European studies blog

11 posts from March 2016

29 March 2016

The early illustrated editions of Don Quixote: the Low Countries tradition

The first complete illustrated edition of Cervantes’s novel of Don Quixote appeared not in the original Spanish but in a Dutch translation, printed in Dordrecht in 1657. It contained as many as 24 illustrations, plus two frontispieces. Jacob Savery, the printer, was most probably also responsible for the engravings. In 1662, 16 of his illustrations were then reused in a Spanish edition printed by Jan Mommaert in Brussels. Then in 1672/73, Hieronymus and Johannes Baptista Verdussen of Antwerp printed an edition with the two frontispieces and 32 engravings of which the 16 were retained from the 1662 edition and 16 were new. These latter were engraved by Frederik Bouttats; the artist is unknown.

The illustrations of the three editions focus inevitably on narrative action with an emphasis on the more physical episodes. This supports the argument that in the 17th century Don Quixote was read largely as a work of entertainment. Limitations of space have restricted the current display in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery  to just two examples from this important tradition. Savery’s illustration of the unfortunate Sancho being tossed in a blanket is common to all three editions. One feature of these illustrations is the inclusion of more than one incident in a single image. Here, two incidents in chapters 17-18 of Part 1 are combined: the tossing of Sancho in a blanket (ch. 17) and Don Quixote’s attack on the flock of sheep in the background (ch. 18).

Sancho Panza is tossed in a blanket, while in the background Don Quixote attacks a herd of sheep

 Sancho Panza is tossed in a blanket in the inn yard; Don Quixote attacks the flock of sheep (Background). Miguel de Cervantes, Den verstandigen vroomen ridder Don Quichot de la Mancha (Dordrecht, 1657) Cerv.114. facing p. 58.

The same technique can be seen also in Savery’s illustration in all three editions depicting the concluding moments of Part 1 chapter 8. The narrative ends abruptly with Don Quixote and the ‘brave Basque’ confronting each other with swords raised ready to strike. The interruption occurs because, so it is claimed, the source text ended at this point. (The ‘discovery’ of a continuation is subsequently described in chapter 9.). Don Quixote and the Basque are placed in the foreground, in front of a coach and its lady passenger whom the Basque is escorting. In the background we can see also the preceding incident of chapter 8, Don Quixote’s disastrous charge against the windmills.

Don Quixote and the Basque fighting on horseback, with Quixote's attack on the windmills in the background

 Don Quixote and the vizcaíno with raised swords; the charge against the windmills (background). Miguel de Cervantes, Vida y hechos del ingenioso cavallero Don Quixote de la Mancha (Brussels, 1662), vol. 1. 1074.i.5., facing p. 52.

The illustrations added to the Antwerp edition of 1672/73, engraved by Fredrick Bouttats, are technically superior to those in the editions of 1657 and 1662. Don Quixote’s meeting with the enchanted Dulcinea, the result of Sancho’s stratagem, includes the same characters, but is livelier and more expressive. Both the knight and his squire are shown kneeling in homage to the ‘lady’ Dulcinea. Moreover, unlike Savery’s 1657 illustration, it illustrates in the background the subsequent action when Dulcinea rides off and is unseated by her donkey. Quixote and Sancho come to her aid.

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza kneeling before a woman riding a donkey. In the background the woman is thrown from the donkey's back

Don Quixote and Sancho greet the supposedly enchanted Dulcinea; Dulcinea is thrown from her mount (background). Miguel de Cervantes, Vida y hechos del ingenioso cavallero Don Quixote de la Mancha (Antwerp, 1672-73), vol. 2, 1074.i.8. facing p. 80.

On their own the images of the 1657 edition had limited subsequent circulation except in Dutch versions, but those in the 1672/73 Antwerp edition were widely used in versions in French, English, German and Spanish until well into the 18th century.

Geoff West, former Curator Hispanic Collections

References/further reading:

Patrick Lenaghan, Imágenes del Quijote: modelos de representación en las ediciones de los siglos XVII a XIX (Madrid, 2003). LF.31.a.88

José Manuel Lucía Megías. Leer el ‘Quijote’ en imágenes. Hacia una teoría de los modelos iconográficos. (Madrid, 2006). YF.2007.a.12503

Centro de Estudios Cervantinos. Quijote Banco de imágenes 1605-1915:

24 March 2016

Passion and compassion: Nikos Kazantzakis’s Christ Recrucified

Throughout Europe, the tradition of the Passion Play has a long history, reaching back to an age where it was a powerful means of bringing the dramatic events of the last week of Christ’s life before the eyes of those who could not read. Although the comparatively late Oberammergau Passionspiel  is perhaps the best-known example, many others were performed in the Eastern as well as Western churches.

Bust of Nikos Kazantzakis on a plinth inscribed with his name             Bust of Nikos Kazantzakis in Heraklion (Image from Wikimedia Commons CC-BY.2.0)                    

It is one of these which the Cretan author Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957) describes in his novel Ho Christos xanastauronetai (1948). The British Library holds a numbered copy of the seventh edition signed by his widow Eleni Kazantzakis. It was translated into English in 1954 by Jonathan Griffin under the tile Christ Recrucified (12589.d.18), and ran into several subsequent editions.

Statement of limited edition number and autograph signature of Eleni Kazantzakis

Signature of Eleni Kazantzakis from copy no. 216 of a limited edition of the Greek original of Christ Recrucified. (Athens, [1959?]) 11411.e.96 

Kazantzakis was born at a time when Crete was still part of the Ottoman Empire rather than the modern Greek state which had existed for just over 50 years, and the village of Lykovrissi (‘Wolf’s Spring’) in which he sets the action recalls his experience of growing up in a society where Greek and Turk, Christian and Muslim existed side by side in comparative harmony for the most part. What destabilizes the equilibrium of the community is not internal friction but the arrival of a group of refugees whose own village has been destroyed by the Turks. They reach Lykovrissi at a time when parts are being allocated for the next year’s Passion Play, performed every seven years, and these two events ignite the tumult which ultimately ends in bloodshed and self-sacrifice.

Throughout his life Kazantzakis was a spiritually questing and perpetually restless soul whose challenges to established religious dogma and practice caused him – like his hero Manolios – to face excommunication, though it was never actually pronounced. However, his later novel The Last Temptation of Christ (1955) caused such a furore that the Roman Catholic Church placed it on its index of forbidden books. Though controversial, his portrayal of Christ as a fully human being who understands and engages in the dilemmas of existence to the utmost is close to those of Kahlil Gibran and Dennis Potter, and provided the basis for Martin Scorsese’s film of the same name (1988). Christ Recrucified was also made into a film in 1957,  Celui qui doit mourir, by Jules Dassin, with Melina Mercouri in the role of Katerina . 

It was in another medium, though, that Christ Recrucified found additional dramatic expression. Throughout his life Kazantzakis had been a frequent traveller, and had lived in many countries, including the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. When the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů encountered his work, he immediately recognized its potential for an opera, and the two artists began a correspondence in French which is available in a Czech edition as Řecké pašije: osud jedné opery : korespondence Nikose Kazantzakise s Bohuslavem Martinů, edited by Růžena Dostálová and Aleš Březina (Prague, 2003; YF.2005.a.6912).

Bohuslav Martinů seated at a piano and writing on a musical scoreBohuslav Martinů in 1942. Image from Bohuslav Martinu Centre in Policka, inventory number: PBM Fbm 115, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0 CZ)

Martinů composed the original version of his opera between 1954 and 1957, when memories were still fresh of the Slánský show trials  and the worst excesses of political intolerance and corruption within a communist state where religion was actively suppressed. With no chance of staging it in Czechoslovakia, he offered it to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, but it was not until 1961 that a revised version received its premiere in Zürich, two years after the composer’s death.  The Royal Opera House staged a production by David Pountney (in English) in 2004, conducted by Charles Mackerras, thus making amends for not producing it earlier as originally intended.  

Kazantzakis himself, though disillusioned with Soviet communism and never a party member, had admired Lenin and the general principles which he believed communism represented, many of which find their way into his novel. As the year progresses, the villagers – Manolios, cast as Christ, Katerina, the widow and prostitute chosen as Mary Magdalene, and the various disciples, as well as Panayotaros, the Judas – gradually find themselves assuming the characteristics of the figures whom they portray, and embodying them in their actions towards one another and the starving refugees. The village priest Grigoris denies the fugitives shelter for fear of cholera, and sends them and their own priest Fotis to starve on the mountain of Sarakina. Manolios, regarded with suspicion by the village elders as a ‘Bolshevik’ and ‘Muscovite’, leads his neighbours to help them, and offers his life to save the village from the wrath of the local Agha following the murder of his boy favourite Yousouffaki, but it is Katerina who sacrifices hers, struck down by the Agha after claiming responsibility for a crime which she did not commit. As Manolios inspires others to leave their possessions and join him in a life of prayer and seclusion, the mob, headed by Panayotaros, kills Manolios on Christmas Eve as the refugees resume their flight, led by Father Fotis, who reflects, ‘When will You be born, my Christ, and not be crucified any more, but live among us for eternity?’

Cover of 'Christ Recrucified' with a drawing of a bearded man with his head bowed
Cover of Nikos Kazantzakis, Christ Recrucified , translated by Jonathan Griffin (London, 1962) X.908/5908.

Though nominated nine times for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Kazantzakis never won the award. However, in this as in his other works, he proved himself to be not only a truly European but a universal figure, whose writings continue to raise existential issues of personal integrity and human responsibility – more timely than ever as a new stream of refugees pours into Greece in the weeks before another Easter.

Susan Halstead, Content Specialist (Humanities and Social Sciences), Research Engagement

22 March 2016

A picture is worth a thousand words?

How much truth is in a proverb? Perhaps, you, dear reader, were pondering this question the last time you heard someone saying ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ or ‘The pen is mightier than the sword.’

Proverbs have a long history, some going back all the way to antiquity, and they are an important part of many languages. Each culture and each generation can form new proverbs or cause others to die out. Moreover, equivalent proverbs exist in multiple languages to express similar sentiments, e.g. the German proverb ‘Morgenstund hat Gold im Mund’ and the American ‘The early bird gets the worm’ essentially mean the same thing.

When it comes to their truthfulness though, proverbs evade any concrete assessment by being both ambiguous and contradictory. This does not usually become apparent in conversations, because we always choose a proverb to fit a situation, which makes them appear to be of universal wisdom.

Title Page of 'Deutsche Sprüchwörter und Spruchreden in Bildern und Gedichten' with an illustrated border of vignettes depicting proverbs
 Title page of Deutsche Sprüchwörter und Spruchreden in Bildern und Gedichten (Düsseldorf, ca 1852)  555.d.40.

The illustrations in Deutsche Sprüchwörter und Spruchreden in Bildern und Gedichten (‘German Proverbs and Sayings in Pictures and Poems’) explore the meaning of proverbs by creating specific situations to match various German sayings, many of which are still in use today. An interesting example is the image that accompanies the proverb ‘Nach gethaner Arbeit ist gut ruhen’ (‘After finishing work, one can rest well’).

Two gravediggers resting from their work
The illustration ingeniously portrays two meanings at once: firstly, the old man as a gravedigger who just finished a day’s work and can now relax; and secondly, the old man at the end of a strenuous life, ready to finally rest in peace. The young girl looking into the grave might even underline the meaning of the proverb by contrasting it with its opposite, namely that an untimely death is never peaceful – for the person or their family.

Another fascinating example is the illustration that goes with ‘Der grade Weg, der beste’ (‘The straight/direct path is the best,’ the equivalent of ‘Better beg than steal’).

Two apparently drunken men staggering through a stream
As you can see, here the illustrator opted for a literal and rather ironic representation of the proverb. Again, multiple readings are possible: perhaps the two men should have gone directly to church without stopping at a pub and getting drunk, which only made them end up in a riverbed; or they show us that if the direct path is through a riverbed, maybe you should accept that you have to walk longer to take the bridge but at least that way you will not make a fool of yourself.

Proverb expert Wolfgang Mieder states that the truly marvellous thing about proverbs is their ubiquity. Proverbs do not only exist in many languages, but they have also inspired a lot of literary and artistic work. A prominent example is Pieter Bruegel’s painting ‘Netherlandish Proverbs’, in which he portrayed at least 112 common sayings. Especially for proverbs in English, Shakespeare’s influence has to be mentioned. The bard, whose 400-year anniversary the British Library celebrates with an exhibition which opens on 15 April, has coined a large number of proverbial sayings still used today. Mary Cowden Clarke’s 1848 collection of Shakespearean proverbs is a beautiful little volume worth checking out.

Shakespeare ProverbsSample Page from Mary Cowden Clarke, Shakespeare Proverbs; or, the Wise Saws of our wisest poet collected into a Modern Instance (London, 1848) 1344.a.20 

Lena Böse, Intern, Western Heritage Collections

References / Further Reading

Wolfgang Mieder, Wise Words : Essays on the Proverb. (New York, 1994). YC.1994.a.2436.

Wolfgang Mieder, Sprichwort – Wahrwort?! Studien zur Geschichte, Bedeutung und Funktion deutscher Sprichwörter. (Frankfurt am Main, 1992). X.0709/839(23.).

On the Web

You can find a list of all the proverbs identified in Pieter Bruegel’s painting here:

If you can read German, the Deutsche Welle has a really interesting interview with Professor Mieder on its website:

21 March 2016

Painting Russia’s past: Vasilii Surikov (1848-1916)

It is startling to reflect that a painter’s reputation may stand or fall on the reception of a limited number of works, and this is particularly true in the case of the Russian artist Vasilii Ivanovich Surikov. Although he created a wide variety of cartoons, still lifes and portraits, the crowning achievement of his career was a series of seven large-scale historical paintings, each of which took several years to complete.

Photograph of Vasilii Ivanovich Surikov
Photo of Vasilii Surikov by F. Bruckmann  from V.A. Nikolskii, V.I. Surikov (St Petersburg, 1923); YA.1991.a.2860

From the beginning he was something of an outsider, born not in Moscow or St. Petersburg but far away in Siberia, in Krasnoyarsk, into a family descended from the Don Cossacks who had followed Yermak  in the 16th century on his conquest of Siberia, a theme which would later inspire one of Surikov’s paintings (1895). Throughout his life he retained great pride in his Cossack heritage and its traditional values of independence, directness, love of liberty and zeal in defending their territory from enemy encroachment – qualities which he regarded as his ‘family heirlooms’ and repeatedly evoked in his work.

In 1869 he set off for St. Petersburg to study for two years with Pavel Chistyakov at the Imperial Academy of Arts.  Although he complied with the requirements of the syllabus, painting conventional nude studies, Biblical themes and other traditional subjects, these never obliterated the mental pictures of Siberia which he carried wherever he went. His studies, however, stimulated his interest in antiquity, and he was inspired by the history of ancient Egypt, Rome and the early Christian era to tackle scenes such as Belshazzar’s feast and the court of Cleopatra (both 1874). In that same year, though, he painted his first surviving work on a theme from Russian history, The Princely Court, in response to an assignment set by the Academy’s professors on ‘the clash of Christianity and paganism in the time of Prince Vladimir’.

Looking at any of his most famous canvases, the viewer might be led to compare Surikov’s work with that of Delacroix or Rembrandt in their shared capacity to people the scene with a vast number of figures, all individually characterized but forming part of a cohesive whole. Surikov, it is true, travelled widely, visiting Italy, Germany, Paris and Vienna in 1883 and Switzerland in 1897, but the influences which he absorbed there were drawn into the service of a greater national purpose.

In 1877 Surikov had settled in Moscow, where he had been commissioned to create a series of paintings for the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. On completing these the following year, he set to work on what would become one of his most famous paintings, The Morning of the Execution of the Streltsy. This work, depicting the last moments of members of a corps of guardsmen established by Ivan the Terrible, following their failed rebellion against Peter the Great in 1698, was exhibited in 1881 at the ninth exhibition of the Peredvizhniki (Wanderers), a group of artists set up in 1870 by Ivan Kramskoi with the aim of holding travelling exhibitions. Surikov was accepted as a member that same year, joining Il’ya Repin, Ivan Shishkin, Isaak Levitan and Valentin Serov. All these artists rejected the artificial conventions of academic painting in favour of a fresh and vigorous view of nature and unsparing realism in their handling of subjects reflecting the social turmoil and inequality of Russia in the 19th century.  

Painting showing a crowd in Moscow awaiting an execution
Utro streletskoi kazni
(The Morning of the Execution of the Streltsy). Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Historical painting had several advantages. On the surface, it gave the artist an opportunity to portray heroic exploits from the glorious past, and also to recreate in minute detail the costumes and artefacts of bygone ages which were increasingly attracting attention with the development of the Pan-Slav movement  and  the founding of the Historical Museum in Moscow and similar institutions. At the same time, though, in an age of rigid censorship it allowed him to comment implicitly on the poverty, injustice, corruption and repression which were all too characteristic of his own times.  

Surikov – the father of two daughters – was also inspired by Ivan Zabelin’s book on women in mediaeval Russia to portray strong and heroic female figures, as in the uncompleted Princess Olga Meeting Igor’s Corpse (1915), where the heroine is shown vowing revenge on the Drevlians  for her husband’s death. Even more famous is The Boyarynya Morozova (1887), in which the central figure is shown being dragged in chains to torture for her refusal to abandon the practices of the Old Believers, mocked by the crowd as she defiantly raises her hand to make the sign of the cross with two rather than three fingers.

  A woman being dragged on a sled through the snow, making the sign of the cross
Boiarynia Morozova
by Surikov (From Wikimedia Commons)

Surikov’s work won him numerous awards and commissions, including one for illustrations to editions of Pushkin’s writings (1898), and others for Nikolai Kutepov’s essay on the history of imperial hunting in Russia. His importance was recognized during his lifetime by several studies, including one by Viktor Nikolskii, first published in 1913 (YA.2003.a.45820).

Figures in fancy dress on a sled drawn by bears
‘Bolshoi morskoi maskarad v 1722 godu na ulitsakh g. Moskvy’  from N.I. Kutepov’s colletion of hunting scenes, Velikokniazheskaia  i tsarskaia okhota na Rusi, vol. 3: Imperatorskaia okhota na Rusi, konets XVII i XVIII vek (St Petersburg, 1896-1911). L.R.30.c.6

Though Surikov’s paintings depict the past, they never lapse into stilted rhetoric or decoration for its own sake, despite their exact and authentic rendering of jewels, richly textured fabrics or weapons. He was so intent on capturing his figures’ experiences faithfully that in Switzerland in 1897, while making studies for Suvorov Crossing the Alps (1899), he actually experimented with sliding down a snowy slope near Interlaken to record the resulting motion and sensations. For him, as for his fellow peredvizhniki, the fate and feelings of the common soldiers or the mass of the crowds in his works were as important as those of the generals or heroes, and in a century where, sadly, certain of the abuses which they subtly attacked are still all too prevalent, Surikov’s art remains as vivid and timeless as ever.

Susan Halstead, Content Specialist (Humanities and Social Sciences) Research Engagement

16 March 2016

I would rather till the soil with my bare hands: a letter from Balzac

Autograph letter from Balzac, complaining about the advance offered tp him for the novel 'Wann-Chlore'

Mon cher Thomassy – j’étais sorti pour aller chercher mon manuscript de Wann-Chlore dont on m’offre devinez quoi! 600 Fr!... j’aimerais mieux aller labourer la terre avec mes ongles que de consentir à une pareille infamie…

(My dear Thomassy – I went out to search for my manuscript of Wann-Chlore, for which someone has offered me – guess what! – 600 Francs… I would rather till the soil with my bare hands than to agree to such an insult…)

Protective of his manuscripts, which would often involve more than ten stages of revision, Honoré de Balzac clearly did not want to let go of this manuscript even at this relatively early stage in his prolific career. This letter, to his friend Jean Thomassy (1795-1874), is part of the British Library’s Stefan Zweig Collection of Musical and Literary Manuscripts (Zweig MS 134) and complements the enormous bound corrected proofs of Une ténébreuse affaire (Zweig MS 133).

Two further items, both fragments of a draft to La Monographie de la Presse Parisienne (Zweig MS 135 [below], and Zweig MS 216) signal the importance of Balzac to Zweig in this prestigious collection.

Page of the proof copy of 'Une ténébreuse affaire', with Balzac's annotations

A letter that shows a writer’s passion for manuscripts and the work in progress suited Zweig’s ideas behind the collection perfectly, so much so that he would acquire this item in 1940 during the time of his exile and periodic depression, when he frequently expressed a loss of interest towards collecting.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Collaborative Doctoral Student, British Library/University of Bristol
With thanks to Pam Porter for bibliographic research into this item.

14 March 2016

French with Tears – of laughter

As we begin the Semaine de la Francophonie, we may reflect on how far language teaching has progressed in recent years with the introduction of Duolingo, the Michel Thomas method, and similar schemes. Back in the 1960s, as one of a group of 35 semi-hypnotized collégiennes, I endured the Tavor audio-visual course, gazing at a strip cartoon film while repeatedly chanting ‘Je suis le fantôme de la maison… Je suis mort en 1033…’, and we certainly sounded like it.

70 years earlier, in 1895, a classic textbook appeared whose title became legendary and provided Terence Rattigan for that of his play French without Tears. Written by ‘Mrs. Hugh Bell’ (Florence, later Lady, Bell), it was intended as ‘an elementary French reading book for the nursery and kindergarten’.

Photograph of Florence Bell
Florence Bell (Photograph from the National Portrait Gallery, CC-BY-NC-ND)

Mrs. Bell was certainly well equipped to understand how to engage their attention; as well as three children of her own, she had two stepchildren from her husband’s first marriage, one of whom grew up to be the writer and traveller Gertrude Bell. Florence herself was a prolific author whose works included a companion volume, German without Tears, and an English course for young French readers, L’Anglais sans peine (1917; 12984.df.20) , in addition to plays, conversation manuals and At the Works: study of a manufacturing town, Middlesborough (1907; 08276.a.18). In 1918 she was created a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

Cover of 'French without Tears' in a red binding
Cover of volume 3 of French without Tears

The three volumes of French without Tears (1895-97;, carefully graded according to difficulty, begin with a preface in which the author explains that she aims at ‘the greatest simplicity both of expression and idea’ to give her pupils ‘that feeling of zest and encouragement’ which proceeds from being able to understand and respond at a comparatively early stage. She is also strongly convinced that at this point ‘it is not necessary, or even advisable, that French grammar should be taught’. Instead, she gradually introduces the young student to a growing range of vocabulary and ideas through lively stories such as those of Marguerite’s misadventures when she attempts to surprise her parents with a cake after scornfully rejecting the help of the long-suffering cook Suzon, or the seaside exploits of Jean and his Scottish cousin Jacques ‘aux pays de Galles’. Far from being model children, they get up to all kinds of misdeeds, illustrated with lively drawings, and although the language might seem quaintly stilted nowadays (‘Voyons, mon enfant, ne te chagrine pas pour cela,’ dit le père…), the books provide a far more entertaining introduction to the French language than those of another famous (or notorious) author.


Two pages of text with an illustration of a girl serving a cake to her parents
Marguerite’s culinary disaster (above) and Jean and Jacques at the seaside (below), from French without Tears)

Two pages of text with illustrations of two boys building a sandcastle then fighting

In her autobiography The King of the Barbareens (1966; 11769.h.1/59) Janet Hitchman recalls studying French at a Barnardo’s Home in Essex in the 1930s with a Belgian Mademoiselle who taught it using the books of M. Chardenal, one of which, she claimed, really did contain the phrase ‘the pen of my aunt is in the pocket of the gardener’. The British Library possesses several of these, including his Standard French Primer (1877; 12204.c.20/44) and First French Course (1869; 12954.aa.36), although I have so far been unable to locate that precise sentence. Like Mrs. (later Lady) Ford, M. Chardenal (described as ‘bachelier ès lettres de l’Université de France’ and ‘French master in the University of Glasgow’) proclaimed his intentions in a preface where he stated that, having ‘taught French during [sic] many years by Dr. Ahn’s method’ he had ‘resolved to compile a Grammar … with rules at the head of each chapter, to which pupils might refer when in doubt’, and claiming that it could be ‘understood even by young children’.

Two pages of exercises from Chardenal's French course
The more sober method of M. Chardenal, from his First French Course

By modern standards his expectations were far from modest. He confidently proclaims that ‘a good knowledge of the auxiliary verbs être and avoir, of the four regular conjugations, and the principal irregular verbs’ may easily be acquired ‘in two sessions by young ladies and boys at school, and in one by young men in business’ . Otherwise, he declares roundly, ‘if a pupil does not acquire a perfect knowledge of them, let him give up French at once, for he will lose his time and money’. This is far sterner stuff than the stories and playlets offered by Lady Bell; drill is the order of the day, with endless repetition of constructions and rules in sometimes bizarre sentences. The student is required to translate phrases such as ‘A lawyer is less useful than a doctor’ (sure to have the Law Society up in arms) and ‘Nous avons vendu nos maisons et nos jardins au fils du prince’ (does one detect a sinister note of compulsion?). And never mind la plume de ma tante; instead the nonplussed pupil is asked to translate the barked command ‘Bring me my pears and those of your aunt’.

Cover of 'Chantez mes enfants' showing a woman playing the piano while children dance and sing around her
The happier world of Lady Bell: Chantez, mes enfants (London, 1920) F.464, a collection of songs for children learning French

There is no smoke without fire, and one suspects that Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle’s Molesworth would never have come up with his excoriating exposé of French lessons at prep schools in the 1950s without such manuals and the tradition which they represented. Thinking back to How to be Topp (1954; 12315.p.34) and its sequels, featuring Armand,‘the weed in the fr book who sa the elephants are pigs’ and his adventures au bord de la mer (‘Houp-la, he sa, I see the sea. Is the sea wet? Non, armand, but you are’...) we may think ourselves lucky that for those embarking on the study of French nowadays, the road, though still winding, is not as stony as it might have been under M. Chardenal’s guidance.

Susan Halstead, Content Specialist (Humanities and Social Sciences) Research Engagement

11 March 2016

Global Voices in the Archive: British Library PhD Research Symposium

Picture of a map of the world with a face superimposed

Join British Library Collaborative PhD students and curators on 21 March in the British Library’s Conference Centre for a one-day symposium (10.00-17.30) exploring new research drawing on the library’s archives and collections.

Speakers will explore the theme of ‘translation’ – both in a literal sense, investigating the hidden lives and work of translators and interpreters as revealed in the archive, and more broadly in terms of how languages, values, beliefs, histories and narratives are communicated and understood within, between, and across different cultures and contexts. The keynote speaker is Dr Tom Overton, addressing the theme of migration in the archive as explored in the first chapter of his forthcoming book, The Good Archivist. Currently Writer in Residence at Jerwood Visual Arts, Tom completed a British Library/King’s College London collaborative PhD on the writer, critic and painter John Berger in 2014. In 2015 he published an edited collection of Berger’s essays (British Library YC.2015.a.14125).

Subsequent panels, chaired by British Library curators, including head of the European and Americas Collections Janet Zmroczek, will feature collaborative PhD students at various stages of their research at the Library, as well as early-career postdoctoral researchers. Exploring themes of translation and migration, two PhD students attached to European Collections, Pardaad Chamsaz and Katie McElvanney, will present their work on the Library’s Stefan Zweig Collection and H. W. Williams Papers, a collection of documents relating to the Russian Civil War, respectively.

Manuscript contents list by the author for a collection of his poems
Manuscript of a collection of poems by Émile Verhaeren entitled ‘Admirez vous les uns les autres’, 1906. From the Stefan Zweig collection of literary Manuscripts, British Library Zweig MS 193, f.2.

Further papers will discuss European material, including the recently acquired archive of Michael Meyer, known for his translations of Ibsen and Strindberg in the 1950s and 60s, and documents belonging to the controversial Venetian art dealer Luigi Celotti (1759-1843).

Find out more and register online at:


09 March 2016

Migration in Ukrainian literature

Since the early 20th century, Ukrainian literature has been composed in countries all over the globe. Waves of emigration by Ukrainian writers began after October 1917 and the subsequent war with Russia, and continued after the Second World War and during the Brezhnev era. Those waves were created by a threat to life and freedom.

Nowadays, writers do not generally have to flee for their lives and tend to leave Ukraine in search of betterment or fulfilment – as do many characters in their books. Ukraine-based writers, still living in the homeland of millions of labour migrants, are also increasingly turning to the subject of migration. During Soviet times, freethinking books in Ukrainian were published in the West and smuggled back into Ukraine. Today it’s a different story, and expat readers have to obtain Ukrainian books from Ukraine (there is no significant e-book system although plenty of pirated books online). Thanks to travel and social media, modern expat writers are in direct contact with their readership. Their books, whether written in London or Lviv, are published by mainstream Ukrainian publishing houses and sold through Ukrainian book stores to Ukrainian readers. Expat writers are no longer isolated from mainstream literature but are part of the same discourse.

The BBC Ukrainian Book of the Year awards recognise the best new work of fiction in Ukrainian with a prize of £1,000 awarded to the author. Since the Cultural Programme of the EBRD  became a partner in 2012, the award has been extended to include the Ukrainian Children’s Book of the Year.

Most prominent modern expat writers have featured in the longlists and shortlists for the award over the years, and three have come away with the top prize: Volodymyr Dibrova (Harvard), Yaroslav Melnyk  (Vilnius) and Vasyl Makhno (New York). All three were already recognised names in Ukraine – as a prose and drama writer, literary critic and poet respectively – before emigrating. Dibrova and Makhno, both university teachers, moved for work, and Melnyk for love.

Vasyl Makhno won the 2015 award with his first collection of short stories, Dim u Beiting Hollov (A House In Baiting Hollow). The book, which revolves around the town of Chortkiv in the Ternopil region of Ukraine, spans several decades, from before the Second World War to modern times, and nearly every story concerns migration.

Photograph of Vasyl Makhno with an open book on his head                  

Photograph of Vasyl Makhno (published with kind permission of Ostap Kin)

The first story takes us to Baiting Hollow, a seaside neighbourhood near New York City, where an impoverished Ukrainian intellectual and his much younger girlfriend try to make their home, hindered by history, memories and mental breakdown. Another story concerns a labour migrant who tries to legalise his stay in the US through a sham marriage. But the most heart-wrenching story tells us about the migrant that never was. In ‘Hat, figs, plums’, a Jewish fishmonger yearns to leave Chortkiv and join his brothers in America, but in the end cannot obtain a US visa. As events develop in the final days before the Soviet invasion, we realise that he will never reach Ellis Island. A passage in the story describes migration from Chortkiv in the preceding decades:

And Jews dissolved among the street traders, and passed on to each other - warm, like a chicken egg, - the word of Torah, so as not to forget who they are. And the Poles spread out from the Chicago slaughterhouses of Illinois to mines and farms of Pennsylvania, keeping church wafers under their tongues, so as not to forget who they are. And Ukrainians drifted into the streets of strange towns, bowing their heads as they read the Gospels, so as not to forget who they are. And if they were from Chortkiv, no matter whether Jews, Ukrainians or Poles, they found in their languages such words as to remember the dust of that land and the sky of that city.

Cover of 'Dim v Beiting Hollow' with a photograph of a beach and the sea
Vasyl Makhno, Dim u Beĭting Hollov (Lviv, 2015) YF.2016.a.2477

Migration both to and from Ukraine also provided material for Ponaikhaly (‘Overrun’; YF.2016.a.4136) by Artem Chapay, a journalist and author from Kyiv. The protagonist starts out as a skinhead, “defending” his town from Arab, Afghan and African migrants. He leaves the skinhead group when he finds out that its leader gets kickbacks from local competitors of migrant businessmen. In the finale, Chapay’s hero, now himself a migrant worker in Moscow, gets punched up by local skinheads who take exception to his dark hair. Chapay’s book, is probably the most comprehensive exploration of migration today.

Cover of 'Ponaikhaly' with a photograph of a zip-up bagCover of Ponaikhaly by Artem Chapai (Kyiv, 2015). YF.2016.a.4136

Another notable example from recent years is Frau Miuller ne nalashtovana platyty bil'she (‘Frau Müller is Not Willing to Pay More’; YF.2014.a.8581) by Lviv-based author Natalka Snyadanko, shortlisted for the BBC prize in 2013, which explores a relationship between two lesbian Ukrainian migrants in Berlin.

One effect of migration is accepting a new language, culture and identity. It has a similar effect on literature - migration has not only introduced a new topic into Ukrainian literature, but also authors who write about Ukrainian migration in English. One author who neither is nor writes in Ukrainian is the Scottish academic, translator and writer, Uilleam Blacker. After years of research on and translation of Ukrainian authors and of hanging out with young Ukrainian expats, Blacker wrote a play, Bloody East Europeans, which was first staged by Molodyi Teatr, an amateur London-based troupe consisting mainly of Ukrainian migrant workers, at the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It explores identity, money, forced labour, sex labour, ethnic stereotypes, and tells many typical stories that abound in migrant communities.

British-Ukrainian novelist Marina Lewycka hardly needs an introduction. In her bestseller, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, she looked at both post-war migrants and more recent arrivals. Her character Valentina, a fake-breasted Ukrainian blonde who marries the narrator’s elderly father, was hilarious to many British readers but did not endear Lewycka to Ukrainian publishers. Lewycka’s second novel, Two Caravans (Nov.2007/2003), which also takes labour migration as its subject, was translated (by myself) and published in Ukraine years before a publisher was found there for the first novel.

Ukrainian and English covers of 'A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian'A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka, in English (right: LT.2013.x.2459) and in Ukrainian translation (left: YF.2014.a.6053)

In the coming years, new perspectives on migration will probably emerge in Ukrainian literature, following the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas, with close to a million internally displaced persons now living throughout the country as a result. Their plight is already reflected in poetry by Serhiy Zhadan, born in Donbas and raised in Kharkiv, perhaps Ukraine’s most talented literary voice. Longer works of fiction, which take time, will surely follow, and some may well be in Russian and in Crimean Tatar.

Svitlana Pyrkalo, Principal Communications Adviser, EBRD London, and BBC Ukrainian Book of the Year judge

07 March 2016

A British Woman Soldier in First World War Serbia: Flora Sandes

Among the many accounts written by foreigners who witnessed Serbia’s stoic retreat in 1915 were quite a number by women. Most of them were there in some medical capacity, including Cora Josephine “Jo” Gordon, who arrived in Serbia as an assistant to a Red Cross unit, along with her husband. In their “day jobs”, they were actually artists. Jo Gordon seems to have been tomboyish and highly resourceful. She learned Serbian quickly, outwitted exploitative inn owners during their hard journey to the coast, visited the frontline, and washed her adventures down with large shots of Rakiya.

Flora Sandes followed a course that was more unusual again. Having first served as a nurse, she joined the Serbian Army for her own safety during the retreat, and became the only British woman officially enlisted as a soldier in the First World War. (There were also Russian, Serbian and [Austro-Hungarian] Ukrainian women who served on different sides of the conflict). Flora’s own book is An English woman-sergeant in the Serbian Army, written in 1916 to rally support for the small country.

Photograph of Flora Sandes in Serbian Army uniform
Flora Sandes in Serbian Army Uniform (image from Wikimedia Commons)

When the retreat across the mountains began, Flora was as fussy as anyone from her well-heeled background, and must have been quite alarming. In her memoir, she recounts that she threw the furniture out of a scruffy hotel room and set about scrubbing the floor before erecting her own camp-bed. Later, she would distance herself from the male soldiers when they camped in the open air, relenting finally when she realised that her doing so constituted a security risk, as an ambush party might spot her.

Flora Sandes standing on a cart with traditionally-dressed Serbs at a country wedding
Flora Sandes (top left), attending a traditional Serbian wedding. Photograph from her second book The Autobiography of a Woman Soldier (London, 1927) 9084.df.40

Following an injury incurred in combat in 1916, Sandes returned to medical work, but was not officially demobilised until 1922. She went on to marry a Russian émigré, Yuri Yudenitch, and the pair lived in France and then in Belgrade – where many White Russian exiles found sanctuary after the Revolution – until the Second World War. In German-occupied Belgrade, her husband died of a heart condition, and Flora spent almost three years living in poverty. After the liberation of the city, she returned to the UK, still a forceful character who chain-smoked and ploughed her own furrow.

Flora Sandes in Serbian military uniform seated on a stone bench
Flora Sandes as a Lieutenant of the Serbian Army in Belgrade. Frontispiece from The Autobiography of a Woman Soldier

She spent her final years living near her family in Rhodesia and Surrey, and died in 1956 at the age of 82 after making a final visit to Serbia for a reunion of her old comrades of 1915. In addition to her two autobiographies (one now translated into Serbian), she is the subject of two full biographies and a Radio 4 documentary from 1971, which can be found and listened to among the Library’s sound recordings.

Serbian postage stamp commemorating Flora Sandes

In commemoration of the war’s centenary, Serbia Post and the British Embassy in Belgrade have recently issued a set of six  stamps featuring British women who worked in Serbia between 1914 and 1918. A set has been donated to the Library, as Milan Grba explained in a recent blog post. Flora Sandes (right) is among the women honoured, a redoubtable pioneer of equality alongside those whose medical and humanitarian work did so much to gain recognition for women in fields once reserved for men.

Janet Ashton, Western European Languages Cataloguing Team Manager

References/further reading

Jan and Cora Gordon, The Luck of Thirteen: wanderings and flight through Montenegro and Serbia (London, 1916) 9083.ff.3

Alan Burgess, The lovely sergeant: the life of Flora Sandes. (London, 1965). X.639/721

Louise Miller, A fine brother: the life of Captain Flora Sandes (Richmond, 2012) YC.2013.a.2462

Flora Sandes, An English woman-sergeant in the Serbian Army (London, 1916) 09082.aa.25. (Serbian translation by Spiro Radojčić, Engleskinja u srpskoj vojsci Flora Sandes (New York, 1995). YF.2005.a.27142)

03 March 2016

Champion of the smallest Slavonic nation: Jan Arnošt Smoler and the Sorbs of Lusatia

‘What’s in a name?’ asked Shakespeare’s Juliet. A lot, when the choice of name implies a political or ideological statement; at the time of the Czech National Revival, young patriots whose parents had had them christened plain František or Karel added more resonantly Slavonic names such as Ladislav or Jaromír to proclaim their solidarity with the nation’s glorious past and with Slavs of other countries.

However, members of a much smaller nation surrounded by alien territory faced particular problems; to adopt an outlandishly Slavonic name would cause all kinds of trouble with the authorities and neighbours who did not share their enthusiasm or even the ability to pronounce such words. In the case of the Sorbs of Lusatia, living in an area of Germany around Bautzen, the solution which they generally adopted was to use their given names but in a distinctively Sorbian form – and so Johann Ernst Schmaler grew up to become Jan Arnošt Smoler.

Photograph of Jan Arnost Smoler Jan Arnošt Smoler, reproduced in Peter Kunze, Jan Arnošt Smoler: ein Leben für sein Volk (Bautzen, 1995) YF.2005.a.19362

He was born in 1816 in Merzdorf, a village in Boxberg, Saxony, as the son of a village schoolmaster, Jan Korla Smoler, and was educated at the Bautzen Gymnasium with the aim of entering the Church. The family later moved to Łaz (Lohsa) in Prussia, where in 1835 a new pastor was appointed and stayed there for the remaining 38 years of his life. This was the poet Handrij Zejler, the leading figure in the Sorbian Romantic movement and one of the great figures of Sorbian literary history. A former pupil of the Gymnasium, he visited the schoolmaster and his 19-year-old son, who for the previous three years had been firing his fellow students with enthusiasm for the Sorbian language and the concept of Sorbian nationhood.

A 19th-century map of Lusatia
Map of Lusatia from L. Haupt and J.A. Smoler,  Pjesnički hornych a delnych Łužiskich Serbow = Volkslieder der Wenden in der Ober- und Nieder-Lausitz (Grimma, 1841-1843). 1461.k.1.  

The following year the young Smoler went to study at the University of Breslau, and while still a student published collections of folk-songs, Pjesnički hornych a delnych Łužiskich Serbow = Volkslieder der Wenden in der Ober- und Niederlausitz, a Sorbian phrasebook entitled Mały Serb (‘The little Sorb’), and a German-Upper Sorbian dictionary. Like other Slavonic collectors of folk material such as Karel Jaromír Erben and Božena Nemcová, he gathered a huge fund of songs and stories, such as the charming ‘Wolf’s Ill-Fated Attempt at Fishing’, in which the greedy but dim-witted wolf is tricked by the wily fox into dangling his tail into a pond as bait and ends up losing it when he is trapped as the water freezes.

Parallel Sorbian and German title-pages of Parallel title-pages in Sorbian and German of Pjesnički=Volkslieder
Parallel title-pages in Sorbian and German of Pjesnički hornych a delnych Łužiskich Serbow (Grimma, 1841-43) 1461.k.1. (Also available online)

Unlike Zejler, who became a close friend despite a 12-year difference in age, he was not notable for his literary activities, but made a considerable contribution to the development of the Upper Sorbian literary language and to the Sorbian-language periodicals Jutrnička (‘Morning Star’; P.P.4881.b.) and Tydźenska Nowina (‘Weekly News’). He became editor of the latter in 1849, a post which he retained until his death in 1884.

At Easter 1845 Smoler called a meeting at the Winica (Vineyard), an inn near Bautzen, to discuss the foundation of a Sorbian scientific and cultural body similar to those established in other Slavonic countries on the model of the Matica Srpska, set up in Serbia in 1826. He had already drawn up a provisional constitution, but as it needed the approval of the German authorities the association did not begin its official existence until 7 April 1847. In the next seven years its membership grew from 64 to 220 so that separate sections had to be organized for various branches of Sorbian studies, including literature, national history, pedagogics, demography, music and economics.

First issue of the academic journal 'Časopis Maćicy Serbskeje'
The first issue of Časopis Maćicy Serbskeje (Bautzen, 1848) Ac.8954

Its main activity, however, was the publication of Sorbian literature and its own journal, the Časopis Maćicy Serbskeje, which appeared regularly from 1848 onwards. By 1923 its membership numbered 413, including foreigners as well as Sorbs – mainly Slavs, though with one British exception, William Morfill, Oxford’s first professor of Russian and other Slavonic languages. In 1873 the enterprising Smoler purchased, on his own initiative, a site in Bautzen for a ‘Serbski Dom’ (Sorbian House), as the Maćica Serbska’s headquarters, which finally opened its doors on 26 September 1904.

Although Smoler did not live to see this day, having died 20 years earlier, he had the satisfaction of knowing that he had strengthened the position of the Sorbian language and helped to preserve its culture at a time when, with the unification of Germany in 1871, the Sorbian minority in Prussia was subject to the increasing threat of Germanization. He achieved this through his tireless work to raise awareness of the Sorbian heritage and ensure, by acquiring his own publishing house and bookselling business in 1850, that the printing and publishing of Sorbian material rested in Sorbian rather than German hands. 200 years after his birth, he would be gratified to witness the activities of the Ludowe nakładnistwo Domowina (Domowina People’s Press), founded in 1947, in continuing his work and promoting knowledge and understanding of the Sorbs and their language and culture.

Susan Halstead, Content Specialist (Humanities & Social Sciences) Research Engagement