Thursday, May 24, 2012

Victoria’s diary online

Images of all 40,000 pages plus of Queen Victoria’s diary - from 1832 to 1901 - have been published online as part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations for HM Queen Elizabeth II. Hitherto, only relatively little of her diary has been published in any form, and the full manuscripts have only been accessible to scholars by appointment. This initiative - funded by Oxford University and two Jewish foundations - is thus making a valuable primary resource on 19th century history available for the first time to a much wider, indeed a global, audience.

The Royal Archives in collaboration with Bodleian Libraries today announced publication of the ‘first release of Queen Victoria’s Journals.’ This, they said, marks not only the anniversary of Queen Victoria’s birth (24 May 1819), but also the current Diamond Jubilee celebrations of HM Queen Elizabeth II.’ An official launch was carried out by The Queen who was given a remote control in Buckingham Palace’s throne room to point at a computer screen.

Digital images of every page - 43,765 of them - in the entire sequence of the diaries are now available online. Full transcriptions and keyword searching are also available but only for the period up to February 1840 when Victoria married Prince Albert. Transcription of the remaining diaries is a work in progress.

The announcement has attracted plenty of press in the UK. The BBC drew attention to what David Ryan, assistant keeper of the Royal Archives, said: ‘The virtue of digital access is its ability to reveal the thoughts of Queen Victoria to millions around the world, providing them with a record of the important political and cultural events surrounding a monarch whose name defined an age.’ It also noted that a Twitter account @QueenVictoriaRI will tweet excerpts from Queen Victoria’s Journals throughout the Diamond Jubilee period.

The Sun noted this: ‘When asked by Bodleian librarian Sarah Thomas if she herself wrote a diary, The Queen replied to laughter from those gathered to mark the launch: “Mine’s not being published.” ’ The Telegraph says Victoria’s diaries ‘provide a fascinating insight into her life as Queen’.

Hitherto, there have been various published collections of Queen Victoria’s diary entries. The first were Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands and More Leaves, both edited by Arthur Helps, and published by Smith, Elder & Co in 1868 and 1883. Arthur Ponsonby, author of English Diaries, says she made £2,500 from the first publication and used the money to set up university and school bursaries for the people of Balmoral. Of both volumes, Ponsonby remarked: ‘the entries are so much cut and trimmed and edited for public consumption that the charm of personality is almost entirely eliminated’. In the 20th century, John Murray brought out various other editions, some edited by Viscount Esher, starting with two volumes of The Girlhood of Queen Victoria: a selection from Her Majesty’s Diaries 1832-40.

The British Monarchy website has long since offered a few choice extracts from Queen Victoria’s diaries, and both the Arthur Help books are freely available online at Internet Archive. The Diary Review has published two previous articles about Queen Victoria’s diaries (with extracts): The crown hurt me, on the 110th anniversary of the death; and The Great Exhibition, on the 160th anniversary of its opening.

According to the newly established Queen Victoria’s Journals website (established by The Royal Archives and Bodleian Libraries with the involvement of the publisher ProQuest), the diaries detail household and family matters, reflect affairs of state, describe meetings with statesmen and other eminent figures, and comment on the literature of the day.

There is plenty of other interesting information on the website about the diaries. There are, for example, four different versions, none of which covers the whole period, from 1832 to 1901: the original which she wrote herself (only 13 small purple and marbled volumes survive); a manuscript, abridged transcript written by the Queen’s youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice; a typed transcript prepared for Lord Esher (the first Keeper of the Royal Archives); and four volumes of drafts written by the Queen herself (all relating to visits to and from various members of European royal families).

Without any further information or explanation, the website says ‘The digital version of Queen Victoria’s Journals has been managed and funded by the Bodleian Libraries, thanks to the generosity of the following supporters: The Polonsky Foundation, The University of Oxford, The Zvi and Ofra Meitar Family Foundation.’ The Bodleian, which has managed the project, is part of the University of Oxford; and the other two are both funded by wealthy Jewish interests.

The Polonsky Foundation’s primary objectives ‘are to support higher education internationally, principally in the arts and social sciences, and programmes favouring the study and resolution of human conflict’. Much of this work, it says, is part of ongoing programmes being undertaken in conjunction with various Departments of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, as well as other organisations within the United States and the United Kingdom.’ The Polonsky Foundation, which was set up by Leonard Polonsky, an American who studied at Oxford, and now runs Hansard Global Plc, provides financial solutions for international clients. The Zvi and Ofra Meitar Family Foundation says it ‘contributes to a broad range of organizations and activities in education and culture in Israel and abroad’. It was established by Zvi Meitar in 2004 to support young people outstanding in their field and to promote selected projects.

The new online archive of Queen Victoria’s diaries will remain freely available to British users and some specific libraries elsewhere, but, it will only remain freely available to other users until July 2012.

Monday, May 14, 2012

H-t was with me

August Strindberg, considered by some to be the most celebrated Swedish author and playwright of all time, died a century ago today. Not known as a diarist, he did keep an intermittent journal - with very brief entries - for 10 years or so towards the end of his life. Parts of the journal were published in an English translation in 1965; and now, in celebration of the centenary, a Stockholm gallery has made the diary entries available online.

August was the third of seven children born to Carl Strindberg, a Stockholm shipping magnate, and his religious wife Ulrika, who died when August was 13. He attended the University of Uppsala for two years, but thereafter did various jobs including being a journalist, tutoring and accounting for some local theatres. In 1870, his first play was produced by the Royal Dramatic Theatre; other, mostly historical, plays followed to mixed reviews. In 1874, he took up a post at the Royal Library, a position he would keep until 1882.

In 1877, Strindberg married Siri Wrangel, who had been an officer’s wife but was avidly interested in the theatre. The couple had three children but the marriage was always under strain, partly because of Siri’s determination to be an actress. Strindberg’s first major success did not come until 1879 with publication of The Red Room, a satirical novel. In 1882 a short story collection, The New Kingdom, so scandalised Stockholm society that Strindberg left Sweden.

For much of the 1880s, Strindberg and his family lived in Paris and Switzerland. In 1887, the couple divorced and Strindberg moved to Denmark. It was also the year, he had his first major play, The Father, published and performed (in Copenhagen). The following year he wrote Miss Julie. Strindberg, not feeling appreciated in Scandinavia, moved to Berlin for a short period. He married his second wife, the young Austrian Frieda Uhl, and they had one daughter, but after a year or so, they too divorced. Around 1895, Strindberg appears to have become interested in occultism, which led to him writing The Inferno.

In 1897, Strindberg returned to Sweden and embarked on a productive period of his life, writing more plays. In 1901, he married for a third time, to Harriet Bosse, a young actress, but by the time the couple’s daughter was born in 1902, they were living apart. In 1907, he launched the Intima Teater, to show off his own plays. Although initially successful, it ran into financial problems and closed in 1910. Strindberg died on 14 May 1912. Further information in English is available from Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica or the Theatre Database. The Strindberg Museum in Stockholm and the Stockholm Visitors Board both have listings of events connected with the centenary of Strindberg’s death.

Towards the end of his life, from 1896 to 1908, Strindberg kept a diary. The entries are usually very brief (sometimes only a single word) and intermittent, and many of them concern his relationship with Harriet Bosse. It was first published in Swedish in 1963, as Ur Ockulta Dagboken, and then it was translated into English by Mary Sandbach for publication in 1965 by Secker & Warburg as From an Occult Diary: Marriage with Harriet Bosse.

To coincide with the centenary, the City of Stockholm’s Liljevalchs art gallery is preparing a major Strindberg exhibition later this year; and, in connection with this, has launched the Strindberg2012 website to ‘let August himself do the talking’ by publishing the Occult Diary entries online - in Swedish and in English. The website cites as it sources the original manuscript, Mary Sandbach’s translation, and further translation by Hans Olsson. Annika Hansson Wretman of Liljevalchs and Mats Ingerdal of AGoodId (a communications agency) are credited with the website’s conception, transcription and realisation.

13 May 1897
‘Had horrible coffee in the morning, which ruined my nervous system and made me unable to work the whole day.’

22 January 1898
‘I’m turning 49 (7x7) years old. Last night: dreamt I found some occult books, black magic. Wanted out from a cowhouse but it was dark and I couldn’t find the exit. Woke with palpitations, and heard people above leaving. Kléen arrived.’

3 January 1901
‘Have been plagued for a couple of months by a smell of Celery; everything tastes and smells of Celery. When I take off my shirt at night it smells of Celery. What can it be?’

1 March 1905
‘Awoke by seeing a bedbug on my quilt, which I killed.’

15 January 1906
‘Spent the evening with H-t. Poisonous, gloomy, so I had to leave. H-t told me she had had a terrible inferno day; absolutely indescribable.’

10 February 1908
‘Today, the eagle was removed, which Harriet and I bought for our home. (It was, however, an eagless.) At the same moment, I broke a Japanese vase; dry rose petals fell to the floor.’

20 April 1908
‘This evening she came again, like roses, loving and full of longing. Night came; she slept on my arm, but did not desire me until towards morning, then x x x’

21 April 1908
‘The whole morning, solely as roses. Later she disappeared! In the evening she returned, but went again. At night apathetic and calm until the morning,when she sought me x x x’

23 April 1908
‘A heavy day, spent in idleness. Slept much. H-t away, but towards evening could feel her stretching me below the chest. Went to bed, grew calmer. No contact with H-t during the night. I sought her but did not find her until 5 o’clock, x x’

24 April 1908
‘A glorious morning; H-t was with me all forenoon, gentle, loving, like flowers in my mouth! Now I believe that she is free, and that we are united! But no, she disappeared in the evening, when Axel came; and although I received a summons to go to bed at 10 o’clock, she was not there to meet me. Slept, and experienced faithlessness; had bad dreams but was left in peace until morning when she sought me with passion, but without love. I responded x x x.’

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Awfully tortured by fleas

Edward Lear, the great illustrator and creator of ‘nonsense’ poems, was born 200 years ago today, the day after, in fact, the assassination of Spencer Perceval (see previous story). Though best known for his poetry - such as The Owl and Pussycat - and limericks, he was a very capable landscape painter and a diligent diarist, and loved to employ both talents when travelling. Much of Lear’s diary material is available online: four years worth of daily extracts have recently been published as a web blog exactly 150 years after they were written; and three highly illustrated travel journals, published in Lear’s lifetime, are available at Internet Archive.

Lear was born in Highgate, near London, on 12 May 1812 - the 20th child of Jeremiah Lear, a stockbroker, and his wife Ann. From a young age, he was looked after by a much older sister, and from 15, he was already able to earn a living by drawing. In 1831, he was employed by the Zoological Society of London, and a year later published a large-scale book of his coloured drawings of parrots.

Still as a young man, Lear worked for the British Museum, and also lived at Knowsley, Derbyshire, where he made illustrations of the Earl of Derby’s private menagerie. It was for the Earl’s grandchildren that he first wrote Book of Nonsense, which became a children’s classic. By the mid-1830s, he was turning his artistic talent to landscape painting, since this was less taxing on his eyesight.

Lear suffered all his life from epilepsy, and never robust, after 1837, lived mostly abroad, firstly in Rome, and later in Corfu and Malta before settling (with his cat Foss) in San Remo on the Italian coast, close to the border with France. These years saw him publish various travel books; and, in the 1870s, he produced more ‘Nonsense’ books (including Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany and Alphabets which contains the famous Owl and the Pussy Cat rhyme).

Lear died in 1888 (having never married). Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, The Victorian Web, or A Blog of Bosh, an extensive website devoted to Lear which also has a list of bicentenary events.

There are thirty extant volumes of Lear’s diaries covering the second part of his life, from 1858 to 1887. All are housed in the Houghton Library, Harvard University. However, Lear himself refers to ‘60’ volumes and to the fact that he kept journals during his Knowsley years, but later destroyed them. During his lifetime, Richard Bentley published three books based on journals Lear kept while travelling. Journals of a Landscape Painter in Albania &c. came out in 1851, and this was followed a year later by Journals of a Landscape Painter in Southern Calabria &c. Twenty years on, in 1870, Robert John Bush published Journal of a Landscape Painter in Corsica. All of these titles are freely available at Internet Archive.

It was not until 1952, that any more of Lear’s diaries appeared in print: Journals : A Selection was edited by Herbert Van Thal and published by A. Barker. The following year, Jarrolds brought out Indian Journal (edited by Ray Murphy). It would be another 30 years before Denise Harvey published The Cretan Journal (edited by Rowena Fowler).

Otherwise, several years worth of Lear’s diaries have been published online, as a blog, each day’s entry exactly 150 years after it was written. The blog was started in 2008 - the diaries were painstakingly transcribed from the Houghton Library archive by Marco Graziosi - and the intention was to finish today, on Lear’s 50th birthday. It appears, however, as though the transcribing process is continuing beyond the targeted four years on this Wordpress site.

Lear wrote his diary at some length, especially when travelling - indeed, one wonders how he had time to paint when he was writing so much. Here are two entries. The first (taken from the blog mentioned above) is from his 50th birthday, i.e. 150 years ago today, when he was in Corfu. (I have replaced several phrases in Greek with their English translations, as given by Graziosi in footnotes, in square brackets.) The second extract is from Journal of a Landscape Painter in Corsica.

Monday, 12 May 1862
‘My 50th birthday. Rose at 4.20: - off by 5.15.

Long winding paths through olive groves: then dips & struggles with quite wild places, stuffed with all sorts of underwood, the old olives growing tangly all about. Frogs there were also, & rushes. A man passing, & asked the way to Sparterò - said - [Why do you want to go to my village?] I shall not tell you.” - Small miserable collection of huts are Nicori, Palaiocori, & Βαστάτινα, & I see no fun in going back by them: so having drawn the Northern distance above the last village but one - Dragolenà, & great groups of vast olives higher up - we arrived at Σπαρτηρῖο, 20 little houses scattered here & there; [goats], & rayther wretched: - the people only half polite. Nevertheless there is superb scenery all about the place. We took a boy to guide us to Ἅ. Προκόπιος - (the best place to pass the rest of the day in,) - ever winding paths, thro’ thickets, a few scared cattle. A church (in a wilderness,) & thus by 10 - or 10.30 - reached the groves of the Holy Προκόπιος. Lunched & drew in the wide grove till 1: nothing but a very elaborate study of this wood - even if that, - could convey an idea of this beautiful place: - the quiet, warmth, & semishade are delightful. The Elements - trees, clouds, &c. - silence - [All of nature that is] - seem to have far more part with me or I with them, than mankind. After death perhaps I shall be a tree - a cloud - a cabbage - or silence in the next world: but most possibly an ass. In these Προκόπιαν holy glades are but 3 very manifold colors, - the warm pale green of the floor - with long shades: - the gray uniform freckly shimmer of the roof: & the dark brown gray of the supporting pillar trunx. At 1, or 1.30 - into the Monastery, & drew till 3 - awfully tortured by fleas, & obliged to stand in the sun all the time. As soon as I got to the sea I bathed - killing 11 fleas first. At 6. Reached the Casa [Curì]: paid Dimitri 2 dollars [. . .] - 7.30 dinner - [very much too much], & I was horribly bored by a flea!

Bed by 10.15.

Kindly good folk.’

21 April 1868
‘6 a.m. - After drawing an outline of the mountains, I am picked up by Peter, G., and the trap. After three days’ stay (and I could willingly remain here for as many weeks; for what have I seen of the upper valley or the opposite hills?) I leave Sartene, and can bear witness to the good fare, moderate charges, and constant wish to oblige of Fatima, padrona of the Hotel d’ltalie. Poor Fatima, rumour says, is forsaken by her husband, and “dwells alone upon the hill of storms,” as in the literal sense of the expression Sartene must certainly be, for it is exposed to all the winds of heaven, and from its great elevation must needs be bitterly cold in winter.

Just above the town, where the high road to Bonifacio passes the Capuchin convent, there is the finest view of Sartene and the mountains; the whole town stands out in a grand mass from the valley and heights, and there is something rough and feudal in its dark houses that places its architecture far above that of Ajaccio in a picturesque sense. But to halt for drawing now is not to be thought of, inasmuch as this day’s journey to Bonifacio is not only a long one, but because in the whole distance (some fifty-three kilometres, or thirty-two miles) there is only a single wayside house, where the horses are to bait, yet where humanity, expecting food, would be severely disappointed. Hearing which, the Suliot has taken care to pack the old Coliseum sack with food for the day.

How grand at this hour is the broad light and shade of these mountains valleys! (notwithstanding that such as leave their houses at ten or eleven A.M. complain of “want of chiaroscuro in the south.”) How curious are the chapel-tombs, so oddly and picturesquely placed, and frequently so tasteful in design, gleaming among the rocks and hanging woods! At first, after leaving Sartene, the road passes through splendid woods of clustering ilex, and then begins to descend by opener country, shallower green vales and scattered granite tors or boulders, here and there passing plots of cultivation, and ever farther away from the high central mountains of the island. Now the distance sweeps down to lower hills, all clothed in deep green “maquis,” and at every curve of the road are endless pictures of gray granite rocks and wild olive.

While I am thinking how pleasant it would be to get studies of this very peculiar scenery, by living at Sartene, and walking seven or eight miles daily, Peter suddenly halts below the village of Giunchetto, which stands high above the road. “What is the matter?” says G.; but Peter only points to the village and crosses himself, and looks round at me. “What has happened?” I repeat. Peter whispers, “In that village a priest has lately died, and without confessing himself.” In the midst of visions of landscape - “What,” as Charles XII said to his secretary, “What has this bomb to do with what I am dictating?”

Farther on, near the eleventh kilometre, are some enormous granite blocks, with two or three stone huts by the road-side, and then follows a steep descent to the valley of the Ortola; looking back, you see a world of mist-folded mountains in the north-east, while ahead are “maquis,” and cystus carpets, sown with myriads of star-twinkling white flowers, broom, and purple lavender. The descent to the Ortola valley abounds with beauty, and by its verdure reminds me of more than one Yorkshire dale - here, instead of the oak or ash, depths of aged evergreen oak and gray-branched cork-trees, shading pastures and fern.

At 8, the river, a shallow stream, is crossed by a three-arched bridge; and here, near a solitary stone hut, are a few cattle and some peculiarly hideous pigs - the only living things seen since I left Sartene. Then, at the eighteenth kilometre, an ascent on the south side of the valley brings me in sight of the long point and tower of Cape Roccaspina and of the broad sea, above which I halt at 9 A.M., for the great Lion of Roccaspina may not be passed without getting a sketch of it. And, truly, it is a remarkable object - an immense mass of granite perfectly resembling a crowned lion, placed on a lofty ledge of the promontory, and surrounded by bare and rugged rocks.

The road now becomes a regular cornice coast-way, alternately descending and rising, always broad and good, and well protected by parapets; long spurs of rock jut out into the sea beyond odorous slopes of myrtle and cystus, while in some parts enormous blocks and walls of granite form the left side of the picture. Presently the road diverges more inland, and is carried through wild and lonely tracts of “maquis,” varied by patches of corn at intervals, and recalling the valleys of Philistia when you begin to ascend towards the Judaean hills from the plains near Eleutheropolis. Two flocks of goats - of course, black - and a few black sheep and pigs, who emulate the appearance of wild boars, with one man and one boy, are the living objects which a distant hamlet (I think Monaccia) contributes to the life of the scene. Occasionally glimpses of the distant sea occur; but, as far as eye can reach, the wild green unbroken “maquis” spreads away on every side.

At 10.30 “half our mournful task is done,” and the mid-day halt at a house (one of some six or seven by the wayside) is reached. The appearance of these dwellings is very poor and wretched; and a gendarme informs me that from the end of May till November they are all deserted, so unwholesome is the air of this district; and that the few peasants at present here go up at that season to the villages of Piannattoli or Caldarello - small clusters of houses higher up on the hill-side. How little cheerful the aspect of this part of the island must be then, one may imagine from what it is even in its inhabited condition.

On a rising ground close by are some of those vast isolated rocks which characterise this southern coast of Corsica - a good spot whereat to halt for Fatima’s breakfast. Looking southward, green lines of campagna stretch out into what is the first semblance of a plain that I have seen in this island, and which is exceedingly like portions of Syrian landscape. It was worth while to get a drawing of this, and I would willingly have stayed longer, but at 1 P.M. it is time to start again.

The road continues across comparatively low ground by undulating inequalities, through wide “maquis”-dotted tracts, where here and there the tall giant-hemlock is a new feature in the more moist parts of the ground. Twice we descend to the sea at inlets or small creeks - Figari and Ventilegne - in each case passing the stream which they receive by a bridge, and at these points marshes and “still salt pools” show the malarious nature of the district. Nor does the landscape painter fail to rejoice that he has chosen this method of “seeing all Corsica,” and that he is able to drive rapidly over this part of it, where there is no need of halt for drawing, for the higher mountains are far away from the south of the island, and the hills nearer the coast stretch seaward with a persistent and impracticable length of line not to be reduced to agreeable pictorial proportion. Once only, at 3 P.M., about seven kilometres from Bonifacio, I stop to draw, more to obtain a record of the topographic character of the south-west coast than for the sake of any beauty of scenery, of which the long spiky promontories hereabouts possess but little, although there is a certain grace in some of those slender points running far out into the blue water, and, though far inland, you may at times catch a glimpse of some heights of varied form; yet, be your drawing never so long or narrow, the length of the whole scene is with difficulty to be compressed within its limits.

At 3.30 I send on Peter and the trap to Bonifacio, and walk, for so many hours of sitting still in a carriage cramps limbs and head. As the hills, from the ascent to which I had made my last drawing, are left behind, Bonifacio, the Pisan or Genoese city, becomes visible; extreme whiteness, cliffs as chalky as those of Dover, and a sort of Maltese look of fortified lines are the apparent characters at this distance of a city so full of interest and history. Opposite, towards the south, a thick haze continues to hide the coast of Sardinia, and this has been no light drawback to the day’s journey, since the sight of remote mountains and the blue straits would have gone far to relieve the “maquis” monotony, driving through which has occupied so much of the time passed between Sartene and Bonifacio.

Meanwhile a space of three or four miles has to be done on foot, shut out from all distant view, as well as very uninteresting in its chalky white dryness of road, about which the only features are walls, with olives all bent to the north-east, and eloquently speaking of the force of the south-west wind along this coast. But at 4.30 P.M. fields of tall corn and long-armed olives replace this ugliness, and the road descends to a deep winding gorge or valley, closely sheltered and full of luxuriant vegetation, olive, almond, and fig. After the boulders and crags of granite, which up to this time have been the foregrounds in my Corsican journey, a new world seems to be entered on coming to this deep hollow (where a stream apparently should run, but does not), for its sides are high cliffs of cretaceous formation, pale, crenelated, and with cavernous ledges, and loaded with vegetation.

At 5 P.M. the road abruptly reaches the remarkable port of Bonifacio, which forms one of the most delightful and striking pictures possible. Terminating a winding and narrow arm of the sea, or channel, the nearer part of which you see between overhanging cliffs of the strangest form, it is completely shut in on all sides, that opposite the road by which alone you can reach it being formed by the great rock on which the old fortress and city are built, and which to the south is a sheer precipice to the sea, or rather (even in some parts of it visible from the harbour) actually projecting above it. At the foot of this fort-rock lies a semicircle of suburban buildings at the water’s edge, with a church, and a broad flight of shallow steps leading up to the top of this curious peninsular stronghold; all these combine in a most perfect little scene, now lit up by the rays of the afternoon sun, and which I lose no time in drawing.

A broad and good carriage road leads up to the city, huge grim walls enclose it, and before you enter them you become aware how narrow is the little isthmus that joins the rock-site of Bonifacio to the main land; from a small level space close below the fort you see the opposite coast of Sardinia, and you look down perpendicularly into the blue straits which divide the two islands. Very narrow streets conduct from the fortifications to the inner town; the houses are lofty and crowded, and Bonifacio evidently possesses the full share of inconveniences natural to garrison towns of limited extent, with somewhat of the neglected and unprepossessing look of many southern streets and habitations. There was no difficulty in finding the Widow Carreghi’s hotel, but its exterior and entrance were, it must be owned, not a little dismal, and the staircase, steep, narrow, wooden, dark, dirty, and difficult, leading to the inn rooms on the third floor, was such as a climbing South American monkey might have rejoiced in. Nevertheless, once safe at the top of this ladder-like climb there are several little and very tolerably habitable rooms; and, as seems to be invariably the rule as to Corsican hostesses, the two here are very obliging and anxious to please.

There was yet time to walk through the town, which I was surprised to find so extensive and populous. Some of the churches are ancient, and near the end of the rock (though the lateness of the hour, together with a powder magazine and obstructive sentry, prevented my getting quite to its extremity) a considerable plateau with barracks and other public buildings exists, and I can well imagine some days might be spent with great interest in this ancient place. As it was, I could but make a slight drawing from the edge of the precipice looking up to the harbour or sea-inlet, but from such examination it was evident that the most characteristic view of this singular and picturesque place must be made from the opposite side of the narrow channel, though it does not appear how, except by boat, such a point can be reached.

Bonifacio is doubtless a most striking place and full of subjects for painting; the bright chalky white of the rocks on which it stands, the deep green vegetation, and the dark gulf below it, add surprising contrasts of colour to the general effect of its remarkable position and outline. Returning to the Widow Carreghi’s hotel, confusion prevailed throughout that establishment, owing to its being crowded at this hour by, not only the officers of the garrison, who take their food there, but an additional host of official civilians, gendarmerie, &c, to-morrow being a day of great excitement, on account of the conscription taking place, in consequence of which event the Sous-prefet is here from Sartene, with numerous other dignitaries.

It was not wonderful that the two obliging women, who seemed joint hostesses, were somewhat “dazed” by the unbounded noise in the small and overfull rooms; nevertheless, they got a very good supper for me and my man, only apologising continually that “le circonstanze” of the full house, and of the late hour at which I had arrived, prevented their offering more food and in greater comfort and quiet. Everybody seemed to be aware that I was a travelling painter, and all proffered to show me this or that; the Sous-prefet, they said, had gone out to meet me, and the Mayor, for whom I have left a card and a letter from M. Galloni d’Istria (he lives in the Carreghi house), would come and see me to-morrow. Another of the persons at the table gave me his address at Casabianda, and begged that, if I should come there, he might show me the ruins of Aleria. The whole party, “continentals” and “insulaires,” were full of civility.

All night long there was singing and great noise in the streets, so that in spite of my camp-bed very little sleep was attainable.’

Friday, May 11, 2012

An agony of tears

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the only assassination of a British Prime Minister - that of Spencer Perceval. He was shot down in the lobby of the House of Commons by a Liverpool merchant who was detained immediately under orders from Charles Abbot, Speaker of the House of Commons. Abbot kept a diary for most of his political life, and in it he records, the day after the murder, that there was ‘an agony of tears’ in the House.

Perceval was born in 1762, the younger son of an Irish earl, and was educated at Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge. He studied law at Lincoln’s Inn, and practised as a barrister on the Midland Circuit, becoming King’s Counsel in 1796. The same year he was elected as a Member of Parliament for Northampton. Known as an admirer of William Pitt the Younger, he was politically conservative, and an active Anglican, opposing (unlike Pitt) Catholic emancipation. When Pitt resigned as Prime Minister in 1801 over the issue of Catholic emancipation, Perceval continued to prosper politically, and was appointed Solicitor General in 1801 and Attorney General the following year.

After a period in opposition, Perceval was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Duke of Portland’s administration; and, then, after Portland’s resignation, a political compromise led to him taking over as Prime Minister. He soon faced a number of crises, not least the disastrous Walcheren expedition (see Walcheren Fever story), and the madness of King George III; but, he won the support of the Prince Regent. By the spring of 1812, his position as Prime Minister was looking stronger, when John Bellingham, a Liverpool merchant, shot him dead in the lobby of the House of Commons. Further biographical information is available from the No 10 website, Wikipedia and the National Archives.

Wikipedia has a good account of Bellingham and the reasons for his killing Perceval. Essentially, he felt he had been wrongly imprisoned in Russia, where he had been posted as an export representative, and that the British government therefore owed him compensation. After several years of petitioning without result, he bought two pistols, and had a pocket created inside his coat to hold one. On 11 May 1812, he waited in the lobby of the House of Commons for Perceval to arrive, and shot him through the heart. He then sat down on a bench, was soon detained, and sent to Newgate. Tried on 15 May at the Old Bailey, he was executed on 18 May.

At the time of the murder, Charles Abbot was Speaker, and thus the presiding officer, of the House of Commons. He was born in Abingdon, the son of a rector, in 1757, and studied at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford. He worked as a lawyer first, and was then elected to Parliament in 1795. He helped reform certain legal and financial processes, and to launch the first census in 1801. That same year he became Chief Secretary and Privy Seal for Ireland. In February 1802, he became Speaker of the House of Commons, a position he held until 1817. He died in 1829.

Abbot appears to have started keeping a diary at the time of his election to Parliament, and continued through to the end of his life. It was first edited by his son Charles, Lord Colchester, and published by John Murray in 1861 as The Diary and Correspondence of Charles Abbot, Lord Colchester, Speaker of the House of Commons, 1802-1817. This is freely available to rad online at Internet Archive. Though lacking in colour, the diary is considered to be a useful historical record. Here are some of Abbot’s diary entries from the day of the murder to a week later.

11 May 1812
‘The House of Commons being in Committee hearing evidence on the Orders in Council, at a few minutes after five, I was called down from my room into the house by a message that Mr Perceval was shot in the lobby.

As soon as I had taken the chair, the assassin, a bankrupt Liverpool merchant, John Bellingham, was forcibly brought to the bar. I detained him till a Magistrate was brought, who came almost instantly; and then the assassin was conducted to the prison room belonging to the Serjeant-at-Arms, where he was examined before Mr White, a Westminster Justice; and Mr Alderman Combe and Mr Taylor, two Members who were also Justices, and thereupon committed to Newgate for murder.

Mr Perceval’s body (for he fell lifeless after he had staggered a few paces into the lobby) was brought into my house, and remained in the first picture room till the family removed it (for privacy) at one o’clock in the morning to Downing Street.’

12 May 1812
‘[. . .] In the House of Commons, by common consent, no other business was done. Lord Castlereagh presented the Message, and moved the Address. In most faces there was an agony of tears; and neither Lord Castlereagh, Ponsonby, Whitbread, nor Canning could give a dry utterance to their sentiments. The House resolved by common acclamation to present the Address “as a House,” and not by Privy Councillors. All other business was put for distant or nominal days.’

13 May 1812
‘House of Commons. Unanimous votes in Committee upon the Regent’s Message, to grant 50,000 l. among the children, and 2000 l. a year to Mrs Perceval for her life.’

15 May 1812
‘House of Commons. Motion for an address and monument to Mr Perceval in Westminster Abbey carried by 199 to 26.’

16 May 1812
‘Mr Perceval was privately buried at Charlton. Perceval, though by no means an eloquent speaker, was the ablest debater in the House; but his treatment and management of the House of Commons was by no means satisfactory to me; and I think he was not desirous of holding high either its credit or its authority.’

18 May 1812
‘Bellingham was executed at Newgate.’

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The scarlet tanager

Today marks the centenary of the birth of the writer May Sarton. She is not well known or remembered in the UK, but the anniversary is being acknowledged online by the New York Public Library and the Maine town of York where she lived for the last two decades of her life. A celebrated poet, she also became better known in her later years as a diarist, regularly publishing journals full of exquisite musings about friends, nature and her own fairly sedate life by the sea. On her eightieth birthday, the diaries reveal how it was the sight of a scarlet tanager that made her day more than any of the festivities arranged by friends in her house.

Eleanore Marie Sarton was born on 3 May 1912, in Wondelgem, Belgium, the daughter of an academic father and artistic mother. The family fled Europe in 1915, and went to Boston, Massachusetts. For eight years she studied at the Shady Hill School in Cambridge, one of the country’s first progressive schools, but, while still a teenager, went to work as an apprentice in the Civic Repertory Theatre in New York.

In 1931, Sarton travelled to Europe and lived in Paris for a year while her parents were in Lebanon. Thereafter, she went on annual visits to Europe, eventually meeting many literary and theatre personalities. In the mid-1930s, she founded the Associated Actors Theatre, though it did not last very long; and, under the pen name of May Sarton, she published her first books, a volume of poetry and a novel The Single House. In 1945, she met Judith Matlack, a professor of English at Simmons College, who became her lover and companion for more than a decade.

Sarton moved to Nelson, New Hampshire, after her father’s death, and then in the early 1970s to York, Maine, where she rented a house called Wild Knoll. Apart from writing much poetry, novels, and many autobiographical works, she taught at several colleges and universities, including Harvard. She died in 1995. Further information is available from the Language is a Virus website, which has a lot of information on Sarton, and extracts of her work, and A Celebration of Women Writers.

Sarton’s earliest published diaries are contained within Journal of a Solitude (Norton, New York, 1973) and concern 1970-1971. Today, this volume is considered the best, though Norton published many others in subsequent years, including: The House by the Sea: A Journal (1977) concerning the early years at Wild Knoll; Recovering: A Journal (1980); At Seventy: A Journal (1984); After the Stroke: A Journal (1988); and Encore: A Journal of the Eightieth Year (1993).

Sarton’s Wikipedia entry says of her memoirs and journals: ‘In these fragile, rambling and honest accounts of her solitary life, she deals with such issues as ageing, isolation, solitude, friendship, love and relationships, lesbianism, self-doubt, success and failure, envy, gratitude for life’s simple pleasures, love of nature (particularly of flowers), spirituality and, importantly, the constant struggles of a creative life. Sarton’s later journals are not of the same quality, as she endeavoured to keep writing through ill health and often with the help of a tape recorder.’

Here is one extract from the day of her eightieth birthday (taken from Encore). (A few other extracts can be read online at Amazon, and the Language is a Virus website.)

3 May 1992
‘My eightieth birthday. It seems quite unbelievable that I have lived eighty years on this earth. It makes no sense, and I do not believe it. Today, here at Wild Knoll, a very English morning with mist, the daffodils come up through the mist - romantic, and intimate.

As I lie here on my bed all dressed, I am looking at delphiniums, the first flowers that came, which are from someone I do not know, a fan in Oregon, and they have been so beautiful. The delicate, yet brilliant blue against white walls. What a joy they have been!

But this whole birthday is such an ascent of celebration that I can hardly believe I have arrived, as though I were at the top of a mountain. These last days, full of cards, many from readers, and all so moving. I was going to say “too many presents” simply because it is tiring for me opening things now - I feel like a little child at Christmas - but I am so touched by all the people who wanted to remember this particular birthday.

There are too many lists to cross off one by one because nowadays I am sending Endgame, my journal, to friends. I also have copies of the little book of my new poems that Bill Ewert has given me for my eightieth birthday to send out. Without Susan, who is here for the weekend, it would all be quite impossible. She creates order out of chaos.

We shall celebrate my birthday today, doing everything with ceremony. How rare the sense of ceremony is! Susan in a beautiful dress last night helped my heart.

And of course I think of Wondelgem, where I was born, with the poignant sadness I always feel about it and especially about my mother. I think of the beautiful garden she created and then had to leave when the German armies invaded in 1914. I wish I remembered more about Wondelgem. I do not. I am told things, so I can see myself crawling to the strawberry bed when I was a year old and being found there covered with strawberry liquid all over my face, happy as a bee. But I do not remember that, and of course I do not remember that it was Céline Limbosch who held me in her arms before my mother did. That deep bond started very early in my life, before she herself had a child.

And I think of all the birthdays. Margaret and Barbara sent two bunches of balloons. It all brought back a birthday party my mother gave me when I was perhaps seven or eight years old in our tiny apartment on Ten Avon Street in Cambridge, balloons all over the ceiling. How thrilling that seemed to me! And I remember my twenty-fifth birthday at Jeakes House, Rye. I and a group of friends rented the house from Conrad Aiken for three months, just down the street from the Mermaid Tavern and Henry James’ Lamb House. The room where I worked looked over the marshes and it was a beautiful, peaceful scene. That whole time was a magic time in my life, but in some ways eighty is an even better age because you do not have to be worried about the future anymore; you can rest on the past. [. . .]

Now Susan has gone out to get the clams to steam for our lunch. Nancy is coming, and Edythe, bringing as she always does for my birthday miniature roses which I plant on the terrace along the border inside the wall. Last year they were in flower until November. Thrilling. [. . .]

It is now eight-fifteen on my birthday night and Maggie and Nancy and Janice Oberacker are washing the dishes and tidying up downstairs. I suddenly felt I must get up here to bed, but before I go to sleep I also want to tell the big event - there were many, but one of the biggest events of today, in some ways the most moving, was when I went down after my nap at half past four and looked out at the bird feeder. There was a scarlet tanager! I have not seen a scarlet tanager here for twenty years. On the day I moved in, there was a scarlet tanager in the andromeda. I never saw him again. This magic bird was there again this evening as we had supper. [. . .]

The whole day has been a festival of love and friendship. And as I say goodnight I think of my mother and of how glad she must have been when I finally came out of her, alive and all right, and she took me in her arms.’