Untold lives blog

30 posts categorized "Literature"

02 September 2020

Nil Darpan: the Indigo Revolt and the trial of Reverend James Long

Nil Darpan (sometimes Nil Durpan) or The Indigo Planting Mirror was a Bengali play written by Dinabandhu Mitra in 1858-59.  The drama was written in the context of social agitation in Bengal, known as the Indigo Revolt.  The play examines the treatment of the Indian peasantry or ryots by the indigo planters.  It was first published in 1860.

Indigo Factory Bengal, 1863, showing layout and work on different processesWilliam Simpson - Indigo Factory Bengal, 1863 (shelfmark WD 1017) Images Online

Mitra’s play shone a light on the behaviour of certain European indigo planters, the worst excesses of which were further exposed by an official report of the 1861 Indigo Commission.  Ryots were forced to plant indigo, a crop which was in demand by the international textile industry but which degraded the land.  They had to take out loans and sell the crop to planters at fixed (low) prices, forcing them into a cycle of debt and economic dependence that was often enforced with violence.  The play reflected the realities of intimidation, exploitation, violence (including sexual violence), and lack of redress through the judicial system experienced by many in Bengal.

Title page of Nil Durpan and portrait of  author Dinabandhu MitraTitle page of Nil Darpan and portrait of Dinabandhu Mitra from Ramtanu Lahiri, Brahman and reformer. A history of the renaissance in Bengal, from the Bengali ... Edited by Sir Roper Lethbridge (London : Swan Sonnenschein & Co, 1907.), p.94. 

In 1861 Mitra sent a copy of his play to Reverend James Long, who had run the Church Missionary Society school in Calcutta where Mitra was educated.  James Long, an Anglo-Irish priest, had been in India since 1840, and was particularly interested in what he called the ‘Native Press’.  Long had previously assembled lists of books and other publications in Bengali.  He believed that vernacular writings were an important barometer of the feelings of Indian people, and that they had often been ignored by those in power.  Long mentioned the play to William Scott Seton Karr, Secretary to the Government of Bengal, who in turn brought it to the attention of Lieutenant Governor Sir John Peter Grant.  Grant requested an English translation of Nil Darpan, which Long arranged, and which was almost certainly carried out by Michael Madhusudan Dutt.  The translation was edited by Long who also provided his own introduction.  500 copies were printed, and some copies were distributed by Long in official Government envelopes.  This action appeared to give the translation official sanction.

Portrait of Michael Madhusudan Dutt and bust of James Long in KolkataPortrait of Michael Madhusudan Dutt from Ramtanu Lahiri, Brahman and reformer, p.30, and bust of James Long in Kolkata via Wikimedia Commons

Nil Darpan quickly reached the attention of both the indigo planters and the pro-planter press, who felt that they had been defamed by the play, and by Long’s introduction and by Mitra’s original preface.  As a result James Long was taken to court by Walter Brett, proprietor of the Englishman newspaper, together with the Landholders Association of British India and the general body of indigo planters.  The trial for libel took place in July 1861, and there was much sympathy expressed for James Long.  Yet he was found guilty, sentenced to one month in jail and fined 1,000 rupees.  The Bengali author Kaliprasanna Singha immediately paid the fine on Long’s behalf.

Nil Darpan was the first play to be staged commercially at the National Theatre in Calcutta; it was one of a number of politicised plays which provoked the Government of India into enacting restrictive censorship measures on Indian theatre via the 1876 Dramatic Performances Act.

Lesley Shapland
Cataloguer, India Office Records

Further Reading:
Nil Darpan or the Indigo Planting Mirror, A Drama. Translated from the Bengali by A Native (Calcutta: C.H. Manuel, 1861)
Statement of the Rev. J. Long His Connection With The Nil Darpan (Calcutta: Sanders, Cox and Co., 1861)
Claire Pamment (2009) 'Police of Pig and Sheep: Representations of the White Sahib and the construction of theatre censorship in colonial India', South Asian Popular Culture, 7:3, 233-245.
Geoffrey A. Oddie, Missionaries, Rebellion and Protonationalism: James Long of Bengal 1814-87 (London: Routledge, 1999)

 

17 January 2020

William Wordsworth: The Poetry of Place

2020 marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of William Wordsworth.  To commemorate this the British Library is hosting a free exhibition on the poet that opens today in our Treasures Gallery.  Entitled ‘William Wordsworth: The Poetry of Place’ this exhibition tells the story of Wordsworth’s life and explores the role place played in his poetry.  Visitors will be able to see original documents from the British Library’s collections including early drafts of Wordsworth’s verse, his notebooks, his annotated books, correspondence and more.  The earliest surviving draft of Wordsworth’s poem ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ can be seen alongside books bound in one of Mary Wordsworth’s old dresses.

Manuscript draft of ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’Manuscript draft of ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ prepared for the printers, 1806. Add MS 47864. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Wordsworth was born on the edge of the Lake District in Cockermouth, Cumberland, on 7 April 1770.  Throughout his life he found solace and inspiration in the natural world and expressed this in his poetry which was often closely connected with specific locations.

‘Place’ is more than a geographic area but a host of associations.  As a concept it encompasses the, often highly personal, emotional, cultural, political, and religious responses an individual – or group – attaches to a territory.  Wordsworth fully understand this concept of ‘place’ and his poem ‘Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’ is a landmark in this regard.  The poem invokes personal memory, experience and feeling to convey the private meaning the abbey has for the poet.

The South East View of Tintern AbbeyFrederick Calvert, The South East View of Tintern Abbey (London: Burkitt & Hudson, 1815). Maps.K.top.31.16.k.2. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Wordsworth first saw the abbey as a troubled, ‘thoughtless youth’ in 1793, having just made his French mistress, Annette Vallon, pregnant in Revolutionary France before becoming separated from her by the French Revolutionary Wars.  Upon ‘revisiting’ the abbey, five years later, in 1798 the tranquillity of the site and his hope for a better future inspired the poem.  By expressing the personal emotional connotations the abbey held for him, Wordsworth establishes ‘Tintern Abbey’ as poem of ‘place’ rather than ‘landscape’. By reflecting upon his current and former self within a powerful and unchanging landscape the poem marks an important divergence in the genre of topographical poetry which had traditionally simply praised an estate or particular view.  ‘Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’ was published shortly after Wordsworth’s visit in Lyrical Ballads in 1798.

‘Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’ in Lyrical Ballads ‘Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’ in Lyrical Ballads (Bristol, 1798). Ashley 2250. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Many of Wordsworth’s poems contain in their titles claims that they were ‘composed’ in the places they describe.  This is the case with several poems on display in the British Library’s exhibition, including the poems ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge’ and ‘To a Friend.  Composed near Calais on the road leading to Ardres’.  The titles consciously convey Wordsworth’s understanding of ‘place’ and that poetry can express the emotional responses that a particular location can elicit.

‘To a Friend. Composed near Calais on the road leading to Ardres, August 1802’ ‘To a Friend. Composed near Calais on the road leading to Ardres, August 1802’ prepared for the printers, 1806. Add MS 47864. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Both poems, ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge’ and ‘To a Friend’ were originally written by Wordsworth as he travelled to meet his illegitimate daughter, Caroline, in France for the first time.  As such, the places Wordsworth passed through on his journey attained a new importance that he expresses in these powerful poems.

‘William Wordsworth: The Poetry of Place’ is open in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery from 17 January –31 May 2020.

Alexander Lock
Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further reading:
Stephen Gill, Wordsworth’s Revisitings (Oxford: OUP, 2011)
David McCracken, Wordsworth and the Lake District: A Guide to the Poems and their Places (Oxford: OUP, 1985)
Fiona Stafford, ‘Wordsworth’s Poetry of Place’ in The Oxford Handbook of William Wordsworth, ed. by Richard Gravil & Daniel Robinson (Oxford: OUP, 2015), PP.309-324

 

17 September 2019

Bogle-L’Ouverture publishing house

In October 1968 the activist and author Walter Rodney, returning from the Congress of Black Writers and Artists in Canada, was declared persona non grata by the government of Jamaica.  He was banned from resuming his teaching position at the University of the West Indies.  In Kingston, students and other activists participated in what became known as the Rodney Riots, and there was considerable activity amongst Caribbean communities in the UK and the US.  Out of that struggle, the publishing house Bogle-L’Ouverture was founded in London by Jessica and Eric Huntley.  2019 marks the fiftieth anniversary of their first publication, a collection of Rodney’s lectures entitled The Groundings with my Brothers

Cover of The Groundings with my Brothers by Walter RodneyCover of The Groundings with my Brothers by Walter Rodney - Artwork for cover design ©  Errol Lloyd

Named for the leaders of the Morant Bay Rebellion and the Haitian Revolution, Bogle-L’Ouverture, alongside New Beacon (founded 1966) and Alison & Busby (founded 1967), soon became an integral part of progressive independent publishing in London.  Their publications provided a space for radical black thought to be distributed and read in the UK.  In 1972, Bogle-L'Ouverture published one of the key early post-colonial texts in Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.

Cover of How Europe underdeveloped Africa by Walter RodneyCover of How Europe underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney - work in copyright

The Huntleys founded the Bogle-L'Ouverture Bookshop in West London in 1974, and the space became a key venue for political meetings, talks and readings.  In 1980, following Rodney’s assassination in Guyana, the bookshop was renamed in his honour.  The physical space of the bookshop mirrored the fact that Bogle-L’Ouverture was an example of community publishing in the true sense, with publications often financed by friends of the Huntleys, and collaboration central to their work.  It was out of this sense of collective struggle that The International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books was established by Bogle-L’Ouverture, New Beacon and Race Today.  There were twelve Book Fairs held between 1982 and 1995 and they were intended, as John La Rose stated, 'to mark the new and expanding phase of the growth of radical ideas and concepts, and their expression in literature, music, art, politics and social life'.

Programme of International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books 1985 featuring photograph of Malcolm XProgramme of International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books 1985 featuring photograph of Malcolm X - work in copyright

The programmes from each of the twelve book fairs have all been reprinted in A Meeting of the Continents: The International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books – Revisited.  Looking through them one is made aware of what important and creative accomplishments these events were.  Yet, rather than evoking nostalgia, the editors hoped to offer inspiration for others to act.  Indeed, longstanding publishers such as Hansib, Karnak House and Karia Press were founded in the wake of New Beacon and Bogle-L’Ouverture, and Peepal Tree sold their first publication, Rooplall Monar’s Backdam People (1985) at the book fair.  More recently, innovative publishing concerns such as Own It!, Jacaranda, and Flipped Eye have also begun to build on the tradition established by the Huntleys more than half a century ago.  Yet their legacy extends beyond the publishing world – the Huntley archives are held the London Metropolitan Archives, which since 2006 has hosted an annual conference reflecting on their life and work.

Laurence Byrne
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

Further reading:
Andrews, Margaret Doing nothing is not an option: the radical lives of Eric & Jessica Huntley, Middlesex, Krik Krak, 2014 [YK.2015.a.1141]
Sarah White, Roxy Harris & Sharmilla Beezmohun (eds). A Meeting of the Continents: The International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books – Revisited, London: New Beacon Books/George Padmore Institute, 2005 [m05/.29879]

 

16 August 2019

Peterloo

Today, 16 August 2019, marks the two hundredth anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre – a major event in British history in which dozens of peaceful protesters were killed and hundreds injured when Yeomanry cavalry charged into them as they rallied for parliamentary reform.

Map of St Peter's Field Manchester'Map of St. Peter's field, Manchester, as it appeared on the 16th of August, last' from Peterloo Massacre, containing a faithful narrative ... Edited by an Observer (Manchester, 1819) 601.aa.9.(1) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence  Images Online

On 16 August 1819 thousands of political protesters met at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester to campaign for parliamentary reform.  They sought a widening of access to the vote and a more democratically accountable Parliament.  It is estimated that somewhere between 60,000-100,000 people gathered at the meeting.  A large draw for the crowd was the speech of the noted radical and orator Henry Hunt (1773-1835).  Concerned that his words might incite a riot the Manchester magistrates ordered the local volunteer Yeomanry to arrest him.  Inexperienced in crowd control, the Yeomanry rode into the crowd with their swords drawn followed by the 15th Hussars who sought to disperse the crowd.  Hunt was arrested, but in the process at least eleven people were killed and many hundreds were wounded.

Portrait of Henry Hunt, and title page of Peterloo MassacrePortrait of Henry Hunt, and title page of Peterloo Massacre, containing a faithful narrative ... Edited by an Observer (Manchester, 1819) 601.aa.9.(1) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence Images Online

Though the magistrates were officially praised by the government for their actions, there was an immediate national outcry as news spread of the attack.  Very quickly the event was derisively dubbed as ‘Peterloo’ scornfully comparing it with the Battle of Waterloo.  There was considerable public sympathy for the protesters and, for decades after, Peterloo was invoked by radicals as a powerful symbol of political corruption, working-class oppression and the need for parliamentary reform.

One author who was particularly appalled by the Peterloo massacre was the radical poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822).  Shelley was living in Italy when the news reached him.  In response he drafted his, now famous, poem ‘The Masque of Anarchy’.  According to Shelley ‘the torrent of my indignation’ flowed into the work and throughout his anger is tangible. 

The poem gives an apocalyptic vision of a Regency England in political crisis.  Shelley describes several monstrous creatures riding upon horses wearing masks that look like leading politicians.  Taken together they personify murder, hypocrisy, and fraud and they parade a final beast: anarchy.  The poem then describes a ‘maniac maid’ called Hope, though ‘she looked more like Despair’.  Like the protestors at St Peter’s Fields,  Hope is about to be trampled under the horse’s hooves when ‘a Shape arrayed in mail’ rises to defeat the monstrous creatures.  ‘A great Assembly…Of the fearless and the free’ is then described, like the crowd at Peterloo, and a voice is heard advocating freedom and imploring the people to rise up for liberty.  Famously, the poem ends with the rallying cry:

‘Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number—
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few.’


Percy Bysshe Shelley, 'The Masque of Anarchy' autograph draftPercy Bysshe Shelley, 'The Masque of Anarchy' autograph draft, 1819. Ashley MS 4086 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

                 
The British Library holds the original manuscript of Shelley’s ‘The Masque of Anarchy’. It was never published in his lifetime. After writing the poem, Shelley sent a copy of it to his friend Leigh Hunt (1784-1859) who felt that it could not be published safely following government censorship in the aftermath of Peterloo. Others also refused to publish the poem and it did not come out in print until 1832.

Alexander Lock
Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further reading:
Peterloo
'The Masque of Anarchy’

 

25 June 2019

The Revolutions of 1848: an English translation of Russian socialist Alexander Herzen

A radical political thinker known as the ‘father of Russian socialism’, Alexander Herzen (1812-1870) witnessed first-hand the democratic and liberal revolutions that swept through Europe in 1848. Leaving Russia for Paris in 1847, Herzen soon became disillusioned with the uprisings which sought to replace European monarchies with republican government, but which resulted in the deaths and exile of thousands of people. His collection of essays ‘From the Other Shore’ explores the failures of the revolution. Originally written in Russian and sent to his friends in Moscow, he described the work as ‘a record of a strife in which I have sacrificed many things, but not the boldness of knowledge’ (‘To my Son’, Add MS 89364/1).

Title page of the Two Shores manuscriptThe Two Shores’, title page, Add MS 89364/1

The British Library has recently acquired an English manuscript translation from the late 19th century entitled ‘The Two Shores’. Although unpublished and unsigned, the translation can been attributed to the English suffragist and writer Lady Jane Maria Strachey (1840-1928). A letter addressed to Strachey by her friend Mlle Souvestre refers to her translation of Herzen’s work (29 October 1874, 9/27/G/064, Strachey Letters, The Women’s Library, LSE) and this particular manuscript was sold from the papers of her son, Giles Lytton Strachey, in 2015.

Strachey was an active feminist with a keen interest in politics. She moved in literary and political circles that included George Eliot and the leader of the women’s suffrage movement, Millicent Fawcett. Bold and forward thinking, it is easy to see why Herzen’s essays appealed to Strachey. Her translation begins with Herzen’s address to his son Alexander, in which the revolutionary spirit of the work is clear:

‘I am not afraid of placing in your young hands the protest – at times bold to rashness – of an independent mind against a system which is obsolete servile & lying, against those absurd idols of former times which are now stripped of all meaning and are ending their days in our midst,
hindering some and terrifying others’.

Manuscript draft of Herzen's address to his son‘To my Son’, Add MS 89364/2. Reproduced with permission from The Society of Authors as agents of The Strachey Trust.

Another passage articulates Herzen’s continued faith in socialist and individualist ideals – not dissimilar to Strachey’s own – despite his disappointment in the liberal revolutionaries:

‘… do not remain upon the shore of the old world – better perish, than seek safety in the hospital of re-action. Faith in a future social organisation is the only religion I bequeath you, it offers no paradise, & no rewards but those of our own Conscience’.

Covers of the German and French editionsGerman and French editions: Add MSS 89364/3 and 89364/4

Acquired with the manuscript were the first printed edition of Herzen’s work, a German copy ‘Vom anderen Ufer’, published in Hamburg in 1850, and a French translation ‘De l’autre rive’ (Geneva, 1871). The French edition was the source for this translation, which appears in draft form and was seemingly never published. Indeed, the first English translation of ‘From the Other Shore’ was not published until 1956. In this case Strachey’s translation – if it is by her – is likely to be the earliest translation of Herzen’s essays into English.

As well as providing an insight into the translation process, then, this manuscript and its accompanying volumes also reveal the radical political reading of an important figure in the British feminist movement. It further hints at Herzen’s engagement with British intellectuals in London, where he lived during the 1850s and 60s, and the reception of his writing in British political thought.

Further reading:

All translations cited are from 'The Two Shores', an English manuscript translation of Alexander Herzen's ‘From The Other Shore’, Add MS 89364

Alexander Herzen, From the other Shore, translated from the Russian by Moura Budberg; and The Russian People and Socialism: an open letter to Jules Michelet, translated from the French by Richard Wollheim; with an introduction by Isaiah Berlin (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1956)

On Jane Maria Strachey, see: R. Vetch, ‘Strachey, Sir Richard (1817–1908), scientist and administrator in India’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004) [accessed 28 May 2019]

By Sara Hale
Heritage Made Digital and Modern Archives and Manuscripts

06 June 2019

William Morris and the Thames

In August 1880, William Morris embarked with family and friends on an expedition along the Thames from his home in Hammersmith. The destination was the family’s country residence, Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire.

The trip inspired Morris, textile designer, poet and novelist, to write News from Nowhere. This utopic novel focuses on Morris’s socialist ideas, particularly emphasising common ownership of the means of production, and a libertarian, rather than state controlled, socialism.

An exhibition, currently running at Henley River and Rowing Museum explores William Morris’s connection to the Thames and the influence that the river had on his work. The exhibition includes Morris’s autograph manuscript describing his journey along the river, on loan from the British Library (Add MS 45407 A).

Manuscript in the exhibition display
The manuscript on display (left-hand case) in the exhibition, An Earthly Paradise: William Morris and the Thames, at Henley River and Rowing Museum

The manuscript is full of anecdotes and details from their journey. After sharing a joke with a waiter in Sunbury, ‘some of the males of the party seemed to think that they were entitled to indulge in the most abominable puns for the whole of the rest of the journey’.

The party was ‘Towed into the middle of Maidenhead Regatta’ and after reaching Great Marlow that night the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights, rarely glimpsed in Britain, were visible.

Manuscript page opening
William Morris, Account of river journey from Hammersmith to Kelmscott, Add MS 45407 A, f. 4. © Society of Antiquaries. Reproduced with permission of the Society of Antiquaries.

Once the travelling party reached Henley they ‘stopped for dinner on right bank; W.M. cooked in cabin of Ark; result excellent’. However the dinner was soon interrupted by a group of swans who, luckily, soon ‘retired without breaking any man’s arm’.

The manuscript reveals the spirit of camaraderie between the travelling companions and the details of the people encountered, towns visited and the astounding natural beauty that they witnessed hints at the idyllic world of which Morris was inspired to write.

Another manuscript page opening
William Morris, Account of river journey from Hammersmith to Kelmscott, Add MS 45407 A, f. 5. © Society of Antiquaries. Reproduced with permission of the Society of Antiquaries.

An Earthly Paradise: William Morris & The Thames runs until 14 July at Henley River and Rowing Museum and includes hand-drawn textile designs, a signed copy of News from Nowhere, materials from the Morris & Co. workshop, along with his Thames series of textiles.

Stephen Noble
Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Follow us on Twitter @BL_ModernMSS

30 April 2019

Records of homosexuality in 17th century England

Stephen Noble explores manuscript sources recording homosexuality in 17th-century England, using recently catalogued material in the Harley collection. 

There are difficulties in looking at the history of homosexuality through modern eyes. The term ‘homosexuality’ was coined in the 19th century and we cannot know how people from the past would identify with the language we use today.

The Buggery Act of 1533 criminalised homosexual activity between men and as a result, records of people self-identifying are rare. The records that remain tend to focus on the criminalised acts and not the feelings of those performing them, usually containing accusations or gossip using terms like ‘sodomite’, ‘ganymede’, ‘catamite’, ‘bardash’ and ‘tribade’. This also means that, as female homosexual acts were not specifically criminalised, records of male homosexuality are more prevalent. Lower literacy rates amongst women also plays a role in the relative lack of female perspective.

Harley MS 646 contains the autobiography of politician and antiquarian Sir Simonds D’Ewes. When D’Ewes writes about the corruption charges levelled at Sir Francis Bacon in 1621, he goes on to accuse Bacon of the ‘sinne of Sodomie’, and keeping ‘a verie effeminate faced youth to bee his catamite and bedfellow’. He includes a verse ‘Within this sty a hogg doth ly/That must be hang’d for Sodomy’ (‘hogg’ being a play on Bacon’s surname).

Excerpt from the manuscript Autobiography of Sir Simonds d’EwesAutobiography of Sir Simonds d’Ewes, Harley MS 646 f. 59v.

Interestingly, when the autobiography was published in 1845, the editor removed the accusation and changed the words of the verse from ‘sodomy’ to ‘villany’. A footnote states ‘D’Ewes here specifically charged Bacon with an abominable offence, in language too gross for publication’.

Satirical theatre and poetry played a large part in 17th-century literary culture. Sexuality was a common topic, including references to both male and female homosexuality.

Harley MS 7315 contains the poem ‘Venus Reply’, where Venus says that women ‘have got a new game/call’d Flatts…’ (‘game of flats’ being a euphemism for sex between women). The poet also writes of ‘Frogmore Frolics’, referring to rumours of what went on at Frogmore House, home at this time to Viscount Fitzhardinge, where the women are ‘for no Masculine lover’.

Excerpt from manuscript poem 'Venus Reply’'Venus Reply’, Harley MS 7315, f. 285v

In Harley MS 6913 is a poem containing the line ‘…that patient bardash Shrewsbury’, referring to Charles Talbot, 12th Earl of Shrewsbury. What prompts this accusation is not said, but one possible interpretation may be that in 1679, when the poem was written, Shrewsbury converted from Catholicism to Anglicanism.

In the English imagination, homosexuality was often linked with foreigners, especially Catholics and Italians (‘in the Italian way’ was another euphemism for sodomy). Perhaps the poet is using homosexuality as a metaphor and, by referring to Shrewsbury as a ‘patient bardash’, is implying that he had not truly changed his religious views?

Another example of this link between homosexuality and Catholicism in English satire is the play Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery, one of the few remaining manuscript copies of which survives in the Harley collection.

Manuscript title page for ‘Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery’‘Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery’, here attributed to John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, Harley MS 7312, p. 118

Whilst the play deals exclusively with sexual matters, the purpose was not to satirise Charles II’s sexual activities, but rather his toleration of Catholicism and his use of the Royal Prerogative. In Sodom, King Bolloxinion transforms his kingdom by legalising same-sex intercourse and, by the end of the play, becomes increasingly tyrannical. The playwright warns that allowing Charles II to use of the Royal Prerogative to transform religious toleration in England, and leaving his power unchecked, could have similar consequences.

Stephen Noble
Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Follow us on Twitter @BL_ModernMSS

Further Reading

Alan Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995)

Marie H. Loughlin (ed.), Same-sex desire in early modern England, 1550-1735: an anthology of literary texts and contexts (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014)

Cameron McFarlane, The sodomite in fiction and satire, 1660-1750 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997)

25 April 2019

Crusoe embossed

Robinson Crusoe was published 300 years ago on 25 April 1719.  Daniel Defoe’s account of a shipwrecked English sailor cast away on an uninhabited tropical island for 28 years has universal appeal because it is so believable.  Defoe effectively put into print the archetypal shipwreck yarn spun by many an old mariner.  It capitalised on the popularity of travel books and many readers did not realise it was fiction. 

Part of the enduring success of Robinson Crusoe is the impact it makes on a reader’s imagination - the mind is stirred by adventure in exotic far-off places.  Illustrations have played an important role in the presentation and reception of Crusoe, whether cheap quickly executed woodcuts in chapbooks and penny novels, or coloured plates in fine bindings.  The primary topic has been the portraiture of Crusoe – John Pine’s frontispiece for the first edition sets a consistent tone.  Crusoe, the resourceful, stands with his guns looking determinedly at the prospect of surviving alone on the island, the lost ship in the background.  Supporting illustrations frequently emphasise pivotal points in the story such as the shipwreck, the discovery of the footprint and Friday’s rescue.

Portraits of Robinson CrusoePortraits of Robinson Crusoe. John Pine’s first edition frontispiece (C.30.f.6) is top left.  Later woodcuts from a variety of chapbooks can be seen to retain the composition. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Portrait of Robinson Crusoe by Jules Fesquet and LegeniselThere have also been some quite ‘unique’ portraits like this fantastic effort by Jules Fesquet and Legenisel from 1877. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The proliferation of editions in the 19th century saw illustrations dominated by traditional images that are typical of colonialist assumptions and the flawed belief in white Europeans’ superiority over people and places of the wider world.  Traditional style editions routinely show Friday prostrate before his saviour, Crusoe.  In a show of submission and gratitude, Defoe tells us that Friday put Crusoe’s foot upon his head.
 

Book binding showing Friday at the feet of  Robinson CrusoeWard & Lock’s publishers’ binding (circa 1879) consciously or unconsciously amplifies the depressing fact that the first word Crusoe taught Friday was, “Master”. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Depiction of Friday’s rescue A perfect exemplar of the colonial-style depiction of Friday’s rescue can be seen in a Maori Language edition from 1852 (freely available via Explore the British Library) – the Preface by the ‘Native Secretary’s Office’ is very revealing. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Artistic capabilities are often stultified by prevalent tastes and looking at the same type of images in edition after edition of Crusoe can be tiring.  Change came with the work of artists like JB Yeats and further possibilities were pursued in the early 20th century with Expressionist art like the work of Walther Klemm.

 J B Yeats’ depiction of Crusoe discovering the footprintJ B Yeats’ depiction of Crusoe discovering the footprint (and looking all Kirk Douglas!) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Lithograph of running figures by Walther KlemmLithograph by Walther Klemm in Das Leben und die ganz ungemeinen Begebenheiten des weltberühmten Engelländers Robinson Crusoe Leipzig, Verleg tbei Friedrich Dehne, 1919. (recent acquisition – awaiting shelfmark). Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Of course, it is all too easy for most readers to take for granted the added value and meaning to be gained from illustrations.  J R Biggs, whose wonderful wood-engravings decorate the Penguin Illustrated Classics edition of 1937, remarked that 'books without illustrations make the greatest force in the world: books with illustrations the greatest delight'.

But even though Crusoe is a particularly visual work, how might the visually impaired and blind experience such a novel?  Amongst the 600 or so printed editions of Crusoe held in the British Library, one of the most impressive items is a truly sensual edition: ‘visual’ and striking by both sight and by touch.

In the 1860s, the American Printing House for the Blind produced editions of books printed, or rather, embossed, with raised Roman Type letters.

Embossed edition of Robinson Crusoe

Embossed edition of Robinson CrusoeRobinson Crusoe. Presented to the American Printing House for the Blind (1873) Revolutionary for the blind.  But also aesthetically pleasing for people fortunate to be able to see the embossed type. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The expansion of cheap print for mass readerships made great use of illustrations and it assisted rising levels of literacy.  The embossed type really adds a further dimension to the visual impression made by ‘printed’ words.  The invention of printing for the blind marked a new era in the history of literature.  It made the novel personally discoverable to readers unable to see traditional ink printed texts.  It is testament to the success and universal appeal of Crusoe that it was one of the very first texts selected to be printed by the APHB enabling the shipwrecked sailor’s adventure to become embossed on even more readers’ minds.

Christian Algar
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

Further reading:
David Blewett, The illustration of Robinson Crusoe, 1719-1920 (1995)
Lists of books published by the American Printing House for the Blind and by other American firms [1896]
Edmund C, Johnson, Tangible Typography, or how the Blind read (1853)

Visit our free display about Robinson Crusoe in the British Library Treasures Gallery - available until June 2019.

 

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