European studies blog

7 posts from August 2021

31 August 2021

Women in Translation Month 2021

As we come to the end of Women in Translation Month 2021, this blog post brings together three books by women authors in translation from across Europe.

Cover of In Diamond Square

Mercè Rodoreda, In Diamond Square, translated by Peter Bush (London, [2013]). ELD.DS.1778
Chosen by Geoff West, Former Curator Hispanic Studies 

Written when its author was still living in exile, Mercè Rodoreda’s novel tells the story of a young woman in working-class Barcelona from the early 1930s to the aftermath of Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War. At a dance in the Square, the impressionable Natàlia meets a confident young man, Quimet, and soon falls under his spell. He insists that she will be his wife within a year and on giving her the nickname ‘Pidgey’. Inevitably they do marry, and they have two children. However, Quimet now earns little as a carpenter and decides to rear pigeons in their flat. Natàlia takes on work as a cleaner in a middle-class household, adding to the burden of her own housework.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Quimet goes off to fight on the Republican side and is killed. The full impact of the conflict is now conveyed as food and fuel run short. Natàlia loses her job and sends her son away to a camp for refugee boys to ensure he will be fed. After being forced to sell all her possessions to survive, she finally contemplates suicide for herself and her children. However, a providential conversation with a local grocer, who offers her work, saves her. The pair get married and Natàlia achieves an accommodation with the possibilities offered by her new existence.

Rodoreda’s first-person narrative effectively conveys the experiences and reactions of a woman initially unprepared for marriage in a male-dominated society. It also graphically documents the resilience required of ordinary people during war. The final chapters articulate the trauma of coming to terms with the past.

First published in 1962, La plaça del Diamant has now been translated into English three times and into more than twenty other languages. It remains one of the most successful works of Catalan fiction.

Additional references:

Mercè Rodoreda, La plaça del Diamant (Barcelona, 1962) 11303.n.12
Mercè Rodoreda, The Pigeon Girl, trans. Eda O’Shiel (London, 1967) X.909/10529
Mercè Rodoreda, The Time of the Doves, trans. David H. Rosenthal (New York, 1980)

Cover of Desdemona – if you had only spoken! Eleven uncensored speeches of eleven incensed women

Christine Brückner, Desdemona – if you had only spoken! Eleven uncensored speeches of eleven incensed women, translated by Eleanor Bron (London, 1992) YK.1993.a.5906
Chosen by Susan Reed, Lead Curator Romance Collections

The prolific and successful German writer Christine Brückner published this collection of dramatic monologues in 1983, giving voices to well-known fictional and historical women, from Clytemnestra to Gudrun Ensslin. Some, like Katharina Luther, address their husbands. Others speak to other women, including Brückner herself criticising the overly-idealistic utopianism of 19th-century reformer Malwida von Meysenbug. In the title monologue, Desdemona’s willingness to confront Othello’s suspicions changes her fate: he listens and they reconcile. In other stories, the women reflect on their lives and situations, speaking as much to themselves as to any imagined interlocutor.

In the introduction to her English translation, the actor Eleanor Bron explains how “during the interval of a dreary play” in Hamburg she saw photographs from a production of the pieces and was immediately intrigued. She bought Brückner’s book and resolved to resurrect the German she had studied at university to prepare a translation, an experience she describes both entertainingly and insightfully.

Cover of Prague. I See a City

Daniela Hodrová, Prague. I See a City. Translated by David Short; Foreword by Rajendra Chitnis. 2nd rev. ed. (Folkestone, 2015). Awaiting shelfmark.
Chosen by Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

Have you ever been to Prague? If you have visited this wonderful city, you have probably noticed that Prague radiates some magical gleam that is not always easy to catch. Prague has its own unique charm and opens up to those who care to enquire about its history and character. While wandering through the streets of Prague, which guidebook did you have in your hands: Lonely Planet, Eyewitness Travel, or Rough Guides? Maybe, next time you can take Prague. I See a City by Daniela Hodrová.

Born in 1946 in Prague, Hodrová is one of the most distinct and original authors in contemporary Czech literature. Being a literary scholar by training and working as a researcher, she is very aware of rich literary traditions and techniques, as well as theoretical issues of aesthetics, theology and philosophy. Prague. I See a City is a very stylish and moving description of the city through a woman’s eyes. The author takes her readers through the city of her life. It is full of love and dreams, sounds of music and every-day scenes. Written straight after the November 1989 Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia (translated into English in 2011), the book is a poetic meditation on the history of the country and how this is reflected in a woman's life and in the city itself: “City of torment! City of puppets! City of Monsters! In all likelihood I am partly to blame for your awakening, I have brought you to life with words.”

27 August 2021

Connie Palmen’s Laws, Loves, and Stories

There is only one author in the Netherlands who is laying down the law about how to write biographies as fiction and that is Connie Palmen

30 years ago she burst onto the literary scene with her book De Wetten, a semi-autobiographical ‘Coming of Age’ story about a woman trying to understand the world and herself. Over the course of seven years she meets seven men who all seem to have a grip on life without having read many books; they just ‘know’. The protagonist doesn’t understand how this is possible. Translations appeared in 24 languages, including Richard Huijing’s English version, The Laws (London, 1992; H93/2400). The novel was voted European Novel of the Year in 1992 and was shortlisted for the 1996 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Cover of Connie Palmen's De Wetten

Cover of Connie Palmen, De Wetten (Amsterdam, 1993.) YA.1994.a.3161.

Palmen has also written about her relationships with two men, Ischa Meijer and Hans van Mierlo, both public figures in the Netherlands. Here too she chose the form of the novel over the traditional biography, making it almost impossible to tell what is fact and what is fiction, so she can reveal and hide in equal measure whilst writing a riveting story.

Cover of Connie Palmen, Jij Zegt Het

Cover of Connie Palmen, Jij Zegt Het (Amsterdam, 2016). YF.2016.a.2830.

In her most recent love story, Palmen focuses her attention on a different couple. Jij Zegt Het (Your Story, My Story) has Ted Hughes, speaking in the first person, reflect on his marriage with Sylvia Plath and the decades after her death. He speaks out against how the world responded to their tragedy, including the literary world.

Cover of Connie Palmen, Your Story, My Story

Cover of Connie Palmen, Your Story, My Story, translated by Eileen J. Stevens and Anna Asbury. (Seattle, 2021) On order

In numerous biographies Plath is given martyr-like status, while Hughes is portrayed as a traitor and murderer, condemned by complete strangers and accused by people he regarded to be his friends.

In 1998, shortly before his death, Ted Hughes published Birthday Letters (YA.2006.a.15922), a collection of 88 poems about their relationship. It is this collection that led Palmen to write Jij Zegt Het, first published in 2015, which won the 2016 Libris Literature Award.

Palmen describes the thoughts, fears and adjurations of the husband, and the deeply tragic bond with the woman who would determine his life. This is how it begins:

For most people we only exist in a book, my bride and I. Over the past 35 years I have witnessed in horror how our real lives were smothered by a mud stream of apocryphal stories, false statements, gossip, fantasies, myths and how our true, complex personalities were replaced by cliché characters, reduced to simple images, cut to size for a sensation seeking public. She, the fragile saint, me the brutal traitor. I remained silent. Until now.

Palmen does not claim that this is the last word on the matter, and it isn’t, because the recent publication of Plath’s letters to her therapist and friend Ruth Barnhouse in a new edition of Plath’s correspondence has once again ignited debate. As long as it results in works like Palmen’s I say: ‘Bring it on!’

Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections

References/Further reading:

J.W Niesing, De Wetten. (Apeldoorn, 1992). YA.1993.a.26869. An introduction for students.

The letters of Sylvia Plath, edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil. (London, 2019) YC.2020.a.3212 (Vol. 1); YC.2020.a.3213 (Vol. 2)

Wim D’Haveloose, ‘A Wedding of Words. Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes Revisited by Connie Palmen’ 

Conversation between Nuala O’Connor and Connie Palmen from the West Cork Lit Festival 2021 

Andy N. and Amanda Steele, ‘Reading in Bed’ podcast, Ep. 37, January 2021 (Includes discussion of Your Story, My Story)

Other titles by Palmen:

Als een weke krijger: verspreid werk. (Amsterdam, 2005). YF.2016.a.2964.

Het drama van de afhankelijkheid. (Amsterdam, 2017). YF.2018.a.16391

De erfenis. (Amsterdam, 1999). YF.2005.a.2288 (Book Week Gift)

De vriendschap. (Amsterdam, 1995). YA.1995.a.14809; English translation by Ina Rilke, The friendship (London, 2012.) ELD.DS.190913.

Geheel de uwe. (Amsterdam, 2004) YF.2005.a.25865

I.M. (Amsterdam, 1998). YA.2000.a.5493 .

Een kleine filosofie van de moord. (Amsterdam, 2004). YF.2005.a.27342

Logboek van een onbarmhartig jaar. (Amsterdam, 2011). YF.2016.a.14344

Lucifer. (Amsterdam, 2007). YF.2016.a.2833

Het weerzinwekkende lot van de oude Socrates. (Amsterdam, 1992). YA.1993.a.19834

25 August 2021

Follow up: Important information for email subscribers

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Page from Mayakovsky’s Pro eto with photomontage by Rodchenko

Photomontage by Aleksandr Rodchenko in Vladimir Mayakovsky, Pro eto (Moscow, 1923). C.131.k.12.

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18 August 2021

Bears of Bern – Fictional and Real

To coincide with the British Library's exhibition Paddington: The Story of a Bear, we've put together a series of blog posts about a few other bears (fictional and real) from the collections. 

Our current Paddington Bear exhibition made me think of one of his forebears in British children’s literature, Mary Plain. Mary appeared in a series of 14 books by the Welsh author Gwynedd Rae published between 1930 and 1965. Like Paddington, Mary is sufficiently anthropomorphic to talk to and interact with humans. She is taken under the wing of the ‘Owl Man’, named for his round spectacles, and the ‘Fur Coat Lady’, who accompany her on various ‘svisits’ as Mary calls them, in and beyond her native Bern, venturing as far afield as the USA.

Cover of 'Mostly Mary', with a picture of three bears' heads
Cover of the first edition of the Gwynedd Rae’s first Mary Plain book, Mostly Mary (London, 1930) 12803.p.40

In her ‘very important’ introduction to the first book, Rae says that she was inspired by a stay in Bern where she regularly visited the city’s historic bear pit and started to make up stories about its inhabitants. Mary’s original home is in this pit, and the first book presents a pretty accurate map of it at the time when Rae visited. It was Bern’s fourth bear pit, and although it had been developed and extended over the years, it was still an unnatural and inadequate place for bears to be kept.

A sketch-plan of the bear pit in Bern as it was in the 1930s

Plan of the Bear Pit, from Gwynedd Rae, Mostly Mary (London, 1930) 12803.p.40. The names of Rae’s bear characters are given in the sections where they live.

Although Rae portrays the bears’ keeper, Job, as a kind man and gives her anthropomorphised bears an autonomous and happy life within their captive world, she also makes her readers see how they beg for food thrown by visitors, and mentions that the only real tree in the enclosure is given over to the older bears who most need its shade. It’s no wonder that Mary prefers her travels and adventures with her human friends, even if these would be an equally unnatural life for a real bear.

But why was there a bear pit in Bern? The clue is in the city’s name. According to legend, its founder, Duke Berthold V von Zähringen, vowed to name the city after the first animal he successfully killed in a hunt there. This turned out to be a bear, which became the city’s namesake and emblem. (I wonder if Berthold would have been so keen if he’d caught a rabbit?)

The first record of live bears being kept in Bern dates from 1513, when, according to contemporary chronicler Valerius Anselm, Bernese troops brought one back as a trophy from the Battle of Novara, and the bears were soon familiar enough to be the subjects of patriotic local poems.

Title-pages of two 16th-century poems, with woodcuts of bears
Poems in praise of the ‘noble bear of Bern’ printed in the 1540s by Mathias Apiarius. Facsimile editions from Dreißig Volkslieder aus den ersten Pressen der Apiarius (Bern, 1937) Ac.9586.b/4.

The first bear pit was in a central square, called Bärenplatz today, although the name is first recorded in the 19th century when the bears had long since moved. The current site by the River Aare dates back to 1857 and until the early 21st century still consisted of the rather bleak enclosure depicted in Rae’s books.

19th-century engraving of the bear pit in Bern
The bear pit opened in 1857, reproduced as endpapers in Emil Hänni, Ein Leben für die Bären (Bern, [1975])

A memoir by Emil Hänni, the city’s Bear-Keeper from the 1950s to the 1970s, gives an impression of the pits at that time and of the life led by the bears. Although Hänni’s genuine devotion to his charges is obvious, his book is something of a window into another time in terms of attitudes to animal welfare. When he took the job, his only formal experience working with animals was as a sheepdog trainer, and he received only two days’ training from his predecessor. He expresses anger at tourists who throw glass bottles of milk or unsuitable foodstuffs into the pit, but never questions the very fact of them feeding the bears for their own entertainment, or the suitability of the pit for housing large animals. The book ends with the bears returning to the pit following restoration work in 1976, after which Hänni’s son, also called Emil, took over the job.

Two bears in the pit, surrounded by tourists
Bears and spectators during Emil Hänni senior’s time as Bear-Keeper. From Ein Leben für die Bären

Emil junior would be Bern’s last official Bear-Keeper, retiring in 2003. From the 1970s onwards, both animal rights groups and public opinion became increasingly vocal in calling for a more natural environment for the bears. In the mid-1990s major renovations were carried out, providing more shade and water, and covering the concrete base of the pit with a thick floor of sand and gravel, but the pit was still inadequate by modern animal welfare standards. In 2001 a competition was announced to design a more suitable home, and in 2009 the new enclosure opened, housing fewer bears in a larger space. Now known as a park rather than a pit, it comprises a landscaped area along a stretch of the Aare. Part of the old pit is joined to it, the other part has become a shop and exhibition area.

Given their symbolic importance to the people of Bern, it is good to know that bears now have a more suitable home in the city. I hope Gwynedd Rae and Mary Plain would have approved.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections 

More bear-themed posts from the European Studies blog:

British Intellectuals and Russian Bears

‘Ill scratches the bear’, an endangered proverbial species

Paddington exhibition banner

 

12 August 2021

Important information for email subscribers

Unfortunately, the third-party platform that the British Library uses for email notifications for our blogs is making changes to its infrastructure. This means that from mid-August 2021 it will no longer send notifications by email to subscribers. To find out when new posts are published we recommend following us on Twitter (@BL_European), or checking the blogs page on the BL website, where you can also find out the latest from our other departmental blogs. 

We apologise for the inconvenience, and hope you will continue to find ways to keep up with our blog.

European Studies Blog Team

News-sheets being delivered and read
Following the news in revolutionary Vienna. Masthead of Wiener Gassen-Zeitung (Vienna, 1848) P.P.3437.cb.

09 August 2021

Documenting the Belarus Protests, 2020-2021

In August 2020, Belarus was catapulted onto the world stage as a wave of anti-government protests swept the country. Although demonstrations had begun in May after President Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994, declared his intention to run in the 2020 elections, the protests intensified when the first official results were announced on the evening of 9 August.

Thousands of protesters were arrested in the months that followed, with human rights organisations documenting hundreds of cases of torture and ill-treatment of detainees. Local and international journalists covering the events were also arrested and/or stripped of accreditation, internet access was periodically blocked, and an increasing number of books and media channels have been labelled ‘extremist’.

A year on from the elections, this blog post brings together accounts, reflections and creative responses to the protests. Published outside of Belarus – in Germany, Poland and Sweden – they include diaries, photographs, poems, essays and a play.

Photo from Ia vykhozhu, Plakaty belorusskikh protestov showing a large number of protesters holding flags and placards

L. Lirs, Ia vykhozhu, Plakaty belorusskikh protestov (Warsaw, 2021). Awaiting shelfmark

In November 2020, 31-year old artist Raman Bandarenka died in police custody after being arrested at an anti-government protest in Minsk. His last known words, Ia vykhozhu (‘I’m going out’), which he posted on Telegram, became a rallying cry for thousands of protestors in the days following his death. Those words also form the title of this book, which brings together over 350 photographs of posters from the 2020 protests in Belarus. Bold, direct, heartfelt and at times humorous, the posters speak to the creativity of the protestors and the range of issues they are fighting for.

Cover of Plays International & Europe

Andrei Kureichik, ‘Insulted. Belarus’, translated by John Freedman, in Plays International & Europe, Vol. 35, Nos 9-12 (Winter 2020), pp. 30-45. P.903/1085

Written by leading Belarusian playwright Andrei Kureichik, Insulted. Belarus (Обиженные. Беларусь(сия)) is a short, powerful play focusing on the days immediately before and after the contested presidential elections on 9 August. Through a series of monologues, we are introduced to seven fictional and non-fictional characters: Oldster, based on long-time president Alexander Lukashenko; Novice, representing opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (Svetlana Tikhanovskaya); Youth, Lukashenko’s video-game obsessed teenage son Kolya; Cheerful, a fictional character who believes in the power of the Universe; Raptor, a storm trooper engaged to Cheerful’s sister; Corpse, a 26-year-old football fan who detests the old regime; and Mentor, a middle-aged teacher involved in rigging the elections.

Kureichik contacted translator John Freedman in early September 2020 with a request to translate the play into English and to bring it to the attention of an international audience. Nearly a year later, it has been translated into more than 20 languages and performed (as readings, productions, videos and films) in more than 25 countries, including the US, Nigeria, Slovakia, Turkey and the UK. Freedman’s English translation was published in the Winter 2020 issue of Plays International & Europe.

You can watch a reading of Insulted. Belarus in English here

Cover of BELARUS! Das weibliche Gesicht der Revolution

BELARUS! Das weibliche Gesicht der Revolution (Berlin, 2020). YF.2021.a.8763

Much has been written about the central role women have played in the Belarus protests, from opposition figures Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Maria Kalesnikava to the defiant images of women, dressed in white and holding flowers, standing against police brutality.

Published in Germany in late 2020, this book (‘Belarus! The Female Face of the Revolution’) brings together analytical and journalistic texts, poems, essays, and documents by women. Among them are the poets and translators Iulia Tsimafeeva (listen to her contribution ‘My European Poem’) and Volʹha Hapeeva, artist and activist Marina Naprushkina, and Irina Solomatina, Head of the Council for the Belarusian Organization of Working Women and co-author of a 2015 book on women’s activism in Belarus.

Cover of Die Revolution hat ein weibliches Gesicht. Der Fall Belarus

Another of the contributors, the philosopher Olga Shparaga, has written a separate book on the topic of women’s participation in the protests, Die Revolution hat ein weibliches Gesicht. Der Fall Belarus (‘The Revolution has a Female Face. The Case of Belarus’).

Parallels have of course been drawn with Nobel Prize-winning writer Svetlana Alexievich’s 1985 work The Unwomanly Face of War, which documents the experience and memories of Soviet women who fought during the Second World War. As Shparaga has pointed out, however, a key difference is that women have become visible in Belarus through the protests.

Alexievich recently announced that she is also focusing on the role of women in the pro-democracy movement in Belarus for her new book.

Cover of Dagar i Belarus

Julia Tsimafejeva, Dagar i Belarus (Stockholm, 2020). Awaiting shelfmark

Iulia Tsimafeeva (Julia Tsimafejeva) also kept a diary during the protests, which was translated into Swedish and published at the end of 2020 as Dagar i Belarus (‘Days in Belarus’). Extracts from Tsimafeeva’s diary appeared in English in the Financial Times, including a passage in which she describes preparing to join the protests:

When we leave the house, we go prepared. First, I dress carefully, in case I end up spending a night or two in the detention centre. Second, I intensively water dozens of my plants. Third, we leave our cat enough food for a few days. (One of my friends says that her cat has become fat with all these Sunday rallies.) Fourth, we take passports and a bottle of water. It’s important, too, to clear the history of your mobile phone, as these are often checked in the detention centres.

Now ready, our small family brigade goes out into the street, into the unknown.

Tsimafeeva’s third poetry collection, ROT, was published in Belarus in July 2020, YF.2021.a.4086.

Cover of Die weißen Tage von Minsk with a photo of Vitali Alekseenok

Vitali Alekseenok, Die weißen Tage von Minsk (Frankfurt am Main, 2021). YF.2021.a.6322

Vitali Alekseenok, the musical director of the Abaco Orchestra of the University of Munich, organised protests in Germany last summer before returning to Belarus in August to support the protest movement there. The conductor documented his experiences during the six weeks he spent in Minsk in a book entitled Die weißen Tage von Minsk (‘The White Days of Minsk’).

A Deutsche Welle article commented that Alekseenok’s book ‘reads like a travelogue dotted throughout with matter-of-fact impressions of war. It combines background information about the country and its people into a kind of "How-to-Belarus" for those who know little about the country and its present problems’. 

Katie McElvanney, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections 

Publications and resources relating to the protests in Belarus:

Vitali Alekseenok, Die weißen Tage von Minsk (Frankfurt am Main, 2021). YF.2021.a.6322

Edyta Banaszkiewicz, Marsz Białorusi Sierpień–grudzień 2020 (Warsaw, 2021). Awaiting shelfmark

Alice Bota, Die Frauen von Belarus. Von Revolution, Mut und dem Drang nach Freiheit (Berlin, 2021). Awaiting shelfmark

Iya Kiva, My prokynemos' inshymy (Chernivtsi, 2021). Awaiting shelfmark 

Andrei Kureichik, ‘Insulted. Belarus’, translated by John Freedman, in Plays International & Europe, Vol. 35, Nos 9-12 (Winter 2020), pp. 30-45. P.903/1085

L. Lirs, Ia vykhozhu, Plakaty belorusskikh protestov (Warsaw, 2021). Awaiting shelfmark

Olga Shparaga, Die Revolution hat ein weibliches Gesicht. Der Fall Belarus (Berlin, 2021). Awaiting shelfmark

Maria Stepanova, Brev till en lycklig tid (Stockholm, 2021). Awaiting shelfmark. Stepanova’s essay is in part a response to the open letter written by Svetlana Alexievich in September 2020. 

Dmitrij Strotsev, Belarus: motståndets konst (Stockholm, 2021). Awaiting shelfmark. This essay was originally published in Russian by COLTA.RU in December 2020. 

Julia Tsimafejeva, Dagar i Belarus (Stockholm, 2020). Awaiting shelfmark

BELARUS! Das weibliche Gesicht der Revolution (Berlin, 2020). YF.2021.a.8763

I’m a Journalist. Why Are You Beating Me? Stories of repressed Belarusian journalists (Open Access e-book published by the Polish Association of Journalists. Available in Polish, English, Belarusian, Russian and Ukrainian) 

‘The Sociology of Protest in Belarus-Social Dynamics, Ideological Shifts and Demand for Change’, Slavic Review, vol. 80 (Spring 2021) 

The British Library has contributed to a collaborative web archiving project to document the events in Belarus 

Further reading:

Katerina Andreeva, and Ihor' Il'iash, Belorusskii Donbass (Khar'kov, 2020). Awaiting shelfmark

Stephen White, Elena Korosteleva and John Löwenhardt (eds.), Postcommunist Belarus (Lanham, MD, 2005). m05/.18747

Andrew Wilson, Belarus: The last dictatorship in Europe (New Haven, Conn.; London, 2011). YC.2011.a.14827 (New edition March 2021, Belarus: The Last European Dictatorship. Awaiting shelfmark)

N.B. Many of the books featured in this blog post have recently been acquired by the British Library and are not yet available to Readers. We will update the shelfmark information as soon as they are ready to order.

04 August 2021

British Intellectuals and Russian Bears

To coincide with the British Library's exhibition Paddington: The Story of a Bear, we've put together a series of blog posts about a few other bears (fictional and real) from the collections. 

In 1926, the Russian Bear first spoke English: twenty-one tales about bears were collected and translated into English by Jane Ellen Harrison and Hope Mirrlees. In The Book of the Bear these two British women taught the Russian Bear to speak English. Ray Garnett (Rachel Marshall, wife of David Garnett and sister of the translator and diarist Frances Partridge) shared with the British public her vision of how it might look like. The Russian Bear in its English reincarnation appeared to be well connected to the Bloomsbury group of intellectuals and even to the British Museum Library (David’s great-grandfather and grandfather both worked there).

But why did it draw such attention?

Title page of The Book of the Bear with an illustration

Title page of The Book of the Bear 

Jane Ellen Harrison (1850-1928) received a classical education at Cambridge, which, however, did not prevent her from being truly interested in Russia. Harrison developed an interest in this distant and strange country as a child, when her father, who had business connections in the Baltic region, brought home "caviar, cranberries and deer tongues" as a gift from Russia. Later, by 1919, she completed the Russian language course at the University of Cambridge and was able to teach it, which she did for several years, using her original methodology. Despite the fact that later her interest in Russia took an academic form, Russia forever remained for Harrison a country where bears with a mysterious Russian soul live. The bear image was one of the key ones for Harrison, especially considering her passion for totemism. She once even address her friend Prince Svyatopolk-Mirsky “Dear Bear Prince”.

Page from The Book of the Bear with an illustration

The opening of 'The Bear and the Crane and the Horse' in The Book of the Bear

In her preface to The Book of the Bear Harrison explained:

The bear is “in all respects like a man,” but there are many men – the stories here collected are with one exception all Russian, and in them the beast is seen as a true Russian, friendly, hospitable, cheery, the best of comrades, the worst of officials, tolerant of all social vices, pitiless only to the pretentious.

Pages from The Book of the Bear

'The Bear's Lullaby' in The Book of the Bear

Svyatopolk Mirsky saw serious philosophical foundations in Harrison's totemism:

Everyone who knew her knew about the serious emotional significance she attached to what she considered her totem — the bear. Her bear cult - an emotional consequence of her anthropological research - was, it seems to me, a symbol of her entire religious worldview. Since the bear, the most human-like of the beasts <...> symbolized for her the unity between the living nature and the identity of man and beast. I venture to suggest that one of the psychological reasons for her love for Russia was the figure of the Russian bear, which had long and firmly embedded in the tradition thanks to British cartoonists. In any case, the psychological identity Russia = Bear was undoubtedly real for her, and played a significant role in her attachment to Russia.

Pages from The Book of the Bear

Illustration and page from the story 'Hare Ivanich' in The Book of the Bear

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

Jane Ellen Harrison, and Hope Mirrlees, The Book of the Bear: being twenty-one tales newly translated from the Russian. The pictures by Ray Garnett, etc. (London, 1926). 12403.aaaa.26.

More bear-themed posts from the European Studies blog:

Bears of Bern – Fictional and Real

‘Ill scratches the bear’, an endangered proverbial species

Paddington exhibition banner