13 September 2023
Rafael Pereira do Rego is the Interim Programme Manager and Area Specialist at the Eccles Centre for American Studies
It was a great pleasure for the Eccles Centre to welcome the Brazilian Bilingual Book Club to the British Library during the celebration of their 100th edition on Saturday 15th July. The Embassy of Brazil has been running the Book Club for the past nine years with a wide network of international members and friends. This special edition at the Library was an opportunity to deepen ties between our two institutions and to celebrate and invite discussion and reflection on Brazilian literature and culture through the Library’s collections.
The star of the event discussed during the Book Club – and for which we brought a special edition for the show-and-tell presentation – was the classic novella O Alienista (translated in English as ‘The Psychiatrist’ or ‘The Alienist). Originally published in 1882, by the illustrious Brazilian writer Machado de Assis, it is a wonderful short satirical work with an elegant and concise style centred on Dr Bacamarte, an alienist – the designation of psychiatrist in the nineteenth century, from the French ‘aliéniste’ – and his scientific experiments in the town of Itaguai, near Rio de Janeiro. There he established the Casa Verde (Green House) – a cross between a 19th century prototype of a psychiatric asylum and a scientific laboratory – to conduct experiential studies on the human mind. Dr. Bacamarte used his scientific power to define which denizens of the town should be confined to the asylum according to his shifting ideas of normality. As the narrative unfolds, the alienist gets lost in a madness of his own making. O Alienista was included recently in Machado de Assis: 26 Stories (2019) translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, which among other translations of the title, are available at the British Library.
Machado de Assis is the most celebrated classic Brazilian author, so it is natural that the Library’s holdings will encompass some of his works, but it was very exciting to see the scope and depth of our collections reflecting the interest that his books have attracted from the time of their first publications in Britain. There are over 300 copies of various works by and about Machado de Assis, including some of his earliest works acquired in the nineteenth century, many of which are rare volumes. Nadia Kerecuk, the creator and convenor of the Book Club, very kindly made a list of all of our holdings available. For instance, the British Library holds the first edition of one of his most famous novels Dom Casmurro published in 1889, and the poetry collections Chrysalidas (1866), and Phalenas (1869). In addition, we have some beautiful editions including the 1948 version of the novella with illustrations of one of my favourite Brazilian artists, Cândido Portinari1.
Last year when I visited my hometown, Rio, there was a lovely and comprehensive exhibition at Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil providing an overview of the various facets and languages explored by Portinari – and including some of the illustrations that are present in the selected 1948 edition, as well as from other illustrated editions of Machado de Assis’ Memoria Postumas de Braz Cubas and Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha.
Both Machado de Assis and Cândido Portinari had this incredible capacity to capture the human condition and Brazilian-ness in ways that feel both universal and culturally specific. Portinari was a keen enthusiast of Machado de Assis’ work and both lived in one of the neo-colonial elegant houses in Cosme Velho, a bucolic neighborhood in Rio and perhaps one of my favourite areas of the city. They came from a rather deprived childhood but with unwavering talent and determination, came to represent big names in literature and visual arts.
The 1948 edition was sponsored by the bibliophile and executive Raymundo Ottoni de Castro Maya (1894-1968). It is part of a wider collection named Os Cem Bibliófilos do Brasil (100 Bibliophiles of Brazil) named after a bibliophilic society created by Castro Maya. The society was composed of a hundred personalities of the time, among intellectuals, executives and society figures, which met annually to produce and publish works by great authors of Brazilian literature, illustrated by notable visual artists. In 30 years, they published names such as Machado de Assis, Guimarães Rosa, Jorge Amado, José Lins do Rego, Lima Barreto and Mário de Andrade, with their literary work illustrated by major visual artists such as Di Cavalcanti, Portinari, Iberê Camargo, Cícero Dias, Carybé, among others.
The Brazilian media tycoon Roberto Marinho was part of the select society, alongside names that might be very familiar to Brazilians, such as Walter Moreira Salles, Maria do Carmo de Melo Franco Nabuco, Horácio Klabin, Gilberto Chateaubriand, Francisco Matarazzo Sobrinho, Lineu de Paula Machado, D. Pedro Gastão de Orléans and Bragança, Celso Lafer, Clemente Mariani and Niomar Moniz Sodré Bittencourt.
The artisanal publication of these beautifully illustrated editions was an important initiative, which resulted in the publication of authors and artists portraying Brazil in a variety of themes and motifs. At the same time, it is revealing of the Eurocentric references of Brazilian elites, importing values, techniques and cultural codes to the ‘developing’ country. Castro Maya based this collection on European publishing trends, especially from France where he lived. The publications were generally composed by hand and printed on manual presses. The paper had great quality specifications with rough texture and watermark, supplied by French manufacturers. Many books were engraved with different techniques such as etching, dry point, xylography and lithography.
Each edition took about a year to be completed and each member of the society would receive their own exclusive copy with their names identified and within loose sheets, so the binding could be personalised according to the owners’ tastes. Print runs were limited to about 120 copies. The Society launches took place at gala dinners at Rio’s most exclusive Country Club – established by British executives in 1916 and since then the meeting point of the crème de la crème of carioca society – when auctions were held of the original illustrations not included in the final edition. I was very pleased to find out that the British Library has 20 published copies of the collection Os Cem Bibliófilos do Brasil! Rare and exclusive copies of the beautiful pas-des-deux between classic authors of Brazilian literature and notable visual artists. I hope you can explore more the collection available at the British Library.
After the show-and-tell presentation, O Alienista was specifically addressed during the hybrid meeting of the Brazilian Bilingual Book Club, with members joining from overseas via MS Teams. Nadia Kerecuk prepared a historical background of the publication and a series of questions to direct the engaging discussion with the members of this successful bilingual and bibliophile ‘society’ with the welcomed accompaniment of delicious snacks and wine. Notwithstanding the indisputable differences between the Country Club in Rio and the British Library in London, we could say this was an exclusive gala afternoon!
1To learn more about Candido Portinari’s work please check the five-volume catalogue raisonné available at the British Library organised by his son Joao Candido Portinari as part of the major Portinari Project which has the aim of cataloguing thousands of paintings, drawings and printings, as well digitally processing images and oral history outputs. Some of the audiovisual content of this project is also available via the online platform here.
30 March 2022
It’s been a while since we’ve been able to do ‘in real life’ show and tells for students attending the Library’s Doctoral Open Days so the Americas and Oceania Collections Curatorial team and Eccles team were delighted to be able to discuss a selection of items from the collections with researchers at the latest on-site sessions.
On 4 and 7 March 2022, a number of students from all disciplines visited the Library’s site at St Pancras to get better acquainted with the services and collections available for their research, inspiration and enjoyment. Theses practical sessions were offered to all who attended our PhD webinars that took place earlier in the year.
The days give the chance to attend Reader Registration appointments, go on building tours, take advantage of drop-in sessions with Reference Services, see how collection items are handled and conserved, and come along to show and tells with curatorial teams across the Library to see and discuss items from different collections.
Asian and African Collections, British and European Collections, Music Collections, Digital Collections and Resources, Contemporary Society and Culture Collections, and Maps and Visual Arts Collections all took part. We love being part of these days; not only do we get to meet new researchers and discuss their work, but we also get the chance to see colleagues from other collection areas and chat with them about the items in their remit and beyond – both things that have been much-missed in-person activities over the past two years.
For those unable to attend, we thought we’d share a few things with you digitally instead! Here are a selection of items that the Americas and Oceania team displayed over the two days:
DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE
Text by Lewis Carroll; designed by Tara Bryan
Flatrock, Newfoundland, Canada: Walking Bird Press, 2016
Lewis Carroll’s original manuscript for Alice's Adventures Under Ground is housed at the British Library, so we are always excited to see how the tale has been re-imagined, re-interpreted and re-illustrated over the last 160 years. This item invites readers into the rabbit hole, with the words from Carroll tunnelling down and down… just as Alice did. This artists’ book was designed by Tara Bryan in her studio in Newfoundland. One of only 40 copies, it is made from delicate handmade Thai Bamboo paper and Japanese paper.
FOR HOME USE: A BOOK OF REFERENCE ON MANY SUBJECTS RELATIVE TO THE TABLE
Proprietors of Angostura Bitters
Trinidad: Angostura Bitters (Publication year unknown/Donated)
This item speaks to culinary social history, especially concerning those deemed belonging to the middle and upper classes of Trinidad and Tobago. ‘Invaluable to the Host and Hostess’, this book of recipes by the makers of Angostura Bitters, is an example of great marketing from a bygone era.
SÃO FERNANDO BEIRA-MAR: CANTIGA DE ESCÁRNIO E MALDIZER
São Paulo: Dulcinéia Catadora, 2007
LA MUJER DE LOS SUEÑOS DEL DOMADOR DE YAKARÉS
Asunción: Yiyi Jambo, 2008
TRIPLE FRONTERA DREAMS
Buenos Aires: Eloísa Cartonera, 2012
CARTONERAS IN TRANSLATION = CARTONERAS EN TRADUCCIÓN = CARTONERAS EM TRADUÇÃO: ANTOLOGÍA
Lucy Bell et al., eds.
Cuernavaca: La Cartonera, 2018
Cartoneras are books of poetry, literature, and translations made with covers from salvaged cardboard with original illustrations in acrylic colours made by members of cartonera workshops. Their illustrated cardboard covers are often anonymous, even when created by famous artists, or signed by all members of the publishing group in a clear attempt to promote the community effort over the individual artist. The focus is on making books together and giving everyone access to reading and writing their stories.
Cartonera books are not only visually beautiful, but also make a critical intervention in publishing and reading cultures in Latin America starting in the wake of the financial crisis in Argentina with Eloísa Cartonera in 2003. This type of cheap community publishing spread quickly across the region and allowed other Latin American countries plagued by economic and social inequality to appropriate reading and book-making practices creatively and in a community-based way.
LIP MAGAZINE ISSUE 1
Frances (Budden) Phoenix (featured artist)
Melbourne, Australia: Women in the Visual Arts Collective, 1976
Lip was an Australian feminist journal self-published by a collective of women in Melbourne between 1976 and 1984. The art and politics expressed in the journal provide a fascinating record of the Women’s Liberation era in Australia. The inaugural issue seen here includes articles on writer Dorothy Hewett, Australian embroidery, and Australian feminist art, film and performing arts, as well as a double page removable centerfold: a doily vulva artwork called ‘Soft Aggression’ by artist Frances (Budden) Phoenix. Phoenix was an Australian feminist artist who helped to establish the Women’s Domestic Needlework Group, and known for her provocative textile and needlework which subverted traditional notions of women’s domestic crafts. In her centerfold here, she revisits the tradition of women inscribing messages into their work and includes the directive to readers: “female culture is in the minds, hearts and secret dialogues of women. Use your culture in your own defence: use soft aggression.”
THE LITERARY VOYAGER OR MUZZENIEGUN
Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, edited with an introduction by Philip P. Mason
[East Lansing]: Michigan State University Press, 1962.
ALGIC RESEARCHES, COMPRISING INQUIRIES RESPECTING THE MENTAL CHARACTERISTICS OF THE NORTH AMERICAN INDIANS: FIRST SERIES: INDIAN TALES AND LEGENDS
Henry Rowe Schoolcraft
New York, 1839.
In 1962, scholar Philip P. Mason collected and republished the entirety of the manuscript magazine The Literary Voyager. Originally produced between December 1826 and April 1827 by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, it is considered to be the first periodical related to Native American culture. Its alternative title, Muzzeniegun is Ojibwe for ‘book’.
Schoolcraft, an ethnologist and Indian Agent in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, handwrote a few copies of each issue which were posted to friends and family. Schoolcraft was married to Bamewawagezhikaquay, also known as Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, who was of Ojibwa and Scots-Irish ancestry. She is considered to be the first known Native American woman writer. Notably she wrote in both English and Ojibwe. Many of her poems and traditional stories were included in The Literary Voyager, however she does not receive credit for her work. Her mother, from whom Schoolcraft also collected traditional stories and cultural knowledge, is also not named. It has taken considerable efforts by Native American literary scholars to correct this historical omission, and to bring attention to this important Ojibwe voice.
Some of Bamewawagezhikaquay’s stories were later published in Algic Researches, also compiled by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. This Library copy is an original edition from 1839.
We’d like to thank our colleagues in the Library’s Research Development Team for organising the webinars and in-person sessions, and to our friends in the Eccles Centre for American Studies for their support in helping the days run smoothly.
As the Library continues to working hard at both our sites to make sure everyone can visit us safely, we are looking forward to the opportunity to run similar sessions and meet more of you in person over the coming year.
14 December 2021
This autumn the Eccles Centre has been hosting a series of events and activities for researchers interested in gender and US politics. The programme will conclude with two days of activities this week, including a public, online event exploring the process of communicating women’s history through exhibitions, Staging Women’s History, on Thursday 16 December at 17.00 GMT, which is free to attend and open to all.
In previous events, the group has explored different aspects of the British Library’s collections, including sheet music, poetry, and fiction, which network member, Dr Eir-Anne Edgar, explores in more detail in this post.
In October 2021, thousands came out to protest a restrictive new anti-abortion law in Texas, which allows individuals to sue anyone suspected in assisting in or receiving an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. Images of the protests capture the scene – some women in bright pink pussy hats, many protestors armed with homemade signs and banners, and some wearing long red cloaks and large white wimples or bonnets that conceal much of the wearer’s face – the costume made famous by the television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale and worn by the Handmaids of the novel’s title.
Culturally, the costumes have come to be synonymous with the oppression of women by a Christian, patriarchal society that restricts women’s political and individual freedoms and punishes rule-breakers with physical and emotional violence. Even more significantly, the costumes represent the bravery and cunning exercised by women who have had enough and push back against oppression, as protagonist June/Offred does, rescuing children and women tormented in Gilead’s society.
Atwood’s follow-up to The Handmaid’s Tale, the highly anticipated 2019 novel, The Testaments, captures the zeitgeist of the Trump presidency. Without revealing too many spoilers, readers see Offred’s legacy via the brave actions of a few young women – some in Gilead, some across the border in Canada – as well as a surprising twist from characters familiar to readers from The Handmaid’s Tale. Told in alternating perspectives from three different women, it seems that Atwood is underscoring the way in which women must work together to implement societal change. In particular, The Testaments illustrates the power that narrative has. A secret library, tucked deep in the recesses of Gilead, contains forbidden books that portray “problematic women” who deviate from their social norms. “Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Paradise Lost, Lives of Girls and Women – what a moral panic each one of them would cause if set loose among the Supplicants!” (Atwood, 35).
These books, like 'The Testaments' itself, have the power to impact culture and society. As Atwood herself has noted, the Trump administration’s attempts to limit the rights of immigrants, women, LGBTQI people, and other members of marginalized groups have inspired her work.
In my research, I examine how dystopian fiction such as Atwood’s novels addresses contemporary feminist political issues and movements, including the #metoo movement and the fourth wave feminist movement’s drive for reproductive justice. Although my project focuses on recent iterations of women’s writing and their corresponding political issues, it is important to note that there is a much longer history of feminist dystopian novels that imaginatively reframe contemporaneous social and political issues. We can also see this in the work of authors such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, whose utopian trilogy (written in 1909, 1915, and 1916 – yet not published until the 1970’s) portrays a world without men, one in which women are breadwinners and are able to procreate without men, and emphasizes the necessity of community, education, and the malleability of gender roles.
Gilman’s short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” arguably her most well-known story, was re-printed in 1973 by Feminist Press. Originally written in 1892 and, like her utopian trilogy, first published in her periodical The Forerunner, Gilman’s work was “rediscovered” by second wave feminists and struck a chord with a new generation of readers. The Yellow Wallpaper illustrates many 19th century women’s issues, such as the limitations of the domestic sphere, medical treatment for women’s mental and physical health issues, the pressures of motherhood and marriage, and more. For second wave feminist readers, the worlds that Gilman portrays in her work, imagined and real, resonate from the 19th century and into the 70’s, much in the same way that the Reagan-era issues captured in The Handmaid’s Tale reverberate in 2021.
The “Gender and US Politics” group discussed Gilman’s short story and Atwood’s latest novel during a meeting that focused on fiction. Given my current research project, I was very excited to discuss these materials with others. I am one of just a few literature scholars in the group, which is also composed of historians, political scientists, and members of diverse disciplines. Listening to those outside of my expertise was one of the most interesting (and inspiring) aspects of the meeting. For instance, several scholars research suffragism in the US and abroad, and their contributions shed light on new ways of thinking about the literature, particularly in considering Gilman’s work. The opportunity to be part of a transdisciplinary group of scholars with intersecting research interests has helped me “see” the literature I work with in new ways, such as making connections between Atwood’s novels and television adaptation with Gilman’s writing, first published almost one hundred years before. It has also helped me to see how literature resonates over time with readers and how political issues can morph or remain the same, despite the political progress women have made.
Dr Eir-Anne Edgar is Associate Professor of Literature in ILU at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, Norway. She is currently at work on her research project, Women in the Wastelands: The World-Making of Feminist Critical Dystopian Fiction, which explores the recent explosion of transnational, feminist dystopian novels and the ways in which they “re-make” or “re-see” real-world issues. Though the Wasteland may seem like a strange place to locate hope, this project finds that women authors have long located frustrations with the limitations placed against gender and sexuality within the pages of dystopian and utopian novels.
The Gender and US Politics project, coordinated by Cara Rodway (Eccles Centre) and Robert Mason (University of Edinburgh) is supported by the British Association for American Studies and the US Embassy London.
[Posted by Cara Rodway, Eccles Centre]
06 May 2021
Louise Siddons is an associate professor of art history at Oklahoma State University and a Fulbright Scholar at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library. She is writing a book about the photographer Laura Gilpin that examines the intersection between mid-century lesbian liberation and Navajo sovereignty politics in Gilpin’s photographs and related visual culture. As part of that research, she has been taking a closer look at the transatlantic lesbian press and the construction of lesbian identity. In this post, she shares the unexpected pleasure she discovered in the pages of Sappho, a British magazine that, unlike the American counterparts which advertised in its pages, routinely included comics and cartoons.
Louise will be talking about transatlantic lesbian visual culture and the lesbian gaze in a free online lecture on Monday 10 May at 19.00, Looking Like a Lesbian.
“Every group has its share of jokes,” announced “Robyn’s Page,” a regular feature of Sappho. Founded in 1972, Sappho’s mission was to build a meaningful community among lesbian women both as readers and in person. Early in its run, Robyn worried that humor was troublingly absent from lesbian culture.1
In this blog post, I’m taking a close look at the cartoons and comics that appeared in early issues of Sappho. Why should we take humor seriously? Robyn argued that, “Jokes are … a spontaneous endorsement of what’s happening where it matters most – that’s at grass root level.” The lack of lesbian jokes, she suggested, revealed a lack of group identity among lesbians. Eager to change this, she invited readers to come up with “the great lesbian joke.”2
Studies in the psychology of humor have historically focused on the role that “out-group disparagement humor” reinforces in-group identification; in other words, people mark their status as insiders by making fun of outsiders.3 But, as Robyn pointed out, in 1972 lesbian humor was still struggling to locate the notion of “lesbian.” The visual comedy published in Sappho’s early years is almost all about defining the in-group: what does it mean to be a lesbian, and how can humor help that definition cohere?4
If a brief survey of my friends last week is any indication, lesbian humor has achieved the status of a common culture, even if the jokes aren’t always great. Universally, when I asked for a lesbian joke, the first response was: “What does a lesbian bring on a second date?” (Is there any point to pretending we don’t know the punchline?) “A U-Haul.”
Groan-inducing though it is, the U-Haul joke echoes the humor presented in Sappho a half-century earlier, which overwhelmingly took couples as its subject and often poked fun at the intensity of new attachments—sometimes to make a serious point about healthy relationships. My informal friend survey, utterly unscientific and drawn largely from the same “militantly middle-class” audience to which Sappho addressed itself a half-century ago, points to the magazine as a foundational source for long-lasting tropes of lesbian comedy.5
In this 1990 interview, Sappho’s editor, Jacqueline Forster, described the board’s decision to include “photos, cartoons, articles, news stories, poems, and a list of places where lesbians can meet or contact.” As her inclusion of “cartoons” makes clear, there was an expectation that the magazine would include humor, at least some of which would be visual, under the direction of art editors Jay Francis and Murray Marr.
An initial encounter with the magazine does not promise comedy: in the first few issues, the discreetly monochromatic panel of the cover is disturbed only by the title of the magazine in a typeface reminiscent of Westminster, the 1960s machine-readable typeface designed by Leo Maggs, volume and issue information, and a small logo—the Venus symbol with two facing, vaguely feminine profiles inside its ring. Reminiscent of the optical illusion in which our perception shifts between two faces and a vase, the logo hints at the semiotic slippage that characterizes queer, and especially lesbian, identity throughout the twentieth century—without making us laugh.
Once inside, however, the conservative, technologically savvy design gave way to a hand-drawn aesthetic reminiscent of earlier lesbian magazines like the British Arena Three and the American The Ladder, inviting intimacy and openness in the reader. The first cartoon appeared on page 7 of the very first issue, and introduced “Mabel and Mildred,” a quirky, naked couple who venture out into the world with varying degrees of success. Although their adventures are slightly surreal, they offer a slice of lesbian life to Sappho readers.
In each episode, the rendering is rudimentary: Mildred, slightly stockier than her counterpart, is perennially armed with an axe, which seems as likely to endanger Mabel as protect her. Mabel, in turn, is all knees and elbows, with a shock of unruly hair. In this first cartoon, Mildred is at the top of a precipitous set of steps, while Mabel sits at their foot, badly dinged by an apparent fall. “Now Mildred,” she warns, “look out for that first step!” Is this a commentary on Sappho’s inauguration—or on the dangers of coming out in public, as lesbians?
As a reader, I find myself less worried about Mildred than on the effect her outstretched axe will have on Mabel as she falls—a fear exacerbated by this cartoon, just a few pages later, in which Mildred has apparently chopped off Mabel’s head. The joke here is similarly dark: “For heaven’s sake Mildred,” chastises Mabel’s severed head as it floats above her fleeing body, “don’t lose your head!”
By the second volume, the two are clearly gendered as a butch/femme pair, thanks to the artist’s pointed application of a decorative bow shape: as a bowtie on Mildred (and her axe), and as a hair accessory on Mabel. It affirms the physical stereotyping already in place: Mildred is relatively stout (and violent), while Mabel is slim, with substantial breasts that occasionally overshadow her knobbly knees and elbows.
With sly humor, this unusual level of clothing for the pair is featured in a cartoon in which the pair have joined a queue for a performance of Richard Strauss’s opera, Elektra. The four characters in line ahead of them represent various characters comically typical of performing arts audiences, all carefully disregarding the naked women behind them. Mildred, facing the viewer and thus seen frontally rather than in profile, explains to Mabel that “It’s about a disturbed nuclear family.” In Strauss’s opera, Electra is armed with an axe with which she avenges her father’s death at the hands of her mother; the myth was taken up by Carl Jung as the basis for a psychoanalytic model of the feminine psyche in 1915.
As an early example of humor in Sappho, “Mildred and Mabel” reflected the middle-class values of the editors in its expectation that readers would recognize references to Strauss and Jung, as well as in the types of activities in which Mabel and Mildred participate. At the same time, the cartoon couple embodied—literally—the paradox of middle-class lesbian existence. Asserting their cultural savvy in their choice of outings, yet persistently appearing naked in public, they thematize the struggle of queer visibility and social acceptance with irony and self-deprecation.
With the caveat that it’s outdated, a friend offered me: "What's the difference between a lesbian and a dyke?" "About $30K a year."
Class was a persistent discussion in Sappho despite its declared affinity with the middle class. In an early issue, Forster refuted the Union of Women for Liberation’s claim that the lesbianism of “a few petty bourgeois women” was “irrelevant to the economic needs of working-class women.” She regularly published letters from readers who asked for more working-class representation, and class struggle came up regularly throughout the magazine’s pages.6
In 1974, cartoonists Kate Charlesworth—now well-known, but in her early work for Sappho credited as “Kaye”—and Sue Neumann joined the masthead of Sappho as artists. They both created witty, many-layered comics for the magazine that draw on art history, public schools, tourism, fashion, and other features of middle-class lesbian experience. Alongside their carefully crafted images, a series of relatively simple images began to appear. Created by a variety of artists (none credited, although a few of the images are signed with initials), they transformed the Venus symbol familiar from the Sappho logo into an anthropomorphic character.
This had two important effects: first, it largely eliminated class-specific references—as well as racial or ethnic markers, which provoked less specific comment at the time, but are striking to contemporary readers. And second, by making visual puns that relied on the formal qualities of the Venus symbol rather than the cultural specificity of a human character, these apparently minor cartoons became surprisingly conceptual in their comedy.
The first to appear was this small bit, tucked into the corner of a page about halfway through the magazine. Two Venus signs are side-by-side: the one on the left is oriented in the expected way, but the one on the right is rotated so that the cross that should be beneath the circle is pointing up at a forty-five-degree angle, mimicking the position of the Mars sign typically used to signify male identity. The circle of the Venus on the left cracks into a speaking smile: “Stop acting butch,” she says. How are we supposed to interpret this directive?
Although Steven Dryden has noted elsewhere on the British Library blogs that the scholarly consensus is that “there was a class dimension to the hostility towards butch lesbian identities,” the illustrations in Sappho normalized butch-femme pairings. Along with “Mabel and Mildred,” “The Gailies,” for example, was a recurring strip by Jay Francis that featured a butch-femme couple, and a comic by Charlesworth replaced Tarzan with a butch Jane as she rescues a hapless femme damsel.7
The difference between “Stop acting butch,” and these other examples is that the former is stripped of any extraneous cultural markers, thanks to the reduction of our protagonists to symbols. In other words, the visual humor is based not on our ability to recognize a human type from their class/race/gender markers, but rather on a visual pun: the Venus symbol is acting out of character by rotating itself 135º anticlockwise—thereby mimicking the appearance of a different symbol.
The cartoon is immediately funny, but it also rewards sustained attention. Consider the effectiveness of the symbol’s transgressive resignification of itself: acceding to the anthropomorphism of the artist, we understand perfectly what the Venus symbol intends to represent—masculinity. At the same time, we understand the artist’s intent: to represent masculinity with a symbol that signifies femininity. The humor comes from our ability to comprehend both meanings at once, almost instantly, without this pedantic explanation. And then we realize that the artist is inviting us to transfer that awareness onto our understanding of gender: in the semiotic space of the tilted Venus, one sign signifies twice, equally effectively, because signs—and genders—are both arbitrary cultural constructions.
Louise Siddons, May 2021
1 “Robyn’s Page,” Sappho 1, no. 5 (1972): 12; “About Sappho,” Sappho 1, no. 1 (1972): 3.
2 “Robyn’s Page,” Sappho 1, no. 5 (1972): 12.
3 Rod A. Martin and Thomas E. Ford, The Psychology of Humor: An Integrative Approach (Academic Press, 2018).
4 Not exclusively, though: there’s a cartoon with two Venus symbols sharing a snide comment as the Mars sign bumps his arrow into a doorframe—and even Mildred gets an opportunity to turn her nose up at the thought of a man as a potential mate.
5 “About Sappho,” Sappho 1, no. 1 (1972): 3.
6 “Militant Madams,” Sappho 1, no. 5 (1972): 9-10; Jackie Forster, untitled editorial, Sappho 4, no. 1 (1975): 3.
7 Steven Dryden, https://www.bl.uk/lgbtq-histories/articles/arena-three-britains-first-lesbian-magazine; “The Gailies” first appear in Sappho 1, no. 7 (1972); Kate Charlesworth, “Me Jane!,” Sappho 2, no. 11 (1974): 20.
25 January 2021
From bodily autonomy and the right to education, to self-expression and protest, the British Library’s exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, explores how feminist activism in the UK has its roots in the complex history of women’s rights.
Although the physical exhibition space is currently closed due to lockdown restrictions, you can discover more about the stories, people and events that have shaped society, as well as the work that remains unfinished, through the exhibition web resource, podcast and fantastic series of online events.
As part of this events series, on Friday 29 January curators will discuss women’s rights in Europe, the Americas and Oceania through items from their collection areas that they think deserve a spotlight.
Looking beyond the UK focus of Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women's Rights, the curators will be in conversation about their handpicked choices that speak to the themes of the exhibition and, in many cases, challenge and disrupt pre-conceptions of women’s activism, experiences and struggles for equality.
This free, online event will take place on Friday 29 January 2021, 12.30 – 1.30pm. To register, please visit the Library’s event page. Bookers will be sent a Zoom link in advance giving access.
28 August 2020
Paradise in London: the Paraíso School of Samba and the beginnings of urban Brazilian carnival in Rio de Janeiro
One event that is certainly going to be missed this summer is the Notting Hill Carnival. To avoid mass gatherings during the Covid-19 crisis, this year’s carnival takes place online. Usually on this weekend, the streets of west London become alive with the vibrant colours and sounds of costumes, steel bands and floats. The European & Americas Collections Team celebrates this popular London event with a joint blog.
Initially, Trinidad-born activist and West Indian Gazette founder Claudia Jones started an annual indoor Caribbean carnival in response to the racist violence and riots that swept through Britain in the summer of 1958. The first London Caribbean carnival took place in January 1959 and was televised by the BBC, subtitled ‘A people's art is the genesis of their freedom’. The British Library holds a copy of a West Indian Gazette special edition about the event:
You can find out more about these beginnings at: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/claudia-jones-caribbean-carnival-souvenir-programme-1960. In 1966 carnival finally took to the streets in Notting Hill and has stayed there ever since. For three days, music and dance now bring together two million people in celebration of Caribbean cultures.
My own initiation to the Notting Hill Carnival has been through Brazilian influence and close involvement with the Paraíso School of Samba, the most prominent school of Brazilian samba in London. Every year since its foundation in 2001, Paraíso has taken part in the Notting Hill Carnival parade, featuring costumed percussionists, dancers, and carnival floats. Just like in Rio!
The president and founder of the Paraíso School of Samba, Henrique da Silva has since the age of eight been involved with one of Rio’s most traditional schools of samba: Grêmio Recreativo Escola de Samba Estação Primeira de Mangueira or simply Mangueira. This inspired him to form a samba school in London following the same principles. The main idea of Paraíso is for people to celebrate and express their cultural identity through dance and music. To quote from Paraíso’s website ‘samba is truly the popular art of people, especially in its inclusivity where everyone has a place. Paraíso plays samba as it is played by the baterias (percussions) of Rio’s samba schools.’
Samba music and dance originate from the Northeast of Brazil, where it was developed from the musical traditions of the African slaves. The style of Samba as we know it today, developed in the first half of the 20th century in Brazil’s urbanising Southeast, mostly its then cultural centre Rio. The style emphasises the polyrhythmic sounds of multiple percussion instruments, like African drumming music, which uses call and response. This has become the pulsing sound of Rio’s modern carnival. The main driving force behind this style of samba were and still are organized groups known as escolas de samba (samba schools). They are devoted to playing and dancing, as well as preparing for a yearly carnival parade. In Rio, samba is now inseparable from the Carnival.
My initial reaction to co-writing this blog was reluctance, as I have mostly stayed away from carnival on my visits to Brazil. Looking after the Latin American Collections, however, I felt I should give it a go and was rewarded with joyful browsing and listening on the internet for a couple of hours. I hope you’ll do the same for this year’s Notting Hill Carnival until we can take to the streets once more.
Our guide to the first decades of urban Rio carnival is Brazil’s most famous composer Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959), a keen participant in his hometown’s carnival celebrations. During his lifetime, modern urban carnival developed and he knew its local protagonists and different musical traditions like no other person. In his own classical compositions, Villa-Lobos sought inspiration in the country’s popular cultural traditions to create a distinctive Brazilian style of music. He even composed two pieces of music on the theme of children’s experience of carnival: Carnaval das Crianças (Children’s Carnival) in 1919 and Momoprecoce (the precocious king of carnival) in 1928. The first, a work for piano describes in eight vignettes well-known carnival figures popular at the time like the diabinho (little devil) or the rei momo (king of carnival). The later work reinterprets and elaborates these themes into an orchestral work with solo piano.
Popular narratives of samba usually mark important milestones of modern urban carnival around similar dates. In 1916, Ernesto dos Santos, known as Donga, and Mauro de Almeida registered the first samba with Brazil’s National Library in Rio, while in 1928, José Gomes da Costa, known as Zé Espinguela, launched the first samba competition from the same Mangueira neighbourhood, where the famous samba school developed from existing older carnival groups.
Vanessa Rodrigues Cunha (2015) describes the different musical traditions from which samba emerges as predominant by the end of the 1920s. The music played at the time was slower, however, than the samba we know from later Brazilian carnival, which also developed different dance routines. A good way to experience the greatest musicians of the early time of urban carnival is through browsing the recent digital exhibition Native Brazilian Music: 80th anniversary: the history behind one of Brazilian music’s most iconic albums.
It tells the incredible story behind the famous recordings of Brazilian popular music organised by Villa-Lobos and Donga for the British composer Leopold Stokowski. His tour through Latin America was part of U.S. president Roosevelt’s ‘Good Neighbor policy’ and Stokowski had asked Villa-Lobos for help in finding Brazilian musicians for recordings. These took place in 1940 on board the steamship U.S.S. Uruguay in Rio’s harbour and would be released by Colombia Records in 1942. The exhibition contains some recordings, which give a good flavour of the musical style of the time. It is refreshing to hear them and you can see how they compare to the musical offerings of Notting Hill Carnival Online.
At the end of the weekend, you can sit down to listen to Villa-Lobos’ reinterpretation of the carnival theme with a recording (25 min) of his ‘Momoprecoce’ performed at the Proms in 2012 by the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra with Nelson Freire at the piano and conducted by Marin Alsop. The recording includes a brief introduction to the piece by Alsop, and I could hear it over and over again. I’m sure that a weekend immersed in Caribbean carnival music will only enhance our appreciation of this wonderful ode to carnival!
Lora Afrić, Languages Cataloguing Manager & Iris Bachmann, Curator, Latin American Collections.
In the absence of access to our physical collection items, Vanessa Rodgrigues Cunha’s dissertation has been an invaluable, well-written guide to information on Villa-Lobos carnival pieces and the beginnings of urban Rio carnival:
Cunha, Vanessa Rodrigues. The Symbiosis Between Villa-Lobos's Carnaval Das Crianças And Momoprecoce: A Comparative Study. Dissertation. CUNY. 2015. Accessed 28.08.2020 https://academicworks.cuny.edu/gc_etds/896/
Daniella Thompson’s research for ‘Stalking Stokowski’ (2000) http://daniellathompson.com/Texts/Stokowski/Stalking_Stokowski.htm underpins the digital exhibition on the record ‘Native Brazilian Music’ and gives a more detailed account of its history and the marginalization of black musicians as samba goes mainstream.
Further suggested readings at the British Library:
Goldman, Albert. Carnival in Rio (New York, 1978). f78/3978
George, Terry. Carnival in Rio: samba, samba, samba! (Hamburg, 2005). EMC.2009.a.372
Hertzman, Marc A. Making samba: a new history of race and music in Brazil. (Durham, North Carolina/London, 2013). YD.2017.a.606
Neto, Lira. Uma história do samba. (São Paulo, 2017). YF.2017.a.22063
22 January 2020
My first day in the UK saw me meeting with some individuals at the British Library who are integral parts of my one-year journey. I met with Jody Butterworth, curator for Endangered Archives Programme (EAP), Phil Hatfield (Head Eccles Centre for American Studies), James Perkins (Former Research & PG Development Manager British Library), Kola Tubosun (Chevening Fellow from Nigeria) and Mark Ashe (Chevening Programme officer). I was given a detailed programme overview and a warm welcome to both the British Library and the UK by everyone.
My current role
My journey in libraries began over four year ago. I entered the Library world somewhat by chance. I can safely say that this profession chose me. When I graduated from the University of the West Indies Mona, I was given my first Job at the National Library of Jamaica. I worked as a cataloguer for a year, where I managed serials and legal deposit publications. I later moved up to Special Collections.
Since working in Special Collections, I have had the great pleasure of expanding my skillsets. I not only catalogue but do reference and research work as well. My daily tasks involves me working with manuscripts, maps, photographs, postcards and newspapers. I also help to interface with researchers from all walks of life, which is the very best part of my job.
Why I applied?
I was always looking for ways to make progress both personally and professionally. During a general staff meeting at the NLJ our CEO, Miss Beverly Lashley spoke about the Chevening British Library Fellowship. She spoke briefly on the requirements and stated that the Library would give support to any staff member who applied. After the announcement I logged into my Chevening application portal and looked on the Fellowship option that was in my profile. Prior to Miss Lashley’s announcement I was well on my way in applying for a Chevening scholarship to study in the UK. Ever since I graduated from the UWI I aspired to continue my studies aboard. I had researched many opportunities for studies, however none was as comprehensive as the Chevening awards.
After many weeks of perfecting my essays I submitted two applications one for a Chevening Scholarship and the other for a Chevening Fellowship. Months passed and my anxiety was high, I was however mindful that whatever was for me would always be at the right time. After receiving numerous emails, meetings and interviews I got the life changing news. I was selected as one of 19 Chevening awardees from Jamaica and was the only Fellow.
After receiving the good news I began my preparations to live and work in one of the world’s most diverse countries.
My Fellowship involves working with the Eccles Centre for American Studies and EAP departments. I will be doing research on digitized archives from Latin America and the Caribbean, engaging with local and international archival partners, organising, and promoting the activities of both departments.
Additionally towards the end or immediately after my fellowship I will Identify and liaise with a local partner institution in the Latin America and or Caribbean region to manage an Eccles funded conference.
EAP and Eccles centre Energetic Synergy
One of the most gratifying experiences about my fellowship is that I get the unique opportunity to work with two of the British Library’s best departments. The Endangered Archives programme (EAP) facilitates the digitisation of archives around the world that are in danger of destruction, neglect or physical deterioration. Funding comes from Arcadia, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin. Since its inception, EAP has provided grants to more than 400 projects in 90 countries worldwide, in over 100 languages and scripts (Endangered Archives Programme).
The Eccles Centre connects users to the British Library’s Americas collections. They facilitate a wide range of programmes and events. Some of which include visiting Fellowships, Writer’s Award and Congress to Campus programme. The centre also compiles study resources designed to help exploration of the British Library's Canadian, American and Caribbean collections.
Both teams have ensured I have the best experience to date. They have facilitated meetings, talks, internal and external events which add to my personal and professional development. For the first time both departments have a common synergy, me.
My work so far
Currently I have two major projects I’m working on. My main project involves an in depth data visualisation of past and present projects in Latin America and the Caribbean undertaken by EAP. I have so far completed the data compilation and will continue to work on the project in the coming year.
The second major project I am working is a Bibliography of Latin America and Caribbean non-book sources before 1950 at the British Library for the centre. This project is enabling me to explore the vast Latin American collections held at the British Library.
While working on the main projects I have also learnt about other gems in the collections. The Cartonera: Latin American cardboard books, the proposition to establish the West India Company in the Stowe manuscript collection and manuscripts related to Texcoco in Mexico are just a few interesting collection items I have explored.
Undoubtedly none of this would be possible without the Chevening secretariat. The Chevening team namely my programme office Mark Ashe, have been my constant guide. One of the most memorable moments on my fellowship so far was at the recent Chevening Orientation. The session had 1,750 scholars from 141 countries and territories around the world. It was truly a remarkable event.
Chevening also facilitates smaller networking sessions through its tailored events. I had the privilege of attending one such event in Manchester under the theme Cottonpolis: Fashioning the Future. Myself and over 20 scholars received a guided tour of the city of Manchester and had a very engaging session on sustainable fashion at the University of Manchester
Hopes for 2020
It is my hope that throughout the rest of my fellowship I will produce blog posts, articles and multimedia content that will track and highlight the work I am doing. I am also looking forward to the many people I will meet and new places I will visit.
Chevening Fellowship Awardee - Jamaica 2019/2020
04 December 2019
Washington Irving is today perhaps best remembered for the stories ‘Rip Van Winkle’ and ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’, first published in 1819/20. They were included in Irving’s The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent, which, in its initial serialisation and then in book form, was a huge and perennial bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic.1 However, it is the Sketch Book’s five chapters depicting an English country Christmas at the Yorkshire home of a fictional Squire Bracebridge that have had the greater lasting impact. For it was in those chapters that Irving was successful in emphasising the importance of both preserving and creating cherished Christmas traditions.
The quality of Irving’s prose reinforced his evocation of Christmas. His description of the Waits, a musical band of night watchmen, being a prime example: ‘I had scarcely got into bed when a strain of music seemed to break forth in the air just below the window. I listened, and found it proceeded from a band which I concluded to be the Waits from some neighbouring village. They went round the house, playing under the windows. I drew aside the curtains to hear them more distinctly. The moonbeams fell through the upper part of the casement; partially lighting up the antiquated apartment. The sounds, as they receded, became more soft and aerial, and seemed to accord with the quiet and moonlight. I listened and listened—they became more and more tender and remote, and, as they gradually died away, my head sunk upon the pillow and I fell asleep.’2
Charles Dickens was a great admirer of Irving, writing to the American, ‘I should like to travel with you, outside the last of the coaches, down to Bracebridge Hall.’ There can be no doubt that Mr Pickwick’s Christmas at Dingley Dell was inspired by Irving, as, in spirit, was ‘Christmas Festivities’ in Dickens’ Sketches by Boz. However, Dickens gave the latter an urban setting, in London and, more narrowly than in Pickwick, centred his account on the family, thus moving it closer to today’s celebrations. Dickens’s example encouraged the inclusion of all one’s kinfolk: ‘The Christmas family-party that we mean, is not a mere assemblage of relations, got up at a week or two’s notice, originating this year, having no family precedent in the last, and not likely to be repeated in the next. No. It is an annual gathering of all the accessible members of the family, young or old, rich or poor.’3
Dickens, the writer of one of the greatest Christmas stories in A Christmas Carol, was just one of a number of authors, on both sides of the Atlantic, who did so much to create lasting Christmas traditions during the half century before 1870. And among them was a succession of imaginative Americans who, between them, produced the phenomenon that, from the end of that period, became modern Christmas’s most popular secular figure on both sides of the Atlantic. It was then that one of the greatest of Anglo-American mergers began: with Britain’s Father Christmas keeping his name and, mostly, his robe, but for the first time assuming the colour and character of America’s Santa Claus.
Father Christmas is certainly rather older than his American cousin. He first became the effective personification of the midwinter festival in ‘Christmas, his Masque’, written by Ben Jonson and staged for King James I & VI by Inigo Jones in 1616. The character of ‘Christmas’, ‘Captain Christmas’, ‘Old Christmas’, ‘Christmas of London’ and Father Christmas, as he finally came to be called, was created as a satirical figure in order to mock the Puritans and their opposition to the concept of celebrating Christmas as a joyous festival. However, Father Christmas was not a well-defined figure and so he would remain for two-and-a-half centuries.
As for the origin of Santa Claus, we need once again to turn to Washington Irving and, this time, to what began as a joke. Ten years before his Sketch Book, Irving satirised those New Yorkers who he thought over keen to create false traditions for their fast-expanding metropolis. In A History of New York he invented a story about the very founding of the city, when the Catholic St Nicholas, known by the Dutch as Sinterklaas, flew over Manhattan ‘in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children’ and directed the elders to site their settlement there.4 From this unlikely beginning, St Nicholas / Sinterklaas found favour in America. A dozen years later, Clement Clarke Moore gave him a team of reindeer and a cheery personality in the poem best known as ‘The Night Before Christmas’ and shortly afterwards the figure became generally known as Santa Claus. Finally, in the 1860s, the political cartoonist Thomas Nast began his creation of the physical image which, with a few minor additions, has remained to this day.
By the end of the 1860s, Santa Claus the present-giver was becoming very popular with American children and also, understandably, with the manufacturers of presents. Improved transatlantic communications enabled Santa to skip quickly across the Atlantic. His appeal to children was and is obvious: here was someone who brought more presents! As for the adult British public, a change of name to Father Christmas and an assumption of hundreds of years of British heritage quickly turned this kindly American import into a seemingly timeless British figure. Whether called Santa Claus or Father Christmas, he has become the happy personification of the modern secular Christmastime.
- Washington Irving, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. London: Cassell & Co., ; shelfmark 12350.p.25.
- From 'Christmas Eve', in Washington Irving, The Sketch of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996; shelfmark YK.1996.a.13992.
- Charles Dickens, 'Christmas Festivities' (1835) republished as 'A Christmas Dinner' in Sketches by Boz: illustrative of every day life and every-day people. London: Chapman & Hall, 1902; shelfmark 012613.g.3.
- Washington Irving, A History of New York. London: J Murray, 1820; shelfmark DRT 838.f.8
George Goodwin FRHistS FRSA is a Makin Fellow of the British Library’s Eccles Centre for American Studies and the author of Christmas Traditions: A Celebration of Festive Lore (British Library Publishing, £12.99).
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