THE BRITISH LIBRARY

European studies blog

6 posts from May 2019

30 May 2019

Olga in Spain

Our colleague and co-editor of the European Studies Blog, Olga Kerziouk, retires this week after over 24 years in the British Library. A keen blogger herself on the history and literature of her beloved native Ukraine and on her adopted language of Esperanto, she also always enjoyed working on colleagues’ posts. Here, one of our most prolific departmental bloggers looks at the history of the name Olga in his own area of expertise as a small tribute.

Olga is quite a popular name in Spain, but it seems not to be related to the pro-Soviet sentiments of Republican parents. At national level, she doesn’t figure among the most popular names of 1900-40: in 1941-60 884 Olgas were born; in 1961-75 3486; in 1976-88 982; and in 1988-93 132. In Madrid, 5790 were born between 1900 and 1993, accounting for the percentages 7.5% of babies 1900-1940; 15.3% 1941-1960; 60.2% 1961-75; and 17% 1976-93.

Olga la revolucionaria, heroine of Alberto Insúa’s novel of 1926, technically speaking is not Russian or Ukrainian but ‘Weltravian’ (capital: Bermengrado).

Olga YF.2009.a.34822
Cover of  Alberto Insúa, Olga la revolucionaria (Madrid, 1926) YF.2009.a.34822

Insúa (1883-1963) made a career out of writing small popular novels, sold at newsstands, with suggestive titles which are not really borne out by the contents: La mujer fácil (‘The Easy Woman’), Las neuróticas (‘The Neurotic Women’), El demonio de la voluptuosidad (‘The Demon of Voluptuousness’), Dos franceses y un español (‘Two French Women and a Spaniard’).

Need I say more?

The plot of Olga la revolucionaria starts before the revolution. Olga’s parents are left-wingers who have brought her up to be a modern woman (make that Modern Woman). When she meets prince Sergio Sardenomensky he expects to find ‘a sort of suffragist, dry, outspoken, with straight hair, glasses and flat shoes. But he found himself in the presence of a beautiful and naturally elegant woman’.

Olga 3
Modern and elegant: Insúa’s Olga

‘Olga was a revelation for him: the woman of a class “apart”. The independent woman, with a profound inter life and clear intelligence. The studious woman. The hard-working woman.’

Their chaste love is broken when he leaves her to marry a lady of his own class. They meet again in the midst of revolution: the noble and strong-minded Olga has become a commandant, and sets Serge free.

Olga 2
Dressed for revolution in the Weltravian winter

It’s rumoured that the Spanish name for cardigan, rebeca, was inspired by the garment worn by Joan Fontaine in Hitchcock’s film of 1940. Olga la revolucionaria seems not to have been responsible for the generation of Spanish Olgas listed above, but she might remind us of our dear and blog-loving friend Olga.

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Collections

References/further reading

Maurice Hemingway, Alberto Insúa (1883-1993): ensayo bibliográfico (Madrid, 1994) YA.2002.a.20299

Consuelo García Gallarín, Los nombres de pila españoles (Madrid, 1998) YA.2002.a.38363

 

28 May 2019

Lalla Romano (1906-2001): from painting to writing

The novelist Graziella Romano, known as Lalla, began her artistic journey as a painter in 1922 when she was 16; in 1929 she taught Italian and History at the Teachers’ College in the northern Italian city of Cuneo while studying in Turin, and in 1930 she taught History of Art in Cuneo’s high school. Her paintings were shown in various exhibitions in Turin – later in her life Lalla said: “I consider my paintings and my drawings a personal matter, as if they were my personal diary, my book … some of my drawings are not compositions, but just notes. They could be some poetical verses”. Even though the artist discourages us from drawing any parallel between her literature and her paintings, affirming that “Each art has its language”, she also said: “Self-portrait means face, and the face must be ambiguous, intense and mysterious as a novel”.

Lalla Romano 1
Self-portrait, ‘Autoritratto con le trecce e il vestito rosso’ (1922), reproduced in Lalla Romano e La Valle d’Aosta (Milan, 2009) YF.2012.a.32506

In 1932 Lalla was the Director of the Civic Library in Cuneo where she compiled the catalogue of Incunabula. Without abandoning painting, by the end of the 1930s, she began writing short stories and poetry: between 1938 and 1940 she wrote three short stories about art and artists during that time in Turin (published only in 1993 in Lalla Romano pittrice), and in 1941 she published a collection of poems titled Fiore.

The poems are characterised by secluded inwardness and visual capture of remote/internalised landscapes.

Vuoto è il mio letto,                                    Empty is my bed
quando a malincuore vi ascendo,            when withdrawn in my heart I ascend to it
ed è notte;                                                     at night time
e geme per la campagna                            and over the land outside
l’ululo solitario dei cani.                            echoes the solitary howling of dogs.
E ancora deserto è il letto,                        And it’s still a desert my bed,
quando, invani attesi,                                when, awaited in vain,
non giunsero lo sposo e il sonno             sleep and husband never came
e già l’alba i galli salutano                        and already dawn
con rauco grido                                          the roosters greet with their raucous cry.
                            from Fiore, in Poesie (Turin, 2001) YA.2002.a.29511 [My translation]

The colours in her poetry were already present in her paintings, as Lalla herself said in the title of the introduction to her paintings: “My paintings were already writing”.

Già si posavano ombre                     Silvery shadows lay already
argentee su le biade;                         on the forage;
simili a cupi fiumi                             the meadow shaped into dark rivers
erano i prati
                            from Fiore [My translation]

Lalla ROmano 2
Painting entitled ‘Strade di sera’ (Evening paths) c 1935, reproduced in L’esercizio delle pittura (Turin, 1995) YA.1997.a.15004

In 1932 Lalla married, and in 1933 Pietro was born, the son who, growing up during the period when the youth counter-culture was shaping up, would have a deep impact on her as a woman and as a writer.

In 1943, during the Second World War, Lalla was living and teaching literature in Turin, but when her accommodation was damaged by bombing she was forced to go back to Cuneo with her son and her parents in order to be safe while carrying on teaching in Turin. The following year she was transferred to teach in Cuneo, where she joined the Partito d’Azione and the anti-fascist resistance movement, taking charge of the women’s defence groups.

The year 1944 marked a new chapter for Lalla, when Cesare Pavese asked her to translate Trois Contes by Flaubert: it was a decisive moment as she fully appreciated the skill of writing prose and motivated herself to make the definitive transition from painting to writing novels. In fact Lalla reached popularity as a novelist, she won the Italian literary award Premio Strega in 1969 for Le parole tra noi leggere (‘The light words between us’), an autobiographical novel about the difficult relationship between a mother and her maverick son, which soon became controversial as it deeply shook conventional thinkers unable to tolerate such a brutal analysis of this type of relationship. In an interview published in 1984, when asked how their relationship changed now that her son was 50, Lalla said: “When he divorced his comment was ‘Now my mother will write a new best-seller called The heavy words between them”.

Lalla Romano 3
Photograph of Lalla Romano in 1984, from Sandra Petrignani, Le signore della scrittura (Milan, 1984) YA.1990.a.18448

Lalla’s initial determination to maintain a clear distance between painting and writing changed radically and the intimate intersection between textual and visual became the unique style in some of her work: the book titled Lettura di un’immagine (‘Reading of an image’), a collection of family photos taken by her father and “framed” with her words, begins with: “In this book images are texts and texts are images”. The book was in fact later revised and enlarged with the new title Romanzo di figure (‘Novel in pictures’; Turin, 1986; YA.1987.a.3405).

Lalla Romano 4
Cover of Lettura di un’immagine (Turin, 1975) X.909/35463

In 2014, thanks to the generous donation of the Lalla Romano Fund, all the author’s autograph papers, her correspondence, her library of 12,000 volumes and paintings were placed in the room named after her (Sala Lalla Romano) at the National Braidense Library (Biblioteca Nazionale Braidense) in Brera (Milan).

Giuseppe Alizzi, Curator Romance Collections

21 May 2019

P. G. Wodehouse under Continental Covers

Some time ago our Translator in Residence, Rahul Bery, wrote a post for the BL English and Drama blog about translations of the works of P.G. Wodehouse. As an unexpected but welcome response to this we were contacted by Wodehouse expert Tony Ring, who asked if we would be interested in a donation of Wodehouse novels in various European languages. We were of course delighted to accept and recently the collection of 100 books, in Danish, Dutch, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Norwegian, Russian and Swedish, arrived in the Library.

Unpacking them I was fascinated by the range of different cover designs. I always associate Wodehouse with the gently humorous drawings of ‘Ionicus’ (J.C. Armitage) which adorned the British Penguin editions for many years. but readers abroad would encounter Wodehouse under many different covers, some of them quite surprising.

To start with some straightforward ones, in the 1970s and 80s, the Dutch publisher Spectrum issued a number of Wodehouse novels in its ‘Prisma’ series with covers by the well-known political cartoonist Peter van Straaten and there are nine of these in the collection. Straaten’s lively drawings clearly represent characters and situations from the books – not as common as you might think! Here are two, from Summer Lightning (De ontvoerde zeug), translated by W. Wielek-Berg, and Something Fresh (Nieuwe Bezems), translated by W.N. Vandersluys.

Wodehouse Dutch 1

Van Straaten’s illustrations show the characters dressed more or less appropriately for the period when the books were set. However, this is not always the case. This 1962 cover by Georges Mazure for Dokter Sally, translated by Henriëtte van der Kop, reflects the fashions of the day rather than of its original publication date thirty years before.

Wodehouse Dutch 2

Likewise, Ulrich Lichtenhardt’s cover for this 1980 German edition of Spring Fever (Frühlingsgefühle) bears all the hallmarks of the late 1970s rather than of 1948 when the book first appeared. Incidentally, all seven German translations in the collection bear the rider ‘Heiterer Roman’ (‘light-hearted novel’) on their covers – playing to a stereotype of an earnest German reader needing to be assured that laughter is allowed?

Wodehouse German

If the Germans want to emphasise humour, some of the Russian covers seem to imply a darker side to the tales. The Angler’s Rest and its regulars have surely never looked as louche as on the vaguely expressionistic cover of this 2011 translation by I. Gurova of Mulliner Nights (Vechera s misterom Mullinerom). This is probably my favourite cover in the whole collection.

Wodehouse Russian 2

Two other Russian Mr Mulliner collections also use expressionist artwork on the cover, to rather angst-ridden effect, but most worrying is this bleak 2002 cover for A Damsel In Distress (Deva v bede), which to my mind looks better suited to Tess of the d’Urbervilles than to the world of Wodehouse. I can only think that the designer was given nothing to go on but the title.

Wodehouse Russian 3

I find there’s also something slightly threatening about this Italian cover by Stefano Tartatrotti for Adriana Motti’s translation of Uncle Dynamite (Zio Dinamite) from 1998, but as with the Russian Mulliner Nights, the humour wins out.

Wodehouse Italian 3

Another Italian cover is very literal: a 1966 edition of Young Men in Spats (Giovanotti con la Ghette), translated by Zoe Lampronti.

Wodehouse Italian 1

To my mind one of the most attractive covers in the collection is this Swedish dust-jacket by Björn Berg for Birgitta Hammar’s translation of Full Moon (Fullmåne), one of a number of Wodehouse covers that Berg illustrated in 1984. He also includes a brief portrait sketch of Wodehouse on the back of the jacket (and one of the Empress of Blandings on the title page).

Wodehouse Swedish 1

The back cover is also put to good use in Birgitta Hammar’s 1956 Swedish translation of French Leave (Fransysk visit), describing the characters and outlining the plot of the story on a ‘menu’ from the Hotel Splendide in the fictional French town where the story is set.

Wodehouse Swedish 4b

As for the French themselves, this 1947 translation of My Man Jeeves (Mon valet de chambre) has a vignette by J. Jacquemin which I think nicely captures Jeeves’s imperturbability.

Wodehouse French 1

A later series of Jeeves stories in French all use the same cover image of British actor Arthur Treacher playing the role, but change the colour of his cravat and buttonhole for each cover. I’m not sure Jeeves would really have approved of this sartorial frivolity; perhaps that’s why he looks rather troubled here.

Wodehouse French 2

But for sheer oddity, I think the prize goes to the Dutch for this 1974 cover for Jan Wart Kousemaker’s translation of Plum Pie (Plumpudding) which at first glance looks more like a cheap thriller than a collection of humorous stories.

Wodehouse Dutch 3Of course, we should never judge a book by its cover, and there is much more to say about this wonderful donation and the ways in which translators have tackled Wodehouse’s distinctive style. For now the books will go to be accessioned and catalogued so that they can be available for students of literary translation and reception – and for interested Wodehousians – in our reading rooms.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

Wodehouse Swedish 2
P.G. Wodehouse, ‘the world's most popular humourist’. Sketch by Björn Berg from the dustjacket of Fullmåne  

13 May 2019

Script, history and ideology: German fonts and handwriting

In the 15th century the earliest European printers used what we commonly call ‘gothic’ or ‘black-letter’ typefaces, reflecting contemporary handwriting styles. In Italy, however, humanist scholars had been developing a new ‘roman’ handwriting based on the lettering of classical inscriptions, and the first printers in Italy were quick to design typefaces based on this style.

Over the next two centuries, roman types and handwriting gradually became standard in most European countries, but in some parts of northern Europe black-letter types survived much longer.

Verbreitung der Schriftarten 1901
Map showing the distribution of script styles in Europe at the end of the 19th century, from Petermanns geographische Mitteilungen (Gotha, 1901) P.P.3946. German letters. marked in blue, are shown as dominant in Germany, Austria, Norway and Estonia, although they were already falling out of use in the last two countries

In Germany these forms remained dominant until well into the 20th century, alongside a handwriting style, called ‘Kurrentschrift’, based on late mediaeval models.

Kurrent C.142.cc.12
A sample of 16th-century Kurrentschrift from Wolfgang Fugger, Ein nützlich und wolgegründt Formular manncherley schöner Schriefften ... (Nuremberg, 1533) C.142.cc.12.

Black-letter types are generally called ‘Fraktur’ in German, although technically the term refers only to one of four families of black-letter type, the others being Schwabacher, Textura and Rotunda.

Fugger Fraktur
Examples of Fraktur letter-forms from Wolfgang Fugger, Ein nützlich und wolgegründt Formular manncherley schöner Schriefften ..

Roman types were not unknown in Germany, and were often used for printing Latin and other foreign-language texts. Latin quotations and foreign loan-words were also typically printed in roman type within a Fraktur text to highlight their difference. Sometimes different fonts appeared in a single word if it had a Latin suffix or root, as in the word ‘vegetabilischen’ in the example below.

Two scripts 1568-1368
Title-page using both Fraktur and roman fonts, from Angelo Sala, Hydrelæologia, darinnen, wie man allerley Wasser, Oliteten, vnd brennende Spiritus der vegetabilischen Dingen ... distillieren vnd rectificiren soll ... (Rostock, 1639) 1568/1368.

From the late 18th century onwards some printers began to produce German texts wholly in roman type and some Germans adopted roman handwriting. The question of whether Germany should move over to roman types and scripts or maintain Fraktur and Kurrentschrift grew into a national debate in the course of the 19th century. Philologists came out on both sides, with Jacob Grimm a notable supporter of roman styles, and the lexicographer Daniel Sanders a staunch defender of Fraktur and Kurrentschrift.

Sanders 002
Detail of working notes (in German script) by Daniel Sanders from an interleaved copy of his Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache (Leipzig, 1860-1865) L.R.276.a.3.

Some arguments were practical: both sides claimed that their preferred style caused less eye-strain, and advocates of roman type argued that its use would make German easier for foreign learners. Supporters of German type and script deployed the romantic argument that these were an innate part of the German character. This association had a long history: in his 1533 handwriting manual, Wolfgang Fugger claimed that “It does not look well when we write German in Latin letters”.

In 1876 a German Orthographical Conference came out cautiously in favour of a move towards roman letters (Daniel Sanders was one of four delegates who voted against) but this never became official policy. In 1911 the Reichstag debated a petition to teach roman letters alongside German ones in schools, but defenders of German styles lobbied strongly against such a move and, despite initial support, the motion was defeated. In the same year, graphic designer Ludwig Sütterlin was commissioned to design a new form of Kurrentschrift for use in schools. This was adopted in most of the German states and was known by the designer’s name.

Sütterlin 7947.b.17
Ludwig Sütterlin’s handwriting style, from W. Jungk, Mit Sütterlin zur Schul- und Lebensschrift (Berlin, 1928) 7947.b.17.

Although German letters still had official status, the first decades of the 20th century saw an increase in books printed using roman types. In the 1920s the typographical experiments of the Bauhaus and of designers like Jan Tschichold gave roman types an added aura of modernity.

Bauhaus prospectus 11911.aa.23
Prospectus designed by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy for a series of Bauhaus books, reproduced in Jan Tschichold, Die neue Typographie (Berlin, 1928) 11911.aa.23.

Tschichold saw ‘national’ scripts such as Fraktur as symbols of a backward-looking nationalism to be rejected in an increasingly internationalised world. The early years of Nazi rule seemed to confirm this view as Fraktur received official blessing, but the Nazis’ attitude to type and scripts was in fact ambivalent. They used both roman and Fraktur types in their propaganda material, and Hitler, in a speech given on 5 September 1934, actually criticised ‘street signs and typewriting in original Gothic lettering’ as examples of a ‘pretended Gothic internalisation’ unsuited to a modern nation.

In 1941, the Nazi government formally banned the use of German fonts and scripts. This move was partly driven by Germany’s conquests in the early part of the Second World War, which created a need to publish and communicate in a form more easily understood by non-Germans. However, the document declaring the ban gave the totally false explanation that Fraktur types were a Jewish invention (‘Schwabacher Judenlettern’) and were therefore not ‘German’ at all.

Kampf um Deutschland 1939    Kampf um Deutschland 1941
Philipp Bouler, Kampf um Deutschland (Berlin, 1939 [left; 12254.c.10.] and 1941 [right; 9386.c.39]), issued by the Nazis’ central publishing house and showing the change from Fraktur to roman type.

Although the ban was a product of the Nazi regime and backed by a spurious antisemitic argument,  German type and handwriting remained linked in the minds of the post-war occupying forces with extreme nationalist ideology, and there was little enthusiasm for reviving them. Fraktur did not completely disappear: some publishers continued to use it in the late 1940s, and it survived in publications such as Bibles and hymn-books into the early 1970s. Some West German states taught Kurrentschrift in schools in the 1950s, although in addition to roman rather than as an alternative. But gradually roman became the norm, and today it is the dominant style in Germany as in the rest of Western Europe

However, Fraktur remains a part of the German landscape on shop and restaurant signs and in commercial logos, contexts where its use suggests tradition and authenticity. It has also become a hallmark – not just in Germany – of music scenes such as heavy metal. But there are also more serious uses: type designers continue to create and work with Fraktur fonts, and the Bund für deutsche Schrift und Sprache promotes the study and use of German letters. And of course anyone wanting to study older German literature, history or bibliography needs a knowledge of the typefaces and scripts used in books and manuscripts. Fortunately there are many guides both printed and online (such as this one) to help those keen to learn these skills.

𝕾𝖚𝖘𝖆𝖓 𝕽𝖊𝖊𝖉, 𝕷𝖊𝖆𝖉 𝕮𝖚𝖗𝖆𝖙𝖔𝖗 𝕲𝖊𝖗𝖒𝖆𝖓𝖎𝖈 𝕮𝖔𝖑𝖑𝖊𝖈𝖙𝖎𝖔𝖓𝖘*

References/further reading:

Gerald Newton, ‘Deutsche Schrift: the demise and rise of German black letter’, German Life and Letters 56:2, April 2003. P.P.4748.ls.(2.)

Albert Kapr, Fraktur: Form und Geschichte der gebrochenen Schriften (Mainz, 1993) YF.2018.a.16367

Christina Kilius, Die Antiqua-Fraktur Debatte um 1800 und ihre historische Herleitung (Wiesbaden, 1999) YA.2001.a.30739

Silvia Hartmann, Fraktur oder Antiqua: der Schriftstreit von 1881 bis 1941 (Frankfurt am Main, 1998) YA.2000.a.34566

*Font converted using the YayText website

08 May 2019

A Spanish pioneer of deaf education and his early English readers

For Deaf Awareness Week we recall the groundbreaking work of Juan Pablo Bonet (dates unknown) and his Reducción de las letras y arte para enseñar a ablar los mudos [‘Simplification of letters and art of teaching the dumb to speak’].

Bonet tp2
Title-page of Bonet’s Reducción de las letras … (Madrid, 1620) 71.a.18.

The engraved title page by Diego de Astor shows the mottoes: ‘Sic natura vincula solvit artis’ and ‘Ita ars naturae vincula solvit’ (‘As Nature loosens the chains of Art [we might say, ‘invention’] so Art loosens the chains of Nature] and an emblem of a hand of art picking the lock which nature has placed on the tongue of a dumb man. In another emblem a mother bird (nature) has undone the grille which ‘art’ had put over the entrance to her nest.

Bonet’s method was first to teach the written letters; then teach the hand signs for the letters; then teach the pronunciation of the letters. Bonet comments that the pupil learns to lip-read by himself and the teacher must not take credit for this.

Bonet was of the first teachers to devise and record in print a sign alphabet, and his system has had some influence on modern sign languages. However, he was also typical of his age in believing that signing was only a step towards an ideal of oralism rather than a valid form of communication in itself.

Bonet A Bonet b-d
The first four letters of Bonet’s sign alphabet, from Reducción de las letras…

There was only one edition of the Reducción in its time and bibliographically speaking it’s striking to me that various English-speakers are known to have owned copies of this first and only edition.

In the British Library we have three copies:

One (71.a.18) is from the King’s Library and therefore can’t be traced back before George III (1738-1820).

Another (556.b.20.(1.) probably belonged to Sir Hans Sloane (see the Sloane Database), and a third (1043.l.5.) to Sir Paul Methuen (c. 1672-1757).

Samuel Pepys had a copy (now in Cambridge, 1396(2)) (Gaselee 16; Knighton p. 136).

And not far away from the BL, in Gordon Square, Dr Williams’s Library has had a copy since 1727 (1038.H.11; Catalogus 1727, p. 46). I maintain that this copy belonged to Dr William Bates (1625-99), owner of 97 Spanish books. He was a contemporary of Pepys but they don’t seem to have known each other.

Bates didn’t write his name in this copy, but he did sign a similar work in English, John Bulwer’s Philocophus: or, The Deafe and Dumbe Mans Friend, Exhibiting the Philosophicall verity of that subtile art, which may inable one with an observant eie, to heare what any man speaks by the moving of the lips ...(London, 1648) [Dr William’s Library 1064.R.13]

Bonet Bulwer
Engraved title-page from the BL copy of Bulwer’s Philocophus  1041.c.23

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance collections

References/Further reading

Stephen Gaselee, The Spanish Books in the Library of Samuel Pepys (Supplement to the Bibliographical Society’s Transactions ; no. 2 ) ([London], 1921). Ac.9670.bba.

Catalogue of the Pepys Library, Supplementary series, I, Census of Printed Books, ed. C. S. Knighton (Cambridge, 2004) YC.2005.b.109

Simplification of the Letters of the Alphabet and Method of teaching Deaf-Mutes to speak ... Translated from the original Spanish by H. N. Dixon ... with a historical introduction by A. Farrar. ([Harrogate], 1890). 8310.cc.38

Bibliothecae quam vir doctus, & admodum Reverendus, Daniel Williams, S.T.P. Bono publico legavit, catalogus (London, 1727). 125.d.8.

Barry Taylor, ‘Los libros españoles del Dr. William Bates (1625-1699) en la Dr. Williams’s Library de Londres’, in El libro español en Londres: la visión de España en Inglaterra (siglos XVI al XIX), ed. Nicolás Bas and Barry Taylor (Valencia, 2016), pp. 13-60. YF.2017.a.19281

03 May 2019

Up the garden path with the Brothers Čapek and friends

This is National Gardening Week, and with three Bank Holidays in quick succession, many of us will be inspired to get out and take stock of our plots, tubs and window-boxes. Not surprisingly in view of the British fondness for horticulture, one of the first and most popular works by Karel Čapek to appear in English translation was Zahradníkův rok (‘The Gardener’s Year’: Prague, 1929; YF.2005.a.31522 ). With its lively illustrations by the author’s brother Josef, it quickly became a favourite, and the translation by M. and R. Weatherall, which ran into multiple impressions, was succeeded by a more recent one by Geoffrey Newsome (London, 2004; ELD.DS.288828), testifying to its lasting appeal.

Capek tpTitle page with vignette by Josef Čapek for The Gardener’s Year (London, 1966) X.319/191

Čapek himself was an enthusiastic gardener, and part of the enduring charm of his book is his lack of illusions about the cussedness of nature and the sheer hard labour involved in maintaining a garden. The text consists of a chapter for every month of the year, interspersed with others on topics such as ‘How a man becomes a gardener’, ‘Seeds’, ‘On the Cultivators of Cacti’ (Czech cousins of the Kaktusfreunde portrayed in paintings by Carl Spitzweg?), ‘The Blessed Rain’ and ‘On Market Gardeners’.

British readers familiar with Dorothy Frances Gurney’s poem ‘God’s Garden’, (in God’s Garden, & other verses: London, [1933]; 011641.df.93), with its claim that ‘One is nearer God’s heart in a garden / Than anywhere else on earth’, may be pulled up short by Čapek’s far less sentimental view of things. Nature, one senses, is never more belligerent than when assailed by the gardener. From the very first attempts to lay out a garden (‘the best way is to get a gardener’) to the conclusion that ‘the gardener wants eleven hundred years to test, learn to know, and appreciate fully all that is his’, Čapek leaves us in no doubt that the way of the gardener is a stony one – in every sense. Indeed, the chapter ‘The Gardener’s May’ deals precisely with ‘the greatest pleasure and special pride of the gardener, his rock or Alpine garden’. This, he suggests, is so called because it ‘gives its owner opportunity for performing hazardous mountaineering feats’ as he lunges and scrambles among the ‘picturesque and not altogether firm stones of his rock garden’ in his attempts to plant and weed it.

Capek Alpinism

The intrepid rock-gardener in May 

Nor does Čapek underestimate the crimes of passion of which the fanatical gardener is capable in the pursuit of some prize specimen for his rockery, from stealing Campanula morettiana by night to outright murder. Those too fat or too cowardly to accomplish this shamelessly weep and implore the proud owner for a cutting, or wheedle one from the local florist. However, once acquired these treasures frequently fail to come up to expectations: the hard-won campanula proves to be nothing but a horse-radish.

Capek campanula The campanula that wasn’t.

A generation earlier another author, Mary Annette Beauchamp, had described the trials and pleasures of making a garden in East Prussia with the intervention of itinerant Russian labourers and her redoubtable German husband, Graf von Arnim, ‘the Man of Wrath’. Such was the popularity of Elizabeth and her German Garden (London, 1898; 012643.cc.34) that her subsequent works appeared as ‘by the author of Elizabeth and her German Garden’ before she adopted the permanent nom-de-plume of Elizabeth von Arnim. Yet there is nothing sweetly quaint about her sharp perceptions of the Anglo-German clash of cultures in the garden and the drawing-room, where her acid perspicuity frequently recalls Jane Austen. Nor is she a mere armchair gardener who scorns to get her fingers dirty; from the excitement of ordering from catalogues to the headaches of persuading her acquisitions to take root in sandy Prussian soil with the fitful help of her sometimes incredulous staff, she shows not only a deep love of gardening but a thorough understanding of the challenges which it presents.

Like her, Čapek is often thwarted by the resistance of his local terrain to adapt to English models of horticulture. ‘I know an excellent recipe for an English lawn,’ he declares. ‘Like the recipe for Worcester Sauce – it comes from an “English country gentleman”’ who concludes ‘If you do this for three hundred years, you will have as good a lawn as mine’. In the meantime he has to contend with bald patches and dandelions, and to persuade his neighbours to look in and water it when he goes away on holiday in August. Failing to persuade a little old lady to bring her goat to eat the clippings, he has to pay a reluctant dustman to remove them (‘You know, sir,’ he says, ‘we’re not supposed to take it.’)

Capek lawnHow to lose friends by asking your neighbour to keep an eye on your garden.

It is well known that following a spell of fine weather A&E departments in hospitals throughout the country see an influx of patients with all kinds of gardening-related injuries from infected wounds inflicted by rose-thorns to backs strained by over-enthusiastic lawn-mowing. In a sense Karel Čapek’s death was linked to his love for his garden. Although offered the chance to go to exile in England, where he had many friends, to escape persecution by the Nazis, Čapek refused to leave Czechoslovakia. While repairing flood damage to the family summer-house and garden in Stará Huť, he caught a cold which turned to pneumonia, from which he died on 25 December 1938. In the final paragraph of The Gardener’s Year he writes, ‘We gardeners live somehow for the future … I should like to see what these birches will be like in fifty years’. Sadly, he did not live to do so – but every gardener can draw comfort from the words, ‘The right, the best is in front of us. Each successive year will add growth and beauty’.

Susan Halstead, Subject Librarian (Social Sciences), Research Services