Saturday, January 25, 2020

Dobzhansky, Darwin and religion

Theodosius Dobzhansky, a Russian-American scientist who did much in the 20th century to marry Darwin’s biological theories with the new science of genetics, was born 110 years ago today. His papers, held by the American Philosophical Library, include over 50 notebooks and diaries, but there is very little information about their content in the public domain - except that found in a biographical essay linking Dobzhansky’s religious outlook to his scientific understanding.

Dobzhansky was born on 25 January 1900 in Nemyriv, then in the Russian Empire now in Ukraine. His father was a mathematics teacher. In 1910, the family moved to Kiev, where Dobzhansky attended secondary school and decided to become a biologist. In 1915, he met Victor Luchnik, an older college drop-out who was obsessed with beetles. Dobzhansky studied at the Kiev state university from 1917 to 1921, specialising in entomology, and stayed on teaching until 1924. Also in 1924, he married Natalia Sivertzeva; they had one daughter. He then moved to Leningrad (now St Petersburg), to study under Yuri Filipchenko, where a Drosophila melanogaster (fruit fly) lab had been established.

In 1927, Dobzhansky went to work at Columbia University in New York City as a Rockefeller Fellow, continuing his work on fruit flies with the geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan. Subsequently, he accompanied Morgan to the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and, on being offered a teaching position there, decided to remain in the US, becoming a citizen in 1937. That same year, he published the groundbreaking Genetics and the Origin of Species, which helped establish evolutionary genetics as an independent discipline. He returned to Columbia as a professor of zoology in 1940, and remained there until 1962, when he moved to Rockefeller Institute (later Rockefeller University). After his official retirement, he went, in 1971, to the University of California at Davis. Following a long battle with leukaemia, he died in late 1975.

The Understanding Evolution website has this assessment: ‘Dobzhansky’s ability to combine genetics and natural history attracted many other biologists to join him in the effort to find a unified explanation of how evolution happens. Their combined work, known as The Modern Synthesis, brought together genetics, paleontology, systematics, and many other sciences into one powerful explanation of evolution, showing how mutations and natural selection could produce large-scale evolutionary change.’ Further information can also be found online at Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, or Genetics.

Dobzhansky left behind 54 notebooks and diaries. These are held by the American Philosophical Library which provides this information: ‘The fifty-four notebooks and diaries give a virtually uninterrupted first-hand commentary on Dobzhansky’s life and career, save for the period 1936-1941. Although the earliest dates are 1934, the first entries (sketches and data on coccinellid beetles) may have been made as early as 1917. With few exceptions, the entries are all in Russian, although two long stretches written in English occur during the late 1940s and early 1950s (presumably the years during which he felt most alienated from Russia) and from 1971 until his death. In an entry from this period, he commented that he was again writing in English so that his last thoughts would be accessible to friends and relatives unable to read Russian.’

Although none of Dobzhansky’s diaries have been published (as far as I can tell), they have been used as source material for biographical works, in particular by Jitse van der Meer in his essay on Dobzhansky for Eminent Lives in Twentieth-century Science & Religion (edited by Nicolaas A. Rupke, published by Peter Lang in 2009). Some pages can be previewed online at Googlebooks. The following paragraphs, quoted directly from the essay, are based almost entirely on information gleaned from Dobhansky’s diaries, and are referenced by van der Meer with over a dozen citations (not included here) from those diaries (held by American Philosophical Library).

‘. . . This is why he was concerned about moral and religious education. In 1969, following a conversation with his grandson Nicolai he wrote about the younger generation: “But the trouble is that they do not have moral and religious schooling, and that they grow up to be egotists and self-centred and free thinkers”.

Religious faith had existential meaning for Dobzhansky. During the height of WW II he tried to encourage his despondent colleague and friend Leslie Dunn (1893-1974), but failed. He then observed that Dunn needed religion, but that he did not have it. Dobzhansky deliberately initiated discussions about Dostoevsky, specifically of The Grand Inquisitor, to bring others such as his colleagues and friends Carl Epling (1894-1968) and Alfred Ezra Mirsky (1900-74) closer to God. He tried to be Christian and prayed almost every morning. Many notes in his diary, especially from the last years of his life, started and ended with expressions glorifying God. For instance, the entry for March 1, 1971 has the traditional ending, “but first of all God, glory to you.” He prays for strength in the face of illness, pain and death and thanks God for the grace of his blessings.

One of the most important characteristics of Russian Orthodoxy is the religious unity of believers in the practical and spiritual sense expressed in the idea of sobornost. This formed the context for Dobzhansky’s concerns about the Church. For instance, he appears hopeful about the apparently unusual presence of young people at a Russian church service. He deplores the absence of religion and the commercialization of churches in Japan and is bitterly disappointed about the rejection of his religious vision of evolutionary progress by both atheists and the Christian Church. These concerns are consistent with his own church attendance.

A further characteristic of Russian Orthodoxy is that the architecture of their church buildings reflects the universe. Dobzhansky expresses sensitivity to the spiritual symbolism of architecture after visiting the palace of Louis XIV in Versailles. Comparing it with the cathedral in Chartres he wonders how a Christian monarch could build a palace that he considers a piece of anti-Christian propaganda.’

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Pioneering women’s education

‘But the great fact is granted, the thin end of the wedge in, and, though nothing is secure till after the Senatus on Saturday, yet it is an enormous triumph!’ This is from the diary of Sophia Louisa Jex-Blake, born 180 years ago today, who led the campaign to secure women access to university education. She wrote this entry on the day Edinburgh University academics voted to allow her to study medicine. Though that decision would be overturned initially, she rallied others to her cause, and a group of women were then admitted. She herself became the first practising female doctor in Scotland; and she was involved in founding two medical schools for women.

Jex-Blake was born on 21 January 1840 into a wealthy, religious family in Hastings, southeast England. She had two older siblings, and was home schooled until the age of eight, after which she attended a series of private schools. In 1858, she enrolled at Queen’s College, London, despite her parents’ objections. While still a student, she worked as a mathematics tutor, though her father refused to allow her to accept payment for this. She became firm friends with Octavia Hill (who would later become a celebrated social reformer), though Hill broke off the relationship. In the early 1860s, Jex-Blake spent some time travelling in the United States, learning about women’s education and working as an assistant at a hospital in Boston. In 1867, she applied to study medicine at the University of Harvard, but was rejected on the grounds that she was a woman. Later that same year her father died and she returned to England.

In 1869, Jex-Blake published an essay - Medicine as a profession for women - arguing the case for equal access for women to medical education. She also applied to the medical faculty of Edinburgh University. Although she won acceptance by the academic board, the university’s court rejected her application because the university should not make the necessary arrangements ‘in the interest of one lady’. Jex-Blake responded by advertising for other applicants, who then formed a group - which became known as the Edinburgh Seven - to apply for admission together. They were the first formally admitted undergraduate female students at any British university. However, there was a backlash. The following year, 200 angry men physically prevented the women from sitting an exam. The resultant publicity provoked widespread debate on women’s education, but the University of Edinburgh caved in, refusing to allow the seven women to graduate. A court case followed which, in 1873, the university won.

In 1874, Jex-Blake helped establish the London School of Medicine for Women. In 1877 Jex-Blake was awarded her M.D. by the University of Berne, and later the same year she qualified as Licentiate of the King’s and Queen’s College of Physicians of Ireland, which allowed her to become only the third woman to register as a doctor with the General Medical Council. She returned to Edinburgh, where she set up a medical practice in 1878. In the mid-1880s, she joined with Elizabeth Garrett Anderson to establish the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women, Margaret Todd being one of the early students. Jex-Blake’s management style, though, led to a damaging court case in 1889. By 1892, when the University of Edinburgh finally opened its doors fully to female students, the new school was effectively redundant. She retired from her practice in 1899, and, with Margaret Todd, moved back to Sussex, to Rotherfield. She died in 1912. For further information see Wikipedia, Undiscovered Scotland, Spartacus Educational, or the BBC.

Todd, like Jex-Blake, became a doctor, but she also published, under a pseudonym, several novels. After the death of Jex-Blake, she compiled her biography - The Life of Sophia Jex-Blake - published under her own name (Macmillan, 1918). The biography is heavily underpinned by 
Jex-Blake’s diaries, and Todd uses many verbatim extracts from those diaries. The book is freely available online at Internet Archive or Project GutenbergAccording to Shirley Roberts who has written a much more recent biography - Sophia Jex-Blake: A Woman Pioneer in Nineteenth Century Medical Reform (Routledge2005) - Todd destroyed all of Jex-Blake’s diaries as well as her own papers, before committing suicide (only months after publication of the biography). Roberts believes she did so in order to act on Jex-Blake’s instructions as found in a paragraph of her will (in which she calls for all her books and papers to be ‘burnt without examination’ if Todd should pre-decease her). Roberts’ biography can be previewed at Googlebooks.

Here are several extracts from Jex-Blake’s diaries, as quoted by Todd, several from her childhood and one from the day that the academic board of Edinburgh University first approved her application to study medicine.

29 July 1849
‘Sunday. Went to Keswick church in the morning and the text was James 4. 8. Brother went to church at Thornthwaite. Papa, Brother and Carry walked off to the Vale of St. John’s, but there was no sermon - only prayers. Went to Keswick church in the afternoon and the clergyman took his text from Ps. 119, 96.’

5 August 1849
‘Mama was very ill and I stopped at home both in the morning and afternoon with her. Papa, Brother and Carry went to Brougham-hall to church but there was no service. They went again in the afternoon to Brougham-hall - no sermon. I went in the evening to Penrith church and the text was Luke 16. 8.’

26 February 1854
‘Oh, keep Thou my foot when I go up into Thy house of prayer. O how difficult it is to fix the mind for even that short time! Miss X. will treat me unlike any other human being, but that is no reason for transgressing the commandment of my God. She says she does not like to hear me name the name of Christ for I do not depart from iniquity, she thinks I had better not hold conversations on sacred subjects.

A complaint having been made of rudeness from one of the girls, Miss X. said it was just like one of Sophy’s tricks, heaven knows with what ground. All these things have aggravated me, and I fear I have sadly given way to temper and pride, not remembering Him who bare the contradiction of sinners against Himself though He never offended in word or deed. If sometimes unjustly spoken to, how often have I escaped my desert and how few are the faults the strictest find compared with an all-seeing God. Oh, for the charity that beareth all things ...’

27 February 1854
‘I must expect trials this day, humiliating to my pride and trying to my temper...

‘Nothing special, though I gave way sadly at different times and again sinned in sending a letter to Mama.’

28 February 1854
‘Again, more and more against light, got sweets. Miss X. in her prayer speaks at poor Agnes who is just come. She prays that all may be kind to her, remembering the Fatherless and Widow are His special care, etc. How could she harrow up poor Agnes’ feelings so! The poor child was weeping under the infliction... And in the prayer she announced her intention of expelling anyone who would make the others unhappy. O I could have knocked her down, and after prayers she really spoke kindly to me about beginning March afresh and any other time I could almost have promised to try. As it was I could not kiss her even. Oh how much I think of that which might and probably did proceed from a pure motive, and do not consider my unkindness often which I know does not do so.’

1 March 1854
‘Whole holiday. Gave way to passion to A. and B. tho’ perhaps they were provoking I should better have striven to retain my temper. Alas from my feelings since it seems as if it were the letting in of water. O preserve me from being so awfully passionate as I was. Overbearing and ordering in the afternoon. Oh for the Charity which ‘is kind’ which ‘is not puffed up’ ‘seeketh not her own’ and above all which ‘is not easily provoked’.’

24 May 1855
’My answer was to come about Wales. When I got my letter I prayed God to help me to bear it, for I was nearly sure it would be a refusal, and I was quite prepared for it and determined to keep my promise not to worry about it. I put my letter in my pocket and ran away from them all. Then I burst it open and read, ‘Daddy and I have such a strong wish you should see Wales, and it is truly painful to deny you such a pleasure.’ There, thought I, but I had expected it and didn’t feel so dreadfully disappointed. Then I read on and oh, I found it was not so, that I should go. Oh, I got so excited and half began to cry. Then came Mummy’s caution not to be excited, but it was impossible. Dropped down there and thanked God. Oh, then I trust He has granted my prayer. Glory to God in the highest. Oh, I was so thankful.’

30 May 1855
‘Very difficult geometry problem. I doubt if I can do it. Mortimer was home, and told us some very good stories of ___ the nurse of his ward. Mrs. H. said in the evening she would like to be nurse there (!) She said how should I get on who so hate injustice, and I said I thought such open acknowledged injustice was not the hardest to bear. This brought down an awful storm of wonder, reasoning, etc., till at length I got off to bed so tired.’

5 June 1855
‘Throat very fairly bad, and very ‘cheval’ as M. would say. Apropos it’s her birthday....

Just before prayers I was in the cupboard and someone shut the door nearly on me. I threw it open again and half upset the great slate. We had been rather uproarious all afternoon as M’s sisters had been here and said holidays did begin on 18th. When I came out of the cupboard I managed to tread on M’s toes, and Mlle packed me off to bed. I said ‘All right,’ shook hands with her, kissed S. and went off. Mlle wasn’t very angry nor I very sorry and so we were all very comfable. Seized on K. for a kiss as she came up and she seemed forbidden to speak to me. However we had a nice hug and she wasn’t very horrified.’

7 January 1858
‘I must begin to write again if I don’t mean to lose the knack ... and so ought to go on with Hertford House or write something... I want partly to write for the money, now why, I wonder? Honestly, why? I have plenty of everything. In a handsome if not luxurious home, 6 servants all much at my orders, lots of rides, a most loving Mother, tender father, almost every wish gratified, £30 a year clear, and lots of presents, almost at will, why I should write for money unless I am avaricious or spendthrift I don’t exactly know. Partly for the pride of earning it, of knowing myself as well able to earn my bread as my inferiors. Surely, though, I ought least of all in my list of comforts - blessing, should I say? to omit my most happy, most snug nutshell of a room, with its handsome furniture, cosy fire, and thoroughly comfortable arrangements. How truly loving my most precious pearl of a Mother has been to me in this especially...

I have conceived a rather wild idea of writing to Miss M. for counsel and sympathy... But how get a letter to her? And, if I did, would she think it a bore? I think not. Send the letter to her publishers? Sure not to be opened? Then what to say if I do write? What do I want? Don’t exactly know.

Well, leave it.

Now for the more important at least more solemn part of todays journal. And I must make this some use. Just heard a sermon from Mr. Vaughan on ‘Truth,’ Gehazi being the scape-goat of warning. He spoke strongly of allowing ourselves to say more on religious subjects than we feel, calling it a dangerous deception and leading to worse. But does that include speaking a word - earnest and sincere at least - about the souls of others, tho’ our own may not be safe? Often at school I have felt driven to speak very solemnly to girls about their souls when I feel I am not worthy to say a word, for mine is perhaps as lost as theirs, and often and often have risen in my throat, ‘Lest when I have preached to others I myself become a castaway.’ Yet if I am, oh, fearful word, I can hardly write it, if lost (oh, God, save me!) can it, would it not console, if consolation were possible, to know I had warned others from the pit into which I fell. And I hope I may have done some little good... And how happy I have felt - and better in myself too, if I have even for a moment led some to think of Jesus else forgotten...

Dearest Mrs. Teed is dead. ‘Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord.’ ‘Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!’...’

18 June 1866
‘How thoughts and plans and possibilities rush upon me! The opening of the bar to women here,Mr. Sewall’s wish for a female pupil. ‘Ah,’ as I said to L.E.S. last night, ‘if I had been an American, I believe I should not have doubted to be a lawyer.’ She thinks one should be, if one has the powers and will.

Yes, but is the ‘dedication’ and vocation of years nothing? Have I believed rightly or wrongly that God meant me to do something for teaching, and that in England, to the almost certain exclusion of all other life-work? Rightly, I think.

Then, again, the ministry. What seems to draw me so irresistibly that way? Is it pride or wish of note, or is it vocation? Is it partly Dr. Arnold’s belief that Headmaster ought also to be chaplain?...

One seems at crossways, ‘the tide’ perhaps. Well, look,and surely the kindly Light will lead.’

11 April 1868
‘Within three weeks of leaving for home,what balance sheet? Nearly three years in America.

In that time complete health regained, probably better than ever before, real strength and power of study. A profession opening calmly and clearly before me, its sciences already ‘as trees walking,’ becoming clearer daily. The edge of pain all gone. But with it vivid faith and life in many directions - belief in all invisible and much reaching after the heroic. A sort of passive ‘quo fata vocant,’ a sort of ceasing to demand the very good or very true, perhaps, a sort of coldbloodedness that is not peace, a nil admirari that only ‘will do for it.’ My vocation given up or laid aside, and I quietly learning knowledge chiefly because it is power, hardly yet shaping out any end; but what does come, selfish enough. Professor of Anatomy? Surgeon? Doctor-Teacher?

Sometimes a sharp pain rushes across, ‘Ah, if Mother shouldn’t live to see me succeed!’ She does seem woven in with the heartstrings, my old darling who cannot forget.


All this health and new life - more than ever hoped for - comes mediately from L.E.S.’

23 March 1869
’10.30 a.m. Now, having done all that lies in one woman’s power - except, perhaps, an article in the Daily Review, having left a book, as a reminder, on Bennett, hunted up Sir J. Y. S. and crammed him [with] Mlle Unpronounceable at St. Petersburg, I have to do what is hardest of all, wait.

Four distinct votes in my favour, I believe, if all go and all keep faith with me. Allman ... Bennett, Balfour, Simpson. Against me distinctly, Christison, Laycock, and probably Henderson. Doubtful, Turner, Spence, and, perhaps, Syme. Besides Maclagan (ill), and Playfair (probably absent).

To lunch with Simpson at 2 p.m., and hear results.

1.45 p.m. Waiting for the verdict? How will it be? Somehow the probability seems rather for me this time, but there, the Fates are so habitually adverse! I can’t help hoping and yet I don’t expect success. I hope they won’t ‘give an uncertain sound’ and put it off indefinitely!

8 p.m. Gloria tibi Domine!... At 2 p.m. went to Sir J. Y. S., found him out, but met him in the street. ‘Yes, ye’re to be let in to the classes if the Senatus allow ye,’ of course with all provisos as to ‘tentative,’ etc. But the great fact is granted, the thin end of the wedge in, and, though nothing is secure till after the Senatus on Saturday, yet it is an enormous triumph!

Three more days’ of calling and entreating and arguing, then ‘after all these voices ... peace.’

After all, my aspiration to L. E. S. was not so ill-founded, ‘If I can be the first woman to open a British University’ then surely I, like Charlotte Brontë ‘shall have served, my heart and I’ even if I die straightway.

For May, June and July, the Botany, Natural History, and Histology, with preparation for the Matriculation exam. Oh, dear, I do feel so exultant.... In one sense I do see all the life-preamble to have been needed. The experience in the United States gave me much more chance of success now, the life there gave me health really to use the chance when it comes.

I hardly fear the future at all; not the students, nor the work. I am sorry not to be with Mother, but on the whole this must be best, I think. Four years of College! All alone? Surely not literally all the time - spiritually, who knows?

What a pity, as I said to U.D. that they will use up gold for toasting-forks! Well, I am sure the hind-wheels may run by faith for a long time now. Perhaps the tangle is beginning to unravel after all these years, and I shall have to cry, ‘Oh, why didn’t I bear on better then!’ I suppose that is always the feeling when the cloud begins to lift. But till it lifts,

‘Still it is hard. No darkness will be light
Though we should call it light from night till morn.’

And surely the Father pitieth His children.’

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Nerves before a sitting

It’s 40 years to the day since Cecil Beaton died. A famous photographer and costume designer, he was also a significant diarist. His self-edited diaries were first published in six volumes while he was still alive but, since his death, various ‘unexpurgated’ collections have also appeared. Whether heading to the BBC for an interview as a young man, or in his 60s preparing to photograph Picasso or the Queen, both of whom he knew from previous sittings, Beaton uses his diary - among other things - to confess nerves and insecurities.

Beaton was born in 1904, in Hampstead, London, the eldest son of a successful timber merchant. He was given a camera when still young, and used it to take photographs of his sisters. He was educated first at Heath Mount (where he was famously bullied by Evelyn Waugh), then at Harrow and St. John’s College, Cambridge. Even before finishing his studies, he had set up his own photography studio.

He soon developed a reputation as a fashion photographer, working for magazines such as Vanity Fair and Vogue. He also photographed celebrities, and members of the Royal Family for official publications. During the Second World War he worked for the British Ministry of Information as a documentary photographer. On one assignment he was sent East to photograph the Empire and its allies at war. After the war, Beaton designed sets, costumes, and lighting for the Broadway stage, and for Hollywood films. He was knighted in 1972. Two years later he suffered a stroke that left him partly paralysed. He died on 18 January 1980. See Wikipedia, Huxley-Parlour, or the V&A for more biographical information.

Beaton began keeping a diary while still a boy and kept the habit for most of his life, though he didn’t start publishing his diaries until the early 1960s. He carried on until the early 1970s, creating a set of six, each one with a similar sub-title, as follows: The Wandering Years (1922-1939); The Years Between (1939-1944); The Happy Years (1944-1948); The Strenuous Years (1948-1955); The Restless Years (1955-1963); The Parting Years (1963-1974). In London, they were published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson, and in New York by Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

A decade after his death, in 1991, Oxford University Press brought out two books based on Beaton’s work for the Ministry of Information during the war: Chinese Diary and Album and Indian Diary and Album. And, more recently, there have also been two books promising Beaton’s unexpurgated diaries: The Unexpurgated Beaton: The Cecil Beaton Diaries As He Wrote Them, 1970-1980 (preview some pages at Amazon), and Beaton in the Sixties: The Cecil Beaton Diaries As He Wrote Them, 1965-1969.

Hugo Vickers, who provides an introduction to both the ‘unexpurgated’ volumes of diaries and who is one of Beaton’s biographers, gave a brief summary of Beaton the diarist (in a more general article) to The Guardian: ‘As a diarist, he tried to preserve the passing moment in aspic, but there was more to it than that. Aware that he had rare access to the people he photographed, he trained himself to make pen portraits of these figures, who were closely observed and their foibles uncomfortably recorded. He was never without a marbled book with blank pages in which to scribble at free moments. His memory was good and his pen sharp. Some of his images are very funny, some unkind, but he is never dull. And nor does he spare himself in these pages. Another diarist, James Lees-Milne, thought of Beaton’s diary as a particularly spiky spike on which to be hoisted to posterity, while John Richardson thought he had ‘a homosexual’s flair for seizing on the zeitgeist’.’

See The Diary Junction for links to a few diary extracts. Here, though, is the young Beaton (taken from The Wandering Years).

June 1926
‘I’d been wondering lately if I couldn’t get a job talking on the radio. I wrote to the BBC offering my services, and received a summons to be tried. In fear and trembling, all bunged up with a bad cold, I found my way to the broadcasting place. This really was an adventure! I hadn’t told anyone except N and B. I was interviewed by a tall, rough man named Sieveking. He said, ‘Read!’ Suffering from acute embarrassment, I started to drawl a bit of a short story I’d written. But I had hardly got going before he shouted, ‘Stop!’ I couldn’t think what disaster had occurred. ‘No, I’m afraid it’s no use. Your voice just isn’t any good!’


‘Couldn’t you hear me?’ Yes, Sieveking said he could hear me very well, but mine was a voice that didn’t ‘take’. I asked, ‘Does a cold make any difference?’

‘It would.’

‘Well, I have a bad cold.’

At last Sieveking confessed, ‘It’s no good pretending. With most people I beat around the bush and make false excuses. But if you won’t be grossly insulted, I’ll tell you just what’s wrong.’

‘Yes, I’d be interested.’

‘Well, when you’re broadcasting you’re talking to the masses. These people don’t like being talked down to or patronised.’ What he was trying to say was that I had an over-cultured up-stage sort of voice! This was a bitter shock for me. I’d always thought I spoke in a less affected way than my friends. No, Sieveking stood firm. I didn’t speak English as it should be spoken. I talked with an Oxford accent.

‘Surely not! I went to Cambridge.’

Sieveking then gave me an imitation of my voice. It sounded so exaggeratedly high-class as to make me almost sick! Why, I talked just like the silly ass in musical comedy - the nut with spats, large buttonhole and eyeglass! I felt annoyed, but flattered that the man had told me the truth. I said I could easily get rid of my faults if I practised, and would come again when my cold was better. I’d better try to talk to the masses in a straightforward way.

I came home and ate worms. Hell and damn!’

24 August 1936
‘It was on one of these mornings that the breakfast tray brought with it a fatal telegram: ‘Daddy gravely ill. Come.’ In a flash, everything changed. My mood, my life, the colour of the room, the significance of everything altered.

Since I was very small, I had always wondered what would happen if one of my parents died. The mere contemplation of such an event brought tears to my eyes. Now it had materialised in absentia, and it hurt sufficiently for me to cry. In a few minutes I got through to London on the telephone. My mother was suffering greatly, and wailed hysterically for me to come. My father had died of a heart attack at dawn. . .’

And here is Beaton in his sixties (taken from Beaton in the Sixties).

28 April 1965
‘It is strange that at an age of over 60, I should be able to work myself into such a nervous condition at the idea of photographing Picasso. I was certainly extremely on edge. I remember when I first photographed him in the early thirties, at that time I could speak very little French. . .’

18 September 1968
‘. . . I felt I must try to get a new picture of the Queen . . . Martin Charteris rang from Balmoral to say the Queen was not averse to my taking some new pictures of her. Later the phrase changed to ‘would be pleased’ and it was added that I should take some pictures specially for new stamps to be issued in the Channel Islands.

I suppose I’ve forgotten that in earlier days I would get ‘nerves’ before an important sitting, but certainly this time I felt quite anxious. The difficulties are great. Our points of view, our tastes are so different. The result is a compromise between two people and the fates play a large part. One does not know if things will conspire against me, or if the sun should shine.

There have been so many pictures of the queen in tiara, orders and crinoline that I felt I must try something different. I asked Martin if a deerstalker cloak would be suitable. No, he didn’t think so, but what about an admiral’s cloak? Nave-blue serge. That sounded great and when I saw the cape in his office, felt this would be an enormous asset. . . Martin telephoned to say the Queen had agreed to wear the cloak, was rather giggly about the whole thing, and said it didn’t matter what she wore underneath it as it wouldn’t show if she had nothing on. ‘Oh, the saucy thing!’ Eileen said when I relayed this piece of information to her. . .’

‘[Later in the same (long) entry about the photos:] . . . Maybe I was tired, but no question of masterpiece. How could the camera be so cruel? There was no imperfection it glossed over! I was appalled, really dunched. Blau [head of Camera Press which distributed Beaton’s photographs] comforted me, said he thought it a remarkable collection, the Queen shown in honesty as she is today, a woman of 42, no longer a child, not a film star, not made up for photographs, not particularly interested in her appearance. This was an interesting set.

The following day I was fresher. The rapturous cries of others helped me. The slight retouching helped too . . . Martin seemed enthusiastic, liked the cloak, and I left for America (I write on the plane against time)) without knowing if the cape will be approved or not. In fact, it is still in the hands of fate what results will come out of this latest milestone in my career. Or is it a nail in the coffin?’

This article is a revised version of one first published 10 years ago on 18 January 2010.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

The Mountains of Jagga

‘This morning we discerned the Mountains of Jagga more distinctly than ever; and about ten o'clock I fancied I saw a dazzlingly white cloud.’ This passage from the diary of the German missionary Johannes Rebmann - born two centuries ago today - describes the first moment any European set their eyes on the mountain that would become known as Kilimanjaro. The white cloud was, of course, snow, but when reports of a snow-capped mountain so close to the equator reached Europe, they were not believed.

Rebmann was born on 16 January 1820 to a farmer and winegrower in Gerlingen, Württemberg, southern Germany. From an early age, it is said, he aspired to be a preacher. Indeed, he trained as a missionary first in Basel, and then, from 1844, at the Church Missionary Society College, London. The following year he was ordained as a priest by the Bishop of London. In 1846, he travelled to East Africa, Mombassa, in the area which is now Kenya, where he joined a veteran missionary Johann Krapf, who had recently lost his wife and daughter to malaria.

Rebmann and Krapf together were able to set up some of the first mission posts in the region. In 1848, Rebmann was the first European to see Mt. Kilimanjaro, and the following year Krapf first sighted Mt. Kenya. At first the existence of these mountains was not believed in Europe, but it was Rebmann’s accounts and sketches that eventually stimulated more systematic scientific exploration of the area, including expeditions looking for the sources of the Nile. Rebmann and Krapf also visited other areas of Africa, including the Great Lakes and Mt. Meru. Rebmann married another missionary, Emma - they worked together for 15 years until her death in 1867. Rebmann learned to speak several native languages; he completed a dictionary of the Nika language, and he compiled the first ever Chichewa language dictionary.

Having almost lost his eyesight, Rebmann returned to Germany in 1875, the first time in nearly 30 years. He lived in Korntal near Stuttgart, where he was close to his old friend Krapf. In 1876, he married the widow of another missionary, from India, Louise Däuble, but Rebmann died within a few months. Further information is available from Wikipedia, the Johannes-Rebmann Foundation (a religious society devoted to Rebmann and his memory), or Climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

According to the above biographical information, Rebmann kept a diary from 1848 for the rest of his life. One extract is widely quoted, not least by Wikipedia, which concerns the first sighting of, what is now known as, Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa.

10 November 1848
‘This morning we discerned the Mountains of Jagga more distinctly than ever; and about ten o'clock I fancied I saw a dazzlingly white cloud. My Guide called the white which I saw merely ‘Baridi,’ cold; it was perfectly clear to me, however, that it could be nothing else but snow.’

The full text of the Rebmann’s 1848-1849 diary - in German - is available on the Johannes-Rebmann Foundation website. The same website also offers a (rather crude) English translation of a longer passage from the diary concerning the first sighting of Dschagga/Jagga. (Curiously, and I have no explanation for this, the passage starts with the date 11 May.)

‘May. 11. At daybrake we left. When we had walked for about half an hour, we saw right from us 2 people who ran away when they saw us. Bana Cheri wanted to shoot with the shotgun. But the Teitas, who thought that the refugees were compatriots, refused him to do that and ran after them, but they couldn’t catch up with them. Northeastern we saw a mountain, about 2 day trips away, that’s called Ongotia and that should belong already to Ukamba land. After another half an hour we arrived in a desert where again more gras grew and where it therefor was harder to walk, particulary as we had not one small foot path. The normal way goes along Daffeta [e.d.: nowadays Taveta, a market place in Kenya at the border to Tanzania], where my guide didn’t want to go because he was in quarrels with the king of that country. This morning we saw the mountains of Dschagga clearer and clearer, until I thought at about 10 am that I see on on the top of one of them a noticeable white clowd. My guide confirmed me first in my opinion - if he wanted to hide the truth from me or if in fact in that moment a white cloud floated around the mountain, I didn’t know. When we had walked a bit more, I noticed again the white and I asked my guide again, if that there really could be a white clowd. While he answered, this would be a clowd, but he wouldn’t know what the white is - he assumed it would be cold - I got obvious and sure that it can’t be anything else than snow, for which the people have no name, because it never falls in this region. All the strange stories about an inaccessible, from bad ghosts inhabited mountain with gold and silver in the inner, that I had heard often with Dr. Krapf at the cost since I had arrived, were now suddenly clear.

Of course, that the unusual cold forced the half naked visitors of the snow mountain to go back, or when they had to continue by order of the despotically Dschagga king until their body wasn’t totally got numb, them really killed, what then out of ignorance was put the blame on the bad ghosts. I tried to explain the circumstances to my people, but they seemed not really want to believe me. When we rested, I read psalm 111 in the english Bible, to which I came in the ordering. The psalm made double the impression on me, at the sight of the wonderful snow mountain so close to the equator, especially verse 6, that particularly and clear said that, what I only faint suspected and felt.

In N.W. we saw again another large mountain from Ukamba land, that was named Kikumbulu.

At noontime some of my people saw again some rhinos. My short face [e.d. bad eyesight] caused huge fuss, because, to see them, I continued walking, while my people let me stand still. Because of my words that I first wanted to see the animals, they shouted more that I should go back. They seemed to be very worried about me, that nothing bad will happen to me.’

A translation into English of the whole diary document by Google Translate can be found here. A further document available on the Foundation’s website is a transcript (in German) of a diary kept by Rebmann’s wife, Emma - see a here for a translation into English by Google Translate. Elsewhere, the introduction to a biography of Rebmann by Steven Paas contains more information about Rebmann’s diary (tagebuch), not least the fact that some parts of the diary have been lost.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

The horizon is getting darker

‘The horizon is getting darker. Some days ago we heard about Ristlaan’s vicious speech at the Radio House, where he, among other things, had emphasized that the people who do not understand how hostile the letter is would have no place in an ideology establishment. I am not responsible for the wording but the atmosphere at the radio has been whipped to fine froth and some exaggerations are easily born in this situation.’ This is from a diary kept by Andres Tarand in 1980-1981 during a political crisis in Estonia, one that centred on a public letter written by 40 intellectuals, including himself. Tarand - who is 80 today - went on to become the country’s prime minister for a brief period in the 1990s.

Tarand was on born 11 January 1940 in Tallinn. He graduated from the University of Tartu with a degree in climatology in 1963, and the same year he married Mari Viiding, with whom he had two sons. He went on to complete another degree in geography (1973), as well as undertake research at the Tallinn Botanic Gardens, eventually becoming its director (to 1990). In 1980, he was a signatory to the so-called Letter of 40 Intellectuals, a public letter defending the Estonian language and protesting Russification policies. He was elected a member of the Estonian Parliament in 1992 remaining so until 2004. He served twice as minister for the environment in the 1990s, and, briefly, was prime minister (November 1994 to April 1995). From 1996, he was on the board of the University of Tartu. He was elected to the European Parliament in 2004. He has also been involved in many environmental organisations in the Baltic and Nordic areas. A little further information is available in English at Wikipedia.

I have no idea or not if Tarand has been in the habit of keeping a diary, but in 2005 (I think) he published an edited version of one he kept from 1980 to 1981 - he called it Litterae non Erubescunt Diary 1980- . . .’ An English translation can be found on his own website. He says of the work: ‘This book is my diary, kept during a couple of years in the 1980s. The decade was a turning-point for most of the nations who belonged to the so-called socialist camp. Some of them, though, are still struggling with immense internal difficulties. The Letter of 40 that was an acute irritant to the authorities at the time, was characteristic only of Estonia, where the main aim was to protect and preserve the national language. The publication was partly caused by youth’s demonstrations in the autumn of 1980 but the actual reason for it was the Russification that followed the secret decree of the Communist Party in 1978. I have no wish to diminish the role of the other nations, undermining the supports of the Soviet empire, be it the revolt in East Germany or the activities of the Polish Solidarnos c up to 1980 but I would like to emphasize that the fear of losing one’s native language is obviously inversely proportional to the size of the nation.’

Tarand claims that ‘changes in the text compared to the original diary are minimal and basically linguistic not contextual’. However, it seems, for several reasons, to be more of a diary-memoir than pure diary. Firstly, the narrative often flows as if written in the past, and is rarely interrupted by a date heading/headline (eg: ‘On the morning of 21 November I went to . . .’ and ‘The last week of November was rather eventless for me. . .’). Secondly, there are many entries which benefit from future knowledge (but this may be because, at the time, he wrote the diary days or weeks later). There are also many contextual additions (eg: letters) to the diary from later dates. Nevertheless, the work provides interesting detail, both personal and political, on events of the time.

7 January 1981
’The horizon is getting darker. Some days ago we heard about Ristlaan’s vicious speech at the Radio House, where he, among other things, had emphasized that the people who do not understand how hostile the letter is would have no place in an ideology establishment. I am not responsible for the wording but the atmosphere at the radio has been whipped to fine froth and some exaggerations are easily born in this situation. The idiocy embraced also the 1 January concert of the Ellerhein chamber choir the last song of which was announced as an English folk song Night. Actually, the beautifully performed song that was heard was Silent Night. Somebody, obviously the Central Committee employee Toomas Leito, “told the ones who needed to know“ and the event and song were declared to be dirt. And that despite the fact the the whole programme was made up of spiritual music of the seventeenth century. This clearly shows that not religion but cultural coherence is under attack, just like 40 years ago people who had the so-called English orientation were deported to Siberia or nothing can be heard of the “third way“ in 1944.

This is some general background. More concrete steps are summons to top men again. Fred Jü ssi had been summoned to Slutsk, Ita Saks to Jõ eruüü t. Juhan Viiding was at Kuusberg‘s already yesterday. These are the first blossoms of the third round.

Late at night the phone rang. Rein Saluri sounded a bit more sober than he actually was. When I had gone up to his flat, it became clear at once what he was trying to talk about. His mixed up phrases and fragmentary sentences summed up as a lament how difficult it was for him and Jõ eruüü t to condemn Ita Saks at the party bureau session. This was given as a reason why both men were drinking excessively. Another worry seemed to be that the authors of the letter have carelessly given a blow to the Estonian culture in general, as now the journal Keel ja Kirjandus (Language and Literature) was being investigated. The pillars of culture, he said, were extremely busy saving the Estonian culture and they were irreplacable as there were so few of them. This was about Kuusberg as the secretary of the Writers‘ Union among others. The emphasisis laid on the differences between him as a pillar and me as a second-rate figure made me angry for a while and my reply was that Saluri’s inner tensions and ambiguity between the party life and culture should not be extended to culture in general. Piret Saluri was obviously embarrassed about her husband‘s proclamations and the next day she tried to explain his outbursts by the undue influence Jo eru u t had on Saluri.

Evidently at the same time another conversation like that took place in Tartu between Hans Trass and another student of his - Martin. These two men discussed the possible sad fate of the Botanic Gardens thanks to the unworthy behaviour of the vice director. It is only a supposition and Martin should be more than medium-drunk to admit it.’

8 June 1981
’On the 8th of June something happened in the Botanic Gardens that I eyewitnessed. I still do not know how much it was connected with the letter, i.e. the connection has been openly admitted but its deeper meanings have not been disclosed. I came to work from our summer cottage by the morning bus and so could not get there before 11 a.m. In my office, Pä ts’ kitchen, I found hordes of dead and injured bees. One swarm had settled in the chimney already earlier and now they had evidently come into the room through the flue. The weekend in the cool room and hunger had played havoc with them. I opened the window and started to collect the bees on a punchcard and placed them in the small patch of sun that reaches the windowsill only in June. Being busy with the bees I noticed three men approaching from the direction of the barn. Their gait was so characteristic of their profession that I said to myself: again some KGBeshniks, let them walk, I am busy with more important things. I did not see them any more and did not pay attention either. (They evidently went to make a phonecall at the secretary’s.) It took me about an hour to save the bees and do some current jobs before I could go to the clayhouse. I had not been there long when I noticed Rein Ratas going into Taimi’s room. I would not have paid much attention to it had he not had a very peculiar look on his face. About ten minutes later another man appeared in the same corridor, asking for me. Approaching him I recognized the senior investigator Jaup. I greeted him and commented on our former acquaintance. He asked me to come out for a private talk. We had our private talk in front of the clayhouse. Jaup asked whether Aasalo was our employee and I answered in the affirmative. Jaup said he had a search warrant for Aasalo’s workplace and home both and passed it to me. I made clear that the warrant was indeed sanctioned by the prosecutor and could not think of anything to gain time. It might be possible that this is what the brigade was waitng for, some underground activity perhaps. (Why else did they not do anything before, although they had been at the Botanic Gardens already since morning?) As Martin was on a business trip in Tartu, I was the highest official present and could not protest. Jaup asked me whether I knew anything of the key to Aasalo’ safe. I said that I had not worked in that house for some time and did not know even the safe for sure. On our way towards the 46th house, Jaup deliberated about how we (the forty authors) had wanted to do good but the letter had got abroad and now they had to investigate again how it could happen. I might have asked what sort of crime was spreading a not anti-soviet material but the warrant stated “also anti-soviet material”. I was afraid that there might be something like that in the safe and in this case I must be stricktly official. I was still hoping to gain time with looking for the key but it became clear how nai ve I was at once. Two more KGB men who joined us in front of the greenhouse did not introduce themselves. When we reached no 46, the taller, spectacled one, stood on watch about ten metres from the door (does this mean that they hoped to discover some organized activities?). Together with the others we entered the passage where three safes stand one upon another. We asked which of them could be Aasalo’s. L. Saaver did not know but Sander who was coming downstairs suggested that we should try the upper one as the middle one was mine. The last hint was quite unnecessary and I did not like it at all, as my safe was full of maps, among them copies of the presently “secret” ones. The investigators were very happy about Sander’s directions and they were ready to open the upper box. For that they needed the tall man who was keeping watch in the yard who stepped in, pulled a key from his pocket and opened the safe at once. A preceptive moment on the background of our thoughts at the moment when we put our valuables in a safe. . .

Later I understood that a totalitarian state could not afford to make complicated locks for safes: men in its own service would have more trouble only. I risked offering the skilled safeopeners an opportunity to open the other safes as well but they were not interested. So I just stood there and watched how the shorter KGBeshnik was taking one folder of detailed plans of land use after another out of the safe and laid them aside after having given each a cursory glance. I even started to hope that the safe was clean but then I glimpsed something pinkish red and the hope died. The searcher said hurriedly, too quickly actually, “Here it is!” and it really was there. My immediate impression that the searchers knew exactly what they wanted and the searcher was too quick, not even pretending to have a better look at everything in the safe.’

Breaking one ship against another

‘And that day in the evening, being the 11th January, being Saturday, at night there began to blow and arise a very violent storm. It began first in the south and south-south-east board, blowing extreme hard, which caused most of the ships to drive. The wind continuing about the space of four hours, one of our cables breaking, and the wind, a little abating in an hour after, presently veered to the north-west and north, with such extreme fret and fury that caused most of the ships to drive back again, many of them driving foul of one another, breaking their cables, being foul and twisted one with another, and carrying their masts by the board, and staving and breaking one ship against another.’ This is Edward Barlow, a chief mate for much of his life, who left behind a journal now considered to be the most important first-hand account of seafaring in the seventeenth century - all the more remarkable since he only learned to read and write around the age of 30.

Barlow was born in Manchester in 1642, one of six children. He was apprenticed into the bleaching trade but, disliking the business he moved to London, where he lived with his uncle. Through a friend of his uncle, he secured an apprenticeship with the chief master’s mate on the Naseby (renamed HMS Royal Charles), and was aboard that vessel when it carried Charles II (and Samuel Pepys - see Virtues and imperfections) back from Holland. He remained an apprentice on warships until his first merchant voyage in 1662-1664, visiting Lisbon, Barcelona, and Brazil.

Barlow served in the navy through the Second Anglo-Dutch War, but subsequently on returning from a merchant voyage to the Canaries he was pressed to work on the frigate Yarmouth. In 1670–1671 he made his first voyage to the East Indies, aboard the Experiment, but during another voyage on the same ship he was captured by the Dutch in 1672. While a prisoner of war in Batavia, he taught himself to write. He returned to Europe in 1674, and served on various vessels, voyaging to the Mediterranean and Jamaica and eventually being promoted to chief mate. 


In 1678, Barlow married Mary Symons with whom he had two children, but he was soon at sea again, voyaging to the East Indies, where he then spent much of his time. Although he returned to the Royal Navy briefly in 1692, he continued working on the East Indies route through to the early 1700s. In 1705, Barlow was finally appointed a captain - of the East Indiaman Liampo. However, unfortunately,  the vessel was lost off Mozambique sometime early the following year. Further biographical can be found online at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) (log-in required).

After learning to read and write, Barlow began to keep a journal. This he filled with small neat writing, as well as delightful maps and illustrations. Thankfully, it was not with him on his last fateful voyage, and centuries later it was purchased from the Earl of Hardwicke by Basil Lubbock (possibly having been sold to the 
Hardwickes by one of Barlow’s descendants). Lubbock edited the journal which was published (in two volumes) by Hurst & Blackett in 1934 as Barlow’s Journal of his Life at Sea in King’s Ships, East & West Indiamen & other Merchantmen from 1659 to 1703. The manuscript itself was subsequently deposited at the National Maritime Museum.

The ODNB notes that the journal is ‘justly regarded as probably the most important first-hand account of seafaring in the seventeenth century.’ It adds: ‘Fiercely patriotic and intensely curious about all he saw, Barlow was also an outspoken critic of shipowners, the naval authorities, and indeed all landsmen, who in his view either ignored or abused the common seamen. Barlow possessed more than a hint of puritan self-righteousness, constantly bemoaning the hardships of the seaman’s life and the general wickedness of the times he lived in.’

More information about Lubbock’s book and a few page images can be found at Buccaneers Reef; there are more images available online at Royal Museums Greenwich. (Indeed, the book recently made media headlines when conservation workers at Greenwich discovered a note by Barlow hidden in the manuscripts in which he confessed details of a rape he had committed - see The Guardian.) Here, though, is an extract from volume two, dating to exactly 310 years ago. Barlow’s vessel was returning to England (the Downs is an anchorage off the east coast of Kent) when it encountered a ferocious storm.

January 1690
‘And then we directed our course up our Channel for the Downs, seeing no ship or boat all the time, although we had wars then with France, and the Channel full of privateers’ men-of-war - but that was then more than we knew and so we feared it not: but we must praise God in his providence over us in one thing, for all the way we came up the Channel we have very thick, misty and close weather, that sometimes we could not have seen a ship if she had been within a mile of us; neither did we see any land till we came up almost as high as the Isle of Wight.

And the next day in the morning we were within seven leagues of Dover, near Dungeness, and then we saw two ships, the one a Hollander, a privateer, which we spoke with, and the other was a French privateer as we judged afterward, he showing English colours, but came not near us, we being near the land and had a very fair and fresh gale of wind and near to our port.

And in the evening, we came in sight of the Downs, having had a passage from the island of St. Helena of 63 days, a very good and quick passage, for we did not touch at the island of Ascension, not knowing who we might meet there nor what might happen.

So before we came into the Downs, we saw a mighty fleet of ships there, and could perceive several men-of-war and frigates there. One of the frigates’ boats, named the Montague, met us before we came to an anchor and was come to press all our seamen; and they told us of all the news and all the revolutions in England; that King James was in Ireland in rebellion, and the Prince of Orange was crowned King; and that we had had wars with France almost a year and that the French King assisted King James what he could in regaining the Crown, which he had lost in endeavouring to bring in Popery and plant his religion in England; and that most of his nobles had forsook him and had been a means to bring the King William to the Crown; and that King James was fled into Ireland, and all the Papists there were up in rebellion, declaring for King James; and that the French the summer before had transport soldiers and ammunition into Ireland with their fleet of men-of-war, and a squadron of our frigates, meeting them, had had a skirmish with them upon the coast of Ireland, but no great execution had been on either side.

So coming into the Downs the 10th day of January, we came to anchor and lay there all the next day, having all men pressed and carried away from us on board the ship Montagu, having some of their worst men sent on board in exchange to help to carry the ship up the river.

And that day in the evening, being the 11th January, being Saturdav, at night there began to blow and arise a very violent storm. It began first in the south and south-south-east board, blowing extreme hard, which caused most of the ships to drive. The wind continuing about the space of four hours, one of our cables breaking, and the wind, a little abating in an hour after, presently veered to the north-west and north, with such extreme fret and fury that caused most of the ships to drive back again, many of them driving foul of one another, breaking their cables, being foul and twisted one with another, and carrying their masts by the board, and staving and breaking one ship against another.

In this stress of weather our three cables broke, and we did drive foul of one of the men-of-war, and had we been eight feet more northerly we had presently sunk by her side, and a thousand pound to a penny we had all been drowned.

We cut down the mainmast; and our long-boat, breaking away from our stern, sank, wherein I lost as much goods as cost me in the Kingdom of Tonquin 500 Spanish dollars and more, it being “musk in cod” put up in lead pots, which the sea could not well damnify, being soldered up close - but boat and all was lost and never heard of after. I put it there by reason that it was goods and made mulctable by the Company, to secure it from their knowledge.’

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Diary briefs

Helen Garner’s Yellow Notebook - Text PublishingThe Guardian

Diaries of women PKK terrorists - Anadolu Agency

Diary of WW2 army nurse - Amazon, Local 12

Older: a Thought Diary - Zuleika, Islington Tribune

New edition of Julien Green’s diaries - Robert Laffont, Catholic Herald

Fourth volume of Lord Hope’s diaries - Avizandum,

Police chief’s diaries discovered - The Age, ABC

Preview of Chiang Ching-kuo diaries - Focus Taiwan

The Diary of Elizabeth Dillon - Currach Books, Independent.ie

Soldier’s war diary sold at auction - BBC, Daily Mail

Monday, January 6, 2020

The eve of some fever

‘Meanwhile, a stillness the most uncommon reigned over the whole house. Nobody stirred; not a voice was heard; not a step, not a motion. I could do nothing but watch, without knowing for what: there seemed a strangeness in the house most extraordinary.’ So wrote Frances (Fanny) Burney in her journal about the royal household where she was employed when King George III was ill, suffering from what later would be deemed a first mental episode. Indeed, with some insight she called the King’s illness the ‘eve of some fever’. Today, it’s worth remembering Fanny, one of Britain’s earliest female novelists and diarists, for it is the 180th anniversary of her death.

Fanny was born in 1752 at King’s Lynn, Norfolk, the daughter of Charles Burney, a musician and man of letters. The family moved to London in 1760, where Charles was part of a busy literary circle. Fanny was a precocious child (although her mother died when she was just 10). She was educated at home with the help of her father’s extensive library and of his friends, in particular Samuel Crisp who encouraged her to write journal-letters, in which she carefully reported on the social world around her family. And, it was writing of this ilk that led to her first novel, Evelina, published anonymously when she was only 26.

Evelina was an instant success and led London society to speculate on the identity of the writer - widely assumed to be a man. The Burney Centre biography says Fanny ‘became the first woman to make writing novels respectable’. With Evelina, it adds, she created a new school of fiction in English - a ‘comedy of manners’ - one in which women in society were portrayed in realistic, contemporary circumstances. This new genre then paved the way for Jane Austen and other 19th century writers. Fanny wrote three other novels which were published. She also penned a number of satirical plays, but her father and Crisp thought they might offend the public and they were not therefore produced. Only one was ever performed in her lifetime, and the rest had to wait until the 20th century for a critical assessment.

When discovered as the author of Evelina, Fanny was taken up in her own right by literary and high society, in particular she became very friendly with the Thrales and Dr Johnson. But the success of her second novel, Cecilia, was overshadowed by the deaths of friends and her mentor Crisp in the first half of the 1780s. During the second half of the same decade, she entered the royal household as a Keeper of the Robes for Queen Charlotte; but they were unhappy years and she was allowed to resign in 1791. Two years later, she married Alexandre d’Arblay, and they had one son.

Hoping to recover property lost during the French Revolution, d’Arblay moved his family to France in 1802, but the resumption of the Napoleonic War left them stranded there for a decade. While there, Fanny made medical history by writing about her mastectomy without anaesthesia. Later, she also remained with her husband on the Continent while he was still fighting with French Royalists. He died in 1818, and thereafter Fanny focused on editing the memoirs of her father and her own writings, especially her diary and letters. She died 170 years ago today on 6 January 1840. Apart from The Burney Centre, further information can be found at Wikipedia, The Diary Junction, The British Library, and Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Although Evelina is now considered a classic and is still in print, Fanny Burney is more celebrated today because of her extraordinary diaries, famed not only for their literary quality but for their social content. Here is more from The Burney Centre biography:

‘Although heavily bowdlerized versions of the diaries and letters were published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it wasn’t until Joyce Hemlow published her landmark biography, The History of Fanny Burney, in 1958 that the full impact of Burney’s contribution to literature and letters began to be better appreciated. Dr Hemlow’s 12-volume Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney (Madame d’Arblay), which covers the years from 1791 to 1840, also made a great contribution to the contemporary recognition of Burney’s canonical status. The remainder of Frances Burney’s journals, complete for the first time, are currently being published in two series. The Early Journals and Letters (1768-1786) is under the general editorship of Lars Troide and The Court Journals and Letters (1786-1791) is under the general editorship of Peter Sabor.’

All seven volumes of the original Diary and Letters of Madame d’Arblay, edited by her niece and published by Henry Colburn in 1842, are available online at Internet Archive. Fanny’s own introduction to her diary, written when just 15, is worth reproducing:

‘To have some account of my thoughts, manners, acquaintance and actions, when the hour arrives at which time is more nimble than memory, is the reason which induces me to keep a Journal - a Journal in which I must confess my every thought, must open my whole heart.

But a thing of the kind ought to be addressed to somebody - I must imagine myself to be talking - talking to the most intimate of friends - to one in whom I should take delight in confiding, and feel remorse in concealment: but who must this friend be? To make choice of one in whom I can but half rely, would be to frustrate entirely the intention of my plan. The only one I could wholly, totally confide in, lives in the same house with me, and not only never has, but never will leave me one secret to tell her. To whom then must I dedicate my wonderful, surprising, and interesting adventures? - to whom dare I reveal my private opinion of my nearest relations? my secret thoughts of my dearest friends? my own hopes, fears, reflections, and dislikes? - Nobody.

To NOBODY, then, will I write my Journal? - since to Nobody can I be wholly unreserved, to Nobody can I reveal every thought, every wish of my heart, with the most unlimited confidence, the most unremitting sincerity, to the end of my life! For what chance, what accident, can end my connexions with Nobody? No secret can I conceal from Nobody, and to Nobody can I be ever unreserved. Disagreement cannot stop our affection - time itself has no power to end our friendship. The love, the esteem I entertain for Nobody, Nobody’s self has not power to destroy. From Nobody I have nothing to fear. The secrets sacred to friendship Nobody will not reveal; when the affair is doubtful, Nobody will not look towards the side least favourable.’

And here are a few of her diary entries from a time when King George III was beginning to have a ‘sanity crisis’ (a phrase from the Burney Society biography). In fact this was one of the King’s very first episodes in what would later become his chronic mental illness. (See Wikipedia’s entry on George III for a correlation of the dates - ‘in November [1788] he became seriously deranged . . .’).

3 November 1788
‘. . . However, we are all here in a most uneasy state. The King is better and worse so frequently, and changes so, daily, backwards and forwards, that everything is to be apprehended, if his nerves are not some way quieted. I dreadfully fear he is on the eve of some severe fever. The Queen is almost overpowered with some secret terror. I am affected beyond all expression in her presence, to see what struggles she makes to support serenity. To-day she gave up the conflict when I was alone with her, and burst into a violent fit of tears. It was very, very terrible to see! How did I wish her a Susan or a Fredy! To unburthen her loaded mind would be to relieve it from all but inevitable affliction. Oh, may Heaven in its mercy never, never drive me to that solitary anguish more! - I have tried what it would do; I speak from bitter recollection of past melancholy experience.

Sometimes she walks up and down the room without uttering a word, but shaking her head frequently, and in evident distress and irresolution. She is often closeted with Miss Goldsworthy, of whom, I believe, she makes inquiry how her brother has found the King, from time to time.

The Princes both came to Kew, in several visits to the King. The Duke of York has also been here, and his fond father could hardly bear the pleasure of thinking him anxious for his health. ‘So good,’ he says, ‘is Frederick!’

To-night, indeed, at tea-time, I felt a great shock, in hearing, from General Bude, that Dr. Heberden had been called in. It is true more assistance seemed much wanting, yet the King’s rooted aversion to physicians makes any newcomer tremendous. They said, too, it was merely for counsel, not that His Majesty was worse.

Ah, my dearest friends! I have no more fair running journal: I kept not now even a memorandum for some time, but I made them by recollection afterwards, and very fully, for not a circumstance could escape a memory that seems now to retain nothing but present events.

I will copy the sad period, however, for my Susan and Fredy will wish to know how it passed; and, though the very prospect of the task involuntarily dejects me, a thousand things are connected with it that must make all that can follow unintelligible without it.’

4 November 1788
‘Passed much the same as the days preceding it; the Queen in deep distress, the King in a state almost incomprehensible, and all the house uneasy and alarmed. The drawing-room was again put off, and a steady residence seemed fixed at Windsor.’

5 November 1788
‘Oh, dreadful day! My very heart has so sickened in looking over my memorandums, that I was forced to go to other employments. I will not, however, omit its narration. ‘Tis too interesting ever to escape my own memory, and my dear friends have never yet had the beginning of the thread which led to all the terrible scenes of which they have variously heard.

I found my poor Royal Mistress, in the morning, sad and sadder still; something horrible seemed impending, and I saw her whole resource was in religion. We had talked lately much upon solemn subjects, and she appeared already preparing herself to be resigned for whatever might happen.

I was still wholly unsuspicious of the greatness of the cause she had for dread. Illness, a breaking up of the constitution, the payment of sudden infirmity and premature old age for the waste of unguarded health and strength, - these seemed to me the threats awaiting her; and great and grievous enough, yet how short of the fact!

I had given up my walks some days; I was too uneasy to quit the house while the Queen remained at home, and she now never left it. Even Lady Effingham, the last two days, could not obtain admission; she could only hear from a page how the Royal Family went on.

At noon the King went out in his chaise, with the Princess Royal, for an airing. I looked from my window to see him; he was all smiling benignity, but gave so many orders to the postillions, and got in and out of the carriage twice, with such agitation, that again my fear of a great fever hanging over him grew more and more powerful. Alas! how little did I imagine I should see him no more for so long - so black a period!

When I went to my poor Queen, still worse and worse I found her spirits. She had been greatly offended by some anecdote in a newspaper - the Morning Herald - relative to the King’s indisposition. She declared the printer should be called to account. She bid me burn the paper, and ruminated upon who could be employed to represent to the editor that he must answer at his peril any further such treasonable paragraphs. I named to her Mr Fairly, her own servant, and one so peculiarly fitted for any office requiring honour and discretion. ‘Is he here, then?’ she cried. ‘No,’ I answered, but he was expected in a few days.

I saw her concurrence with this proposal. The Princess Royal soon returned. She came m cheerfully, and gave, in German, a history of the airing, and one that seemed comforting.

Soon after, suddenly arrived the Prince of Wales. He came into the room. He had just quitted Brighthelmstone. Something passing within seemed to render this meeting awfully distant on both sides. She asked if he should not return to Brighthelmstone? He answered yes, the next day. He desired to speak with her; they retired together.

I had but just reached my own room, deeply musing on the state of things, when a chaise stopped at the rails; and I saw Mr. Fairly and his son Charles alight, and enter the house. He walked lamely, and seemed not yet recovered from his late attack.

Though most happy to see him at this alarming time when I knew he could be most useful, as tliere is no one to whom the Queen opens so confidentially upon her affairs, I had yet a fresh start to see, by his anticipated arrival, though still lame, that he must have been sent for, and hurried hither.

Only Miss Planta dined with me. We were both nearly silent: I was shocked at I scarcely knew what, and she seemed to know too much for speech. She stayed with me till six o’clock, but nothing passed, beyond general solicitude that the King might get better. . .

Meanwhile, a stillness the most uncommon reigned over the whole house. Nobody stirred; not a voice was heard; not a step, not a motion. I could do nothing but watch, without knowing for what: there seemed a strangeness in the house most extraordinary.

At seven o’clock Columb came to tell me that the music was all forbid, and the musicians ordered away!

This was the last step to be expected, so fond as His Majesty is of his Concert, and I thought it might have rather soothed him: I could not understand the prohibition; all seemed stranger and stranger.’


This article is a revised version of one first published 10 years ago on 6 January 2010

Friday, January 3, 2020

A Russian princess in Nazi Berlin

Seventy years ago today, a young dispossessed Russian princess, Marie Vassiltchikov, arrived in Berlin looking for work, and a new start to her life. But Germany was at war, and the job she found would see her on the periphery of a plot to murder Hitler, and then escape to Vienna. Through all the turmoil of those days, she would keep a diary. Much later, this would be published to great acclaim as ‘one of the most extraordinary war diaries ever written’.

Vassiltchikov was born in 1917 in Saint Petersburg, the fourth of five children. Her father was the Fourth Duma, Prince Hilarion Vassiltchikov and her mother the former Princess Lidiya Vyazemskaya. Following the Bolshevik October Revolution in 1919, the family fled Russia by joining members of the Romanov family evacuated by the British fleet. Vassiltchikov lived as a refugee, initially in the French Third Republic, then Weimar Republic Germany, and then Lithuania where her father’s family had owned property before the revolution. She worked for a while at the British legation, and remained in Lithuania until just before the start of World War II.

In early 1940, Vassiltchikov and her sister travelled to Berlin where, as stateless persons and qualified linguists, they were able to obtain work permits. After brief employment with the Broadcasting Service, Vassiltchikov transferred to the Auswärtiges Amt (AA), the German Foreign Ministry’s Information Office, where she worked as an assistant to Dr. Adam von Trott zu Solz, a key member of the anti-Nazi faction. Indeed, von Trott was one of the group who plotted to kill Hitler on 20 July 1944. Following the attempt, Vassiltchikov and others went to Gestapo headquarters to plead for his life, bringing bring food and other packages until they were warned by a guard not to return.

After von Trott’s execution, Vassiltchikov fled to Vienna, where she worked as a nurse. At the end of the war, it is said she was found by the US army digging for food outside a concentration camp. After the war, she worked as an interpreter for US Army. She married Captain Peter Harnden in 1946, and they settled in Paris, where they had four children, and where Harnden opened an architectural firm. After Harnden’s death, Vassiltchikov moved to London where she died in 1978. Further information can be found at Wikipedia.

A great deal is known about Vassiltchikov’s life in Berlin as, from just before her arrival in the city until the end of the war, she kept a diary. Later in life she started editing these diaries, but it was her brother George H. Vassiltchikov who completed the process, leading to pubilcation in 1985 by Chatto & Windus of The Berlin Diaries 1940-1945 (reprinted by Pimlico in 1999). The book received excellent reviews, not least from John Le Carré: ‘Quite simply, one of the most extraordinary war diaries ever written. Innocent and knowing at once, it portrays the death of Old Europe through the eyes of a beautiful young aristocrat whose world itself is dying with the events that she describes.’ Some pages can be previewed at Googlebooks and Amazon, and a review can be read at The New York Times. (It is worth noting also that the Imperial War Museum website has an oral history audio recording by George Vassiltchikov.)


Here are the first half dozen entries to be found in The Berlin Diaries 1940-1945.

1 January 1940
‘Olga Puckler, Tatiana and I spent the New Year quietly at Schloss Friedland. We lit the Christmas tree and tried to read the future by dropping melted wax and lead into a bowl of water. We expect Mamma and Georgie to appear any minute from Lithuania. They have announced their arrival repeatedly. At midnight all the village bells began to ring. We hung out of the windows listening - the first New Year of this new World War.’

3 January 1940
‘We departed for Berlin with eleven pieces of luggage, including a gramophone. We left at 5 a.m. It was still pitch dark. The estate manager drove us to Oppeln. Olga Pückler has lent us enough money to live for three weeks; by that time we must have found jobs. Tatiana has written to Jake Beam, one of the boys at the American Embassy she met last spring; our work at the British Legation in Kaunas may be of some help to us there.

The train was packed and we stood in the corridor. Luckily, two soldiers had helped with the luggage, as otherwise we would never have been able to squeeze in. We arrived in Berlin three hours late. As soon as we reached the flat the Pucklers have kindly allowed us to stay in temporarily, Tatiana started telephoning friends; it made us feel less lost. The flat, in the Lietzenburgerstrasse, a street running parallel to the Kurfurstendamm, is very large, but Olga has asked us to do without outside help on account of the many valuable contents, so we are only using one bedroom, a bathroom and the kitchen. The rest is shrouded in sheets.’

4 January 1940
‘We spent most of the day blacking out the windows, as no one has been here since the war started last September.’

6 January 1940
‘After dressing, we ventured out into the darkness and luckily found a taxi on the Kurfurstendamm which took us to a ball at the Chilean Embassy off the Tiergarten. Our host, Morla, was Chilean Ambassador in Madrid when the Civil War broke out. Although their own government favoured the Republicans, they gave shelter to more than 3,000 persons, who would otherwise have been shot and who hid out in the Chilean Embassy for three years, sleeping on the floors, the stairs, wherever there was space; and notwithstanding great pressure from the Republican Government, the Morlas refused to hand over a single person. This is all the more admirable considering that the Duke of Alba’s brother, a descendant of the Stuarts, who had sought refuge at the British Embassy, was politely turned away and subsequently arrested and shot.

The ball was lovely, quite like in pre-war days At first I feared I would not know many people, but soon I realised that I knew quite a few from last winter. [Missie had visited Tatiana in Berlin in the winter of 1938-1939.] Among those we met for the first time were the Welczeck girls, both very beautiful and terribly well dressed. Their father was the last German Ambassador in Paris. Their brother Hansi and his lovely bride Sigi von Laffert were also there, and many other friends, including Ronnie Clary, a very handsome boy, just out of Louvain University, who speaks perfect English - which was rather a relief, as my German is not quite up to the mark yet. Most of the young men present are at Krampnitz, an officers’ tank training school just outside of Berlin. Later, Rosita Serrano [a popular Chilean chanteuse] sang, addressing little Eddie Wrede, aged nineteen, as ‘Bel Ami’, which flattered him enormously. We had not danced for ages and returned home at 5 a.m., all piled in the car of Cartier, a Belgian diplomat, who is a friend of the Welczecks.’

7 January 1940
‘We are still searching painfully for jobs. We have decided not to ask any friends to help, but to turn directly to business acquaintances.’

8 January 1940
‘This afternoon, at the American Embassy, we had an appointment with the Consul. He was quite friendly and at once gave us a test, which rather unnerved us, as we were not mentally prepared for it. Two typewriters were trotted out, also shorthand pads, and he dictated something at such speed and with such an accent that we could not understand all he said; worse, our two versions of the letter he dictated turned out not to be identical. He told us he would ring us up soon as there were vacancies. We cannot wait long, however, and if something else turns up meanwhile, we will have to accept. Unfortunately, as most international business is at a standstill, there are no firms here in need of French- or English-speaking secretaries.’