12 February 2021
One of our key roles as curators is to explore the contemporary resonance of the Library’s collections in national and international contexts. I was acutely reminded of this two weeks ago when showing an item at an event connected to the exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights. Together with colleagues from the European, Americas and Oceania collections, we each selected and discussed an item that we felt spoke to the themes of the exhibition and went beyond its UK focus, before joining the audience for an informal Q&A session.
Beginning with women's suffrage cartoons from a 19th-century newspaper published in Aotearoa New Zealand, the session also introduced our online audience to the cartonera book Afro Latina by the Afro-Brazilian lesbian author Formiga, as well as a work by the 19th-century French writer, feminist and anarchist Victoire Léodile Béra, known as André Léo.
The event was originally scheduled to take place in June 2020 at the British Library but was postponed – along with the exhibition – due to the pandemic and eventually re-conceived as an online session. Like many of the Library’s brilliant online events over the past year, the format allowed us to reach a much larger audience, with close to 100 people tuning in.
Ialtinskaia Delegatka. Yalta, 1927. Add MS 57556.
The item I presented was an enormous 2-metre long, hand-drawn Soviet wall newspaper, Ialtinskaia Delegatka (The Yalta Woman Delegate). Created by a local women’s committee in Yalta, Crimea, in the late 1920s, it contains reports on their achievements, as well as amateur poetry, drawings and stories intended to inspire and promote communist values.
In the bottom right hand corner is a drawing of a woman carrying out an epic feat of multitasking. She is simultaneously writing (possibly carrying out committee work for the newspaper), cooking, cleaning and watching a child. I find it particularly fascinating as it encapsulates the different – often conflicting and gendered - responsibilities that the new Soviet woman was supposed to balance: those of a Communist citizen, worker, mother and, increasingly by the late 1920s, wife.
Close up of a drawing from the newspaper of a woman simultaneously writing, cooking, cleaning and caring for a child
The newspaper is important as it gives us an idea of how the 1917 Russian Revolution and the first years of Bolshevik rule affected the lives of many women – as seen from the perspective of women themselves.
The Bolshevik revolution established the legal equality of women and men. In October 1918, legislation known as The Family Code granted illegitimate children the same legal rights as legitimate ones, secularised marriage, and allowed a couple to take either the husband or wife’s name once married. Divorce became easily obtainable, abortion was legalised in 1920, and communal facilities for childcare and domestic tasks were introduced with the aim of relieving women of household chores and dismantling the traditional, nuclear family. In 1919, a Women’s Bureau (Zhenotdel) was established. Its purpose was to disseminate propaganda among working class women and attempt to engage them in public life and the revolutionary process.
Cover of the women's journal Rabotnitsa, No. 1, 1923. BL copies at Mic.F.866 and Mic.A.20186. Image from Wikimedia Commons
By the mid- to late-1920s, both public and party attitudes towards family policy had become more conservative. This was partly in response to the social impact of some of the reforms of 1918, particularly de facto marriages, which were seen to in fact create inequality for women.
High unemployment among women in the 1920s and rising numbers of homeless children played a significant role in the return to the more traditional family unit. In 1926 a new marriage law granted registered and unregistered marriages equal rights and placed more emphasis on the obligations that came with marriage. Plans to free women from childcare and housework by creating communal facilities had also failed to fully materialise – as is perhaps clear from the drawing of the multi-tasking woman.
In the 1930s, Stalin further reversed many of the rights granted to women and families in the 1918 Family Code. Abortion was banned, divorce became extremely difficult to obtain, and the law on the rights of illegitimate children was revoked.
Stalin also closed the Zhenotdel in 1930 on the basis that women’s emancipation had been achieved in the Soviet Union and the department was therefore no longer needed. Despite this, throughout the entire history of the Soviet Union, women constituted (on average) only 3–4% of the party’s Central Committee.
Thus, the early Communist vision of women’s equality and liberation was never fully realised. As emphasis shifted back towards the traditional family unit in the 1930s, women were faced with the double burden of combining domestic duties with full-time work.
Although the newspaper had been at the back of my mind before the pandemic, it took on an additional significance in the context of the past year’s events. On seeing the drawing of the multi-tasking woman, one colleague remarked that it gave her goosebumps. Across the world, women are doing more unpaid domestic chores and family care as a result of the pandemic, often in addition to other work responsibilities. According to global data from UN Women, it could wipe out 25 years of increasing gender equality.
Official social media advert from January 2021 urging people to ‘Stay Home. Save Lives’
The use of gender stereotypes in the media only serves to reinforce this inequality. Just the day before the event, it transpired that the UK government had withdrawn a ‘Stay Home’ advert after it was criticised for its sexist portrayal of women. The advert showed a woman carrying out domestic chores and home-schooling children while the only man depicted is seen relaxing on the sofa.
The backlash to the advert, along with the countless inspiring stories of activism featured in the Unfinished Business exhibition, demonstrate that the fight for gender equality is far from over.
Katie McElvanney, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections
Although the physical exhibition space is currently closed due to lockdown restrictions, you can discover more about the stories, people and events that have shaped society, as well as the work that remains unfinished, through the exhibition web resource, podcast and fantastic series of online events.
Further reading and references:
Barbara Alpern Engel, Women in Russia, 1700–2000 (Cambridge; New York, 2004)
Catherine Baker, ed., Gender in 20th Century Eastern Europe and the USSR (London; New York, 2017)
Elizabeth A. Wood, The Baba and the Comrade: Gender and Politics in Revolutionary Russia (Bloomington, 1997)
Jane McDermid and Anna Hillyar, Midwives of Revolution: Female Bolsheviks and Women Workers in 1917 (London, 1999)
Marianna Muravyeva and Natalia Novikova, eds., Women's History in Russia: (Re)Establishing the Field (Newcastle upon Tyne, 2014).
Melanie Ilic, ed., The Palgrave Handbook of Women and Gender in Twentieth-Century Russia and the Soviet Union (London, 2017).
Richard Stites, The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism, and Bolshevism, 1860–1930 (Princeton, NJ; Oxford, 1991)
Rochelle Goldberg Ruthchild, Equality and Revolution: Women's Rights in the Russian Empire, 1905–1917 (Pittsburg, Pa., 2010)
Rosalind Marsh, ed., Women in Russia and Ukraine (Cambridge, 1996)
Wilma Rule and Norma C. Noonan, eds., Russian Women in Politics and Society (Westport, Conn.; London, 1996)
29 January 2021
Antonio Gramsci’s influence and legacy has been extraordinarily rich and vast, producing new ideas, interpretations and seeds all over the world. But how is Gramsci indirectly related to the current BL exhibition Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights?
Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960) was the only regular foreign correspondent for the Italian newspaper L’Ordine Nuovo (‘The New Order’), established by Gramsci and three other editors (Angelo Tasca, Palmiro Togliatti, and Umberto Terracini) on 1 May 1919 in Turin. Her monthly contribution entitled Lettere dall’Inghilterra (‘Letters from England’) was translated by Palmiro Togliatti (1893 –1964).
Front page of L’Ordine Nuovo, 11-18 December 1920, n. 22. Source: Wikipedia Commons
More than just a workers’ newspaper, L’Ordine Nuovo was the vibrant engine of the mass education policy set up by Gramsci in Italy’s vibrant ‘Motor City’. During the strikes of 1919-20 (the so-called Biennio Rosso), Turin became the ‘City of Factory Councils and Red Guards’, the ‘Mecca of Italian Communism, the ‘Italian Petrograd’, almost on the verge of a Bolshevik-style Italian revolution. At the heart of this revolutionary hive was L’Ordine Nuovo’s office, where all sorts of people flocked to visit Gramsci. Among the international visitors to Gramsci’s office, during the turbulent year of 1919, was Sylvia Pankhurst. The trait d’union, who arranged the meeting between two advocates of working-class interests, was Silvio Corio (1875-1954), Sylvia’s partner and interpreter during their clandestine journey across Italy (Turin, Milan and Bologna).
Sylvia Pankhurst and Silvio Corio. Source: Westminster Libraries
An anarchist printer and journalist, Corio joined the network of Italian radical activists in London in 1901. The elective affinity (of heart and mind) between Corio and Pankhurst blossomed in 1917 and produced the first and most influential duo of antifascists in Great Britain during the two World Wars. Corio worked shoulder to shoulder with Pankhurst at the London communist newspaper Workers' Dreadnought (1917-24), being a major source of influence and support in all her campaigns and activities, although he was keeping a low profile to avoid any trouble threatened by the Aliens’ Act of 1918.
The Workers' Dreadnought, 3 May 1919 (LOU.LON.702). Image from Spartacus Educational
Three years before Mussolini’s ascent to power, the contacts with Gramsci and the other leftist intellectuals ignited the spark of anti-fascism in Pankhurst. During her critical journey to Italy she experienced first hand the polarization of Italian society, and realised the risks arising from the fascist and colonialist propaganda on the international arena. Back in London, together with Corio and other activists, she was the first influential voice to ring alarm bells against Mussolini’s regime, the Italian occupation of Ethiopia (1935-1937) and the looming prospect of a second world war.
I picture Pankhurst, along with Corio, supporting the international campaign organised by the economist Piero Sraffa (1898-1983) at Cambridge University and Gramsci’s sister-in-law Tatiana Schucht (1887-1943) in order to demand Gramsci's release in 1934.
Thanks to this trio of visionary activists and thinkers the seeds for a modern civil society, such as we have and enjoy today, had been sown.
Ramona Ciucani, West European Languages Cataloguing team
References/ Further reading:
Rachel Holmes, Sylvia Pankhurst: natural born rebel (London, 2020). ELD.DS.553677
Maurizio Rodorigo, ‘Una storia di amore e di tenebra: mostra a Manchester sugli antifascisti italiani negli anni ’20 in Inghilterra’ in La Repubblica. Londra, 9 April 2019, available here
Alfio Bernabei, Esuli ed emigrati italiani nel Regno Unito, 1920-1940 (Milan, 1997). YA.2000.a.20751
Antonio Gramsci, Il giornalismo, il giornalista: scritti, articoli, lettere del fondatore de “l'Unità” a cura di Gian Luca Corradi (Florence, 2017). YF.2019.a.4541
Antonio Gramsci, L’Ordine Nuovo 1929-1920, in Opere, v. 9 (Turin, 1954). 12228.bb.4 and YA.1999.a.4692
Antonio Gramsci, Socialismo e Fascismo: L’Ordine Nuovo 1921-1922, in Opere, v. 11 (Turin, 1966). 12228.bb.4 and YA.1999.a.4692
M. Ledwith, ‘Antonio Gramsci and Feminism: The elusive nature of power’, Educational Philosophy and Theory (vol 41, number 6, 2009, pp. 684-697) 661.480000
Laura E Ruberto, Gramsci, migration, and the representation of women's work in Italy and the U.S. (Lanham, 2007). YK.2009.a.8920 and m07/.36400
Selections from political writings [of] Antonio Gramsci, selected and edited by Quintin Hoare (London, 1977). X.0700/1032
Video of Rachel Holmes in conversation with Shami Chakrabarti on latest biography “Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel” available on the British Library Player.
25 January 2021
From bodily autonomy and the right to education, to self-expression and protest, the British Library’s exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, explores how feminist activism in the UK has its roots in the complex history of women’s rights.
Image © Molly Adams, CC BY 2.0
Although the physical exhibition space is currently closed due to lockdown restrictions, you can discover more about the stories, people and events that have shaped society, as well as the work that remains unfinished, through the exhibition web resource, podcast and fantastic series of online events.
As part of this events series, on Friday 29 January curators will discuss women’s rights in Europe, the Americas and Oceania through items from their collection areas that they think deserve a spotlight.
Looking beyond the UK focus of Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women's Rights, the curators will be in conversation about their handpicked choices that speak to the themes of the exhibition and, in many cases, challenge and disrupt pre-conceptions of women’s activism, experiences and struggles for equality.
This free, online event will take place on Friday 29 January 2021, 12.30 – 1.30pm. To register, please visit the Library’s event page. Bookers will be sent a Zoom link in advance giving access.
17 November 2020
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 (Venice, 1618). RB.23.a.39414
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.
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.
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
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. P.P.4970.ca.
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
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.
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.
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’, 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, 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.
W grubych drzwiach.
Moje serce otoczyły
Wiem, że nie przyjdziesz
(…) And again nothing.
A creak of a key
In the thick door.
My heart is surrounded
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: http://www.encysol.pl/wiki/Strona_g%C5%82%C3%B3wna
28 December 2018
While I was looking for a nice seasonal picture (preferably, with lots of snow to compensate for another grey Christmas) to tweet @BL_European, I found this postcard from our collection of Russian Imperial postcards.
Just a standard greeting card in French. The postcard was sent from Kharkiv to Paris on 31 December 1902 and signed by ‘Christine Altchevsky’. The name looked vaguely familiar. Having looked at it more carefully, I realised that the postcard must have been written by either mother or daughter Alchevska on behalf of both of them since they bore the same first name – Khrystyna – and were distinguished women in their generations.
Khrystyna Danylivna Alchevska (1841-1920) was an educator, teacher and a prominent activist for national education in Ukraine and the Russian Empire, vice-president of the International League of Education in Paris.
Khrystyna D. Alchevska (image from Wikimedia Commons)
She created and promoted a training methodology, implemented in many schools, established the Kharkiv Women’s Sunday School, the first free girls’ school in Ukraine, which remained in existence for 50 years, and published articles on adult education. Khrystyna Alchevska wrote and taught in Russian and Ukrainian, promoting her native language and culture.
Khrystyna D. Alchevska teaching a reading class at the Kharkiv Women’s Sunday School (image from Wikimedia Commons)
She also initiated, edited and, as we would call it now, ‘project managed’ a fundamental three-volume annotated bibliography Chto chitat’ narodu? (‘What should people read?’ 1888-1906), to which she contributed 1150 articles and annotations. It is difficult to call this work simply a bibliography, as it is really an interesting combination of bibliographic, encyclopaedic and pedagogical knowledge. The book is divided into subject sections, such as History, Science, Fiction, Religious and Moral literature, Biographies, Geography, etc., and each book is fully described, annotated with certain critiques, and supplied with methodological instructions for teachers, including questions and suggestions for lesson planning. There are also several indexes and tables, including those that recommend texts according to levels of difficulty and suitability for adult and young learners. It is interesting to note that the core contributors to the work were fellow women teachers and educators.
Khrystyna Alchevska left very interesting memoirs about her life and the people whom she had met, and corresponded with Leo Tolstoy, Fedor Dostoyevsky and Ivan Turgenev.
A talented and creative woman herself, Khrystyna Danylivna brought up five bright and creative children, among whom were an entrepreneur, a composer, a singer, and a theatre critic. The youngest in the family was Khrystyna (or Khrystia) (1882-1931), who became known as a distinguished Ukrainian poet, translator and educator.
1902 was the year when Khrystia’s poems were first published in Ukrainian magazines and almanacs. In 1907, her first book of poems appeared in Moscow and was noted by the maitre of Ukrainian literature of that time Ivan Franko. Later, Khrystyna translated Franko into Russian and French, but he was not the only author that she was interested in. She translated Pushkin and Pierre-Jean de Béranger, Voltaire and Alexey K. Tolstoy, Victor Hugo and Nikolai Ogarev into Ukrainian, and Taras Shevchenko and Pavlo Tychyna into French. In the 1920s she was friendly with Henri Barbusse, under whose influence Krystyna created two verse dramas.
Unfortunately, I could not find who Madame and Monsieur de Namur (?) of 30, Boulevard Flandrin were and how both Khystynas could have known them. But if someone knows the link between the Alchevskas and this family in Paris, please let us know. But I still like this story with an open ending that old Christmas cards can tell.
Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections
K.D. Alchevska. ‘K russkim zhenshchinam’ (To the Russian Women), Kolokol, 8 March 1863, No. 158. C.127.k.4.
K.D. Alchevska. Peredumannoe i perezhitoe. Dnevniki, pis’ma, vospominaniia. (Moscow, 1912) X.525/82
The Book for Adults (written by the teachers at the Kharkow Sunday school, under the direction of Mme. Christine Altchevsky), and the surroundings which inspired it ... Translated from the French by Mme. Auguste Serraillier. (Paris, 1900) 4193.h.62
Sava Zerkal’. Clematis. [About the Alchevsky family]. (New York, 1964) X.909/5465.
A fairly comprehensive bibliography relating to works by and about the Alchevsky family can be found here: http://mtlib.org.ua/ukazateli/34-semya-alchevskikh.html
27 August 2018
August 26 2018 marked the 240th anniversary of the first successful ascent of Triglav, the three-headed mountain that has become a national symbol of Slovenia and a striking part of its flag. This was one of the earliest ascents in the Alps, several years before anyone made it to the peaks of Mont Blanc or the Matterhorn.
Triglav has been a magnet for mountaineers ever since, its relatively modest height of 2,863 metres attracting people of even limited experience – some of whom take unacceptable risks in scaling it.
One of many foreigners who were drawn to the mountain was a Scottish woman, Fanny Susan Copeland (1872-1970), who moved to Ljubljana in 1921. She would climb Triglav several times, including one snowy New Year’s Eve, when she joined a couple of students who had accepted a bet of a stick of chocolate that they dare not do it! Most remarkably, she made her last ascent in 1958 at the age of almost 87.
Fanny Copeland was a linguist, musician and journalist who left an unhappy marriage to become a translator working for the exiled Yugoslav Committee in London during the First World War. Her own early writing echoes the ideology of that body, which was intent on establishing an independent state by uniting the south Slav people of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Kingdoms of Serbia and Montenegro, with whom they were currently at war. It had the ear of the liberal Habsburg dissident and future Czechoslovak president, Tomas Masaryk, and greatly influenced Allied attitudes to the future. Copeland delivered lectures on the fate of the besieged “Women of Serbia” and spoke rather crudely of south Slav people as a single entity: “a race which lives in a land which stretches from the Carinthian Alps … to the heart of Macedonia – and from the Danube … to the rock-bound coast of the blue island-studded Adriatic”, attributing to all “but one language … correctly called the Serbo-Croatian tongue … one tradition of the past and one hope for the future.”
Cover of The Women of Serbia (London, 1917) 08415.f.26.
Not long after this, however, she translated Bogumil Vošnjak’s Bulwark against Germany, an in-depth study of the particular position of the Slovenes. When the war was over, she visited the new-minted Yugoslavia for the first time, and settled in Slovenia, drawn by a post teaching English and by mountains which seemed to remind her of Scotland.
Copeland believed strongly in Yugoslavia and was certainly no Slovene separatist, but she soon developed a more subtle knowledge of the distinct culture and language of the country’s most northerly nation, and was one of the first people to write a lot about it for English-speaking audiences, keen to attract visitors to her beloved mountains. In the 19th century, the provinces that became Slovenia were often dismissed by foreign observers and pan-Slavs as “part of the hereditary Habsburg lands” and therefore too complex a case for their future to be considered alongside that of other Slavs. By the 1920s, with the Habsburgs gone, this had been replaced by a tendency to classify the Slovenes as a branch of the “Serbo-Croatian” people, who ought to act according to current notions of what that meant. Generally, the more “Russian” a nation seemed, the more truly Slavic it was deemed by British scholars. The traveller and writer Stephen Graham for example, loved Serbia passionately, but wrote mockingly of Slovenes who spoke German to tourists, claiming they did it not to be understood but “to show they are cultured” and “not barbarians from the Balkan peninsula” like many of their new compatriots. He smelt “the pleasant odour of old Austria” in Slovenia’s resorts, but could not acknowledge the legacy of a thousand years of shared history and culture as anything other than a pretension.
Map of the Julian Alps, from Emile Levasseur, Les Alpes et les grandes ascensions (Paris, 1889) 10026.l.12
Fanny Copeland, however, was amused by and instinctively sympathetic to the differences she soon detected between the south Slavic nations she had previously thought of as “one.” She envisaged the Slovenes as the backbone of the nation, more practical and pragmatic than their southern neighbours. “The Slovene regards the Croat much as a Scot regards the Sassenach,” she wrote: the mountains, in both cases, were a decisive factor. Her Slovenian friends blamed their neighbours for any disarray or damage they found in the mountain huts on their climbs to Triglav, and gently mocked Croats for setting out with pet dogs or in unsuitable footwear.
Fanny Copeland’s writing on the Slovenian Alps is immensely evocative and close to anthropomorphic in places. Love them and take risks with them as she did, she never failed to convey the dangers posed by the mountains. Writing of the Vršič Pass, a former military road built in 1916 by Russian prisoners of war, she spoke of “a fine road, well-built and skilfully laid out, with bridges and culverts, winding, twisting and looping like a snake – and white as dead men’s bones … All along its course, the loveliness of an alpine world unfolds its splendours, each picture fairer than the last … But it is a Sorrowful Road, built by … wretched aliens, driven and starved. Russians, sons of the boundless plains … penned here in the narrow pass between awful mountains … this road was the rack on which they suffered and died… As I walk up it in the dusk, I listen for the sobbing of its stones.”
Over the Pass looms the mountain Prisank or Prisojnik, famous for a round hole in one face. Fanny envisaged this “eye of Prisoinik” peering down, “dead and vacant in its stony socket, with the patch of snow beneath it like a monstrous tear.” Yet she spoke also of Triglav as a “father”, welcoming to those who approached it from the right angle.
Fanny Copeland was interned in Italy by the fascist occupiers of Ljubljana during the Second World War, but returned to Slovenia after 1945, spending the remainder of her long life living mainly in the Hotel Slon in Ljubljana, still writing and translating prolifically. She is buried in the graveyard in the village of Dovje, overlooked by Triglav itself and surrounded by numerous other mountaineers and admirers of the extraordinary alpine scenery that helped give the country its very distinctive character.
Janet Ashton, WEL Cataloguing Team Manager
References and further reading:
Stephen Graham, Alexander of Jugoslavia, Strong Man of the Balkans. (London, 1938) 010795.m.8
Bogumil Vošnjak, A Bulwark against Germany: the fight of the Slovenes, the western branch of the Jugo-Slavs, for national existence. Translated by Fanny S. Copeland. (London, 1917) 003817864
17 November 2017
To English-speaking readers, the name Vesaas is perhaps best known through the work of the Norwegian poet and novelist Terje Vesaas (1897-1970), whose most famous work, Is-slottet (‘The ice palace’: Oslo, 1963; X.908/1343) was filmed in 1987 by Per Blom, winning the Grand Prix at the Flanders International Film Festival in 1988. In Norway, however, it equally calls to mind his wife, the poet, translator and children’s author Halldis Moren Vesaas, who was born on 18 November 1907 in Trysil, in the county of Hedmark.
Both of them came from farming backgrounds in rural Norway, but broke away to pursue a teaching career. Terje Vesaas suffered pangs of guilt for years over his decision not to take over the family farm in Telemark, but Halldis grew up in an environment more favourable to her literary gifts, as her father was Sven Moren, a poet and playwright. The eldest child and only daughter in a family of five, she showed a natural aptitude for teaching and went away to train in Elverum before taking posts in Hamar and Oslo. However, after publishing her first collection of poems, Harpe og dolk (‘Harp and Dagger’: Oslo, 1929; YF.2011.a.23158) at the age of 22, she set off for Switzerland the following year to work as a secretary; her next volume of poetry, Morgonen (‘Morning’) came out in this year.
After spending three years in Switzerland, she returned to Norway and married Tarjei Vesaas in 1934. They returned to his home district of Vinje and settled on the Midtbø farm there when he took up an appointment at a local school. For both of them, nature and the Norwegian landscape in all its pitiless grandeur were important sources of inspiration and a reminder of the timeless renewal of the natural world during the dark days of the German occupation. Their use of the Norwegian Landsmål (Nynorsk) fully explored its potential as a world literary language, capable of expressing with subtlety and directness the darker psychological themes of guilt and mortality as well as the eerie splendour of an ice-cave or the beauty of the mountain pastures in spring.
Halldis Moren Vesaas’s poetry celebrates every stage of woman’s life from girlhood through marriage and motherhood to the sorrow and solitude of widowhood (Terje Vesaas died in 1970) and the joy of discovering new love in later years. As well as composing eight books of poetry, she wrote and translated for the theatre, acting as a consultant for Det Norske Teatret in Oslo and sitting on the board of the Riksteatret (1949-69). One of her most notable translations is her version of Racine’s Phèdre (Fedra: Oslo, 1999; YF.2011.a.5500), where her poetic language fully conveys the passion and drama of the original. Her fascination with Greek subjects is also evident in Den gode gåva (‘The good gift’: Oslo, 1987; LB.31.a.2374), a retelling in verse for children of the myth of Demeter and Persephone with exquisite illustrations by Kaja Thorne. Her achievements were recognized not only in Norway, where she was awarded the Bastian Prize (1961) and the Norsk kulturråds ærespris (1982) and made a Commander of the Order of St. Olav in 1984, but also in France, where she was honoured with its second-highest order as a Knight of the National Order of Merit. She died in 1995.
Halldis Moren Vesaas had the ability to speak not only to adult audiences on the world stage but also to children. In 2007 a a lively and playful collection of poems for the young by both Halldis and her husband, Eg sette brillene på min katt (‘I put spectacles on my cat’), was published, colourfully illustrated by Inger Lise Belsvik.
Halldis's experience as a teacher had equipped her to write for younger readers with verve and charm, without a trace of condescension but with an intuitive understanding of the child’s world and emotional and psychological needs, in verse and stories such as Hildegunn (1942) and Tidleg på våren (‘Early in spring’: 1949).
Her poetry evokes the joy of life with such sensuous vigour that it seems only fitting to allow it to speak for itself:
That you laughed aloud with gladness
when the rain came, and the first drop
fell, so strangely heavy and warm
and lay on your cheek a second or two –
that the wind which whirled the leaves
so brusquely round the trunk of the tree
sent a wave of happiness
and frost through all my blood –
that something that was nothing
still can follow me everywhere,
so that you know that nothing
as happened to me since that time –
Just because we were together?
Halldis Moren Vesaas, ‘At du –’, from I ein annan skog (‘In another forest’) Translation © Susan Reynolds Halstead, 2017).
Susan Halstead, Subject Librarian (Social Sciences), Research Services.
14 July 2017
‘And what does one do on the fourteenth of July? Does one celebrate Bastille Day? […] Might one sing on Bastille Day?’ she asked. ‘Might one dance in the streets? Somebody give me an answer.’
David Sedaris, in his memoir Me Talk Pretty One Day (London, 2000; YK.2001.a.13423), recalls his language teacher’s increasingly exasperated efforts to get her class of foreign students to discuss traditional ways of celebrating France’s Fête Nationale. But although the fall of the Bastille on 14 July 1789 was quickly recognized as a turning-point in the French Revolution, in 1817 there was one house in Paris where the mood that day was far from festive. Within it Anne Louise Germaine, Madame de Staël, lay dead.
Born on 22 April 1766 as the daughter of the Swiss financier Jacques Necker, Director-General of France under Louis XVI, the young Germaine was fortunate in having a mother who hosted one of the most brilliant salons in Paris. Suzanne Curchod, the daughter of a Swiss Protestant pastor, frequently received Edward Gibbon, the Comte de Buffon and other distinguished guests, and planned to raise her daughter according to Calvinist principles but also those of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, allowing the little girl to mingle freely with the intellectuals who frequented their home. However, when Necker was dismissed from his post in 1781 the family moved to an estate at Coppet on Lake Geneva, only returning to Paris four years later.
Finding a suitable match for Germaine did not prove easy; not only had she shown signs of precocious brilliance, but eligible Protestants were scarce. Just before her 20th birthday, however, she was married in the chapel of the Swedish Embassy in Paris to Baron Erik Magnus Staël von Holstein, a Swedish diplomat 17 years her senior; despite the social advantages which it conferred, the marriage, though never dissolved, effectively ended with a legal separation in 1797.
After experimenting with drama and publishing a less than impartial volume of Lettres sur les ouvrages et le caractère de J. J. Rousseau (Paris, 1789; R.407. (17.)), Madame de Staël turned to fiction, the field in which she achieved renown with Delphine (1802) and Corinne, ou l’Italie (1807). The first of these suggests a less malicious version of Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses: similarly written in the form of a series of letters, it describes the efforts of the eponymous heroine, a young widow, to manipulate the fate of a distant relation, Matilde de Vernon, by arranging a match for her with Léonce de Mondoville, only to become embroiled in a hopeless passion for him which ends in her suicide. The second, composed after the author had travelled in Italy, recounts in twenty chapters the love of the poetess Corinna and a young Scottish nobleman, Lord Oswald Nelvil, alternating between Rome, Naples, Scotland and Florence and depicting not only the landscapes, costumes and artistic glories of Italy but a gifted and independent woman far in advance of her times who nevertheless comes to a tragic end.
The author’s life proved no less picturesque and eventful. With the outbreak of the French Revolution, she took an increasingly active role in politics, supporting the constitutionalist cause and rejoicing at the meeting of the Estates-General in May 1789 which launched the events leading to the downfall of Louis XVI. Despite the departure of her father after being dismissed from office yet again in 1790, she enjoyed diplomatic protection because of her husband’s position and took advantage of this to frequent the National Assembly and hold court in the Rue du Bac, where Talleyrand and other prominent figures frequented her salon. It was not until 1792 that she was forced to flee on the eve of the September massacres, first to Coppet where she established another salon and then to England before her husband’s reinstatement allowed her to return to Paris in 1794 after the fall of Robespierre.
Baron de Staël’s death in 1802 set his widow free to embark on further adventures, characterized by a running battle of wits with Napoleon, who put her under surveillance before finally, in 1803, forbidding her to reside within forty leagues of Paris. Accompanied by her lover Benjamin Constant, she decamped to Germany and over the next eight years ricocheted between that territory, Coppet, Italy, Russia, Sweden and England, collecting a train of distinguished friends and admirers including August Schlegel, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Lord Byron and the Duke of Wellington. Her turbulent relationship with Constant, commemorated in his novel Adolphe, ended with his marriage to the less volatile Charlotte von Hardenberg, and in 1811 she privately married a young Swiss officer, Albert de Rocca, three years her junior, producing a son the following year at the age of 46. The next year she published De l’Allemagne an account of the political, social and cultural conditions which she had noted during her German travels.
Both her health and that of Rocca were in decline, and they travelled to Italy in October 1815. She had already met the Duke of Wellington before Waterloo, and their friendship was instrumental in persuading him to reduce the numbers of the Army of Occupation following Napoleon’s defeat. Despite continuing ill-health, she continued to run her Paris salon until her death from a cerebral haemorrhage on 14 July 1817, shortly after a conversion in extremis to Roman Catholicism.
Madame de Staël’s colourful and productive life has been seen as an example for women throughout Europe who, with the collapse of the old order, seized the heady freedoms which the new one offered. It can certainly be argued that, applauding the principles of the French Revolution, she embraced to the full the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity which it proclaimed.
Susan Halstead, Content Specialist (Humanities and Social Sciences), Research Services
12 May 2017
In 1820 James Finlayson, a Scottish Quaker and self-taught engineer, received permission from the Senate of Finland to build a textile factory in Tampere using water power from the Tammerkoski rapids. Three years earlier he had been invited by Tsar Alexander I to set up a similar factory in St. Petersburg, and he was now bringing modern industrial methods to Finland, then under Russian rule. Finlayson, a passionate philanthropist as well as a good businessman, was zealous in providing the best possible conditions for his employees; the enterprise throve and grew to become Tampere’s biggest provider of employment, with considerable benefit to the town’s social conditions. Finlayson founded not only an orphanage but also a school for the workers’ children, and it was here that Minna Canth, one of the most important figures in the Finnish women’s movement received her early education.
Portrait of Minna Canth from Hilja Vilkemaa, Minna Canth: elämäkerrallisia piirteitä (Helsinki, 1931) 10797.b.40.
Ulrika Wilhelmina Johnsson was born in Tampere on 19 March 1844, the elder daughter and first surviving child of Gustav Vilhelm Johnsson, whose hard work in the Finlayson textile factory enabled him to become a foreman there. At home and at school she was strongly influenced by the emphasis on industry and piety, and when in 1853 her father was promoted to manager of the Finlayson textile shop in Kuopio, she continued her education there, doing so well that she was allowed to enter a school for daughters of the upper classes and, in 1863, to enrol at the newly-founded teacher training college in Jyväskylä (now the University of Jyväskylä), the first institute in Finland to admit women to higher education and to deliver teaching in Finnish.
However, before completing her studies, Minna married the college’s natural sciences teacher, Johan Canth, who was nine years her senior, and over the next thirteen years produced a family of seven children. Nevertheless, this was not the end of her ambitions, which developed in a literary direction. Canth became the editor of the newspaper Keski-Suomi (Central Finland), and his wife contributed articles on matters particularly relevant to women, including temperance, which she saw as a means of combating the addiction to alcohol which reduced many families to poverty. Her polemical attitude, which her husband shared, compelled them to leave Keski-Suomi in 1876 and to move in 1877 to a rival newspaper, Päijänne, which began to print her stories. Two years later her first collection of these, Novelleja ja kertomuksia (‘Novellas and Tales’) appeared in print.
Minna Canth did not shrink from taking on prominent public figures such as churchmen and authors when the occasion demanded. In 1885 she published one of her most famous plays, Työmiehen vaimo (‘The Wife of a Workman’), the story of a spirited and capable woman, Johanna, whose shiftless husband Risto ruins the family by drinking her money away while the laws governing women’s property render her helpless to prevent him. Set in contemporary Kuopio, the drama created a considerable scandal; that same year, its author spoke out robustly against a bishop who claimed that emancipation was against God’s law and the writer Gustaf af Geijerstam who supported him by arguing that men’s different needs and nature made it impossible for them to achieve feminine purity. Before the year was out, the Finnish Parliament had passed a new law allowing married women to hold property in their own right.
Title-page of Työmiehen vaimo (Porvoo, 1885) 11755.df.20
Canth wrote many other plays and works of fiction, but her last drama, Anna Liisa is among the greatest and is still often performed. Seduced by Mikko, a local youth, the fifteen-year-old heroine conceals the resulting pregnancy and stifles her baby in a fit of panic. Mikko’s mother Husso buries it secretly, but she and Mikko resort to blackmail when, some time later, another suitor, Johannes, proposes marriage to Anna Liisa. Refusing to give in even if it means sacrificing her happiness, Anna Liisa confesses and goes to prison, but with a calm mind and clear conscience. Although critics have argued against the unfairness of a conclusion in which Mikko escapes punishment and Anna Liisa bears it alone, she emerges as a strong woman capable of making moral choices and determining her own future on the basis of their integrity.
Johan Canth had died in 1879, and while pursuing her literary career his widow continued to manage not only her household and family of seven but the draper’s shop which she had taken over from her father. Her vitality and outspokenness made her a tireless worker for women’s rights and human rights at a time when the Grand Duchy of Finland was striving towards independence from Russia, and her birthday is marked every year as a celebration of social equality throughout Finland.
Susan Halstead, Content Specialist (Humanities & Social Sciences), Research Services.
European studies blog recent posts
- ‘The Unknown Feminist of Fin-de-siècle Europe: Lesia Ukrainka’ at the British Library
- Elizabeth I and languages
- Astrid Roemer - unconventional, poetic and authentic
- Red Élisabeth: Émigré, Intellectual, Organiser, Communarde
- Lesia Ukrainka at 150: A journey through the British Library collections (Part II)
- Lesia Ukrainka at 150: A journey through the British Library collections (Part I)
- Angela Merkel - a leadership in books
- Women in Translation Month 2021
- Two women, a lawyer and a book chest
- Rosa Luxemburg: a brief glimpse in five items