14 May 2016
The British Library is delighted to announce the acquisition of manuscript items relating to Dylan Thomas from Professor John Goodby. We are grateful to receive this contemporaneous memoir and copy of a letter by Dylan Thomas to the publican Phil Richards. These items will enrich our research resources for Dylan Thomas, which already include early manuscripts, correspondence with fellow poets such as Vernon Watkins, and other papers relating to his poetry, prose and dramatic scripts. We are excited to be able to add these items to our collections, adding a further voice to our understanding of Dylan Thomas.
Dr. Charles Barber, Prof. John Goodby, Abe Osborne and BL Curator of Performance and Creative Archives, Joanna Norledge at the donation of the manuscripts (left to right)
Prof. John Goodby and Ade Osborne, PHD student at Swansea University, have kindly written about the research value of these items:
A memoir, by the local G.P. to Dylan Thomas and his family during his years in Laugharne (1938-40 and 1949-53), and a copy of a letter by Thomas, are being donated by Professor John Goodby to the British Library on 13th May 2016. The memoir is hitherto unknown, and the letter does not appear in the 1985 or 2000 editions of Thomas’s Collected Letters and is not known to other Thomas experts. Both items have been transcribed by Ade Osbourne, a Ph.D. student supervised by Professor Goodby and funded by Swansea University to work on the Dylan Thomas notebook the university acquired in 2014.
The 26-page memoir is by Dr David Hughes, the St Clears-based G.P. for the Thomas family, and was written in 1961 for Charles Barber who had recently become interested in literature and was due to give a paper on Dylan Thomas to the Literary Society; his father, a friend of David Hughes, asked him to help his son, and the two MSS were his response, the memoir being handwritten by Hughes himself, the letter being a copy made by his wife Phyllis Hughes from the original, which was addressed to Thomas’s friend Phil Richards, the publican at the Cross House Inn, Laugharne, and dated 8 December 1950.
David Mendelson Hughes was himself a man of culture, an accomplished painter and a friend of Philip and Richard Burton. His relationship with Thomas was a doctor-patient one only, but his cultural interests tinge his account in places. Thus, he admits that his first impression of Thomas, in 1938, was of someone acting as a Chelsea bohemian in order to give the impression of being an artist. But this jaundiced view had changed by 1949; Hughes stresses Thomas’s ‘shy & self-effacing’ demeanour, habit of drinking only in moderation, and dedication to his parents, on whom he called every day before visiting Brown’s Hotel (‘before the Pint, the Parents’) where he would have a drink before heading to the Boathouse to work all afternoon.
For Hughes, whose attitudes to women were the patriarchal ones of his era, Caitlin is the villain of the piece; ‘fast’ is the kindest word he uses to describe her, and he speculates that she was responsible for driving Dylan to his death in New York in 1953. To some extent, Hughes’s account is also that of a local man determined to defend Dylan’s reputation against the lurid accounts given in John Malcom Brinnin’s Dylan Thomas in America (1957) and Caitlin’s Leftover Life to Kill (1958). He finds Dylan sad rather than humorous and adopts a protective attitude towards him.
For all the limitations of its time and place, however, this is a striking first-hand account of the poet which adds colour and detail to the others we possess, from the Thomas’s packing-case furniture to Dylan’s taste for pork pies and fear of the dark. For all that Hughes’s Dylan ultimately cuts a sad figure, his account is insightful and full of humorous incident.
The short letter is in typically whimsical vein; it refers to Thomas’s forthcoming trip to Persia of January 1951, and to a pig named Wallis, bought by Thomas with his friends Bill McAlpine and Phil Richards to fatten up for Christmas. The memoir references the letter, and tells us that when the time came to slaughter Wallis, Thomas found ‘Wallis’s dying words’ too much to bear, and sought refuge in the Cross House.
The documents were kindly donated to Professor Goodby by Charles Barber at the suggestion of His Grace Rowan Williams during a Marlborough College reunion in 2015. They were exhibited at Swansea Museum until 12 May, and are the basis of a feature article to mark International Dylan Day in The Times on Saturday 14 May by Hilly Janes, the daughter of Fred Janes, Dylan’s close friend, and author of The Three Lives of Dylan Thomas.
Discover more about Dylan Thomas, including his work and life here: www.discoverdylanthomas.com
Photograph of David Hughes and David Hughes and his wife Phyllis Hughes, with kind permission of Frances Hughes.
28 April 2016
Key counterculture figure, bookshop manager, editor, publisher, author, music journalist, archivist, biographer: all of this, and more, is Barry Miles, or just ‘Miles’, as he is better known.
His archive, acquired by the British Library in 2013 and recently catalogued, is a rich and unique source of information not only to anyone interested in Miles himself, but also to those researching the Beat Generation, and the ‘60s and ‘70s culture and music.
Miles organised and arranged his papers thoroughly. Divided into correspondence, projects files, folders relating to his publications, and reference material, the archive reflects all stages of Miles’s life and career, from his time as a student at Gloucestershire College of Art in the early ‘60s to the present day.
At the centre of the London underground scene, as manager of Better Books, co-founder of Indica Gallery and Bookshop and International Times (IT), and organiser of many events, Miles developed an extensive network of contacts, within and outside the UK, many of whom were also good friends. Jim Haynes, Peter Asher, Pete Brown, Victor Bockris, Caroline Coon, Piero Heliczer, Richard Neville, Gordon Ball, Simon Vinkenoog, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Urban Gwerder, to name but a few of his correspondents.
Flyer on Indica Books limited headed paper advertising The Ginsbergs at the ICA, a recording of the reading given by Allen and his father on 22 August 1967. Reproduced with kind permission from Barry Miles.
With the same people, Miles collaborated on numerous adventures: there are over 100 files in the collection relating to projects in which he was involved, for example his work as editor of Horde and Long Hair, as London correspondent of East Village Other, as co-founder of Lovebooks, Miles, Asher and Dunbar Ltd., and ECAL, as Time Out editor, as manager of Zapple, and as music journalist for New Musical Express. The files include letters, publicity material, press cuttings, newsletters, photographs, reports, notes, press releases, events programmes, draft articles and unpublished material.
Trial proof of the cover of Long Hair magazine, Lovebooks second poetry publication, 1965. Miles edited the issue and contributed to the cover drawing. Reproduced with kind permission from Barry Miles.
The first interview Miles did, published in IT on 16 January 1967, was with Paul McCartney, a friend of Miles - the two had met through Peter Asher, whose sister, Jane, was Paul’s girlfriend at the time. Later interviews that Miles did with, amongst others, John Lennon, George Harrison, Mick Jagger, Ed Sanders, and The Clash, feature in the archive, either on tape or as transcripts.
After a period as a freelance editor for Omnibus Press, Miles became a prolific writer, publishing 50 books, some of which have been translated into foreign languages. Not to mention the over 400 articles he wrote and his numerous contributions to other authors’ books. For his writing, Miles conducted meticulous research and many interviews, as it emerges from the number of research files and tapes he produced. Also included amongst the material relating to his publications are various drafts, notes, correspondence with editors, letters from fans and colleagues, publicity material, royalty statements, press reviews, and cover proofs.
Handwritten notes by Barry Miles, on airline napkin. The material from these notes was used for many articles written by Miles, for magazines such as International Times, Hot Ratz, Changes. Reproduced with kind permission from Barry Miles.
His first ‘proper book’ was the biography of Allen Ginsberg, which took him five years to complete and for which Miles recorded 40 tapes of interviews with Ginsberg, his friends and family, now part of the British Library sound collection.
Biographies of other influential figures in Miles’s life followed including William Burroughs, Paul McCartney, Frank Zappa, and Charles Bukowski. His two memoirs, In the Sixties and In the Seventies, together with his London Calling, are detailed accounts of the London underground life and his major and minor players.
Included in the archive are also some rare, limited, special or signed editions of Miles publications, including an unauthorised reprint of his article 1970 ‘The Rebirth of Joy’, the 1973 catalogue of Lilia Aaron exhibition in Switzerland, a 1963 clipping of Miles's article How To Undress a Painting in Slate 2, the magazine of Gloucestershire College of Art, and a typed copy of Horde number 1, 1964.
Unused ticket for Poets of the World / Poets of Our Time, Albert Hall poetry reading, 11 June 1965. Miles was involved in the organisation of the event.
Miles created files of reference material for items he used most frequently, mainly for publications or exhibitions. Amongst these are a Better Books paper bag, designed by John Sewell; an unused ticket for Poets of the World/Poets of Our Time, the first large-scale Beat generation reading in Europe at the Albert Hall poetry reading, on 11 June 1965, which Miles helped organise; Indica Gallery and Books photographs and flyers; and a leaflet for the party at the Roundhouse for the launch of International Times, 15 October 1966.
A few items from the Barry Miles archive, including a leaflet for The Roxy club and the first interview with the Clash, will feature in the forthcoming free exhibition Punk 1976-78, which opens on the 13th May 2016.
The catalogue of the Barry Miles archive is available online from Explore Archives and Manuscripts.
by Silvia Galotti, Manuscripts Cataloguer
14 December 2015
by Claire Harman, author of the biography Charlotte Brontë: A Life, 2015, written to celebrate the forthcoming 200th anniversary of Charlotte Brontë's birth. Harman researched Charlotte's life using manuscripts at the British Library.
Of all the hundreds of letters by Charlotte Brontë which have survived, the four to Constantin Heger, her former teacher in Brussels, are the most disturbing to read, as she clearly wrote them in desperation and intended them for his eyes alone. Heger was the first person outside her family to take Brontë seriously as an intellectual, and she had returned from Brussels to Haworth in 1844, convinced that the strong bond she had formed with him would be continued in correspondence. However, the more needy and ardent her letters became, the more Heger drew back into long silences, provoking a sort of panic in the 27-year old writer. In January 1845, she made her feelings explicit:
all I know – is that I cannot – that I will not resign myself to the total loss of my master’s friendship – I would rather undergo the greatest bodily pains that have my heart constantly lacerated by searing regrets. If my master withdraws his friendship from me entirely I shall be absolutely without hope – if he gives me a little friendship – a very little – I shall be content – happy, I would have a motive for living – for working. Monsieur, the poor do not need a great deal to live on – they ask only the crumbs of bread which fall from the rich men’s table – but if they are refused these crumbs - they die of hunger - No more do I need a great deal of affection from those I love – I would not know what to do with a whole and complete friendship – I am not accustomed to it – but you showed a little interest in me in days gone by when I was your pupil in Brussels – and I cling to the preservation of this little interest – I cling to it as I would cling on to life.
Portrait of Charlotte Brontë, by George Richmond, chalk, 1850, NPG 1452 © National Portrait Gallery, London
Perhaps not surprisingly, this made Heger withdraw even further and by the end of the year he had ceased to reply to Charlotte’s letters at all. Her last surviving message, written on 18 November 1845, shows the depths of suffering this caused her:
Your last letter has sustained me – has nourished me for six months – now I need another and you will give it me – not because you have any friendship for me – you cannot have much – but because you have a compassionate soul and because you would not condemn anyone to undergo long suffering in order to spare yourself a few moments of tedium. […] [S]o long as I think you are fairly pleased with me, so long as I still have the hope of hearing from you, I can be tranquil and not too sad, but when a dreary and prolonged silence seems to warn me that my master is becoming estranged from me – when day after day I await a letter and day after day disappointment flings me down again into overwhelming misery, when the sweet delight of seeing your writing and reading your counsel flees from me like an empty vision – then I am in a fever – I lose my appetite and my sleep – I pine away.
When Heger’s family donated these letters to the British Library in 1913, they caused a sensation with the revelation of Brontë’s passionate feelings for her married mentor, but without the other side of the correspondence – Heger’s – it is easy to judge Brontë’s feelings as largely irrational and unprovoked. Heger’s wife Zoe told her daughter Louise that her husband had thrown Miss Brontë’s letters away, but that she had rescued them from the wastebasket and mended the ones that had been torn up with glued paper strips and thread, then carefully preserved them in her jewel box. Her reason for doing this was to have some evidence to prove the strong feeling was all on one side (fearing the damage to her school’s reputation), and the implication was that the tearing and mending was all done soon after Heger received the letters in 1844 and 1845. Looking at the manuscripts carefully, though, there is plenty of evidence that they were re-folded and retained long enough to acquire staining and dirt marks, so perhaps Heger kept them to himself for quite a long time, even though he never answered them.
Meanwhile, Charlotte became a published writer, under her pseudonym ‘Currer Bell’, with Poems (1846), a joint collection with her sisters Emily and Anne (writing as ‘Ellis Bell’ and ‘Acton Bell’) and the following year took the reading world by storm with Jane Eyre, followed by Shirley in 1849 and Villette in 1853 (a novel explicitly modelled on Charlotte’s experiences in Brussels with the Hegers). When, in 1856, a year after Charlotte’s death, Elizabeth Gaskell went to interview him for her biography, Constantin Heger read her extracts from the letters and copied out some passages for her to use, and in 1869 a friend of the family attested that Heger had shown the letters to his wife’s cousin and ‘told the whole story’. As Charlotte Brontë became more and more famous in the last decades of the century, perhaps Monsieur reconsidered his association with her and secretly took pride in it. Clearly, there was a time before she was famous when she seemed nothing but a nuisance or liability. Her last letter to him – unanswered – had contained a humiliating confession by Charlotte of how she had become ‘the slave of a regret, a memory, the slave of a dominant and fixed idea which has become a tyrant over one’s mind’. It must have been left open on Heger’s desk at some time, for along the side of the last page, in pencil, are some local tradesmen’s addresses – one a cobbler. Heger had used Charlotte Brontë’s heartrending cri de coeur as a piece of scrap paper.
You can see digitised images of the four surviving letters from Charlotte to Constantin Heger on the British Library's Discovering Literature website. Charlotte Brontë's bicentenary is in 2016, celebrating her birthday 21st April 1816. You can also view digitised images of the fair copy manuscript of Jane Eyre.
05 August 2015
Chris Beckett writes:
There is a haunting valedictory quality to Lee Harwood’s recent collection, The Orchid Boat (Enitharmon Press, 2014). And yet the poems, many of which recapitulate with a light (and last) touch themes and motifs familiar from Harwood’s considerable body of work, are far from sombre:
I don’t intend to sit here waiting in my coffin,
gathering dust until the final slammer,
adjusting my tiara.
I’ll stamp my foot
and, checking the rear-view mirror,
head for the frontier.
Sadly, the sense of journey’s end – or journey’s beginning – that characterises The Orchid Boat is now made all the more poignant by the news that Lee Harwood passed away last month, on Sunday 26 July.
So where’s the boat?
A sampan or a lugger?
or an elegant steam launch?
Is there room for me and that crew of sages?
‘Sailing Westwards’, the poem that concludes The Orchid Boat, moves seamlessly in typical Harwood manner between landscapes imagined and landscapes remembered, from the mountains of China to the hills and mountains of Snowdonia that Harwood climbed with untiring enthusiasm and a perpetual sense of wonder. We have seen the ‘elegant steam launch’ in Harwood’s poems before; and the lifelong delight that he took in the orchids of the Sussex Downs finds new resonance in ‘Departures’, the poem that opens The Orchid Boat: ‘Without thinking / I step aboard the orchid boat, / the feel of silk / carrying me beyond all mirrors’.
Lee Harwood established his reputation as a distinctive new voice in English poetry with The White Room, published by Fulcrum Press in 1968. Landscapes (1969) and The Sinking Colony (1970) quickly followed, and in 1971 his work appeared in Penguin Modern Poets 19, along with selections from Tom Raworth and the American poet John Ashbery. In 1975, Trigram Press published Harwood’s translations of the poems of Tristan Tzara, a seminal influence whose work Harwood discovered in the early 1960s. Thereafter, Harwood was published exclusively by the small presses, a state of affairs that reflected the divided and divisive territory of English poetry during the 1980s. In 2004, Shearsman Books published Harwood’s Collected Poems to considerable acclaim, prompting an upsurge of retrospective interest in his work. The Salt Companion to Lee Harwood, a collection of essays on his work, was published in 2007, and this was quickly followed by a series of illuminating interviews conducted by Kelvin Corcoran, Not the Full Story (2008). Recently, Harwood’s poems found an appreciative home in the London Review of Books, and his work was championed in sensitive reviews by August Kleinzahler and Mark Ford.
It is a great pleasure to report that the extensive papers of Lee Harwood, which were acquired from the poet by the British Library in 2012, will be made available later this year. The preparation of the catalogue, which has benefited from the poet’s close involvement, is now in its final stages. It is a matter of great regret that Harwood did not live to see the release of his papers, although he took great satisfaction in seeing his papers join the national collection. The archive is a rich record of the life of a singular poet who belonged to no particular school, finding sympathetic friends across poetry’s territorial divisions, both at home and in America. Journals, diaries, notebooks, and much poetry in draft, are supplemented by a considerable number of letters received: there are 77 files of letters and 146 correspondents, from Ashbery (John) to Wylie (Andrew). A sense of the variety of Harwood’s correspondents, and the number of letters in the collection, can be quickly given by some examples: Paul Evans (122 letters), Harry Guest (354), August Kleinzahler (48), Douglas Oliver (48), F. T. Prince (22), Tom Raworth (58), and Anne Stevenson (in excess of 400). Harwood greatly valued the close reading of his work by other poets, and one of the instructive rewards of the letters is to read their detailed responses to his work.
08 July 2014
In the run up to the centenary commemorations of the outbreak of the First World War the British Library has been involved in a number of projects including collaboration in a Europe wide initiative, Europeana. This project covered a range of activities one of which was the digitisation of thousands of books and documents. Part of my involvement with the project was to put forward literary works to be digitised. One book that had a particular impact on me was The Diary of a Dead Officer: Being the Posthumous Papers of Arthur Graeme West. This slim volume comprises diary extracts written between 1915 and 1917 and a selection of West’s poems.
The Diary was published posthumously in 1919 shortly after the end of the war and was edited by the pacifist campaigner C E M Joad who had been a friend of West’s since schooldays. The Diary charts West’s growing sense of disillusionment as the reality of war takes its toll. West had initially tried to obtain a commission in 1914 but had been turned down because of poor eyesight. Undeterred, he enlisted as a private in the Public Schools Battalion in February 1915. However, faced with the realities of army life and the way the war was being conducted, his sense of duty and patriotism gradually turned to disenchantment. In 1916, after serving in France for several months, West was sent to Scotland for officer training, a period when West’s disillusionment reached crisis point. Many of the instructors were soldiers who had not experienced life at the front making it difficult for them to gain the respect of the officer cadets who had served in the front line. West felt that the training he received was ineffectual for the conditions faced in the trenches and at times he felt it bordered on the farcical. During this period he became increasingly influenced by the writings of Bertrand Russell and the pacifist arguments of his friend Joad to the point where he decided he would write to his Commanding Officer resigning his commission and refusing to take any further part in the war. In the end, West couldn’t bring himself to deliver the letter and reported for duty as instructed. He went back to France in September 1916 on active service with the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire light infantry and was killed by a sniper on 3 April 1917.
Along with the diary excerpts is a selection of West’s poetry. The poetry section opens with ‘God! How I hate you, you young cheerful men!’ West’s angry reaction to the patriotic poetry of those idealistic young men who believed they were living through “epic days”. The most well-known of West’s poems is ‘The Night Patrol’ a powerful and honest account of the atrocious conditions and horrific experiences endured by those living in the trenches and one of the first realistic war poems to be published.
Last year I was delighted to learn that the Old Stile Press were to publish a fine press edition of West’s work to commemorate the 1914 centenary. This new publication, in a limited edition of 150 copies, contains newly commissioned linocut illustrations by the artist and print-maker John Abell who also provides an afterword. The Illustrations, several of which are full-page, reinforce the sense of horror and outrage found in West’s narrative. The black and white images create a striking and haunting impression. Hand printed by Nicolas McDowall this edition is a fitting tribute to West. For more information about the creation of this work please see the Old Stile Press blog.
West’s frank and powerful writings deserve to be more widely known. I hope the interest generated by the centenary of the First World War and publications such as the one from the Old Stile Press will go some way to helping his work reach a wider readership.
The Old Stile Press edition of The Diary of a Dead Officer is now available to consult in the Library’s Rare Books and Music Reading Room, shelfmark RF.2014.b.25.
26 June 2014
Laurie Lee was born one hundred years ago today in a house on the road that leads out of Stroud and climbs up through Slad, the Cotswold valley which he later immortalised in Cider With Rosie (1959). Gloucestershire is celebrating the centenary in style in a summer-long programme of events, but Laurie Lee’s popularity and significance goes far beyond the Cotswolds. Here at the Library, home to Laurie Lee’s archive, we held an early birthday celebration of sorts with an evening of readings and reflections from P J Kavanagh, Tim Dee, Brian Patten, Adam Horovitz and Louis de Bernières.
The centenary of Lee’s birth seems like an appropriate time to reconsider Lee’s literary legacy, not least because Lee seems to have felt that his work wasn’t fully appreciated by the literary establishment, hugely popular though it has always been. After his overnight success with Cider With Rosie in 1959 Lee seemed to feel that his work was looked down upon in some quarters: ‘poor old Laurie, such a good poet, what a pity he’s now writing best-selling prose.’ Lee’s perception of his critical reputation was one of the points discussed by fellow poet and friend, P J Kavanagh:
If Lee felt that he was regarded as a lightweight, it was perhaps a result of some of his early reviews. In response to criticism from the poet Roy Fuller who challenged Lee to leave aside nature writing, write about contemporary themes and use a greater range of verse forms, Lee responded: ‘You dare me to be more complicated, but I dare to achieve simplicity’. Luckily for us Lee was true to his word: he pursued his quest for the illusion of simplicity in prose and verse; his work continued to be infused with a sense of the past; and he proved himself to be one of the finest nature writers in the English language. This last point was the topic of naturalist Tim Dee’s talk:
Following a wonderfully humorous rendition of U A Fanthorpe’s poem ‘Dear Mr Lee’ by U A Fanthorpe, Louis de Bernières spoke about Lee’s last book and his own personal favourite, A Moment of War.
The full recording of Laurie Lee: A Celebration of his Life and Legacy will be available to listen to onsite at the Library shortly, but here are a few more clips of our guests reading from Lee’s work:
If these clips have whetted your appetite to hear from Laurie Lee himself, you'll find a selection of recordings available on our recently released Laurie Lee CD, the latest in our spoken word series. And if you'd like to see material from his archive, a free exhibition on Lee and the Spanish Civil War is on display in the Treasures Gallery until 20 July.
22 May 2014
Portrait photographs of Charles Dickens, 1861
You may already know that the majority of the British Library’s most treasured holdings are stored below ground in our deep basements, only to be looked at when they are beckoned above by curious readers. The Library’s new online learning resource Discovering Literature liberates some of our most precious holdings from the depths; allowing them to be seen in high definition, at anytime, anywhere, [and most importantly] whilst drinking a cup of tea!
Discovering Literature and Charles Dickens were made for each other. Dickens was a huge character and a prolific writer. It can be a dizzying experience to try and wade through all that has been written by or about him. Discovering Literature allows us to learn more about Dickens the individual while at the same time intricately weaving him into the 19th century world he inhabited.
The site features the manuscripts of some of his works, articles about him by leading Dickens scholars and also topical pieces about some of the issues that interested him, such as crime, poverty and the supernatural. All these scholarly additions are supported by high quality images of collection items, allowing access to primary source materials that bring Dickens to life. The site also features plenty of ephemeral items that help to contextualise and make real the issues that permeated his works, such as the newspaper advertisements for Warren’s Blacking Factory.
Advertisement for Warren's Blacking Warehouse
They are interesting to look at of themselves, but once you realise that they are advertising the boot polish manufacturers where Dickens worked as a 12 year old boy they become so much more pertinent – you begin to realise where the author’s concern for child labour and the plight of the poor comes from. The same goes for the Diet Table from a workhouse report, laying out the daily rations to be administered to the inmates:
Reports of the Sub-Committee appointed by the Committee of Management, of the Parish of St. Paul, Covent Garden, for the revision of their workhouse, etc. (1831)
Closer inspection reveals that the daily diet consisted of meagre rations with gruel for breakfast and very little in the way of nutrition. This report, and others like it from the time, emphasise that there were to be no second helpings in any circumstances. The punishing regime of the workhouse in Oliver Twist is revealed as the norm and not a literary exaggeration.
The beauty of being able to view these otherwise rather plain and innocuous seeming objects alongside literary works, manuscripts and personal correspondence enables us to unlock the secrets they contain and reveals them to be so much more than they first appear.
Preface to the Present Edition of Oliver Twist (1850)
As the preface to the cheap edition of Oliver Twist exposes it is so easy to make the mistake that the places and issues that Dickens writes about are largely made-up (Dickens is responding to a magistrate who has claimed that Jacobs Island is a fictional location – they were real slums in Rotherhithe). Items such as these are a stark reminder that these kind of things really happened to people.
These documents serve to show just how much Dickens was influenced by the world around him. They also confirm that many of our perceptions of 19th century Britain have been greatly influenced by what he wrote, making it even more important to separate truth from fiction.
Finally, I wanted to highlight the photographs taken of Dickens in 1861 [shown above]. A couple of them show the author with a slight smirk on his face (a rare thing for a Victorian photograph in general). They remind us that Dickens was a real person too, and not just some mythical author from the 19th century…
24 April 2014
James Crichton, known by the appellation the Admirable Crichton, was the epitome of the cultured Renaissance man. Perhaps for many, the name the Admirable Crichton is more familiar from the 1902 play by J M Barrie ‘The Admirable Crichton’ or its subsequent film and television adaptations. However, these have little connection with the historical figure apart from portraying a highly talented individual.
So who was James Crichton? He was born in 1560 in Dumfriesshire. His father was a lawyer and land owner in the service of Mary Queen of Scots. On his mother’s side he could claim royal descent from the House of Stewart. As a child he displayed a prodigious intelligence. He was educated at St Salvator’s College, St Andrews gaining a BA in 1573 and an MA in 1575. Two years later, in 1577 at the age of just seventeen, he left Scotland for the continent and continued his education in France at the Collège de Navarre and, according to some sources, subsequently spent two years in the French army.
In 1579 he travelled to Genoa and then a year later to Venice where he was reputed to have wooed crowds with his skills in oratory. In Venice he also made the acquaintance of the influential printer Aldus Manutius who became a great friend and promoter of Crichton’s abilities. By this time Crichton was said to be a skilled horseman, swordsman, accomplished dancer, man of letters, debater, and to be fluent in ten languages. For many he was regarded as the perfect gentleman with elegant social graces and enviable good looks. From Venice he travelled to Mantua where he entered the service of the Duke of Mantua and seems to have been well established within the court by 1582. However, his popularity was not universal; in particular he seems to have aroused the jealousy of the Duke’s son and heir Vincenzo Gonzaga. This resentment came to a head one summer’s evening in July when an angry altercation took place in the streets of Mantua which resulted in the Prince mortally wounding Crichton. He was buried the following day in the small graveyard of the church of San Simone in Mantua.
It was Crichton’s first impressions of his arrival in Venice, combined with the compelling majesty of the city, that inspired his most accomplished poem ‘Venice’. The British Library is delighted to announce it has acquired the first English verse translation of Crichton’s Latin poem. The book is a new collaboration between the poet and academic Robert Crawford and the photographer and printmaker Norman McBeath. The source of the text is taken from the two volume anthology of Scottish-Latin poetry Delitiae Poetarum Scotorum (1637), a copy of which is held at the Library at shelfmark 1213.a.7. Robert Crawford’s impressive translation will hopefully generate wider interest in this sadly neglected poem. The poem is accompanied by eight evocative photogravures by Norman McBeath which perfectly capture the enigma and splendour of that fascinating city.
Venice is published by the Edinburgh based Easel Press in an edition of twenty copies and will be available to consult in the Library’s reading rooms shortly.
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