European studies blog

11 posts from April 2016

28 April 2016

The Trebnyk (1646) of the Metropolitan Petro Mohyla and its artistic design

This year marks the 370th anniversary of the famous Trebnyk (Euchologion), created by the prominent reformer, Petro Mohyla  and his associates, and published in the printing house of the Kyiv Monastery of Caves (Lavra).

In the first part of the 17th-century book printing flourished in Ruthenia (now Ukraine), then part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Skilfully produced books from the Ukrainian printing houses were in great demand at home and abroad, in Muscovy, Bulgaria, Moldova, Wallachia and Montenegro. The printing-house of the Monastery of the Caves played a leading role in this. Founded in 1606-1615 by Archimandrite Elesei Pletenets'kyi, it worked intensively in the 1620s-1640s under the new Archimandrite Petro Mohyla, who introduced systematic printing in Polish and Latin as well as Cyrillic.

Ukrainian postage stamp with a portrait of Petro Mohyla

Metropolitan Petro Mohyla (1596-1647) on Stamp of Ukraine (from Wikimedia Commons)

Mohyla studied in the school of the Lviv Dormition Brotherhood and then in the universities of Western Europe. After his appointment as Archimandrite of the Monastery of the Caves (in 1627) and Metropolitan (in 1632), in his own words, he promised to God to use his family’s wealth and the church income for the repair and reconstruction of vandalized churches for founding schools in Kyiv (the future Kyiv-Mohyla Academy), and for the spiritual enlightenment and education of the Ukrainian people. One of the great liturgical needs of the Ukrainian Orthodox church at this time was an authorised edition of the sacraments, known as the Trebnyk or Euchologion.

Title page of 'Title page of Ev̇khologīōn albo Molitvoslovʺ ili Trebnikʺ' printed in red and black with a woodcut border depicting biblical scenes

Title page of Ev̇khologīōn albo Molitvoslovʺ ili Trebnikʺ (Kiev, 1646). RB.23.c.594

According to Arkadii Zhukovs'kyi, in the preparation of the Trebnyk Mohyla and his associates used the Greek and Church Slavonic manuscript Euchologia, and also the Roman Catholic Euchologion – Rituale Romanum Pauli V Pontificis Maximi. Some parts of Mohyla’s Trebnyk were discussed and approved at the Kyiv Church Council of 1640. The book includes three main parts. The first contains the seven main sacraments and some minor ones; the second includes rites for consecration, and the third prayers for different occasions. In Fedir Titov’s opinion the sacrament of marriage was definitely prepared by Mohyla himself. It was originally published in the printing house of the Monastery of Caves under the title Mowa duchowna (1645) and dedicated to the marriage of Janusz Radziwiłł  and Maria, the daughter of the Hospodar Vasile Lupu, celebrated by Mohyla in Iaşi in 1645.

Mohyla delegated the artistic design of the Trebnyk to his close associate, the monk Ilia, well-educated, gifted and the most prolific engraver in Ukraine at this time. Ilia was originally a monk in the Monastery of St Onuphrius in L'viv and from 1639-1640 worked in the Monastery of the Caves. In 1641-1642 he also spent time in the printing-house of the Trei Ierarhi monastery in Iaşi, founded with Mohyla’s help. 

The earliest date on Ilia’s engravings is 1637, the latest 1663. At the beginning of his career the artist signed himself Ilia ANAKZNOZ [sic], from the Greek ‘anaksios’ (‘unworthy’). Later he probably took the highest monastic vows (skhema), which is why from 1651 С, СХ or СК (abbreviations for ‘skhymnyk’) appeared next to his name.

The construction and artistic design of the Trebnyk are subordinated to the concept of the book as a whole. Special attention was paid to the border of the title-page, a masterpiece of Ukrainian Baroque art, which forms an exact summary of the book’s contents. The sides of the woodcut are filled with miniature scenes. At the top is the Crucifixion, where blood from Christ’s wounds flows down to seven medallions depicting the Sacraments. Between them are twelve smaller ovals with pictures of the Passion. Christ’s passion and death will expiate original sin; his blood sanctifies the sacraments. The border is very closely engraved. Ilia leaves hardly any empty space, surrounding miniature scenes with delicate background ornament. He makes use of various methods of cutting the surface of the block to achieve a decorative richness. At the foot of the block on the plant leaves is the engraver’s signature in Latin: ‘Helias.a+Rok+16+46+Oktob+7’.

Woodcut of the Crucifixion with scenes from church life

Discussing the publications of Mohyla’s period, Titov noted that previous engravers of the Monastery of the Caves printing-house, probably supervised by the Archimandrites, followed their own iconographic patterns, but later appear to have an obvious attraction to Western European sources. A clear example of this tendency is Ilia’s full-page illustration of the Crucifixion (1644), which has no analogies in earlier Ukrainian art. Its iconographic programme follows the patterns of Italian Renaissance painting where branches supporting flowers with circular scenes in their centres spread from the cross with the crucified Christ. In the spaces between them, however, Ilia used traditional floral motifs, very similar to those of native folk art, creating a fine example of 17th-century Ukrainian engraving.

Woodcut illustration of the eucharist, with decorative surrounds
At the beginning of each of the seven main Sacraments there is a detailed half-page illustration. Some of them, like the Eucharist (above), resemble the parts of an ornate Baroque iconostasis, with flamboyant woodcuts surrounding the circular images of traditional iconographic patterns. Others like the Funeral (below), initially created by Ilia, present a story developing in time, with a funeral procession, where some people are dressed in rich contemporary clothes, starting in the town and concluding outside the walls with the lowering of the coffin into the grave. A striking impression is made by a naked footless beggar asking for charity and the group of weeping women in the cemetery.

  Woodcut of a funeral procession passing a beggar
The Trebnyk was the culmination of Mohyla’s printing programme; he died two weeks after its completion. His sudden death, and the war which soon erupted in Ukraine, affected the work of the Monastery of the Caves printing-house for a long time.

Dr Oksana Yurchyshyn-Smith, former curator of the National Museum in Lviv

References/further reading:

S. Golubev. Kievskii mitropolit Petr Mogila i ego spodvizhniki. Vls 1, 2. (Kiev, 1883, 1898).

Epyskop Syl'vestr, Lubens'kyi ta Myrhorods'kyi (Prof. S. Haevs'kyi). Zapovit mytropolyta Petra Mohyly (1647). (Na chuzhyni, 1947).

Lohvyn, H.N. Po Ukraini. (Kyiv, 1968). X.429/3575. 

Trebnyk Petra Mohyly. Perevydannia z oryhinalu, shcho poiavyvsia u drukarni Kyevo-Pechers'koi Lavry 16 hrudnia 1646 roku. Uporiadkuvav Arkadii Zhukovs'kyi. (Canberra, Munich and Paris, 1988).

Oksana Yurchyshyn-Smith.  ‘The monk Ilia – illustrator of seventeenth-century Ukrainian and Romanian books.’ Solanus, 1999, vol. 13, pp. 25-43. 2716.a.2.

Fedor Ivanovich Titov. Tipografija Kievo-Pečerskoj Lavry = Die Druckerei des Kiever Höhlenklosters. Als Reprint eingeleitet und herausgegeben von Martin Erdmann und Walter Kroll. (Cologne, 2000-). ZA.9.a.11845(15).


26 April 2016

The Post-Chernobyl Library

The Chernobyl disaster wasn’t just an unprecedented environmental disaster: it was an event that caused profound political and cultural shifts on a global scale. The disaster foreshadowed and accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Cold War order, and the political reverberations of this were felt the world over. Yet it also forced a rethink of human beings’ relationship with the natural world, and compelling societies to face up to the fact that a nuclear apocalypse was no longer the stuff of science fiction, but a reality that was perilously close.

For all of these reasons, the name Chernobyl – or to use more accurately its Ukrainian form Chornobyl – is a worldwide symbol of the disastrous climax of Western modernity. The Chornobyl Zone continues to function as a phantom, warning humanity of the dangers inherent in blind technological advancement, with endless images or drone films of the ghost town of Prypiat affording internet users the vicarious thrill of wandering a post-apocalyptic landscape. Western horror movies and video games take the Zone as their setting. Yet the real Chornobyl, the real Zone, with its real abandoned villages and its real locals – those displaced and those who stubbornly return – is less often the subject of Western reflection.

To understand Chornobyl at ground level, one needs to turn to those who know these territories intimately. Voices from Ukraine, the country where the Chornobyl disaster occurred, are crucial to our understanding of the event. The distinguished poet and former dissident Lina Kostenko, for example, has dedicated a whole series of poems to the disaster, and also discusses it in her only novel, Zapysky ukrainskoho samashedshoho (‘Notes of a Ukrainian Madman’, Kyiv, 2010; YF.2011.a.18275). Kostenko was born in 1936 not far from Chornobyl, and worked in the Zone after the disaster as part of an expedition to help preserve cultural heritage. Her earliest poems on the subject were published in its immediate aftermath, though she has continued to return to the disaster in later work.

Photograph of Kostenko Lina in Chornobyl

Lina Kostenko near the Chornobyl  Nuclear Plant (From Encyclopedia of Ukraine

The poems provide a detailed description of the environment of the Zone, the animals and plants that thrive there, the abandoned villages with their traditional houses and wickerwork fences, and the forests, where ancient Slavic gods still sleep in the trees; yet they are also soaked in an atmosphere of silent, invisible dread: the morning dew becomes ‘deathly sweat on the grass’, a willow bending over a river is actually a sleeping devil, while in the poem ‘Chornobyl-2’, the abandoned reactor looms over the forest like a ‘phantom, a skeleton’, ‘the emperor of all anti-nature’ whose ‘antennae moan in the winds’. The catastrophe-devil scrawls obscenity on the windows of empty houses, and shatters the icons that hang on the walls.

Abandoned and ruined house near Chornobyl
House in a village near Pripyat, abandoned after Chornobyl accident (Photo by Slawojar, From Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Elsewhere, Kostenko notes in relation to post-Chornobyl Europe that ‘Scheherazade’s tales run dry/Lorelei sings by the Rhine no more’. There is something about Chornobyl, its scale and significance, that destroys more than just the material or natural world: it also destroys our ability to understand and tell stories. This sense of a post-catastrophic culture is widespread across the post-Soviet world, and is particular acute in Ukraine. Tamara Hundorova, one of Ukraine’s leading literary and cultural critics, notes that Chornobyl not only ‘undermined belief in socialist modernization, which for more than half a century had manifested itself through the excessive physical and mental exploitation of human beings’, but also exploded previous cultural practices. In her book Pisliachornobylska biblioteka (‘The Post-Chornobyl Library’, Kyiv, 2005;  revised edition 2013), one of the best works of cultural criticism to emerge form the post-Soviet world, Hundorova argues that the experience of being at the epicentre of the implosion of not just Soviet but also wider modernity, meant that representing the world would never be the same for Ukrainian writers. Traditional representational strategies are discredited, and the postmodern, in a distinctly post-catastrophic version, enters into Ukrainian culture.

              Cover of 'Pisliachornobylska biblioteka'
Cover of Tamara Hundorova’s book Pisliachornobylska biblioteka (Kyiv, 2005) YF.2005.a.17624

It is no coincidence, for Hundorova, that it is precisely around 1986 that a trio of postmodernist performance poets, collectively known as the ‘Bu-Ba-Bu’, formed itself in L’viv, and revolutionized Ukrainian poetry with its irony, obscenity, burlesque humour and total disrespect for both official Soviet culture and the staid nationalist discourse that opposed it. It was at this time that a young Oksana Zabuzhko, today one of Ukraine’s leading novelists and public intellectuals, started her ground-breaking explorations of the intersections of culture, language, gender and sexuality, while the formal and philosophical experiments of prose writers like Iurii Izdryk, Taras Prokhasko and Serhii Zhadan that appeared in the 1990s shatter all previous conceptions of what Ukrainian literature could and should be. While these writers may not all write about Chornobyl explicitly, the shattering of existing social, political and cultural preconceptions that it entailed can be felt in every word.

In a poem from 1987, Lina Kostenko uses the phrase ‘a terrible kaleidoscope’ to refer to a world of disparate yet and interconnected calamities; but it also feels appropriate for the fevered explosion of cultural diversity and energy that was released in Ukraine in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which Hundorova so expertly describes.

Chornobyl is not, then, just a geopolitical and environmental event. It is a cultural one. For anyone wishing to understand the cultural impact of witnessing such trauma up close, Ukrainian culture, as seen through Kostenko’s and Hundorova’s lenses, is an instructive place to start, demonstrating how catastrophe can represent both irreparable destruction and the impetus for radical cultural reconfiguration.

Uilleam Blacker, Lecturer in Comparative Eastern European Culture, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London.


24 April 2016

Vera Rich In Memoriam (1936-2009)

On April 24 2016 Vera Rich would have been 80. Everybody who knew this remarkable woman, seen often in the British Library’s Reading Rooms or on the Piazza, still can’t believe that she is no longer amongst us. I was particularly struck by the obituary in Index On Censorship written by Judith Vidal-Hall, stating the facts, obvious to all who met her:

Vera (born Faith Elizabeth) Rich, who died at home on 20 December 2009, was, quite simply, unique, her formidable intelligence matched only by her stubborn resistance to the cancer that plagued her later years.
They will miss her, increasingly, for there will not be another like her. I shall miss her very particular brand of extreme eccentricity combined with humour and the touch of genius.

  Photograph of Borys Gudziak presenting Vera Rich with flowers and a gift
Vera Rich with the Right Reverend Borys Gudziak, then rector of Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, at the Ukrainian Institute in London (Photo by Olga Kerziouk) 

I am one of those who miss her badly. I miss her phone calls and emails (example below), reading Shevchenko in Ukrainian on the Piazza during coffee breaks, ordering books to answer her numerous queries about Ukrainian and Belarusian culture. Vera Rich is one of the best-known modern British names in Ukraine and Belarus. To understand why, it is worth looking in our catalogue

Email from Vera Rich to Olga Kerziouk, with an English translation of Shevchenko's poem 'Oi hlianu ia, podyvliusia'Email from Vera Rich with her translation of Shevchenko's poem Oi hlianu ia, podyvliusia

Her contribution to translating and promoting Belarusian and Ukrainian literatures is enormous. English speakers interested in Eastern European literatures became familiar with works by Lesya Ukrainka, Taras Shevchenko, and Ivan Franko due to Vera’s translations. The British Library holds Constantine Bida’s, Lesya Ukrainka: life and work, which includes selected works translated by Vera Rich (Toronto, 1968; X.900/3941). For the 150th anniversary of Shevchenko’s death she translated his poetry for the book Song out of darkness.

Title-page of 'Song out of Darkness'
Title page of Song out of darkness: selected poems by Taras Shevchenko (London, 1961)

The crowning achievement of her career as a translator from Ukrainian was published posthumously in 2013, for Taras Shevchenko’s 200th birthday: a translation of his Kobzar (Kyiv, 2013; YF.2014.b.264). Other translations are available online in the Ukrainian Electronic Library, such as her translation of a famous poem by Ivan Franko, Moisei (‘Moses’). A full bibliography of her Ukrainian literary translations is included in Hanna Kosiv’s monograph : Vira Rich: tvorchyĭ portret perekladacha (‘Vera Rich: portrait of a translator’; Lviv, 2011; YF.2012.a.17207). Interesting memoirs about meetings with her are published in a book by the Ukrainian literary critic Dmytro Drozdovsky Merydian rozuminni︠a︡ (Kyïv, 2011; YF.2012.a.12084). For many years Vera worked with the Ukrainian émigré community; from 1993-1999 she was a Deputy Editor of The Ukrainian Review (P.P.4842.dns), and later she wrote a popular column about recent news from Ukraine with the picant ending “And finally…” for the London-based émigré newspaper Ukrainska Dumka (‘Ukrainian Thought’; LOU.1165 [1994])

Her first translation from Belarusian appeared in 1957 in the émigré newspaper Batskaushchyna (‘Fatherland’), published in Munich (MFM.MF537T). It was a poem by the famous Belarusian poet Janka Kupala. In 1971 the first anthology of translations of Belarusian poetry into English, Like Water, Like Fire: An anthology of Byelorussian poetry from 1828 to the present day (X15/4600), containing the work of 40 poets, was published, followed by a bilingual selection of poetry, The Images Swarm Free (London, 1982; X.950/22024) with translations of poems by Ales Harun, Maksim Bahdanovich, and Zmitrok Biadula. In 2004 Radio Free Europe in Prague published her translations of modern Belarusian poetry Poems on liberty: reflections for Belarus (YD.2011.a.1845). After her death her translations were included in a bilingual book Melodiya︡ natkhnenni︠a︡ = A melody of inspiration (Minsk, 2012; YF.2012.a.21519; photo below). 

Covers of two collections of Belarusian poetry translated by Vera Rich

A passionate defender of human rights, Vera Rich translated from Russian manuscripts about Soviet censorship for The Medvedev papers by Zhores A. Medvedev (Nottingham, 1975; X.100/16205) and wrote an extensive chapter ‘Jewish themes and characters in Belorussian texts’ for The image of the Jew in Soviet literature: the post-Stalin period  (New York, 1985; 85/23477). For more than 20 years she was the Soviet and East European correspondent for the scientific weekly Nature. Her numerous contributions can be found in the archive

Other articles on a variety of subjects appeared in The Lancet and Index on Censorship. She also translated poems from Polish, especially by Cyprian Norwid, Spanish (the poem Los puntos cardinales by Carlos Sherman; Minsk, 2000; YF.2008.a.37017), Old Icelandic and Old English.

Vera Rich was also an accomplished original poet in her own right. Her modestly-published poetry books are: Outlines (London:, 1960; 11351.g.1), Sonnetarium: a chapbook of sonnets (London, 1962; 011498.a.45), Portents and Images: A collection of original verse and translations (London, [1963]; 11303.i.49) and Heritage of Dreams. A sketchbook in verse of Orkney ([Kirkwall], 1964; X.909/5128). Examples of her short, witty poems are available on the site AllPoetry. She was a founder and editor (1962-1969 and again from 1998 until her death) of the poetry magazine Manifold (ZK.9.a.6262). It published not only high-quality original poetry but also translations from lesser-known languages. Amongst all these numerous activities Vera found a time to prepare literary events and perform with her enthusiastic friends for various occasions in different places. I particularly remember the inspirational programme “Ukraine: From Mazepa to Maidan” performed in Oxford in 2007 at the invitation of the Oxford Student Ukrainian Society.

I would like to finish my tribute to this extraordinary woman with her own poem written for the 80th birthday of the prominent Belarusian priest Father Alexander Nadson  in 2006 and published in the Festschrift Sontsa tvaio ne zakotsitstsa, i mesiats tvoĭ ne skhavaetstsa = Your sun shall never set again, and your moon shall wane no more: essays in honour of Fr Alexander Nadson on the occasion of his eightieth birthday… (Minsk, 2009; YF.2011.b.788) :

  Acrostic poem in honour of Alexander Nadson, by Vera Rich

 Olga Kerziouk, Curator Belarusian and Ukrainian studies

20 April 2016

Here, there and every Eyre: Charlotte Brontë goes global

Although the British Library is rightly proud of its unique collection of manuscripts relating to Charlotte Brontë, including the four letters which inspired Chrissie Gittins’s poetry collection Professor Héger’s Daughter, its European collections also contain a number of volumes which reflect the worldwide reputation which this modest and retiring author achieved after her premature death in 1837.

Opening of a manuscript letter from Charlotte Bronte to Constantin HegerManuscript of one of Charlotte Brontë’s letters to Constantin Héger, dated 18 November 1845 (BL Add.MS 38732)

Throughout her life Charlotte Brontë travelled farther in her imagination than in reality. After two brief periods in Brussels at the boarding-school run by Constantin Héger and his wife, she did not leave England again until her visit to Ireland in 1854, where she encountered not only the family of her new husband Arthur Bell Nicholls but the country from which her father originated. Her first sojourn in Belgium was cut short by the death of her aunt, which compelled Charlotte and her sister Emily to return to Haworth; the second was marked by growing homesickness and a strong but unreciprocated attachment to Héger. Back in Yorkshire, she addressed to him a series of increasingly anguished letters which make it clear that she felt intellectually as well as emotionally starved and stifled there despite her ability to range far beyond her immediate surroundings through the creative power of her mind.

Map of the imaginary land of AngriaA hand-drawn map of the imaginary country of Angria from Branwell and Charlotte Brontë’s notebooks (Manuscript of The History of the Young Men from their First Settlement to the Present Time; BL MS Ashley 2468)

 As a young girl Charlotte and her brother Branwell had invented the country of Angria, and for years wrote detailed chronicles of its inhabitants and history. In 1846 she and her sisters Emily and Anne paid for the publication of a joint collection of their poems. This sold only two copies, but undeterred by that and the fact that her first novel The Professor did not find a publisher, Charlotte completed a second novel, Jane Eyre: An Autobiography. Published on 16 October 1847 by Smith, Elder & Co. under the pseudonym Currer Bell, it achieved immediate commercial success and acclaim. To a certain extent this was a succès de scandale, as some critics found the novel crude and even anti-Christian. This did nothing to halt its sales, though, or to deter translators or adapters from spreading interest in the author’s work abroad. 

Among early versions of Charlotte Brontë’s writings in other languages, the British Library possesses a Danish translation of Shirley (1851; RB.23.a.16151), a German one of The Professor (1858; RB.23.a.2077) and a Hungarian Jane Eyre (1873; 12603.ff.17). Besides direct translations, the latter’s dramatic quality had also inspired interpretations (with varying degrees of fidelity) for the stage. A German translation of the novel, Jane Eyre: die Waise von Lowood, had already gone into a second edition in 1864 (12637.a.7.), and in 1892 the ‘orphan of Lowood’ appeared on the German stage in a play with a similar title (11746.df.11.) by Charlotte Birch-Pfeiffer, ‘freely based’ on the original. Even earlier, in 1874, she had made her Italian theatrical debut in L’orfanella di Lowood, a drama in a prologue and three acts by R. Michély, ‘adapted from the German’, which received its première in Naples at the Teatro dei Fiorentini on 27 April 1871, ‘replicato sempre a richiesta e con entusiasmo’.  

Title-page of 'L’orfanella di Lowood'Title-page of L’orfanella di Lowood (Naples, 1874).

We may wonder whether the author would have recognized her creation in ‘Giovanna Eyre’, whom we first meet as a girl of 16, humiliated and slighted by her odious cousin John and her aunt, ‘la signora Sarah Reed’, who is determined to send her to the orphanage of Lowood despite the protests of her own brother, ‘Henry Wytfield, capitano’, whose debts prevent him from taking charge of his niece. In the first act, eight years later, the scene changes to ‘Fhornfield’ [sic], the estate of ‘Lord Rowland Rochester’, where a glittering company is assembled, including not only Rochester, his eight-year-old ward Adele, Lady Clawdon, ‘Baronetto Francis Steensworth’, ‘la signora Giuditta Harleigh’  (a relative of Rochester),  Lord Arturo and Mrs. Reed, but also the latter’s daughter , now the widowed Lady Giorgina Clarens. The housekeeper Grazia Poole is also in evidence, implicated in a series of strange events which culminate in an attempt on Rochester’s life.

Giovanna saves him, but responds to his overtures with such coolness that he exclaims ‘Creatura insopportabile!’ as she makes her escape. The Ingrams are nowhere to be seen; instead Giovanna mistakenly believes her cousin Giorgina to be the object of Rochester’s attentions, providing still more opportunities for noble expressions of forgiveness and self-sacrifice. And while there is indeed a madwoman locked in the tower, she is not Rochester’s wife but Lady Enrichetta Rochester, the fiancée who had betrayed him by marrying his elder brother Arturo, the heir, while he was away in London. Trying to kill her, Rochester was thrown into chains and transported to the Indies, while, tiring of Arturo, the evil Enrichetta eloped with a Pole. Rochester caught up with them in Paris, where he slew the seducer before Enrichetta’s eyes, a shock which drove her mad.  She and Adele, the offspring of her liaison with the Pole, were entrusted to Rochester by his brother as the latter died of remorse, and the action ends with the revelation that Giorgina cares not for Rochester but only for his riches, as Giovanna throws herself, crying ‘Io t’amo…son tua!’,  into the arms of Rochester, who responds ‘Mia, mia per sempre!’ and presents ‘lady Giovanna Eyre’ to the assembled company as ‘my betrothed…my wife, my treasure, your cousin, Lady Clarens, the worthiest and most virtuous of women who from now on will be the pride of my family and of yours!’

Perhaps Charlotte Brontë might have been somewhat startled at such outspoken transports of passion on the part of her heroine, but whatever she might have thought of the twists of a plot more tortuous than any she herself had conceived, she might well have rejoiced to see her creation travelling far beyond her native land, and much farther than she herself had ever done.

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

18 April 2016

Shakespeare in Paris in the 1820s

During the early years of the 19th century Shakespeare was largely known in in France through the immensely successful versions of some of his plays by Jean François Ducis (1733-1816), which began with Hamlet in 1769 , followed by Romeo and Juliet (1772), King Lear (1783), Macbeth (1784), and Othello (1792). Ducis, astonishingly, knew no English and had to rely on translations of Pierre Letourneur (1736-1788) and Pierre de la Place (1707-1793). They were all heavily cut, and their plots adapted to contemporary French tastes and sensibilities. Ducis’ version of Hamlet,  for example, omitted the scenes with the ghost and the gravediggers. Their popularity is attested by the many editions published during Ducis’ long life, either singly or in collected editions of his works. They remained in repertory at the Théâtre français until the mid-1850s. 

Opening of Ducis’ French translation of 'Hamlet', beginning with a scene between Claudius and Polonius
The opening – very different from Shakespeare’s original! – of Ducis’ Hamlet, tragédie imitée de l'anglais... (Paris, 1770) C.117.b.72.

By then other translations of Shakespeare plays, also taking liberties with the original plots, had appeared. They included those of Alfred de Vigny whose Le More de Venise, a verse translation of Othello, was performed during the 1829-30 season (De Vigny also translated The Merchant of Venice and Romeo and Juliet), and Alexandre Dumas and Paul Meurice’s version of Hamlet, first performed in 1846. François-Victor Hugo’s translations of the complete works of Shakespeare were published between 1859 and 1866 (11765.f.).

Parisian audiences were also familiar with Rossini’s Otello, an opera with a libretto based on Ducis’ adaptation; like many operas at the time, it also had an alternative happy ending! Premiered in Naples in 1816, it quickly became one of Rossini’s most popular works, until it was virtually eclipsed by Verdi’s Otello in 1887. It was first performed to great acclaim in Paris on 5 June 1821 at the Théâtre Italien, with Manuel García as Otello and Giuditta Pasta as Desdemona.

Title page of Rossini's 'Otello' with an engraving of Othello approaching a sleeping Desdemona
Title-page of an early vocal score of Rossini’s Otello, ossia l’Africano di Venezia (Mainz, 1820) Hirsch IV.1265.

But it was Maria Malibran, García’s daughter, who became the great Desdemona of the Romantic era. Her performances of the melancholy Willow Song (sung by Desdemona shortly before Othello kills her), accompanying herself on the harp, became legendary. After triumphing as Desdemona, in 1831 Malibran also started to sing the role of Otello, sometimes alternating between the two roles. Alfred de Musset celebrated Malibran in various poems, especially in Le Saule and A la Malibran, the long poem he wrote a few days after her tragically early death in 1836, at the age of 28.

Painting of Maria Malibran as Desdemona, in a white dress and holding a harp
Maria Malibran as Desdemona in Rossini’s Otello. Portrait by Henri Decaisne (ca 1831) Paris, Musée Carnavalet. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

In 1822, a few months after the triumph of Rossini’s Otello in Paris, there was a first attempt by an English company, led by Samson Penley, to perform Shakespeare’s plays in English to a French audience. After a disastrous performance of Othello in the Théâtre de la Porte Saint Martin which ended up in fighting, the company had to move to a smaller hall, where they performed Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and Richard II before an audience of subscribers.

This débâcle prompted Stendhal to write Racine et Shakspeare [sic] two pamphlets published in 1823 and 1825 (1343.m.17) that questioned the precepts of French classical theatre, especially the unities of time and place, and called for a theatre that would appeal to a contemporary audience. Two years later, Victor Hugo’s preface to his play Cromwell (Paris, 1828; 11740.c.35), advocated a drama that would combine tragic and comic elements, and be free of the formal rules of classical tragedy. These qualities, he felt, were to be found in the plays of Shakespeare, whose name had by then become synonymous with Romanticism.

Facade and portico of the Theatre de l'Odéon
The Théâtre de l’Odéon, Paris, ca. 1829

Like Stendhal, Hugo was prompted to write his preface by the visit of another company of English actors performing in their native tongue. In September 1827 Charles Kemble’s company gave a series of performances of Shakespeare plays at the Odéon theatre in Paris. After performances of Sheridan and Goldsmith, the stage was set for one of the great dates in the annals of French Romanticism, a performance of Hamlet with Charles Kemble in the title role and Harriet Smithson as Ophelia. In the audience was the crême de la crême of literary and artistic Paris – Victor Hugo, Alfred de Vigny, Alexandre Dumas, Charles Nodier, Théophile Gautier, Eugène Delacroix, Eugène and Achille Devéria, Louis Boulanger, and Hector Berlioz. Although the performance was in a language very few in the audience understood,  the ability of the players to cross language barriers was clearly electrifying.

The performance was a triumph. The most popular scenes  were the play-within-the-play, Hamlet’s encounter with the ghost, Ophelia’s madness, and Hamlet and Horatio in the graveyard. 

  Illustration of the performance of the play-within-the-play from 'Hamlet'
Hamlet,  Act 3, scene 2, the play within the play. Illustration by Eugène Devéria and Achille Boulanger from M. Moreau, Souvenirs du théâtre anglais à Paris (Paris, 1827). Available via  Gallica

Hector Berlioz was left thunderstruck and in his Memoirs vividly described the effect of these performances:

…at the time I did not know a word of English … the splendour of the poetry which gives a whole new glowing dimension to his glorious works was lost on me. ... But the power of the acting, especially that of Juliet herself, the rapid flow of the scenes, the play of expression and voice and gesture, told me more and gave me a far richer awareness of the ideas and passions of the original than the words of my pale and garbled translation could do.

He also fell in love with Harriet Smithson, and his Symphonie fantastique (1830) was inspired by his infatuation with her. They were married in 1833 but their marriage proved to be unhappy. Berlioz composed his two great Shakespeare-inspired works much later, Roméo et Juliette in 1839, and Béatrice et Bénédict, an opéra comique, based on Much Ado About Nothing, in 1862.

Chris Michaelides, Curator Romance Collections


Edmond Estève, ‘De Shakespeare à Musset: variations sur la “Romance du Saule”, Revue d’histoire littéraire de la France, 1922.  288-315.

Peter Raby, ‘Fair Ophelia’: a life of Harriet Smithson Berlioz.  (Cambridge, 1982 ) X.800/34510.

Hector Berlioz, The memoirs of Hector Berlioz ... translated and edited by David Cairns (London, 1977). X.431/10397

April Fitzlyon, Maria Malibran, diva of the Romantic Age (London, 1987)  YC.1988.b.226

John Golder,  Shakespeare for the age of reason: the earliest stage adaptations of Jean-François Ducis, 1769-1792.  (Oxford, 1992) Ac.8949.b.(295).

The British Library's current exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts is a landmark exhibition on the performances that made an icon, charting Shakespeare’s constant reinvention across the centuries and is open until Tuesday 6th September 2016. You can discover more about Shakespeare and his works on our Discovering Literature website.

15 April 2016

From Africa to Acmeism: Nikolai Stepanovich Gumilev (1886-1921)

By the mid-19th century, the works of Mark Twain, Jules Verne and Alexandre Dumas had been widely translated and were inspiring boys throughout Europe with dreams of adventure and exotic voyages. Few of them however, grew up to live their dreams to such a degree as the young Nikolai Gumilev, or with such a lasting impact on literature.

Photograph of Nikolai Gumilev, Anna Akhmatova and their son, Lev Gumilev

Nikolai Gumilev, Lev Gumilev and Anna Akhmatova. Photo from 1915 by L. Gorodetsky (from Wikimedia Commons

Travel was in Gumilev’s blood from the first; his father was a ship’s doctor, and he was born on 15 April 1886 in the port of Kronstadt. He studied at the gymnasium in Tsarskoe Selo, where one of his masters, the Symbolist poet Innokenty Annensky, first steered him towards poetry. Not surprisingly, his first efforts, published in his collection Ia v les bezhal iz gorodov (‘I ran from cities into the forest’, 1902), were inspired by the landscapes and creatures of far-off lands, including giraffes and crocodiles. His first travels, however, were to less distant countries, including France and Italy; he absorbed the influence of authors such as Flaubert and Rimbaud who shared his passion for Africa, and also of the Parnassian poets, and in Paris edited a short-lived literary journal, Sirius. In time he achieved his ambition of travelling to Africa, making regular journeys there and bringing back many African artefacts for the collections of the St. Petersburg museum of anthropology and ethnography, although some of his other exploits there, including lion-hunting, may seem questionable nowadays.

Gumilev’s interest in Théophile Gautier and the Parnassians, with their emphasis on disciplined form and craftsmanship, caused him to become disillusioned with what he regarded as the inchoate and woolly nature of Russian Symbolism, although he and his wife Anna Akhmatova had been enthralled by the Symbolist poet Vyacheslav Ivanov  and spent many evenings at the gatherings of writers and artists in his ‘turreted house’. Breaking away from Symbolism, Gumilev banded together with Akhmatova, Sergei Gorodetsky, Osip Mandelstam and others to found a new movement, a ‘guild of poets’ on the principles of the mediaeval guilds of craftsmen which had inspired artists in other countries including the German Lukasbund and the English Arts and Crafts movement. They stressed the importance of form and structure as well as inspiration, qualities embodied in Gumilev’s collections Zhemchuga (‘Pearls’; 1910) and Chuzhoe nebo (‘Alien Sky’; 1912). Unlike the Symbolists, who had little regard for the achievements of past civilizations, these Acmeists, in Mandelstam’s words, were filled with ‘nostalgia for world culture’ and especial reverence for the classical world’s legacy to Western civilization. In Gumilev’s case this reached even further back; as well as translating Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1919; YA.1996.a.22447) and old English ballads of Robin Hood (1919;, he drew inspiration from the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh.

Cover of 'Gilgamesh' with a vignette of a man holding a lion above his headCover of Gilgamesh (St Petersburg, 1919) YA.2001.a.5099

Akhmatova and Gumilev had first met when he had published her poetry in Sirius while she was still at school. After a turbulent courtship in which the lovelorn Gumilev responded to her indifference with several attempts at suicide, they married in 1910. Predictably, their union, which produced a son, Lev, proved equally tempestuous, not helped by Gumilev’s departure for one of his African trips within months of the wedding and his decision, on the outbreak of war, to enlist in a cavalry regiment. He was twice decorated for his bravery when fighting in East Prussia and Macedonia, but the long separations took their toll, and on his return to Russia the couple divorced in 1918.

Gumilev could not accept the rejection of religion in the name of revolutionary fervour, and was given to crossing himself in public regardless of others’ reactions. His sense of ideological conflict was mirrored in the verse play Gondla which he wrote in 1916, where the hero, an Irish Christian in ninth-century Iceland, bears the stamp of his own character, as Gondla’s bride Lera reflects that of Akhmatova. Chosen to be king but cast aside by the pagan Icelandic chieftains, Gondla sacrifices himself to establish Christianity in Iceland; despite its spiritual message and the cramped premises in which it was performed, the play achieved considerable success even after subsequent events had brought the author into disgrace.

Back in Russia after serving in the Russian Expeditionary Corps in Paris, Gumilev entered a new phase of life with a second marriage and the founding of the All-Russia Union of Writers in 1920. His Acmeist intellectual and cultural values, however, proved difficult to reconcile with what he perceived as the crude philistinism of the Bolsheviks, and he made no attempt to conceal his views, as is clear from the collection Shater (‘The Tent’, 1921; Cup.410.d.90), which gathered together his finest poems on Africa and its landscapes and wildlife.

Cover of 'Shater' with a stylised African scene
Cover of Shater (Revel, 1921). Cup.410.d.90

Gumilev’s open refusal to compromise his artistic or spiritual integrity was inevitably fatal. On 3 August 1921 he was accused of involvement in the so-called Tagantsev conspiracy or Petrograd military organization which, it was claimed, supported the restoration of the monarchy. Three weeks later the Cheka declared that ‘Gumilev, Nikolai Stepanovich, aged 33, former member of the gentry, philologist, poet … former officer … actively promoted the composition of a counter-revolutionary proclamation’, and had plotted an uprising in Petrograd. His friend, the author Maxim Gorky, dashed to Moscow to acquire a personal order from Lenin for Gumilev’s release, but it came too late. On 25 August Gumilev was shot, together with 60 other alleged conspirators.

Gumilev’s work was banned during the Soviet era, and it was not until 1992 that his name was formally cleared. The British Library is fortunate in possessing eight editions of his poems and translations, including his version of Gautier’s Emaux et camées (1914; X.909/30266) and his African poem Mik (1918; YA.1997.b.3597). Published during the stormiest periods of Russia’s history, they represent a unique testimony to his efforts to maintain his creative mission and uphold the values of civilization in the midst of turmoil – for which he ultimately paid with his life.

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

12 April 2016

Tolstoy and music

Nikolai Gusev, Tolstoy’s personal secretary, stated in his memoirs that “for Tolstoy music was not an amusement but an important business in life” as Tolstoy was “a good musician and composer”. The professor of music at the Moscow conservatory, Aleksandr Goldenveizer, a regular visitor to Tolstoy’s home for some 15 years, noted that Tolstoy, as well as many members of his family, was musical by nature and that in his youth, when he occupied himself for hours on the piano, he even thought of becoming a musician. During this period Tolstoy composed a waltz for piano. Goldenveizer recorded in his memoirs, how he and the composer Taneev  wrote down the waltz when Tolstoy played it for them at Iasnaia Poliana in 1906.

Photograph of Aleksandr Goldenveizer and Sergei Taneyev playing 2 pianos
Aleksandr Goldenveizer and Sergei Taneyev in 1906. Photograph by Sophia Tolstaya, reproduced in Z.G. Paliukh & A.V. Prokhorova. Lev Tolstoi i muzyka : chronika, notografiia, bibliografiia. Moscow, 1977) X.989/75936

Tolstoy’s ‘Waltz in F’, his only known musical composition, was recorded several times, for example by Christopher Barnes and Imogen Cooper (both available in the British Library’s sound collections). Tolstoy remained a dilettante in music all his life, but was sensitive to it to a considerable extent.

Autograph music manuscript by TolstoyTolstoy’s autograph MS of his 'Waltz in F’, reproduced in Lev Tolstoi i muzyka.

Tolstoy was always deeply interested in the question of what music was and what the philosophical grounds of its inner existence were: What is music? What does it do? Why was it made? Why do sounds of different pitch and degrees of strength, separate or simultaneously sounding together, following one after another in time and combining in a kind of rhythmical construction, have such a powerful, infectious influence on man? Why does this sound combination appear on one occasion as a senseless assortment of sounds, and on another as the symphonies of Beethoven? No satisfactory answer can be given to these questions.

Tolstoy’s ideas on music were related to his ideas on nature (i.e. concrete objects portrayed): how in literature and the fine arts some kind of nature is always reproduced (whether taken from actual life or from the artist’s fantasies), and how in instrumental, chamber and symphonic music of (opera and programme music are excluded) there is the very absence of nature. His conclusion is that the contents of a musical work are clearly and forcefully conveyed by the musical work itself and do not need any kind of literal translations. In 1850s, Tolstoy defined music as “a means to arouse through sound familiar feelings or to convey them” later noted in his diary that “music is a stenograph of feelings”. Goldenveizer even recalled from his conversations how Tolstoy developed an analogy between music and dreams where there is a discrepancy between responses and their causes. This leads to the conclusion that “music does not cause states such as love, joy, sadness but summons them up in us”.

Tolstoy playing a grand piano
Tolstoy at the piano.

Tolstoy liked music with definitely expressed rhythm, melodically distinct, lively or full of passionate excitement. His favourite composer was Chopin. Listening to Chopin, Tolstoy experienced (in his own words) the feeling of “complete artistic satisfaction”. Tolstoy also liked Mozart, Haydn and Weber, particularly Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which was remarkable as he did not like opera as a genre in general and considered it a false kind of art. He seldom went to the opera and having seen Wagner’s Siegfried once, gave a destructive account of it in Chto takoe iskusstvo? (‘What is Art?’, 1897). Instrumental music made a stronger impression on Tolstoy than singing; he is quoted as saying about singing: “This union of the two arts has never had an effect on me. You always only listen to the music, but don’t pay attention to the words”. This is why the singing of Fyodor Shaliapin  did not make a big impression on Tolstoy.

Cover of Tolstoy's 'Chto takoe iskusstvo?'
An early edition of Leo Tolstoy, Chto takoe iskusstvo? (Moscow, 1898) 1578/5199.

Tolstoy also showed an ambivalent attitude towards the music of Beethoven. When Tolstoy heard Beethoven he admired and was captivated by him, but when he spoke or wrote about Beethoven he often responded negatively considering that Beethoven began the decline of musical art. There are amazing descriptions of Beethoven’s sonatas in Tolstoy’s works, for example in The Kreutzer Sonata (1890) or Semeinoe schast’e (‘Family happiness’, 1859), where the mournful majestic sounds of the sonata‘Quasi una fantasia’ make the heroine confess “Beethoven lifts me to a radiant height”.

It is likely that Tolstoy’s wavering in his evaluation of Beethoven is down to the fact that Beethoven and Tolstoy were very similar in temperament: Tolstoy instinctively opposed all kinds of authority - Beethoven thrilled Tolstoy with his powerful individuality and this made him angry as he did not like to submit.

Postcard with the words and music of a Russian folk-song and a picture of peasant women dancing
Russian folk-song and dance, from a collection of illustrated postcards, ca. 1900. A.868.z.

Tolstoy’s attitude towards folk music was always positive. He also liked gypsy singing, which can be found in works like Dva gusara (‘Two Hussars’, 1857). Tolstoy’s attitude to certain composers and types of music seemed to be influenced by the performances he witnessed or by the performers who visited him. Among musicians who visited Tolstoy and played for him were Anton Rubinshtein, Taneev, Skriabin, Rakhmaninov and Rimsky-Korsakov, who had been extremely negative about the ideas contained in Tolstoy’s What is Art?, but held back from expressing this at the time.

 Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections, and Peter Hellyer, former curator Russian Collections

Further reading:

Lev Tolstoi i muzyka: vospominaniia , (Moscow, 1953). 7901.a.16.

Tolstoï et la musique, publié sous la direction de Michel Aucouturier. (Paris, 2009). Ac.8808.d/8[tome120]

I. N. Gnezdilova, Literatura i muzyka : A. Ostrovskiĭ, F. Dostoevskiĭ, I. Turgenev, L. Tolstoĭ, A. Chekhov. (Tiumenʹ, 2006.) YF.2008.a.19917


08 April 2016

Portuguese Anagrammatic Nun Novelist

If that title sounds like a cryptic crossword clue, so much the better.

Title-page of 'Brados do desengano contra o profundo sono do esquecimento', printed in red and blackBrados do desengano contra o profundo sono do esquecimento. II. Parte. Escrita por Leonarda Gil da Gama, natural da Serra de Cintra. (Lisbon, 1739). RB.23.a.36813

An improving novel in the baroque style, interspersed with poems. The author (1672-1760?) was born Maria Magdalena Eufémia da Glória. When she entered the Franciscan order at the convent of Nossa Senhora da Esperança in Lisbon, she took the name in religion Magdalena da Gloria. She wrote under the pseudonym Leonarda Gil da Gama, an anagram of her religious name. Her convent was home also to Maria do Ceu (b. 1658), author of several baroque works. Sister Maria has been studied in recent years, but it looks as if Leonarda’s star has yet to rise again.

The reason for her affecting a pseudonym was not her sex (Maria do Ceu had no such problem) but presumably her vocation. One wonders how much of a secret this was: the Prologues recognise that her name is an anagram, and given the anagram-crazy culture of the Baroque it must have been child’s play to unmask her.

Preface to 'Brados do desengano', explaining that the author's name is an anagram
Leonarda’s use of an anagrammatic pseudonym as mentioned in the preliminaries to the book. 

The Spanish Jesuit Baltasar Gracián (1601-1658) hid his identity under that of his brother Lorenzo and the anagram García de Marlones.

Baroque style lived on in Portugal in prose and verse when it was rather in decline elsewhere. One indication of this is that most of the 17th-century poets are to be read in the anthology A Fenix renascida (‘Phoenix reborn’) of 1716-28 (we have a mixed set at 11452.a.23.).

In his bibliography, Innocêncio Francisco da Silva tells us she was much admired in her own time, dubbed the Phoenix of Wits (Phenix dos Ingenhos), although ‘today [1860] few would be able to bear reading her works, on account of her exquisitely conceptista style’.

This is a new acquisition. We have other works by her, all apparently acquired quite recently, an indication both of the long period of neglect which she has suffered and a sign that her fortunes may be rallying.

Should you wish to assist this process of reassessment, where better to start than the British Library?

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance language collections


Leonarda Gil da Gama, Aguia real, fenix abrazado, pelicano amante, historia panegyrica, e vida prodigioza do inclito Patriarca ... S. Agostinho ... (Lisbon, 1744). RB.23.a.8047

Leonarda Gil da Gama, Reyno de Babylonia, ganhado pelas armas do empyreo; discurso moral …
(Lisbon, 1749). Cup.407.n.4. (also available online) Illustrated with alegorical emblems.

Sóror Maria do Céu, Triunfo do rosário : repartido em cinco autos; tradução e apresentação de Ana Hatherly. (Lisbon, 1992). YA.1995.a.8273

Rellaçaõ da vida e morte da serva de Deos a veneravel Madre Elenna da Crus : transcriçaõ do Códice 87 da Biblioteca Nacional precedida de um estudo histórico / por Maria do Céu ; Filomena Belo. (Lisbon, 1993). YA.2000.a.29236

Walter Begley, Biblia Anagrammatica, or the Anagrammatic Bible: a literary curiosity gathered from unexplored sources and from books of the greatest rarity ... With a general introduction and a special bibliography. (London, 1904) 3129.e.77.

  Decorative page header with a pattern of foliage and putti
Decorative header from Brados do desengano contra o profundo sono do esquecimento


06 April 2016

Dervish or spy? A Hungarian in Central Asia

Having spent years in Constantinople, learning over 20 Turkic dialects and studying the Quran and Muslim customs, Ármin Vámbéry was well respected in the Ottoman Empire. Aged 31, this entirely self-made Hungarian orientalist undertook a perilous journey incognito into the very midst of Central Asia, where few Westerners had set foot since the 1600s. His main purpose was to establish the origin and connections of the Hungarian language. Vámbéry thought it a good idea to assume a false identity, convinced that as a European he would not be able to move around freely and explore the region’s languages.

Photograph of Ármin Vámbéry dressed as a Dervish
Armin Vambery in dervish dress in the 1860s (CC-PD, from Wikimedia Commons)

Setting off from Tehran in late March 1863 Vámbéry, or rather ‘dervish Reshid’, joined a group of pilgrims returning from Mecca. He told them he had long dreamed of a pilgrimage to the sacred places of Islam in Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand, and hiked with them for six months, making heartfelt friendships in the process. 
Map Ármin Vámbéry's travels in Central AsiaMap of the travels of Ármin Vámbéry in Central Asia (Image by Lepeltier.ludovic. CC-BY-SA, from Wikimedia Commons)

When no camel, donkey or cart was at his disposal, he made use of his own two feet, though lame in one leg from infantile paralysis. As poor pilgrims his party were offered provisions in most places en route and also received alms, which helped pay for their transport or frequent and often arbitrary customs duties.

Vámbéry must have endured extreme tension whenever an encounter with new people was looming. In low moments he feared that even the sufferings inflicted by the hostile desert were preferable to the dangers that humans might pose. Stories of foreigners being imprisoned, tortured or executed were common, and Vámbéry was so convinced of this danger that he kept strychnine pills sewn into his modest attire.

Whenever anyone accused him of not being who he claimed, which happened with alarming regularity, our adventurer somehow wriggled out of the situation. Despite his best efforts to alter his European appearance, many picked up on some unexplained peculiarity about his person and he was time and again suspected of being a secret envoy for the Sultan, or worse, a spy (or a European). Every town had its informant, so he had to appear before many a local ruler and answer challenging queries into his being a genuine hadji. The breadth of his knowledge saved him and occasionally he even turned these difficult conversations to his advantage, returning with useful gifts.

A seated man points to Vambery, identifying him as a foreigner
 ‘I swear you are an Englishman!’ In: Ármin Vámbéry, Közép-ázsiai utazás… (Pest, 1865). 10077.e.24. and available online.

In Bukhara’s bazaar, Vámbéry noticed some goods labelled with the names of Manchester and Birmingham, which gave him a warm feeling, as if meeting a compatriot in such a distant land, but he was afraid that showing his delight might give him away. At the book market he spotted precious manuscripts that could have filled major gaps in oriental studies in the West. Sadly he could not buy more than a small handful of them, partly for lack of finance, but also because he feared a display of enthusiasm for secular knowledge would place him under more suspicion.

The Emir, on horseback, entering Samarkand between rows of mounted troops
The Emir entering Samarkand, after a sketch by Lehmann. In: Ármin Vámbéry, Közép-ázsiai utazás

In Samarkand some friendly locals offered to accompany him all the way back to Mecca, where he said he was returning. It ‘would have been slightly awkward for all parties if we then ended up on the shores of the Thames instead of the Kaaba’. Therefore, for his return journey via Afghanistan, he attached himself to several successive caravans where he enjoyed less attention. Once back in Persia he could finally bid farewell to his dervish disguise.

Exactly a year after his expedition had begun, Vámbéry left Tehran again, this time for Europe. He took with him a ‘Tatar’ mullah called Iskhak, originally from Khiva. Iskhak was the only person to whom Vámbéry had revealed his true identity, although not until safely back in Tehran. The two had grown so close while travelling together that Iskhak decided to start a new life in the Hungarian capital instead of going on to Mecca. He learnt the language and worked at the Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Painting if Ármin Vámbéry in western dress
Mihály Kovács. Portrait of Ármin Vámbéry. 1861 (CC-PD, from Wikimedia Commons)

Vámbéry may not have discovered the exact origin of the Hungarian language, but he brought back a wealth of new information about the places he visited, which he first published in English as part of his Travels in Central Asia. The book, along with the fascinating and by all accounts highly entertaining lectures he gave around Britain earned him much academic acclaim and fame, and the doors of élite society were suddenly thrown open to him. He also became a professor and an honorary member of the Academy in Budapest despite never having a university degree.

Excerpt from a newspaper article

Two extracts from an report about one of Vámbéry’s lectures, The Leeds Mercury, 19 March 1866, p. 3 (from the British Newspaper Archive)

In fact he gained such trust in Britain that he was later employed by the Foreign Office as a secret agent in the Near East. Undoubtedly, this was in no small part thanks to his (mostly) skilful impersonations, enhanced by outstanding linguistic ability and charismatic demeanour.

Ildi Wollner, Curator, East-Central European Collections

References / Further reading:

Ármin Vámbéry, Travels in Central Asia, being the account of a journey from Teheran across the Turkoman Desert on the Eastern shore of the Caspian to Khiva, Bokhara, and Samarcand, performed in the year 1863. (London, 1864.) 2354.d.1.

Hungarian edition: Közép-ázsiai utazás, melyet a Magyar Tudományos Akademia megbizásából 1863-ban Teheránból a Turkman sivatagon át a Kaspi tenger keleti partján Khivába, Bokharába és Szamarkandba tett / és leirt Vámbéry Ármin, a Magyar Tud. Akadémia tagja. (Pest, 1865). 10077.e.24. 

French translation: Voyages d'un Faux Derviche dans l'Asie Centrale de Téhéran à Khiva. (Paris, 1867). 10057.aa.22. and 12206.k.20.(2.)

Ármin Vámbéry, Sketches of Central Asia: additional chapters on my travels, adventures, and on the ethnology of Central Asia. (London, 1868). 2354.e.15. and B.18.d.5

German translation: Skizzen aus Mittelasien. Ergänzungen zu meiner Reise in Mittelasien .... (Leipzig, 1868). and available online

Russian translation: Очерки Средней Азіи… (Moscow, 1868) 1609/5266. and available online


04 April 2016

Graham Nattrass Lecture, 17 June 2016

Under the auspices of the German Studies Library Group and in association with the British Library, a lecture in memory of Graham Nattrass (1940-2012) will be delivered on 17th June 2016 at the British Library. Professor Joachim Whaley, LittD FBA, will speak on ‘The Empire of Print: Governance and Communication in the Holy Roman Empire 1495-1806’.

Graham Nattrass enjoyed a long and distinguished career at the British Library and its antecedents, having started work in 1971 at the National Central Library in Yorkshire (a predecessor of the BL’s Document Supply Service). In 1976 he moved to the Library’s London base, then in the British Museum, and joined the newly-constituted German Section the following year. Graham went on to become Head of Germanic Collections and by the time of his retirement in 2005 was Head of West European Collections. He was a founding member of the German Studies Library Group and its Chairman from 2003 until 2007. His memoir of his life and career at the British Library was published in the Group’s Newsletter, issues 44-45, 2012-13 (British Library ZK.9.b.1089).

Photograph of British Library staff members in the Round Reading Room
Graham Nattrass (3rd from right) with Germanic Collections colleagues in the Round Reading Room of the British Museum, June 1997.

Joachim Whaley is Professor of German History and Thought at the University of Cambridge (Graham’s own alma mater). He is currently a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College having previously held fellowships at Christ’s College and Robinson College, and he was first appointed to a lectureship at the University’s German Department in the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages in 1980. His publications include Religious Toleration and Social Change in Hamburg, 1529-1819 (Cambridge, 1985; X.800/41744) and Germany and the Holy Roman Empire 1493-1806, 2 vols (Oxford, 2012; YC.2012.a.17809 & YC.2012.a.14001).  He is currently writing a history of Austria and German-speaking Europe from the later Middle Ages to the present day.  Professor Whaley has been a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society since 1984, was awarded a LittD in 2013 by the University of Cambridge for his books and articles on early modern German history, and was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in July 2015.

Woodcut illustration of the Holy Roman Emperor and the princes of the Empire with their coats of arms
The Emperor and Princes of the Holy Roman Empire. From Hartmut Schedel, Liber Chronicarum (Nuremberg, 1493) IC.7542.

The event will take place in the British Library Conference Centre’s Brontë and Eliot Rooms and will start with refreshments at 5.30 pm, with the lecture commencing at 6 pm. There is no charge to attend, but places are strictly limited. If you wish to come, please email Dorothea Miehe, Chair of the German Studies Library Group: