Francis Jenkinson and the quiet storm

This pandemic-inspired blogpost tells the story of how, in December 1891, a third outbreak of the so-called ‘Russian flu’ in Britain brought about a personal crisis in the life of Francis Jenkinson, Cambridge University Librarian 1889-1923.

Jenkinson

In December 1891, Francis Jenkinson, 38, confided in his friend Ida Darwin a momentous piece of news. He had fallen in love with Mildred Wetton, a twenty-eight year old governess who worked in London, and they were considering becoming engaged to be married. It was a secret love that no one else must know about for the time being, and Ida would understand why.

Jenkinson’s position as Cambridge University Librarian was the job he had been born to do. He had been mentored by a previous holder of the post, Henry Bradshaw, and knew the contents of every book in the library, still in its original location in the Schools building near King’s College. The Old Library was ‘a chaotic but atmospheric medley of disparate rooms, uneven floors and dark places for which readers could borrow lamps to light their way’ (Whitelock). In this dark place, Jenkinson had a warmth and generosity that made him as popular with his colleagues as he was with scholars and students. He also had what seemed an uncanny, almost symbiotic connection with the library itself. One friend recalled how ‘he would rise from his bed when his subconscious mind told him there was a window left open, and go down in the small hours to shut it’ (H.F. Stewart). But during the darkest part of the winter of 1891-92, Jenkinson seriously considered giving it all up for love.

When Jenkinson was appointed Cambridge University Librarian two years previously he was delighted, but it was also a time of great personal sadness for him. His first wife, Marian Sydney Wetton, had died suddenly aged thirty in January 1888, just six months after they married. Marian was one of seven sisters from a musical family who lived in Surrey, and her older sister Jennie was married to Jenkinson’s close friend, the Irish composer Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, who was also the organist at Trinity College. After Marian’s death, Jennie Stanford and her unmarried sisters remained in regular contact with Jenkinson, often dropping in at his home on Brookside, near the Fitzwilliam Museum, to play the piano and sing together. Francis and Mildred Wetton had become close in their shared grief.

Twenty-seven-year-old Prince Albert Victor was the eldest child of the Prince and Princess of Wales. What Queen Victoria privately described as her grandson’s ‘dissipated life’ began while he was an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge in the early 1880s. It’s not known what Francis Jenkinson thought of him, but one nameless tutor complained that the Trinity College’s royal student ‘hardly knows the meaning of the words to read‘ (Magnus, 178). No one knew what to do about irrepressible Eddy, the future king. After an unsuccessful stint in the army and lengthy trips overseas, it was decided that what the Prince needed was to find a sensible wife and settle down. It was decided that his distant cousin, Princess Mary of Teck would fit the bill perfectly, and their marriage date was set for 27 February 1892.

Albert_Victor_late_1880s
Prince Albert Victor, late 1880s

The royal engagement was the good news story that the nation badly needed. That winter the papers were full of reports of a new wave of influenza that was killing people in Britain in ever larger numbers. The country was in the grip of the second of two epidemics that followed on the heels of the so-called ‘Russian flu’ of 1889-90, the pandemic that killed hundreds of thousands worldwide. Everyone was affected by fears of contagion. Winston Churchill was a fifteen-year old schoolboy at Harrow, when he wrote a poem called ‘The Influenza’ about the flu in 1890: ‘The rich, the poor, the high, the low/Alike the various symptoms know/ Alike before it droop.’

As the medical historian Mark Honigsbaum writes in his essay ‘The Great Dread: Cultural and Psychological Impacts and Responses to the ‘Russian’ Influenza in the United Kingdom, 1889–1893’,

the Russian flu was extensively documented and seen to spread rapidly between European capitals via international rail, road and shipping connections in a westward progression that was the subject of widespread commentary in both the daily and periodical press.

According to a report published by the Wellcome Institute, the winter of 1891-1892 was characterized by ‘a marked excess of deaths from influenza and pneumonia.’ It was a frightening time for people of all social classes, as the young Churchill was aware.

During December 1891 Ida Darwin was worried about the influenza infecting her husband Horace, so often poorly with mysterious illnesses, and their small children as well as their household staff, who one by one were falling ill. She also knew that, if word about Jenkinson’s engagement got out, it would cause a scandal in Cambridge that would be almost as shocking as Albert Victor’s rumoured visits to Cleveland Street. Under the Marriage Act of 1835, it was still illegal in the United Kingdom and colonies for a man to marry the sister of his deceased wife. In his book, Marianne Thornton 17971887: A Domestic Biography (1956) E.M. Forster wrote about how much unhappiness this law caused, describing it as  ‘yet another example of the cruelty and stupidity of the English Law in matters of sex’ (see my article here). Throughout the Victorian period the issue continued to be hotly debated every year in parliament, but Anglican bishops in the Lords helped to ensure that the prohibition remained until the Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act of 1907.

In 1891 Ida knew that, despite Francis and Mildred’s hopes, the law was unlikely to change imminently. The Jenkinsons would have to go abroad to marry, and would be ostracized if they ever returned to England, and any children they might have would be considered illegitimate in the eyes of the law. Also, Ida feared that if others heard rumours of the engagement Jenkinson would lose his job as University Librarian. The situation would have to be managed in the most inconspicuous way possible. Ida needed to stay at home to care for her household, and so was not able to go to Brookside to see Francis in person, and persuade him to rethink his engagement. So she did the only thing she could; she wrote to him, hoping that she could change his mind.

All through December and into January, letters flew back and forth, sometimes several times a day, between Brookside and the Orchard. The normally mild-mannered, bookish Jenkinson raged against the Anglican Church and its bishops, while Ida remained calm and sympathetic, soothing him like a feverish child. The only other people who knew about the crisis were two family members who could be trusted to be discreet: his sister Nelly Jenkinson, and his distant cousin Daisy Stewart who lived in Grantchester. Daisy had grown up in Edinburgh, but now worked as a music tutor in Cambridge. She had been in love with Francis for years, but accepted that he saw her only as a good friend. She hated to see him so unhappy.

Why did Jenkinson behave so recklessly, and risk losing the job he had worked so hard for? I think that the answer might lie in how the repeated flu epidemics affected the way that people thought during this time of national crisis. Jenkinson’s appointment as University Librarian in 1889 had coincided with the ‘Russian flu’ pandemic, which was the first recorded outbreak of influenza in England since 1848. Four million Britons fell ill and 127,000 died, and the country was hit be another major wave of flu in May 1891. In December of that year, as the third epidemic reached Cambridge, Jenkinson must have wondered if he would live to do the work that he wanted to do. Overwork and anxiety were considered to be contributing factors in those who caught the flu, and for all his energy, Jenkinson had frequent bouts of illness. In 1890 The Times warned that the influenza’s impact on the imagination was ‘disproportionate to its actual destructiveness’ (Honigsbaum), but the fear that gripped everyone was very real. The number of deaths peaked in London in the third week of January 1892, when it was recorded that over five hundred people died of influenza and pneumonia.

The poor suffered most, of course, but no one was safe. Prince Albert Victor became ill with flu symptoms at a shooting party at Sandringham in early January 1892. Pneumonia set in, and he died on 14 January 1892, one week after his 28th birthday. There would be no royal wedding that year, and the nation went into a prolonged period of mourning. In the months following Albert Victor’s death, his younger brother George, the Duke of York, became close to Mary, his (almost) sister-in-law. Because she and Albert had not married, there was no taboo on their love, and just over a year later, in May 1893, George and Mary married with Queen Victoria’s blessing. In 1910 he was crowned George V, and she became Queen Mary: the present Queen is their granddaughter. Some recent historians have rather unkindly suggested that Albert Victor’s early death was ‘a merciful act of providence’ (Magnus, 239) allowing his sober brother and his equally responsible wife to steer the country through the crises of World War One and the depression of the 1920s and early 1930s.

By the middle of January 1892 in Cambridge, there was a gap in the storm clouds for Ida, as her household slowly recovered from the flu. Now she decided to take action about Jenkinson. First, she wrote to Mildred, who replied with a subdued note of thanks and promised not to visit Brookside for a while. Then she wrote to Mildred’s older sister Jennie to tell her of the possible engagement. Jennie’s husband Charles Stanford’s mother and two of aunts had died of the flu just a few weeks before, and Jennie herself had been very ill, so it’s likely that Ida did not want to involve them earlier. But now the Stanfords took charge. It’s likely that they persuaded Francis to give up his plans to marry Mildred, and their secret engagement was quietly dropped.

The storm had passed, and most of Francis and Mildred’s friends, family and work colleagues never even knew that it had happened. Jenkinson would continue to work as University Librarian for the next thirty years, until shortly before his death in 1923. His contribution to the library was immense. He sorted and catalogued valuable acquisitions, including 140,000 fragments of the ancient Cairo Genizah and the contents of Lord Acton’s library.

Francis_J._H._Jenkinson,_1915
Francis J.H. Jenkinson by John Singer Sargent (1915), Cambridge University LibraryF

Jenkinson was known for his support for women’s rights, and he appointed one of the University’s first woman librarians, the Sanskrit scholar and former Girton student, C.M. (Caroline Mary) Ridding. In 1910 he was sent a collection of suffrage posters, which he carefully preserved in the library’s archives. This rare collection was recently displayed at the UL to mark 100 years since some British women got the vote (read more here). Unusually for the time, Jenkinson was passionately interested in collecting ephemeral matter such as flyers, postcards, and posters. He felt that such “unconsidered trifles” told stories about people’s lives that would be lost otherwise. During the First World War he gathered a huge collection of this so-called ‘disposable’ literature, and his War Reserve Collection is now an invaluable source for researchers. In 1915 the American artist John Singer Sargent was commissioned to paint Jenkinson’s portrait to mark his twenty-five years as University Librarian, and this beautiful painting still hangs in the library today.

In 1902 Jenkinson married his ‘dear friend’ Daisy Stewart, and the couple spent over twenty happy years together, travelling to the Alps with Ida and Horace and marking Mozart’s birthday with a piano concert at Brookside on 27 January every year. Mildred Wetton never married, but continued to teach English literature, and eventually she became headmistress of her own private school in Kensington. In his biography Francis Jenkinson (1926) Hugh F. Stewart reflects that, until his second marriage, his brother-in-law lived a solitary life on Brookside, ‘save for the occasional presence of his sister, or of a sister-in-law, or of a scholar on bibliography intent.’ Perhaps this casual mention of ‘a sister-in-law’ is a quiet acknowledgement of Mildred Wetton’s ephemeral, but important, place in Jenkinson’s life.

©Ann Kennedy Smith, December 2021 (all rights reserved)

Notes: My warm thanks to Frank Bowles, Karen Davies, Carolyn Ferguson, Eve Smith and Jill Whitelock for their help. Any errors are my own.

Online sources (all accessed 2 April 2020):

Karen Bourrier ‘If this be error: marrying the sister of a deceased wife was illegal in Victorian England’ History Today, 11 April 2018, https://www.historytoday.com/history-matters/if-be-error

Stephen Gaselee, ‘Francis Jenkinson, 1853-1923: an address to the Bibliographical Society, 15 Oct. 1923’, Trans. Bibliog. Soc. . N.S.; v. 4, no. 3, Oxford, 1923

Mark Honigsbaum,  ‘The Great Dread: Cultural and Psychological Impacts and Responses to the ‘Russian’ Influenza in the United Kingdom, 1889–1893’, Social History of Medicine, Vol 23, Issue 2, August 2010, Pages 299–319 https://doi.org/10.1093/shm/hkq011

Mark Nicholls, ‘A Reason for Remembering: Francis Jenkinson and the War Reserve Collection’, https://www.jstor.org/stable/41154886?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

Jill Whitelock, ‘M.R. James and the ghosts of the old University Library’, Cambridge University Library Special Collections blogpost https://specialcollections-blog.lib.cam.ac.uk/?p=18923

‘Albert Victor, Prince, duke of Clarence and Avondale (1864–1892)’ and ‘Jenkinson, Francis John Henry (1853–1923)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, https://www.oxforddnb.com/

‘Annual Report of the Medical Officer of Health, London 1892’, https://wellcomelibrary.org/moh/report/b18252412/1#?c=0&m=0&s=0&cv=4&z=-0.3124%2C1.3883%2C0.6249%2C0.2439

‘The modern library’ on Cambridge University Library’s website; https://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/about-library/historical-sketch/modern-library

‘Francis John Henry Jenkinson’ memorial on Trinity College Chapel website http://trinitycollegechapel.com/about/memorials/brasses/jenkinson/

‘Mr F.J.H. Jenkinson’, obituary in The Times, 22 Sep. 1923.

Books: Margaret Clifford Jenkinson, A Fragrance of Sweet Memories [Reminiscences of Francis Jenkinson], unpublished memoir, Cambridge University Library; P. Magnus, King Edward the Seventh (1964); H. F. Stewart, Francis Jenkinson: a memoir (1926); Francis John Henry Jenkinson by H.W. S[impkinson], Marlborough , 1923 [1 v.] ; 19 cm. Repr. from The Marlburian, 28 Nov. 1923.

Cambridge University Library Archives: Jenkinson, FJH to Ida Darwin, MS Add 9368.1: 16513 & ff.; letters from Jenkinson, Margaret Clifford ‘Daisy’ (1858-1933) née Stewart to Ida Darwin, MS Add.10286/1/40; from Jenkinson, Eleanor Louisa ‘Nelly’ (1855-1948) to Ida Darwin, MS Add.10286/1/42; Wetton, Mildred to Ida Darwin, MS Add.10286/1/70; Stanford, Jennie to Ida Darwin, MS Add.10286/1/67; FJH Jenkinson’s diaries and letters held at Cambridge University Library.

The Spiritualist lecturers

By the summer of 1875 Caroline Slemmer Jebb was gradually adjusting to the slow pace of life as a don’s wife in an ancient university town, so different from her home in busy, modernizing Philadelphia. ‘Term is over now, and we have settled down into quietness with a little variety furnished by a set of spiritual séances,’ she told her sister, a tone of exasperation creeping into her letter.  Although she was now quite fond of Cambridge, and of her husband Richard Claverhouse Jebb, she could not understand the hold that spiritualism had over his Trinity College friends. For her it was ‘the most arrant nonsense and imposture’ and she mocked Henry Sidgwick and Frederic Myers (‘these great geniuses’) for being so willing to be taken in: ‘both seem as easy to delude and as anxious to believe as any infant.’

The Victorians’ fascination with spirit mediums claiming to channel communication between the living and the dead reached its peak in the mid-1870s. In the name of ‘scientific investigations’ into spiritualist phenomena, groups of learned people were attending séances in elegant drawing-rooms all over the country; in January 1874 Charles and Emma Darwin took part in one at Erasmus Darwin’s London house along with George Eliot and G.H. Lewes. ‘Mr Lewes I remember was troublesome’, recalled Henrietta Darwin, ‘and inclined to make jokes and not sit in the dark in silence’ (Browne, 405).

But despite such scepticism, scholarly interest in analysing spiritualist phenomena was steadily growing. The informal discussion group that Sidgwick and Myers began in Cambridge in 1874 was soon joined by Sidgwick’s former students Edmund Gurney and the future prime minister Arthur Balfour; it was during one of their séances at Balfour’s London house that Sidgwick met Arthur’s sister Eleanor, and they married in 1876. The Cambridge group was a forerunner of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) that was founded in London in 1882 (see Jane Dismore’s guest blog for more about the SPR’s early years). The SPR’s archive at Cambridge University Library featured in an episode of the recent Netflix series ‘Surviving Death’, as reported here.

Women who claimed clairvoyant gifts are the subject of Emily Midorikawa’s new book, Out of the Shadows: six visionary Victorian women in search of a public voice (Counterpoint, 2021). She traces the origins of the Modern Spiritualist movement to a small hamlet called Hydesville in New York County, where two young sisters appeared to be contact with unseen presences. The ‘Rochester rappings’ made Kate and Maggie Fox famous, and soon they and their older sister Leah were giving public demonstrations to large crowds in concert halls throughout North America. The craze soon crossed the ocean to Britain. ‘Table turning particularly caught on among working people in the Yorkshire town of Keighley, with its history of social and political radicalism’, Midorikawa notes, ‘as well as with the leisured classes residing in the nation’s capital.’ Queen Victoria recorded in her diary how, during their spring holiday at Osborne House in 1853, she and Prince Albert had engaged in the practice with their ladies-in-waiting.

But there was more to this era-defining phemomenon than an amusing parlour game or the studies of Cambridge scholars. Out of the Shadows shows how a handful of women made successful careers out of spiritualism on both sides of the Atlantic, by taking their talents as spirit mediums from the private drawing-room to the public stage. Kate, Maggie and Leah Fox, Emma Hardinge Britten, Victoria Woodhull and Georgina Weldon all became ‘grand successes’, and ‘came to wield extraordinary levels of social or political clout in an era when female voices seldom garnered much serious attention.’

It’s a beautifully written and absorbing book that criss-crosses the Atlantic as it reveals how these six women used their spiritualist gifts to gain power, money and remarkable influence. The story of how the British-born Emma Hardinge climbed the social ladder in the USA is particularly engaging. In the mid-1850s she struggled to make a living as an actress in London before, as a last-ditch effort to revive her career, taking up the offer of nine months’ work in a Broadway production. While in New York she met Ada Foye and other luminaries of the early American séance scene. They spotted her talents and encouraged her to give up her stage career and promote spiritualism instead. Her first Spiritualist performance was with a group of fifty singers performing a cantata written by Hardinge but imparted, she claimed, ‘by a power that worked through my organism.’ The New York Herald was impressed, commenting that ‘whoever the Spirits that controlled Emma Hardinge might be, they could at least make good music’. She could be one of the ‘leading musicians and composers of the age’, they added, if she chose to ‘give up the shadow’ of spiritualism.

But Hardinge was clairvoyant enough to predict that her gifts as a ‘spiritualist lecturer’, combined with her stage presence, would take her further. Before long she was travelling around Canada and North America, ‘trance lecturing’ before distinguished male audiences (including priests, lawyers, doctors and reporters, she recalled) and answering their questions. As with her music, she claimed to have no awareness beforehand of what the spirits would tell her to say, which included outspoken (and therefore unladylike) views on controversial topics of female emancipation and the need have sympathy for ‘fallen women’. When it came to speaking out, it might have been easier to tell herself and her audience, as Midorikawa says, ‘that she was merely a mouthpiece for dead – usually male – spirits.’

As her fame grew, Hardinge became more confident in her oratorial skills and in 1864 threw her weight behind the campaign to re-elect Abraham Lincoln as president by giving a speech in San Francisco entitled ‘The Coming Man; or the Next President of the United States’. Lincoln’s committee of supporters was so impressed by the crowds she drew that they asked if she would ‘stump the State for Lincoln’. Her unusual status as a female campaign orator giving a 32-date lecture tour drew the crowds and helped to ensure Lincoln’s resounding victory in California. When Lincoln was assassinated five months later, Hardinge was invited to deliver a eulogy the next day in New York City, the first to be given in the city. Before an audience of over three thousand she gave her Great Funeral Oration on Abraham Lincoln. As Midorikawa writes, ‘that a woman, not American-born, was afforded this honor demonstrates the heights to which the former player of bit parts on Broadway had risen in less than a decade’.

It was well known that the president’s widow, Mary Todd Lincoln, had held séances at the White House to try to reach their young son Willie, who had died during Lincoln’s first term in office. Later she was photographed by the ‘spirit photographer’ William H. Mumler, with the ghostly presence of Lincoln behind her, his hands resting protectively on her shoulders. ‘The picture, ersatz but powerful, exemplifies the “peace and comfort to the weary soul” that Mumler trumpeted as his hallmark’, Dan Piepenbring writes in the New Yorker. There’s a similar image of Hardinge below.

Emma Hardinge Britten, by W.H. Mumler

After Henry Sidgwick’s death of cancer in 1900 Eleanor Sidgwick was convinced that he was also not far away, communicating with her from ‘the other world’. It was a comfort that Caroline Jebb in Cambridge was denied. ‘So many things I would have told him, such love and worship I would have shown him’, she wrote three years after Richard Jebb died. ‘Now he cannot see, he cannot feel or hear, though I spend my days in trying to reach him.’ Perhaps she too reached for spiritualist powers in the end, but sadly without success.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, all rights reserved

Sources

Emily Midorikawa Out of the Shadows: six visionary Victorian women in search of a public voice (Counterpoint, 2021)

Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (Pimlico, 2003)

Janet Oppenheim, The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychic Research in England 1850-1914 (CUP, 1985)

Mary Reed Bobbitt, With Dearest Love to All: The Life and Letters of Lady Jebb (Faber and Faber, 1960)

Several of Emma Hardinge Britten’s books are held in Cambridge University Library.

A Cambridge photographer

Portrait of Lettice Ramsey by PAL Brunney, c.1970 (J Brunney family photographs)

I’m delighted that Frances Baker’s beautiful 1915 painting of her daughter Lettice Ramsey (1898-1985) features in Newnham College’s current ‘Newnham portraits’ online exhibition to mark the college’s 150 year celebrations. As I wrote in my blogpost ‘Woman with a camera: Lettice Ramsey (1898-1985) last year, ‘the determined-looking girl in the painting studied moral sciences at Newnham from 1918 until 1921, worked in Cambridge University’s first Psychological Laboratory and would later pick up a camera to become one of the leading women photographers of the 1930s.’

Along with her photographic partner Helen Muspratt (1907-2001), Ramsey was indeed one of the leading women photographers not just of the 1930s, but of the twentieth century. The women’s creative partnership began when they opened their first studio in Cambridge in 1932, and their business expanded to Oxford after Muspratt married and opened a studio there in 1937. My own interest in Lettice, and the Ramsey & Muspratt business, was sparked by seeing their luminous portrait of Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, who gained her PhD at Cambridge before taking up an academic appointment at Oxford. Ramsey & Muspratt’s portrait was displayed side by side with Frances Baker’s 1915 painting of Lettice Ramsey in the Cambridge University Library as part of their ‘The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge’ exhibition of 2019-20.

Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries are to be congratulated in recently securing Helen Muspratt’s photographic archive, and last year put on an exhibition of her work. As Bodley’s Librarian Richard Ovenden says, by doing this they have ‘put a flag in the sand’, to say that the history of photography, and the history of the city of Oxford, needs to take Muspratt seriously as a photographer.

It’s not surprising, perhaps, that Lettice Ramsey’s early contribution to their professional partnership, Ramsey & Muspratt, is downplayed in the Oxford exhibition: in the video on the Bodleian’s website, Ramsey is described as a sociable Cambridge widow ‘who needed something to do’ rather than a creative artist with a work ethic and brilliance that matched Muspratt’s. Oxford’s understandable wish to claim Muspratt as one of their own overlooks the studio and developing room work that the women did collaboratively in Cambridge in the 1930s and 1940s before they continued their work separately in both university cities from the 1940s onwards.

After all, it’s impossible to say which of the two photographers took their acclaimed solarised photographs, as well as the aforementioned portrait of Nobel prizewinner Hodgkin (see below), because all of their portraits of the time were signed democratically as Ramsey & Muspratt. Both women considered their work in the darkroom to be as important a part of their artistic process as what they did behind the camera; and both women should be equally acknowledged as the groundbreaking photographers and creative partnership that they were.

Dorothy Hodgkin, by Ramsey & Muspratt, bromide print, circa 1937; NPG P363(13)

In 1987 Ramsey’s daughter Jane Burch donated many Ramsey & Muspratt portraits to the National Portrait Gallery in London, and in 2012 the gallery put on an exhibition about Ramsey’s friendship with Julian Bell. But Lettice Ramsey deserves to be be celebrated not just for her associations with the Bloomsbury Group, but in her own right as a pioneering Cambridge photographer. Her portraits of Virginia Woolf, the ‘Cambridge Spies’ and Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes are reproduced all over the world, yet she herself remains comparatively unknown.

The original glass plates and prints that Ramsey stored in her Post Office Terrace studio remain in private ownership, and their future is uncertain. It would be wonderful if Cambridge’s University Library followed in the footsteps of the Bodleian and secured this unique archive for the nation, as it did with the Stephen Hawking archive recently. Then the great twentieth-century photographer Lettice Ramsey might at last be given the recognition – and the Cambridge exhibition – that she deserves.

© Ann Kennedy Smith 3 August 2021, all rights reserved

1915 portrait of Lettice Ramsey (née Baker) by Frances Baker © Newnham College, reproduced with kind permission of Newnham College.

Libraries for our times

‘Bodleian Library’ by A. Pugin, in Joseph Foster’s Oxford Men and Their Colleges (1893) https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Page:Oxford_men_and_their_colleges.djvu/601, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=82456602

What role do libraries play in society today? And tomorrow? Last week I was fortunate enough to attend an online conference asking these questions, marking 700 years since the founding of the first purpose-built central library for the University of Oxford (you can see three excellent short videos on the past, present and future of the Bodleian Libraries on their website here.) Over the three days of the ‘Oxford Library 700’ conference there were fascinating talks by librarians, archivists and authors as well as specialists in the world of media, science and communication on the role that libraries have played and continue to play in our global society. Recordings of talks by Bodley’s Librarian Richard Ovenden and others will be available soon via the website: meanwhile, I have listed a few of my own personal highlights below.

In his keynote speech, ‘The library as wishful thinking’, the writer and former Director of the National Library of Argentina, Alberto Manguel asked why libraries around the world are often seen as outdated institutions. ‘How can things have gone so wrong?’, he asked. Libraries are as powerful as the use we continue to make of them, and can be reduced to mere adornment if a nation perceives them as irrelevant. ‘Any cultural institution entails both the possibility of learning and of imaginative change’ he argued, ‘and also the duty to understand the use we make of these tools of survival.’ According to Manguel, if we want to make libraries and the information they hold relevant to people again, we should ‘encourage civil disobedience, behave badly, make the government do their job.’

The novelist and FT columnist Nilanjana Roy gave us a heartening glimpse into how people are continuing to access books in India, even after the coronavirus pandemic has caused so many public libraries to close. Roy is a founding member of PEN Delhi, and has spent time tracking the ‘pavement libraries’ that sprang up during the recent citizens’ protests in New Delhi. Most of these makeshift libraries were assembled by women who wanted to pass their love of reading on to their children and others in their neighbourhoods. ‘We saved the books,’ one woman told her, ‘and among ourselves, we still read.’ Roy reminds us that, wherever we are in the world, our libraries should invoke a similar ‘magical foundation of trust’, and the simple invitation: ‘come sit and read’.

Dr Sandra Collins has been Director of the National Library of Ireland (NLI) since 2015. Her talk began movingly with a treasured photo of herself as a child with her late mother, followed by a snap of W.B. Yeats with his family, to illustrate the role of a national library as a ‘memory keeper’ for all of its citizens. She showed us a photograph of John F. Kennedy’s visit to Ireland in 1963, and told us that a man had recently written to the library to say that he was the overawed young boy, seen with his mother at Dublin airport. Since the NLI joined the image-sharing website ‘Flickr’ it has had over 8 million views, Collins said, with other ‘citizen detectives’ coming forward to enrich the national collection with their memories of their past.

What will happen to our contemporary memories, she asked, now that there are so few written letters and so much that is ‘born digital’? Collecting and curating is not neutral, she explained, and told us how, as well as guarding the nation’s treasures, the NLI’s mission is to collect ‘the ordinary and the superficial’ that will help to tell Irish people’s stories in the future. This includes capturing websites and other data in a way that embraces the diversity of modern Ireland. ‘How we collect today will shape our country’s memory in future,’ she said. ‘In this way, the ordinary becomes extraordinary’.

Screenshot of Dr Gardner’s Oxford Library 700 talk, 17 Sept 2020, by A. Kennedy Smith

Dr Jessica Gardner is University Librarian and Director of Library Services at the University of Cambridge. Her talk ‘Owning the past, seizing the present’ also addressed the question of how she and her colleagues might approach the past while striving to make a library that is fit for present and future challenges. Referring to the 700th anniversary of Oxford Libraries, she said: ‘we should celebrate such momentous occasions, but we are always in a state of becoming.’ The role of libraries today should be ‘challenging the past, illuminating the present’, and she wants libraries to be places of ‘conversation and activism’.

As an example of challenging the past, Gardner drew attention to her ‘Behave Badly’ badge, which coincidentally echoed Alberto Manguel’s words in his keynote address. The badge is a replica of one handed out by the renowned historian Lisa Jardine (Jesus College’s first female fellow) in the 1970s and ’80s, encouraging her women friends to pin it under their jackets if necessary. It featured in the University Library’s recent ‘The Rising Tide’ exhibition, marking 150 years of women at Cambridge, and Gardner said that wearing it reminded her of the struggle that women at Cambridge had to gain equal membership of the university. She praised Dr Jill Whitelock‘s excellent archival research into the historical University Library as a ‘contested space’ that symbolized and reinforced privilege, and I was delighted that she also mentioned my recent blog about the 1891 petition, when 24 women lecturers from Girton and Newnham colleges politely requested access to the University Library. As Gardner says, ‘whilst their books were welcomed on the library shelves, their access to the library itself was severely restricted’.

Gardner urged her colleagues around the world to enable more people to make use of their libraries: ‘We should make our content as open and accessible as possible, for as many people as possible.’ Although access to public spaces has to be limited during this uncertain time, all of the talks I listened to last week reminded me that the future of our libraries will be to welcome more readers through their doors, and to be able to access their extraordinary collections digitally. Cambridge University Library has recently joined Google Arts and Culture so that it can share its treasures freely and openly with many more people.

© Ann Kennedy Smith 24 September 2020

 

Voyaging Out (2)

The second of my occasional blogposts focusing on book news, reviews and literary events.

The Tavistock Clinic’s original location, in Bloomsbury’s Tavistock Square
  1. Mental health This September marks 100 years since the Tavistock Clinic first opened its doors in London (now part of the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust). It was founded by Dr Hugh Crichton-Miller, who wanted ordinary civilians to have access to the pioneering ‘talking therapies’ that had been used so successfully to treat shell-shocked soldiers during World War One. In Cambridge a similar clinic was already treating voluntary outpatients at the old Addenbrooke’s Hospital. It was founded by ‘Ladies Dining Society’ member Ida Darwin, with the support of C.S. Myers and W.H.R. Rivers. Dr Helen Boyle had been providing free counselling to women and children in Brighton since 1905. You can read more about these mental health pioneers in my article ‘The Lessons of Shell Shock’ which appears in the new issue of History Today.

2. Book news: This week, on 3 September, over 600 books will be published on a single day, the first of several waves of new books appearing in October and November. The Covid-19 crisis has meant that many of the larger publishers delayed publication of their ‘big name’ authors until the autumn. Smaller publishers are worried that their authors will be overlooked, because they don’t have the money to fund publicity campaigns and host book launches. The former Booker judge Alex Clark has written about this autumn’s ‘bookalanche’. One of the books I am looking forward to reading is Richard Ovenden’s Burning The Books (John Murray Press). It’s about the deliberate obliteration of libraries and archives over three millennia, and is already getting lots of great reviews. Ovenden is Bodley’s Librarian at Oxford, and his aim is not just to write about the destruction of precious archives,  ‘but also to acknowledge and celebrate the ways librarians and archivists have fought back’, he writes.

3. Pen names Some much-loved books were also in the news this month when the ‘Reclaim Her Name’ venture  was launched to mark 25 years of the Women’s Prize for Fiction. The Prize’s sponsor Bailey’s has re-released 25 books that were written by women but originally published under male pseudonyms. The collection is free to download in e-book form, and physical box sets will be donated to selected UK libraries. The idea is to introduce readers to more international female authors, and allow women to reclaim their rightful place in literary history: ‘it’s as if women didn’t write any of these books, that the past is an unbroken line of beards and every now and again, you get one woman’ the Prize’s co-founder and honorary director Kate Mosse said.

While it’s good that women writers’ contributions are being recognized, some questions remain unanswered.  The collection includes Middlemarch by Mary Ann Evans (aka George Eliot) and Amantine by Aurore Dupin (better known as the best-selling French writer George Sand). Along with Charlotte Brontë, Eliot and Sand are described by Virginia Woolf in her book-length essay A Room of One’s Own as “all victims of inner strife as their writings prove, sought ineffectively to veil themselves by using the name of a man.”  However, as many commentators have pointed out, George Eliot and George Sand liked their professional pseudonyms and continued to use them long after everyone knew they were women. The Bailey’s venture has been criticized for a well-meaning but clumsy attempt to impose birth names – or, indeed, married names- on professional writers who in some cases were happy to leave them behind.  It might be more useful to highlight the novels of many women writers whose work has been forgotten, some of their books gathering dust in libraries.

4. Library news It’s very good news that the UK’s museums and libraries gradually began to reopen this month.  As I wrote in my previous blog, over the past months Cambridge University Library staff have been working hard to make many more collections available digitally. From today, 31 August 2020, many more people around the world will be able to access the Library’s treasures via the ‘Google Arts and Culture’ platform, which uses high-resolution image technology to allow users to explore the collections of many different galleries and museums (more information here). More objects will be added in the coming months, and it’s expected that the Fitzwilliam Museum will join the platform along with other University of Cambridge institutions. You can follow the link here to virtually tour the Library’s objects and treasures on the platform. Don’t forget to click on the ‘heart’ sign to give valuable feedback on the collection.

5. Reading recommendations (fiction) As a former dictionary writer myself (see my Slightly Foxed essay here) I have enjoyed reading Eley Williams’s The Liars’ Dictionary this summer. It’s a funny and original novel that follows the intertwining stories of two lexicographers connected to the fictional ‘Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary’ 100 years apart: Peter Winceworth, who in 1899 begins to smuggle his own made-up words into the dictionary, and Mallory, the young woman employed to create a digitised version of the dictionary who tries to track down the false entries and solve the mystery. Despite their ability with words, each of the two characters struggles with speaking their mind, and the book is a playful investigation of the limits of language and the importance of love.

(nonfiction) If you are missing libraries as I am, you will enjoy photographer Sara Rawlinson’s newly published book Illuminating Cambridge Libraries. I previously mentioned her following in the footsteps of the photographer Lettice Ramsey who climbed King’s College Chapel’s scaffolding when she was in her 70s to photograph the ceiling. Rawlinson did the same from the precarious platform of a cherry-picker, and now her fascinating book captures the look and feel of different Cambridge libraries.

In ‘North-west London blues’ her 2012 essay for the New York Review of Books, the writer Zadie Smith described how after she moved to New York to teach creative writing, the library became an important place for her to work. ‘Each morning I struggle to find a seat in the packed university library,’ she writes, ‘despite the fact that every single student in here could be at home in front of their Macbook browsing Google Books.’ It’s unlikely that libraries will be packed for a while, but it’s very good that they are opening their doors again as the autumn begins.

© Ann Kennedy Smith 31 August 2020 (all rights reserved)