European studies blog

9 posts categorized "Women's histories"

17 November 2020

Feminism in Early Modern Venice: Lucrezia Marinella

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In the light of the current exhibition Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, I want to show a new acquisition, an Italian poem printed in Venice in 1618.

This religious, heroic and allegorical poem has an extraordinary feminist subtext and its title is Amore innamorato, et impazzato poema di Lucretia Marinella; con gli argomenti, & allegorie a ciascun canto. Alla serenissima [...] Caterina Medici, Gonzaga, duchessa di Mantova [...] – “Poem on enamoured and mad love by Lucretia Marinella, with topics and allegories before each canto. Dedicated to Catherine de’ Medici Gonzaga, Duchess of Mantua”.

References to the author’s intentions are already clear in the choice of the dedicatee, a female patron, Caterina Gonzaga, whom she actively encourage to read the poem.

Title-page of Amore innamorato, et impazzato

Title-page of Amore innamorato, et impazzato (Venice, 1618) awaiting shelfmark

The poem tells the story of Cupid’s conversion to Christianity. The literary form is inspired by Ariosto, Boiardo, Tasso and the epic poems of the Counter-Reformation. The author’s aim is indeed to promote the values of the Church, through the allegory of Cupid’s religious journey and conversion. The poem at a first glance follows the religious constraints of its time, but its main female character, Ersilia, is an independent woman fully in charge of her destiny. She will reject Cupid’s love and the passive role of the ethereal donna angelicata provided by the Italian literary canon of Dante and Petrarch.

Ersilia is stronger than Cupid, and her resistance to his advances asserts her religious values, but is also imbued with feminism. Religion had to be used to validate work and ideas and to get published.

The author, The author, Lucrezia Marinella (1571-1653), was the daughter of the writer and physician Giovanni Marinelli, and is usually known by the feminine form of her father's surname. Her father encouraged her to study poetry, music and philosophy. She became the most versatile, prolific, and learned woman writer of her generation. She was close to the Accademia Veneziana, but led a reclusive life of private study. She married a physician and had two children.

Engraving of Lucrezia Marinella

Lucrezia Marinella by Giacomo Piccini, 1652

Lucrezia Marinella’s fame as one of the very first feminist writers ever is mostly due to the treatise Le Nobilità et Eccellenze delle Donne, et i Diffetti, e Mancamenti de gli huomini.. (Venice, 1600; 1080.k.7.(2.)) ‘The nobility and excellence of women’, recognised as a landmark in the history of women’s contribution to the querelle des femmes

Engraving of Moderata Fonte

Moderata Fonte, anonymous 16th-century engraving

Marinella’s work will sit alongside that of another Venetian author of the same period: Modesta Pozzo or Moderata Fonte (1555-1592). Although little known to modern criticism before around 1980, Fonte is recognised as one of the most accessible and appealing of 16th-century Italian women writers. Her best-known work is the posthumously-published dialogue Il merito delle donne ‘The Worth of Women’ (Venice, 1600; 721.f.17.), which is one of the most original contributions to early modern debate on sex roles, as well as one of the earliest to have been authored by a woman. Other women writers who preceded and inspired Marinella are Gaspara Stampa and Vittoria Colonna.

Amore innamorato, et impazzato has been purchased with the generous help of the British Library Collection Trust.

Valentina Mirabella, Curator Romance Collections

References/Further Reading:

P. Malpezzi Price, Lucrezia Marinella and the "querelle des femmes" in seventeenth-century Italy ( Madison, c2008.) YC.2009.a.11706

S. Kolsky, ‘The literary career of Lucrezia Marinella (1571-1653)’, in: F.W. Kent & Ch. Zika, eds. Rituals, images, and words: varieties of cultural expression in late medieval and early modern Europe (Turnhout, 2005) pp. 325-342. YC.2006.a.12963

A. Cagnolati, A portrait of a Renaissance feminist : Lucrezia Marinella's life and works ( Rome, 2013.) YD.2013.a.3057

Stephen Kolsky, ‘Moderata Fonte, Lucrezia Marinella, Giuseppe Passi: an early seventeenth-century feminist controversy’, The Modern Language Review, Vol. 96, No. 4 (Oct., 2001), pp. 973-989.

Paola Malpezzi Price, ‘A Woman's Discourse in the Italian Renaissance: Moderata Fonte’s “Il merito delle donne”’ Annali d’Italianistica, Vol. 7 (1989), pp. 165-181. 1014.600000

Prudence Allen and Filippo Salvatore, ‘Lucrezia Marinelli and Woman’s Identity in Late Italian Renaissance’ Renaissance and Reformation / Renaissance et Réforme, New Series / Nouvelle Série, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Fall / Automne 1992), pp. 5-39. 7356.865100

04 September 2020

Jadwiga Piątkowska, the forgotten poet of Solidarity

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This post is a part of a series of blogs written on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Solidarity movement. You can read the first here

Cover of a book on Jadwiga Piątkowska with her photograph

A cover of a book on Jadwiga Piątkowska published by her daughter. Ewa Korczyńska, Jagoda sierpniowa, Jagoda grudniowa (Kraków: 2014), YF.2017.a.5431

Jadwiga Piątkowska (1949-1990), also known as Jagoda, was a member of the opposition movement and a poet writing about Solidarity and events related to the political struggle in Poland in the 1980s. A single mother, Jagoda was on holiday in Czechoslovakia when she heard about the onset of the strike at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk on 14 August 1980. She immediately returned to Poland and convinced Lech Wałęsa, the future leader of Solidarity, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and the first democratically elected president of Poland, that she might be of help to the protesters. She began working as a typist and, after Solidarity was established on 31 August, as an editor and journalist for its periodical Rozwaga i Solidarność (‘Prudence and Solidarity’; Gdańsk, 1982-1989; Sol.90), in which she published many of her poems. The shipyard workers' journal was established in April 1981. During the duration of the martial law in Poland (13 December 1981 - 22 July 1983), it became an underground publication of the movement, which circulated documents related to Solidarity and described repressions suffered by the political opposition.

Photograph of Jadwiga Piątkowska during her visit to a coal mine in Silesia

Jadwiga Piątkowska during her visit to a coal mine in Silesia as a reporter for Rozwaga i Solidarność. Photograph taken from Ewa Korczyńska, Jagoda sierpniowa, Jagoda grudniowa (Kraków, 2014), YF.2017.a.5431

Piątkowska’s work describes the struggle of the opposition against the Polish communist government. In one of her best-known poems, ‘Ewie-mojej 12 letniej córce’ (‘For Eve, My Daughter of 12’), Piątkowska tries to comfort her child, who hasn’t seen her in a long time, but who gave her the energy to persist in the strike along with other protesters. The poem was written on August 29, 1980, at 23.45 — two days before the Solidarity movement was officially established.

A copy of the poem ‘For Eve, My Daughter of 12’

A copy of the poem ‘For Eve, My Daughter of 12’, from a Collection of Polish underground ephemeral publications. Sol.764

Hold out a while longer, my little daughter.
Our destiny is at stake.
Never mind that so many days
I’ve been away from you.
Never mind the sleepless nights,
the tired eyes and hands.
Faith heals people,
and people are with us (…).

(Translation from the album Solidarity! — Postulat 22: Songs from the New Polish Labour Movement (Nowe Polskie Piesni Robotnicze) (Folkways Records, 1981). You can listen to this poem set to music from the album here).

Jagoda’s letter to Maciej Pietrzyk

Jagoda’s letter to Maciej Pietrzyk, an actor, singer and voice of the Solidarity movement. Sol.764

After martial law had been declared in Poland, Piątkowska stayed with other members of Solidarity until the Lenin Shipyard was pacified by the militia. She witnessed a female colleague being crushed to death by a tank and got arrested. Once released from prison, she returned to her work in the opposition, this time underground. After a few months, she was re-arrested, subjected to torture and threatened with deprivation of parental rights. Her poem ‘Behind the walls’ reflects the despair many political prisoners felt at that time:

(…) I znowu nic.
Pustka. Oczekiwanie.
Zgrzyt klucza
W grubych drzwiach.
Moje serce otoczyły
Wiem, że nie przyjdziesz

(…) And again nothing.
Void. Anticipation.
A creak of a key
In the thick door.
My heart is surrounded
By weeds.
I know you will not come,

As a result of her imprisonment, Piątkowska suffered damage to her health, which resulted in her premature death at the age of 41.

Zuzanna Krzemien, Curator East European Collections

References and further reading: 

‘Rozwaga i Solidarność’ in: Encyklopedia Solidarności (2010-), available at:  

13 January 2017

Science, Art and Insects: Maria Sibylla Merian

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Maria Sibylla Merian, who died 300 years ago today is justly remembered both as a pioneering naturalist and an entomological and botanical artist, and as a woman who made her mark in both art and science at a time when these fields were dominated by men.

Maria was born in Frankfurt am Main in 1647 into an artistic family. Her father was the engraver and publisher Matthäus Merian, but his death when Maria was just three years old meant that her own talent was mainly fostered by her stepfather Jacob Marrel. As well as being encouraged to draw and paint, the young Maria developed a fascination with insects and began collecting, studying and drawing them.

In 1675 Maria published a book of botanical illustrations, the Neues Blumenbuch. Four years later, the first part of a new work appeared. Der Raupen wunderbarer Verwandlung und sonderbare Blumennahrung (‘The Wonderful Transformation and Strange Floral Food of Caterpillars’ – a second part followed in 1683) drew on Maria’s interest in and close observation of caterpillars and butterflies, illustrating and describing the stages of the different species’ lives and also the specific plants that they fed on.

Decorative title-page with insects on a wreath of leaves
Title-page of Der Raupen wunderbarer Verwandlung... (Nuremberg, 1679)  445.c.15. 

It was not until 1705 that Maria published another book, but for lovers of both science and art it was worth the wait. In 1699 she had travelled  from her home in Amsterdam to Suriname with her daughter Dorothea to record the insect life of the country, then a Dutch colony. The resulting work Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium appeared in 1705 and combines careful observation and detailed recording of the insects’ habitats, lives and behaviour with aesthetic skill in depicting the different stages of their life-cycles and their favoured plants. The British Library holds a splendidly hand-coloured copy of the 1726 edition (649.c.20) from which the pictures below are taken.

In Suriname, as in Frankfurt, Maria’s primary interest was in butterflies:

Butterflies and caterpillars around a pineapple
Plate 2 from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium

A butterfly and caterpillar on a watermelon plantPlate 15 (The rather plump larva about to feast on a watermelon here might remind the modern reader somewhat of Eric Carle’s Very Hungry Caterpillar)

 Details of individual butterflies show Maria’s talents:

A butterfly with brown, blue-tipped wings  A butterfly feeding on a seed pod

A butterfly on a bunch of grapes
Details from (top to bottom) plates 20, 44 and 34

But as well as butterflies, Maria also depicted and described other insects as in these images.

Beetles and their larvae on a yellow-flowering plant
Plate 24

Insects and their larvae on an ivy-like plant
Plate 50. The painter has used gold to capture the iridescence of the fly in the bottom right-hand corner

She also portrayed spiders (for the sake of sensitive arachnophobes I merely add a link), snakes and lizards:

A green lizard and two butterflies
Plate 14

A caiman attacking a red and black snake which is trying to steal its eggs as the young hatch
Plate 69, the famous image of a caiman attacking a snake which is trying to steal its eggs as the young hatch

In one image she even shows a mammal, a tree-rat carrying its young on its back, although her hand seems a little less sure here than with the insects: 

  A tree rat with its young on its back, with two mantises on a branch above
Plate 66

Like many fine-printed books of its day, our 1626 edition of Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium has a fine engraved frontispiece which has also been hand coloured. It shows a woman instructing an eager group of botanising putti, with a Surinamese landscape in the background.

Decorative frontispiece with a woman and some putti in front of a tropical landscape

The artist of the frontispiece clearly knew the work he was illustrating. The open book in the bottom left-hand corner of the picture shows one of Maria’s plates, in a nice tribute to the original creator of the work. 

Detail of the frontispiece showing an open page of Merian's book

Detail from the frontispiece (above) and plate 29 (below)

Butterflies and a caterpillar around a large orange-yellow fruit

I hope the gallery above will likewise act as a tribute to a woman who is justly celebrated  today for her achievements as both artist and natural historian.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies


13 November 2015

Germany's first female doctor: Dorothea Erxleben, 1715-1762

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Despite being considered the more nurturing and caring sex, and having an age-old role as healers and nurses in families and communities, women were for centuries largely excluded from professional medicine, seen as the preserve of university-educated men.

One of the pioneering exceptions to this rule was Dorothea Christiane Erxleben, the first German woman to qualify as a doctor. She was born on 13 November  1715 in Quedlinburg to the physician Christian Polycarp Leporin and his wife Anna Sophia. Dorothea was bright and a quick learner, and her father was determined that she should share the same education as her younger brother, Christian. Both children studied Latin with a local schoolmaster and learned science and medicine from their father.

Colour portrait of Dorothea Erxleben
A contemporary portrait of Dorothea Erxleben (image from Wikimedia Commons)

However, childhood education was one thing, formal adult training quite another. While Christian might be expected to take over his father’s practice in due course, a medical career for Dorothea was impossible by contemporary standards. Nonetheless, the siblings planned to study medicine together and, with her father’s encouragement, Dorothea petitioned Fredrick II of Prussia for permission to enter the University of Halle with her brother. This was granted in 1741, but Dorothea did not actually attend the university. Accounts and chronology  vary between sources, but it seems that there was some problem involving Christian’s military service which left him unable to take up his own place at Halle and that Dorothea did not want (or was not able) to study there without his company.

Instead, Dorothea took what might seem like the complete opposite path: in 1742 she married Johann Christian Erxleben, a widowed clergyman with five children (she would have four more children of her own). But she clearly embarked  on matrimony and domestic life very much on her own terms and continued to study and practice medicine. In the year of her marriage she published a book describing and arguing against the factors that prevented women from studying. Again, her father was instrumental in encouraging her to publish, and provided a preface to the book, but Dorothea speaks clearly and firmly in her own voice.  She condemns familiar assertions that women’s education is a waste of time, goes against religious teaching, damages their health and strength, or prevents them from carrying out their ‘proper’ domestic duties. All of these beliefs she disproved in her own life, successfully combining the role of clergy wife and mother to nine children with her work in medicine.

Title page of 'Gründliche Untersuchung der Ursachen, die das weibliche Geschlecht vom Studieren abhalten'
Dorothea Erxleben (as Dorothea Leporin), Gründliche Untersuchung der Ursachen, die das weibliche Geschlecht vom Studieren abhalten (Berlin, 1742), British Library (and in digital form)

On her father’s death in 1747, Dorothea took over his practice, effectively becoming a doctor in all but name. This made her enemies among other local physicians, and the death of one of Dorothea’s patients gave them the opportunity to accuse her formally of ‘quackery’ and of practising without qualifications.  In order to clear her name and be able to continue working, Dorothea volunteered to submit a medical dissertation for examination. The civic and university authorities debated for some time whether a woman could in fact qualify as a doctor: did the university statutes allow for female students, and if medicine was a public profession, were doctors public officials, a role from which women were barred?

Finally, on 12 June 1754, Dorothea was allowed  to present and defend her dissertation before the medical faculty in Halle – in Latin, as was usual at the time. Her argument was that swift and pleasant cures were often deleterious to a patient’s health in the longer term. She impressed the examiners both with her medical knowledge and her Latin and was awarded her doctorate. The published version of the dissertation includes a number of tributes in both Latin and German by her supporters, including her old Latin teacher, Tobias Eckhard.

Title-page of Dorothea Erxleben's dissertation
Dorothea Erxleben, Dissertatio
inauguralis, exponens quod nimis cito ac jucunde curare sæpius fiat caussa minus tutæ curationis. (Halle, 1754) T.600.(33.). The dissertation which gained Dorothea the official title of doctor.

Dorothea would continue to practise medicine unhindered until her death in 1762. Sadly, however, she remained an exception in German medical history for nearly 150 years. Only at the start of the 20th century would women be admitted to German medical schools. However, Dorothea is still remembered as a pioneer. Various clinics and foundations have been named after her, a commemorative stamp bearing her image appeared in the 1980s, and on the 200th anniversary of her birth she has been the subject of the day’s ‘doodle’ on the German Google site, bringing this 18th-century pioneer into the 21st century.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies


03 June 2015

Child of the Revolution: the tragic story of Nelly Ptashkina

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This April saw the launch of  (‘Lives Lived’), an online database of thousands of 20th-century diary entries in Russian. Although the site primarily includes the published diaries of prominent writers, scientists and other notable public figures, its creators have also started to digitise the diaries of ordinary citizens from a range of backgrounds, an addition which will provide a fascinating insight into how different people experienced events such as the Russian Revolution. 

I recently came across one such ‘ordinary’ diary during my research at the British Library, which is yet to be published by Written by a young Russian girl named Nelly L’vovna Ptashkina, the diary contains her account of life between 1918 and 1920, a period of revolution and civil war in Russia. Nelly was from a middle class background and she describes how the Bolsheviks targeted her family, forcing them to flee Moscow for Kiev and eventually immigrate to Paris in late 1919.

Nelly Ptashkina
An undated portrait of Nelly Ptashkina in the Russian-language edition of her diary. (British Library 010795.b.50.)

Nelly flits between astutely describing and reflecting on the political situation and relating her girlish and adolescent thoughts, interests and dreams, the latter giving away the fact she was only 15 when she began this diary in 1918. She is conscious of the gravity of the events unfolding around her and writes of her wish to record them:

Truly we are going through a terrible, terrible time … It would be a good thing to collect the newspapers, but that is impossible as we move from place to place; at least I have my diary. (29 January 1918)

While Nelly’s diary offers a fascinating glimpse into the life of a young girl during a period of immense change and upheaval, there is a tragic story attached to its publication. In July 1920, just days after passing her Baccalaureat examination at the Paris Sorbonne, Nelly slipped while walking by the Le Dard waterfall in Chamonix and fell to her death. She was just 17 years old. Two years previously, Nelly had written about a sudden premonition she had had of her coming death: 

I love to stand at the edge of an abyss, at the very edge, so that a single movement—,
and … to-day, stepping closer to the brink of a precipice, although not so deep as I should have wished, the thought came into my mind that some day I should die thus, crashing headlong into the chasm…  (20 October 1918)

Yet Nelly’s diary is also full of her hopes and dreams for the future, making her untimely death all the more tragic. Nelly’s mother decided to publish her daughter’s diary in Paris in 1922 to preserve her memory and so that others could ‘appreciate the tender unfolding of a soul’. The publication of Nelly’s diary is not only a tribute to a sensitive and talented young writer, but it also serves as a reminder of the experience of countless children during the revolution and civil war.

Katie McElvanney, CDA PhD student


Ptashkina, Nelly L’vovna, Dnevnik, 1918-1920, ed. by S. Svatikov (Paris, 1922). 010795.b.50.

Ptashkina, Nelly L’vovna, The Diary of Nelly Ptashkina, trans. by Pauline de Chary (London, 1923). 012591.aa.38.

11 March 2015

Notes from an Old Profession

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Attempts to regulate the sex trade are almost as old as the trade itself. Most cultures and societies, while openly deploring prostitution, have nonetheless tolerated it and, increasingly, tried to bring it under some form of governmental control. A recent British Library acquisition sheds light on one such attempt in 19th-century Hamburg: 

Title page of 'Regulativ für die Bordell-Wirthe und eingezeichneten Mädchen'
Regulativ für die Bordell-Wirthe und eingezeichneten Mädchen in der Vorstadt St. Pauli
([Hamburg], 1853) RB.23.a.36389.

Like many port cities, Hamburg had a long history of prostitution and the city authorities had been issuing regulations for brothels and their employees since at least the 15th century. By the mid-19th century a set of regulations dating from 1834 were in force, but in 1847 some additional rules were issued by Dr A. Meier, ‘Patron’ of the suburb of St Pauli, then as now home to Hamburg’s main red light district.  Our recently-acquired copy of these rules was printed in 1853, and each ‘girl’ (as they are always referred to here) in a brothel was to be given a copy. A label on the front wrapper shows that ours belonged to one Johanna Maria Friederica Wendland who worked “bei Brackert” (presumably the name of the brothel-keeper).


Marbled paper cover of the 'Rgulativ' with two names in manuscriptThe wrapper of our copy of the Regulativ with the names of Johanna Wendland and  “Brackert”

The 22 short paragraphs set out various rights and responsibilities. Brothel-keepers must provide a heated communal room in the winter (§13) and “simple, good food” (§15; specifically there must be no stinting on the morning coffee!). The women must be allowed free time to go out at least once a week (§17) although they must not wear “conspicuous” clothing that draws attention to their profession on these outings. Importantly, paragraph 18 states that “No girl may be forced to sleep with a man who is not acceptable to her.”

Many of the regulations are concerned with finances. Brothel-keepers may not advance more than 150 marks in credit to the women (§1). They can take up to half of a woman’s earnings (§2), but if she earns more than 50 marks in a week she need only hand over 25 (§3). Brothel-keepers cannot lay claim to gifts given to the women by clients (§9), and must not accept or demand gifts from the women (§10). The women must pay a monthly fee for such luxuries as a sofa (§8) or individual heating (§14) in their own rooms. A central kitty is to be maintained to help with extra expenses, such as clothing and travel costs for women who leave the brothel to return home, marry or take up another job (§19-20). 

The seven pages of regulations are followed by 16 blank account-book pages. Paragraph 5 requires each woman’s copy to be filled in regularly by the brothel-keeper with a note of each month’s expenses. Paragraph 6 adds that a doctor must also sign each month’s page to certify that the woman is in good health.

An anonymous study of prostitution in Hamburg, first published in 1858 and reissued in a much enlarged edition in 1860, sheds light on some of the reasons behind these regulations. The author states that brothel-keepers regularly advance huge amounts of credit for clothing and other expenses (including gifts for themselves) to the women in their establishments, thus keeping the women effectively trapped in debt and unable to leave the brothel. Over a decade after the first publication of Dr Maier’s regulations, this commentator is clearly cynical about their effectiveness. He also doubts that many doctors have time for the regular health checks required.

However, a doctor did authorize our copy. Either Johanna Wendland herself or Brackert filled in two pages of accounts for September and October 1855, noting purchases including collars, a pair of boots and a velvet dress. The doctor signed it with the brief note “gesehen” on 6 October and 2 November.

Manuscript page of accounts and medical certification for September/October 1855The first page of Johanna Wendland's accounts and medical certification for September/October 1855

After this the entries cease and we can only speculate what happened. Did Johanna leave the brothel, and if so was it for another brothel, for the streets, or for a different employment or even marriage? Did she fall victim to disease, or to a violent client? Or did she or Brackert simply fall out of the habit of keeping the records while the authorities failed to enforce their well-meaning regulations, proving the cynic right? Whatever the case, Johanna’s brief accounts leave a slight but intriguing trace of a real woman working in the 19th-century sex trade.

References/further reading:

Die Hamburger Prostitution, oder die Gehemnisse des Dammthorwalles und der Schwiegerstrasse (Altona, 1858) 08282.f.20. (Zweite, vielfach ergänzte und durch Zusätze vermehrte Auflage (Altona, 1860) 12553.c.39.)

Jürgen Kahmann / Hubert Lanzerath, Weibliche Prostitution in Hamburg (Hamburg, 1981) X.529/61878

Ariane Barth, Die Reeperbahn: der Kampf um Hamburgs sündige Meile (Hamburg, 1999) YA.2001.a.41623

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies

25 February 2015

Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaia: London Adventures and An Unlikely Friendship

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Nadezhda Krupskaia, the Russian Bolshevik activist and politician, is perhaps best known as the wife of Vladimir Lenin from 1898 until his death in 1924. In 1902, the young couple moved to London to publish Iskra (‘The Spark’), the newspaper of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP).

Krupskaia wrote about their time in London in her memoirs Vospominania o Lenine (‘Reminiscences of Lenin’). As this week sees the anniversary of not only Krupskaia’s birth but also her death, it seems a perfect opportunity to re-visit her time in London and, in particular, her connections to the British Library. 

Photograph of Nadezhda Krupskaia

Nadezhda Krupskaia, photograph dated before 1910. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Arriving in London in April 1902, Krupskaia and Lenin were immediately overwhelmed by the city, or, in her own words, “citadel of capitalism”. She later described their first impressions and struggles as they battled with the “filthy” weather, incomprehensible language and “indigestible” British food:

When we arrived in London we found we could not understand a thing, nor could anybody understand us. It got us into comical situations at first.

While Krupskaia unfortunately doesn’t expand on the “situations” she and Lenin found themselves in, she does give a fascinating and detailed account of the year they spent in London between 1902 and 1903. In between attending meetings and revolutionary activities, Lenin and Krupskaia found time to explore London, with Primrose Hill being their spot of choice. The pair were also regular visitors to the British Museum, where, Krupskaia notes, Lenin spent half his time in the library.

Lenin's application letter for a British Museum reader's ticket

Lenin’s application (under the pseudonym Jacob Richter) for a reader’s ticket for the British Museum Library. British Library MS Add 54579

While there is no record of Krupskaia holding a reader’s ticket during her time in London, the British Library does hold a rare pamphlet autographed by Krupskaia in 1923. Written for the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic publication Put’ prosveshchenia (‘The Path of Education’, P.P.1213.ce.), the pamphlet discusses the Faculty of Social Education at the Kharkiv Institute of Continuing Education.  Although the exact details are unknown, Krupskaia appears to recommend the pamphlet to a fellow comrade, most likely in her capacity as head of the government’s Adult Education Division.

Offprint from Put’ prosveshchenia (Kharkiv, 1922) with Krupskaia’s autograph inscriptionOffprint from Put’ prosveshchenia (Kharkiv, 1922) with Krupskaia’s autograph inscription. RB.23.a.36382.

Another thread linking Krupskaia to the British Library is her early friendship with Ariadna Tyrkova-Williams, a Russian politician and journalist who was active in the anti-Bolshevik campaign during the Civil War. The British Library holds a unique collection of letters and papers of Tyrkova-Williams and her husband Harold Williams relating to the activities of the Russian Liberation Committee in London.

Tyrkova-Williams and Krupskaia studied together at the gymnasiia in St Petersburg as girls and remained friends throughout their teenage years. Tyrkova-Williams describes her friendship with Krupskaia, as well as Krupskaia’s early life, in her memoirs and letters, noting that it was Krupskaia who first introduced her to Marx’s work at the age of seventeen. The two women went on to choose politically opposing paths, with Tyrkova-Williams joining the Constitutional Democratic Party (Kadets), a liberal Russian political party, and Krupskaia becoming a Bolshevik revolutionary.

In a letter dated May 1931, Tyrkova-Williams refers to her friendship with Krupskaia. Responding to a flattering description of Krupskaia’s appearance, Tyrkova-Williams somewhat unkindly writes that she “did not have a single beautiful feature”, instead resembling a “piglet”. Krupskaia is believed to have suffered from Graves’ disease, which caused her eyes to bulge. Despite her somewhat cruel response to Krupskaia’s looks, Tyrkova-Williams declares in her letter that she loved her and, to a certain extent, still does.

Katie McElvanney, CDA PhD student


Krupskaya, Nadezhda, Vospominania o Lenine, Parts 1 and 2, (Moscow, 1932).

Krupskaya, Nadezhda, Reminiscences of Lenin. Translated by Bernard Isaacs. (Moscow, 1959). 010600.c.43.

Tyrkova-Williams, Ariadna, Nasledie Ariadny Vladimirovny Tyrkovoi: dnevniki, pisʹma, ed. N. I. Kanishcheva, (Moscow, 2012). YF.2014.a.894.

Tyrkova-Williams, Ariadna, To chego bol’she ne budet: vospominaniia izvestnoi pisatel’nitsy i obshchestvennoi deiatel’nitsy A.V. Tyrkovoi-Vil’iams, 1869-1962 (Moscow, 1998). YF.2006.a.5200.




12 May 2014

Maria Geisweiler, translator

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On 22 October 1816 Maria Geisweiler (1763-1840) wrote to the Home Secretary, Henry Addington, Viscount Sidmouth (1757-1844), about her husband and (more particularly) about the couple’s financial plight: ‘My Lord, the cruel anxiety, and distress of mind, under which I labour, is such I cannot again refrain from making an effort to interest your Lordships [sic] feelings, for my poor deranged husband’. (British Library Add. MS. 38263, f.304.)

Geisweiler and her Swiss-born husband Constantine (originally a printseller) had in the years 1799-1801 set up what can only be described as an extraordinarily ambitious programme to promote German literature in England. This comprised a bookshop (latterly in Parliament Street) selling imported German books, a short-lived literary magazine called The German Museum, and a series of translations of contemporary German authors for which both Maria and Constantine were responsible. In 1801 they travelled to Germany to promote their programme at the Leipzig Easter Book Fair and to solicit support from Goethe, Schiller and Wieland at Weimar.

Title-page of 'The German Museum' with an engraved frontispiece portrait of C.M. WielandThe first volume of The German Museum (London, 1800) 

The Geisweilers’ literary efforts received what one might politely call ‘mixed’ reviews. The visit to Germany was also a failure and the business folded in 1801 or early 1802. About this time Constantine began to show signs of mental illness (described by one contemporary as a ‘Paroxysmus’). Although he tried other trades (dealing in wines), within a few years he was entirely unable to work. In April 1805 Maria, now over 40 years old, appears to have given birth to a son named Constantine who died very shortly after.

Clearly Maria needed great personal resources (and the help of others) to manage this situation. She had born in London into a typically bilingual Anglo-German family. Her father was a merchant called Frederick Heinzelmann, her mother an Englishwoman called Elizabeth. Maria’s background was therefore well-to-do. When she married the much younger Constantine in 1799 she was 36 years old and had already lost one, aristocratic husband (an unidentified Count von Schulenberg – Maria continued to style herself, and even her new husband, ‘de Geisweiler’).

By 1816 Maria’s situation must have been desperate. Nevertheless she tried to do her best for herself and her husband in possibly the only way she knew how, not merely by lobbying the government for financial support but also but by translating. In the same year as the letter to Addington she published the translation of an obscure German novel under the title Angelion, or the wizard of Elis. This received no better reviews than her earlier productions, the Monthly Review observing acidly: ‘We are sorry to describe this work as a singular and wearisome medley, displaying much of the sickly sentiment and strained antithesis of most German novelists’ (vol 83, 1817, p.100; 267.f.1-31). But the book was not necessarily a flop in the financial sense: no fewer than 175 persons are listed among the subscribers, including Baron Best, the head of the Hanoverian Legation in London, numerous other ‘persons of quality’, and leading English and Scottish booksellers. One suspects that the subscriptions were a discreet way of extending charity to the Geisweilers.

Maria Geisweiler died in 1840. Her husband survived her by nine years. Her attempts to secure his future may have been successful. At the time of the 1841 census he was living in a private ‘madhouse’ in Kensington. After his death in 1849 readers of the Morning Chronicle (19 June 1850) learnt that he may have died alone, but was not entirely without means: ‘Geisweiler, deceased. – If the next of kin of Constantine de Geisweiler, late of Kensington, deceased, will apply to Messrs. H. and O. Webb, 22 Sackville Street, they will hear something to their advantage’.

Graham Jefcoate, Nijmegen and Chiang Mai


The German Museum, or Monthly Repository of the Literature of Germany, the North and the Continent in general. 3 vols. (London, 1800-1801). 266.l.24-26.

Angelion, or, the Wizard in Elis. A romance. Taken from the German (London, 1816) 12554.bbb.17.


26 March 2014

Theodora Grahn, language teacher

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Among the many extraordinary Germans living in London in the Georgian period, few can have been more extraordinary than Theodora Grahn (1744-1802). Grahn, the only child of an architect, was born in Leipzig and, following her parents’ early demise, was brought up by an aunt in Berlin. She is said to have developed language skills at an early age. During the Seven Years War she started a business as an exchange broker, a rather precocious step one might think, as she was only 19 when the war ended in 1763. If not her age, then maybe her gender proved a disadvantage in this profession: it was around this time she began to dress as a man and adopted an aristocratic, masculine pseudonym, “Baron de Verdion”.

After exposure as an impostor, she moved to London around 1770, where, having demoted herself from “Baron” to “Dr. John” de Verdion, she worked as a language teacher and translator and also  dealt in antiquarian books and coins and medals. The British Library holds a trade card printed for Grahn as a language teacher and translator: “Mr. de Verdion, at Mr. Hare’s, No. 17. Greville Street, Hatton Garden, teaches German, French, and English, in the most expeditious manner, and upon the most reasonable terms. He also translates into either [sic] of these languages”. 

Verdion trade card
Theodora Grahn’s trade card using the name “Mr. de Verdion”. C.191.c.16.[vol.1(1)] (31).

 Although she is said to have had persons of quality among her pupils, her reputation was somewhat disreputable. Never leaving her house except dressed as a man, she became known for her prodigious consumption of food and drink in coffee-houses and taverns. Her true gender seems to have been known if not openly acknowledged. With her “grotesque” appearance and her famous umbrella she became a well-known London eccentric and a subject for satire.

Caricature of Theodora Grahn in men's clothing carrying a walking-stick and umbrella
Portrait of Theodora Grahn, from the account of her life in Kirby’s wonderful and scientific museum: or, magazine of remarkable characters, vol. 2, London 1804 (pp. 47-53). G.13550

Grahn died of cancer in 1802, having made a will as “John de Verdion otherwise Theodoria [sic] de Verdion, Master of Languages of Upper Charles Street Hatton Garden” and was buried in the cemetery of St Andrew’s, Holborn, under her assumed masculine identity. After her death, a number of accounts of her life appeared in books featuring bizarre individuals and occurrences.

More recently, Grahn has come to the attention of those working in the field of gender studies, who have sometimes assumed she was a transsexual as well as a transvestite. I’m not so sure, however, that we can draw firm conclusions about her gender identity or sexual orientation from the information we have. Her assumption of a masculine identity and dress could simply be seen as an effective strategy for a determined young woman in a world that provided so few opportunities for talented and independent women. We shall never know what she really was behind the masculine mask.

Graham Jefcoate, Nijmegen/Chiang Mai