English and Drama blog

3 posts from August 2013

23 August 2013

The first audiobook

A guest post by Matt Rubery, Edison Fellow at the British Library

What was the first audiobook? This is a question I’ve been asked a lot while researching the history of audiobooks as an Edison Fellow at the British Library.

It’s a difficult one to answer since a lot depends on what counts as an audiobook in the first place.

People have been recording literature since the phonograph’s invention in 1877. Shortly after its debut, Thomas Edison proposed using it to record Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby. This would have been the first audiobook if it had ever been recorded. Recording an entire novel on wax cylinders was all but impossible however, since each one played for only a few minutes at a time. Listening to poetry was far more practical. Here’s a sketch from 1895 of a woman listening to a book read aloud in her Paris apartment:

Image 1
From Octave Uzanne and Albert Robida, Contes pour les bibliophiles (Paris: Ancienne Maison Quantin, 1895).

Full-length novels were not recorded until the 1930s. That’s when talking books—that is, books recorded on a set of gramophone records—were made for people with visual disabilities in America and Britain. This group included war-blinded soldiers returning from the First World War and blind civilians who couldn’t read braille. The American Foundation for the Blind and the Royal National Institute of Blind People managed to capture up to 25 minutes of speech using long-playing (LP) records that rotated at far slower speeds than the traditional 78 rpm record. The average novel could fit on 10 records.

The first talking books went out by post to readers in America in October 1934. They included The Bible, patriotic documents like the Declaration of Independence, and, of course, Shakespeare. There was fiction, too, including Rudyard Kipling’s 'The Brushwood Boy', E. M. Delafield’s The Diary of a Provincial Lady, and P. G. Wodehouse’s Very Good, Jeeves. Britain’s talking books went out a year later, beginning with Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon. These are fascinating choices since Christie’s mystery uses a phonograph recording as a plot device and Conrad’s storytellers, like Marlow, are not exactly easy to follow out loud.

Image 2
Woman listening to a talking book circa 1939.

The American Foundation for the Blind and Royal National Institute of Blind People continue to record talking books to this very day. Yet talking books differ from audiobooks in one key respect: they have never been sold to the public. Talking books have long been restricted to people with impaired vision in order to secure copyright exemptions from publishers.

Record companies began making spoken word recordings of literature for the public in the 1950s. Caedmon Records is one of the best known labels since it recorded many of the twentieth century’s biggest names including W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein and Eudora Welty. (For more on Caedmon please read my interview with Barbara Holdridge, co-founder of the label.) But other labels issued spoken word recordings of literature too. Argo, Folkways, and Spoken Arts are among the best known. One was even called The Audio Book Company! Reading through their catalogues made me realize just how much literature was recorded before anyone had ever heard of cassette tapes. 

Image 3
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway (Caedmon TC1105, 1958)

Image 4Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island (Audio Books, 1958)

Which brings me to books on tape. Most people associate audiobooks with the use of cassette tapes in the 1970s. That’s when mail-order vendors began selling or renting titles to the growing number of commuters who listened to them while driving. Duval Hecht decided to start Books on Tape Inc. while commuting to Los Angeles in 1973. His first recorded book was George Plimpton’s Paper Lion. I’m still trying to locate a copy since libraries haven’t preserved audiobooks to the same extent as other books. Companies such as Books on Tape Inc., Books in Motion, and Recorded Books laid the groundwork for today’s audiobook industry.  

Image 5

All this is to say that there’s no short answer to the question: what was the first audiobook? My search continues.

Matthew Rubery is the editor of Audiobooks, Literature, and Sound Studies (Routledge, 2011). He is currently finishing a manuscript titled 'The Untold Story of the Talking Book'. You can read his interview with Toni Morrison about audiobooks on his Audiobook History web site.

09 August 2013

Theo Marzials: a bad poet, but possibly the British Library’s darling

There are many contenders for English literature’s worst poem, but one of the most popular choices is also by one of the most interesting characters. In today’s blog post, meet Theo Marzials, the British Library’s very own endearingly bad poet.

Theophilius Marzials, British Museum Department of Prints and Drawings, 210*.b.11, f.8. ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Marzials was 20 when in 1870 he started work in what was then the British Museum Department of Printed Books, and less than a year later he was working as a 'Transcriber' in the Department – a seemingly mind-numbing job involving copying out bibliographic details. He later described his memory of the work as

'the unpleasant severity, the official discourtesy and the irritating surveillance, the pedantry and red tapeism of those weary, alien, sodden years at the Museum.'

However, Marzials found ways of livening it up a little, as is related in Evan Charteris’ book The Life and Letters of Sir Edmund Gosse (Gosse worked in the Department of Printed Books with Marzials and became his close friend; possibly his lover). The Superintendent was the very strict Reverend Frederick Laughlin, a man later dismissed from the staff because he had threatened a colleague with a revolver. He had gone out and the junior staff were wasting time until he returned – which, as it turned out, was unexpectedly soon. Marzials had climbed to an upper gallery of the room, and leant over the railing

‘looking with his wide aureole of golden hair like the Blessed Damozel, and smiled. There was no response. Dead silence save for the droning quills. Leaning still further out, he boomed down on the workers below, “Am I or am I not the Department’s darling?” Laughlin turned his head slowly and looked upwards - one look. Marzials fled, and the sound of his footsteps was heard echoing up the metal stairways till they seemed to fade away into infinity.'

In 1873 Marzials published a collection of poems entitled A Gallery of Pigeons (the British Library copy is at shelfmark 11646.d.64). The Athenaeum drolly reviewed it on 26 July 1873 as follows:

'we find that Mr Marzials dwells among marble columns, oleanders, rebecks, pleasances, large-lipped women, soft brown limbs, and lissome thighs, and that everything in his verses lounges or shimmers. Indeed, we fear that a general idea of lounging and shimmering is the only definite one that remains with us after reading The Gallery of Pigeons, and other Poems. For example, on one occasion –

All is a-grey, and the sky’s in a glimmer,
A glimmer as ever a sky should be;
Silvery grey with a silvery shimmer,
Where shimmers the sun in the hazes a-shimmer,
The shimmer of river, oh! river a-shimmer.

… [W]e must say that the repetition of the same word five times in three lines shows a certain want of familiarity with the language in which he writes. '

Another unimpressed reader of the book was Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a slight acquaintance of Marzials, who had been sent a copy as a gift by the poet William Bell Scott. Rossetti replied to Scott with an honest (negative) review, which unfortunately Scott forwarded straight to Marzials without reading it first.

The most famous of the poems 'A Tragedy', appears on pp.85-87 of A Gallery of Pigeons, and I’ve transcribed it for your enjoyment at the end of this blog post.

Marzials Twickenham Ferry

Marzials found more success with song writing, and in particular his 1878 song ‘Twickenham Ferry’ became very popular, with his income from sheet music sales far exceeding his British Museum salary. He suffered from ill-heath throughout his employment, and in that same year of 1878 was late for work 27 times, and off sick for 33 days (as noted by P R Harris in his A History of the British Museum Library). In December 1882 his doctor stated that Marzials’ work in the Museum was 'calculated to depress his vital and mental powers, and to deteriorate his health in a considerable degree'. He was pensioned off at £38 a year.

According to Gosse’s biographer, Ann Thwaite, Marzials eventually 'became addicted to Dr Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne and to boys'. Chlorodyne was a treatment for stomach and intestinal upsets, and contained chloroform, morphia, Indian hemp and prussic acid. After 1899 Marzials published no more songs or poems, and around that time retired to Devon, dying in 1920.

The more I read about Theo Marzials, the more endearingly eccentric he seems to me. I’ll leave you with the infamous poem, 'A Tragedy'. If you think you’ve found a better bad poem than this, the English and Drama department would love to hear about it. Leave us a comment.


A Tragedy

The barges down in the river flop.
                        Flop, plop,
            Above,  beneath.
From the slimy branches the grey drips drop,
As they scraggle black on the thin grey sky,
Where the black cloud rack-hackles drizzle and fly
To the oozy waters, that lounge and flop
On the black scrag piles, where the loose cords plop.
As the raw wind whines in the thin tree-top.
                        Plop, plop.
            And scudding by
The boatmen call out hoy ! and hey !
And all is running in water and sky,
            And my head shrieks—“Stop,”
            And my heart shrieks—“Die.”
            *          *          *          *          *
My thought is running our of my head ;
My love is running out of my heart ;
My soul runs after, and leaves me as dead,
For my life runs after to catch them—and fled
They are all every one !—and I stand, and start,
All the water that oozes up, plop and plop,
On the barges that flop
                                    And dizzy me dead.
I might reel and drop.
And the shrill wind whines in the thin tree-top.
                       Flop, plop.
                    *          *          *          *          *
A curse on him.
                                    Ugh ! yet I knew—I knew—
If a woman is false can a friend be true?
It was only a lie from beginning to end—
                        My Devil—my “Friend”
I had trusted the whole of my living to !
                        Ugh ! and I knew !
                                    Ugh !
                        So what do I care,
            And my head is as empty as air—
                        I can do,
                        I can dare,
            (Plop, plop,
            The barges flop
            Drip, drop.)
                        I can dare, I can dare !
And let myself all run away with my head,
And stop.
                        Plop, flop.

    (Theophilius Marzials, 1873)

02 August 2013

The Charleston Bulletin Supplements

I was delighted recently to work with colleagues in British Library Publications on the launch of a new publication, The Charleston Bulletin Supplements, edited by Claudia Olk and published in June. The book includes colourful images from the Supplements and the original text, and provides a comic insight into life at the centre of a major literary and artistic circle.

 The British Library has a number of archive and manuscript items relating to the Bloomsbury Group of which Virginia Woolf and her sister, Vanessa Bell, were prominent members. These holdings include the family magazine archive, the Charleston Bulletin, which was created by Vanessa Bell's sons, Julian and Quentin, with some help from members of their circle, including regular collaboration with their aunt, Virginia. The collection, which dates from 1923 to 1927, was acquired by the Library in 2003.

As with the Hyde Park Gate News, the family newspaper created by the Stephen children, Virginia, Vanessa and Thoby, a generation earlier (and also at the Library), the Charleston Bulletin recorded daily life and events at the children's home in Charleston, Firle, East Sussex. Its creators used words and pictures to convey their messages to readers and topics included observations on nature, readers' letters, poetry and society news (on one occasion provided by John Maynard Keynes, a friend of the family).

Quentin later explained that he was the dominant force behind the project, rising early each morning in order to create a single copy of each edition before breakfast. While the daily editions give a taste of everyday life, it was the Charleston Bulletin Supplements, usually created during the summer and Christmas holidays, which allowed for extended comic tales and provided a vehicle for family jokes. The Supplements were created collaboratively by Quentin and Woolf. Each Supplement had a theme or subject from 'Eminent Charlestonians', about the life of the residents of Charleston to 'The Life and Death: History of a Studio' and 'The Messiah', a satire on the life of Clive Bell and others. They contain colourful illustrations created by Quentin, with text written or dictated by his aunt.

 CBS 2

The Supplements are lighthearted and playful, teasing their subjects regardless of their position at Charleston. Family servants, Trissy and Emily, for example, feature in 'Eminent Charlestonians' alongside Vanessa and Clive Bell, and Duncan Grant. We know from her letters how much Woolf enjoyed creating the magazines. Their spirit and humour are an interesting counterpoint to her published works from the same period, such as The Common Reader (1925), Mrs Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927). This image shows Trissy cooking for the family -

Trissy image

The Charleston Bulletin archive, along with the rest of the modern literary manuscripts collections, can be accessed in the Manuscripts reading room. It's great that in addition readers can now buy their own copy of the Supplements to take home with them. For more information about the new publication please see the British Library website.

Images © The Estate of Virginia Woolf and Quentin Bell.