery Neff at Columbia (including Miriam Thrall, Leslie Marchand, and Merle Bevington) whose dissertations in the 1930s and 1940s had pioneered scholarly research on nineteenth-century periodicals. Eileen had spent the summer of 1958 doing research in London, Edinburgh, and Cambridge, in the process adding substantially to the “tremendous knowledge of British archives” that Houghton would so admire. By the time of his invitation, she had already compiled a number of discoveries that would ultimately find their way into the new project’s files. [End Page 159]
The Wellesley Index and associated projects would become the work of Eileen Curran’s life. The ferocious dedication that Houghton had so astutely detected in the young assistant professor marked her entire career. For over fifty years, despite a bad knee (the result of an accident as a teenager) and many competing responsibilities and distractions, she relentlessly pursued contributors to the Victorian press, many of them maddeningly elusive, through archive after archive, in Britain, America, and around the world. Sending materials back to Walter and Esther Houghton at the Wellesley Index offices and answering query after nervous query from Walter, she worked tirelessly through summer research trips, sabbatical expeditions, and many long nights to help strip away the veil of anonymity that had for so long hidden the authorship of much of what had been published in the most influential organs of opinion of nineteenth-century Britain.
Eileen was always proud of the fact that she had never sought or accepted any payment for any of her work on the Wellesley Index, finding all of the funding elsewhere for her many research trips and expenses. She was the Houghtons’ colleague, not their employee, and that sturdy independence marked their long collaboration and friendship. She and Walter routinely battled one another in long, fierce arguments over how to interpret minute evidential details, arguments whose echoes could sometimes be heard in her conversation and writings long after his death in 1983, as she recalled “what Walter always contended” or “where I disagreed with Walter” about this or that. Unlike most of the other editors, Eileen did not work on just one periodical but ranged widely over many, collecting evidence wherever she found it. Her numerous archival discoveries included the astonishing riches of the Royal Literary Fund archive, which she had been the first Victorianist to explore, sending her notes to Walter in 1972.
Rosemary VanArsdel, another pioneer of periodical research and a Wellesley Index veteran, has written to me of her hope that “everyone can begin to understand that Eileen should be ranked alongside Walter Houghton as the originator and preserver of periodicals scholarship. I may be one of the few still left who knew and loved them both...