Thursday, December 28, 2023

An anguish of suffering

‘On way home, at night, an anguish of suffering in the thought that I can never hope to have an intellectual companion at home.’ This is George Gissing, a British novelist, a purveyor of unrepentant gloom according to some, who died 120 years ago today. As a young man he became disastrously involved with a prostitute, and, later, he married a woman who went mad. His diaries were published in 1978, and are said to shed light on his extraordinary life. However, Gissing’s gloomy novels are very much out of fashion at present, and the diaries have long been out of print.

Gissing was born in Wakefield in 1857, where his father was a chemist. Although apparently destined for a brilliant academic career, he failed to complete his education at Owens College, Manchester, because of a disastrous involvement with a prostitute, for whom he stole money. He was caught and imprisoned for a month. After his release, he went to the US for a year where he undertook literature and philosophy studies.

On returning to England in 1878, Gissing worked both as a tutor and a journalist while also writing and publishing novels such as Workers in the Dawn, The Unclassed, and Demos, which focused on the degrading effects of poverty. He was married twice, once to the prostitute and once to a servant girl, Edith Alice Underwood, but neither marriage brought him happiness. Edith gave him two children, but she was eventually certified insane.

In total, Gissing wrote over 20 novels (New Grub Street and The Odd Women being among the most well known), some of which, with a writer as the main character, were quite autobiographical. He also wrote more than a hundred short stories, literary criticism, essays, and many letters. Commentators say there is an unrepentant gloom about much of his writing. He travelled abroad several times; and, on one journey to Italy, was accompanied by H. G. Wells.

In the last decade of his life, Gissing became involved with Clara Collet. She helped take care of him and his two children, but was then disappointed when Gissing fell in love with a French woman, Gabrielle Fleury. Unable to get a divorce from Edith, he moved to France to live with Gabrielle. He died from emphysema - after catching a chill during a winter walk - aged only 46 on 28 December 1903. Further biographical information on Gissing can be found at Wikipedia, The George Rylands Library (University of Manchester), The Victorian Web, Victorian Secrets, and also in a 1948 article by George Orwell and reviews of a recent biography, George Gissing: A Life by Paul Delany, in The Telegraph or The Guardian.

More than 70 years after Gissing’s death, in 1978, The Harvester Press Limited (UK) and Bucknell University Press (US) published London and the Life of Literature in Late Victorian England - The Diary of George Gissing as edited by Pierre Coustillas. At the time of publication, the publishers stated: ‘Very few major novelists have left personal diaries. Where these exist they are a record of great interest, to the student of society, of literature and to the psychologist. George Gissing’s diary is probably the only one covering the late-Victorian period that has so far remained unpublished.’

There is also this from the publishers: ‘Professor Pierre Coustillas, perhaps the best known of all Gissing scholars, has edited and introduced the diary and placed it in its general social and literary context while also relating it to Gissing’s life and work. The editorial apparatus, including a ‘Who’s Who’ in the diary throws light on several hundred people contemporary with Gissing, and on many events which played a significant part in the writer’s extraordinary life. Professor Coustillas relates the diary to the themes and spirit of Gissing’s work.’ The published diary can be freely borrowed digitally from Internet Archive (log-in required).

1 March 1888
‘Let me describe this room. It was the first floor back; so small that the bed left little room to move. She [his mother] took it unfurnished, for 2/9 a week; the furniture she brought was: the bed. one chair, a chest of drawers, and a broken deal table. On some shelves were a few plates, cups, etc. Over the mantelpiece hung several pictures, which she had preserved from old days. There were three engravings: a landscape, a piece by l.andseer, and a Madonna of Raphael. There was a portrait of Byron, and one of Tennyson. There was a photograph of myself, taken 12 years ago - to which, the landlady tells me, she attached special value, strangely enough. Then there were several cards with Biblical texts, and three cards such as are signed by those who “take the pledge” - all bearing date during the last six months.

On the door hung a poor miserable dress and a worn out ulster; under the bed was a pair of boots, linen she had none; the very covering of the bed had gone save one sheet and one blanket. I found a number of pawn tickets, showing that she had pledged these things during last summer - when it was warm, poor creature! All the money she received went in drink; she used to spend my weekly 15/- the first day or two that she had it. Her associates were women of so low a kind that even Mrs. Sherlock did not consider them respectable enough to visit her house.

I drew out the drawers. In one I found a little bit of butter and a crust of bread, - most pitiful sight my eyes ever looked upon. There was no other food anywhere. The other drawers contained a disorderly lot of papers: there I found all my letters, away back to the American time. In a cupboard were several heaps of dirty rags; at the bottom there had been coals, but none were left. Lying about here and there were medicine bottles, and hospital prescriptions.

She lay on the bed covered with a sheet. I looked long, long at her face, but could not recognize it. It is more than three years, I think, since I saw her, and she had changed horribly. Her teeth all remained, white and perfect as formerly.

I took away very few things, just a little parcel: my letters, my portrait, her rent-book, a certificate of life-assurance which had lapsed, a copy of my Father’s “Margaret” which she had preserved, and a little workbox, the only thing that contained traces of womanly occupation.

Came home to a bad, wretched night. In nothing am I to blame; I did my utmost; again and again I had her back to me. Fate was too strong. But as I stood beside that bed, I felt that my life henceforth had a firmer purpose. Henceforth I never cease to bear testimony against the accursed social order that brings about things of this kind. I feel that she will help me more in her death than she balked me during her life. Poor, poor thing!’

26 September 1891
‘Clouded. Read Robertson’s life. Letter from Lawrence & Bullen, the new publishers, saying that Roberts had told them that I am engaged on a 1-vol. story, and offering to publish it for me at 6/ -, giving me 1/- on each copy; also willing to pay £100 on account. Note from Roberts, who is near Corfe Castle. The Illustd London News of to-day, in an article called “London in Fiction”, has this passage: “In such a book no inconsiderable part would be played by the Temple, which has been the happy hunting ground of so many of our novelists, from Sir Walter Scott to Mr. George Gissing”. The mention is good, but I have never made use of the Temple.’

6 October 1891
‘Reply from Watt. Longman won’t make an offer; MS sent on to Bentley. Wrote answer, saying I couldn’t wait after October, but on second thoughts decided not to send it, as I still possess £27. From Willersey came a basket of fine pears, addressed to Edith. Last night a furious gale, with heavy rain, and rain all to-day. In evening got the first page of new novel written.’

24 January 1893
‘Dull, warm. Wrote 4pp. of story. On way home, at night, an anguish of suffering in the thought that I can never hope to have an intellectual companion at home. Condemned for ever to associate with inferiors—and so crassly unintelligent. Never a word exchanged on anything but the paltry everyday life of the household. Never a word to me, from anyone, of understanding sympathy—or of encouragement. Few men, I am sure, have led so bitter a life.- Read half Bk III St Augustine, and some pages of [Cicero’s] “De Oratore”.’

7 February 1895
‘Terrible weather. Reports of 35° of frost from the Midlands. Worked well, though against terrible odds - hands frozen and feet like stones. Did 4pp. Got from lib. “Children of the Ghetto”[by Israel Zangwill]. Received Crabbe. Present of parkin from Mother. New servant seems satisfactory.’

9 February 1895
‘Frost harder than ever. Wrote only 1/2 p. Article of 2 cols, in Spectator to-day, an attack on me for my “perverse idealism”. Roberts writes to ask if he may write a critical article on me for the Fortnightly.’

9 August 1896
‘Nothing could be more difficult than my position as regards the boy Walter. All but every statement made to him he answers with a blunt contradiction; to all but every bidding he replies “I shan’t”. As I sit in the room, where the nurse-girl is present, he calls me all manner of abusive names. I said to him this afternoon, that, as it was too windy to go out, he had better rest an hour. “Not in your bedroom”, was his harsh reply. “I’ll rest in mother’s room, but not in yours.” And to-morrow, on some trifling provocation, he would make precisely the opposite reply. He knows there is no harmonv between his mother and me, and he begins to play upon the situation - carrying tales from one to the other, etc. The poor child is ill-tempered, untruthful, precociously insolent, surprisingly selfish. I can see that Wakefield may have a good influence, but only the merest beginnings show as yet. I should like to know how the really wise and strong father would act in this position. But no wise and strong man could have got into it. Talk of morals! What a terrible lesson is the existence of this child, born of a loveless and utterly unsuitable marriage.’

20 December 1898
‘Fine, frosty. Did 3pp. Eczema greatly better, George Whale advises me to send the sheriff a doctor’s certificate as excuse for non-attendance at Kingston. Wrote to Childcott for one. Reed circular from a Committee getting up fund for Harold Frederic’s widow and four legitimate children. As the youngest of these children is 10, and the eldest 20, I wrote to the Sec[retary, John Stokes,] asking whether anything is to be done to help the other family of young children, whose position is in every way much harder.’

10 December 1899
‘Have been up all night. A furious gale blowing. E. in long miserable pain; the Doctor has just given her chloroform, and says that the blackguard business draws to an end.

5.15. Went to the study door, and heard the cry of the child. Nurse, speedily coming down, tells me it is a boy. Wind howling savagely. So, the poor girl’s misery is over, and she has what she earnestly desired.

Sent notes to E.’s people in London, and one to Mother. Got through day without going to bed. Corrected some proofs. The wind, after lulling at mid-day, grew furious again towards night.

The baby has a very ugly dark patch over right eye. Don’t know the meaning of it.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 28 December 2013.

Friday, December 22, 2023

Beatrix and Benjamin

Beatrix Potter - author and illustrator of the much-loved Peter Rabbit books - died 80 years ago today. As a teenager and young woman, Potter kept a secret diary written in code. This was not deciphered and published until more than 20 years after her death, but it shows how (long before publication of The Tale of Peter Rabbit) she was already writing to herself about her rabbit, Mr Benjamin Bunny - very much the star of her diary - in a style similar to that of the books she would publish later on.

Beatrix Potter was born in London in 1866, the only daughter in a cultured family with inherited wealth. She was educated at home, and spent much time painting, using specimens from the nearby Natural History Museum. The family regularly spent summer and early autumn in rented houses in the Lake District and Scotland. She kept rabbits and other animals as pets. Her parents entertained many guests, including Hardwicke Rawnsley who was to become one of the founders of the National Trust. He, in particular, encouraged her drawing.

Another friend, Frederick Warne, published, in 1902, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, a book which came about because of the illustrated letters Potter had been sending to a sick child. Other books - now famous around the world - followed, as did her engagement to Warne’s son Norman. However, Norman died tragically in 1905. That same year, Potter bought Hill Top Farm near Sawrey in the English Lake District, though she continued to be based in London. And then, in 1909, she bought Castle Farm over the road from Hill Top Farm (now a Potter museum).

Potter remained single until 1913, when she married William Heelis, a solicitor in Hawkshead. They moved to live at Castle Cottage, the renovated house at Castle Farm, and together, ran the farm; later they enlarged it with the help of an inheritance from Beatrix’s father (see Lancashire Life for more on Castle Cottage). Though all of the Peter Rabbit books had been published by this time, she continued to produce occasional books, some of them Peter Rabbit related, for her publisher, Frederick Warne.

In 1930, Potter purchased half of Monk Coniston, a romantic Gothic-style house, with the National Trust agreeing to purchase the other half. Potter, however, managed the whole estate and its many farms - with an increasing interest in conservation - for seven years, until the Trust was able to buy most of it back. Today, Monk Coniston is leased from the Trust for use as a hotel. When Potter died - on 22 December 1943 - she left several other farms and much land to the National Trust, together with some celebrated flocks of Herdwick sheep.

Further biographical information is readily available online at Wikipedia, the Beatrix Potter Society, Frederick Warne & Co’s Peter Rabbit website, the Visit Cumbria website, or the V&A which holds the extensive Linder (see below) archive of Potter work.

From the age of fifteen until her early 30s, Potter kept a detailed diary of her life written in a secret code. This code remained un-deciphered until the late 1950s, when Leslie Linder, an engineer and collector of Potter drawings, found the key and then worked painstakingly to decipher and transcribe the diaries. The Journal of Beatrix Potter - 1881 to 1897 was finally published by Frederick Warne in 1966.

A chapter towards the front of the book, written by Linder, describes the code in some detail, and how he cracked it. The chapter starts: ‘From about the age of fourteen until she was thirty, Beatrix Potter kept a Journal in her own privately-invented code-writing. It appears that even her closest friends knew nothing of this code-writing. She never spoke of it, and only one instance has come to light where it was mentioned. This was in a letter to her much-loved cousin [. . .] written five weeks before Beatrix Potter died, in which she described it as “apparently inspired by a united admiration for Boswell and Pepys”, continuing, “when I was young I already had the itch to write, without having any material to write about (the modern young author is not damped by such considerations). I used to write long-winded descriptions, hymns (!) and records of conversations in a kind of cipher shorthand which I am now unable to read even with a magnifying glass.” ’

From January 1987, Linder explains, Potter put her journal aside. He concludes the chapter as follows: ‘From now onwards the keeping of a Journal appears to have been put aside as Beatrix Potter became more and more absorbed in the planning of her books. It is of interest to note, however, that in later years she sometimes wrote odd notes and even fragments of stories in code-writing, but it was never used again for the purpose of a Journal.’ Much of The Journal of Beatrix Potter can be read online freely at Googlebooks.

From July to October 1892, Potter stayed at Heath Park, Birnam, Perthshire
20 August 1892
‘Still somewhat disposed. After breakfast taking Mr. Benjamin Bunny to pasture at the edge of the cabbage bed with his leather dog-lead, I heard a rustling, and came a little wild rabbit to talk to him, it crept half across the cabbage bed and then sat up on its hind legs, apparently grunting. I replied, but the stupid Benjamin did nothing but stuff cabbage. The little animal evidently a female, and of a shabby appearance, nibbling, advanced to about three strap lengths on the other side of my rabbit, its face twitching with excitement and admiration for the beautiful Benjamin, who at length caught sight of it round a cabbage, and immediately bolted. He probably took it for Miss Hutton’s cat.’

21 August 1892
‘Went into the garden immediately after breakfast, but saw nothing of the wild rabbit except its tracks. Benjamin’s mind has at last comprehended gooseberries, he stands up and picks them off the bush, but has such a comical little mouth, it is a sort of bob cherry business.’

22 August 1892
‘Very hot. Went to Mrs. McIntosh’s to try and photograph Charlie Lumm’s fox at Calley, but with very little advantage except that I was touched with the kindness of Mrs. McIntosh. She let the pony stand in their stall, gave me a glass of milk, and tramped up the wood with me to the Under-keeper’s cottage.

The wood is very beautiful at the bottom of Craigie-barns, such tall Scotch firs, and the Game keeper’s cottage with its bright old-fashioned flowers and a row of bee hives. The fox proved a tyke, tearing round and round the tree, in the absence of Charlie Lumm, but as things turned out, it did not signify.

Coming down we passed Eel Stew, with high post railings where her Grace’s supply of eels are preserved, having been trapped in the Lochs. Her Grace will have two or three cooked for supper every evening almost, when she is at home, at which information I was much amazed.’

30 October 1892
‘When I was walking out Benjamin I saw Miss Hutton’s black cat jumping on something up the wood. I thought it was too far off to interfere, but as it seemed leisurely I went up in time to rescue a poor little rabbit, fast in a snare. The cat did not hurt it, but I had great difficulty in slackening the noose round its neck. I warmed it at the fire, relieved it from a number of fleas, and it came round. It was such a little poor creature compared to mine. They are regular vermin, but one cannot stand by to see a thing mauled about from one’s friendship for the race. Papa in his indignation pulled up the snare. I fancy our actions were much more illegal than Miss Hutton’s.

After dinner I was half amused, half shocked, to see her little niece Maggie hunting everywhere for the wire. I just had enough sense not to show the stranger to Benjamin Bounce, but the smell of its fur on my dress was quite enough to upset the ill-regulated passions of that excitable buck rabbit. Whether he thought I had a rival in my pocket, or like a Princess in a Fairy Tale was myself metamorphosed into a white rabbit I cannot say, but I had to lock him up.

Rabbits are creatures of warm volatile temperament but shallow and absurdly transparent. It is this naturalness, one touch of nature, that I find so delightful in Mr. Benjamin Bunny, though I frankly admit his vulgarity. At one moment amiably sentimental to the verge of silliness, at the next, the upsetting of a jug or tea-cup which he immediately takes upon himself, will convert him into a demon, throwing himself on his back, scratching and spluttering. If I can lay hold of him without being bitten, within half a minute he is licking my hands as though nothing has happened.

He is an abject coward, but believes in bluster, could stare our old dog out of countenance, chase a cat that has turned tail. Benjamin once fell into an Aquarium head first, and sat in the water which he could not get out of, pretending to eat a piece of string. Nothing like putting a face upon circumstances.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 22 December 2013.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

This won’t break us

‘The day began with the barber telling me that, as of September 19, we will have to wear a badge bearing the word “Jew,” even six-year-old children. This won’t break us either, even though life will be made more difficult.’ This is from the diaries of Dr. Willy Cohn, born 135 years ago today, who was one of many thousands of Jews executed by the Nazis at Ninth Fort in Lithuania. According to the publisher, the diaries show how the process of marginalisation under the Nazis unfolded within the Breslau Jewish community and how difficult it was to understand precisely what was happening, even as people were harassed, beaten, and taken off to concentration camps.

Cohn was born on 12 December 1888 in Breslau, Poland (though then it was part of the German Empire) into a wealthy Jewish merchant family. He studied history at the universities of Breslau and Heidelberg and married Ella Proskauer in 1913. They would have two children, before divorcing in 1922. He served as a soldier on the Western Front during the war, and won an Iron Cross for bravery. After the war, he secured a position as teacher at Breslau’s Johannesgymnasium in 1919, remaining there until 1933. During this time, he wrote several books, including biographies of Karl Marx, Robert Owen and Friedrich Engels. He married Gertrud Rothmann in 1923 with whom he had three children.

After being forced into retirement for ‘political reasons’ in 1933, Cohn became a board member of the Jewish Museum in Breslau, and he lectured at the Jewish Theological Seminary also in Breslau. However, as the persecution of Jews in Germany grew worse, he and his family began to consider emigration. They visited Palestine in 1937, but there seemed no employment prospects especially for Cohn who was not healthy enough for physical labor. By the time they wanted to flee, at the start of the Second World War, it was too late - the Nazi regime had begun its reign of terror, Wikipedia explains, and no longer allowed emigration. The Cohns and two of their children were arrested in November 1941, and deported to German-occupied Lithuania. A few days later, they were shot in Ninth Fort, together with 2000 other Jews from Breslau and Vienna.

Cohn’s life story stands out and is now remembered because of the diaries he kept all his adult life. These were found (along with a 1,000-page memoir in Berlin) in 1945. Excerpts from the diaries, in the original German, were first published in 1975, as was the memoir in 1995. Then, in 2005, the diaries were published in a fully annotated version, as edited by Norbert Conrads. This latter edition was translated into English by Kenneth Kronenberg for publication as No Justice in Germany: The Breslau Diaries, 1933-1941 (Stanford University Press). 

From the publisher’s blurb: ‘With great immediacy, the diaries of Willy Cohn, a Jew and a Social Democrat, show how the process of marginalization under the Nazis unfolded within the vibrant Jewish community of Breslau - until that community was destroyed in 1941. Cohn documents how difficult it was to understand precisely what was happening, even as people were harassed, beaten, and taken off to concentration camps. He chronicles the efforts of the community to maintain some semblance of normal life at the same time as many made plans to emigrate or to get their children out.’

From the translator’s note: ‘Willy Cohn was a complex individual: an Orthodox Jew and a socialist; an ardent Zionist and a staunch German patriot; a democrat but an admirer of Nazi resolve and sometimes even policy; a realist and an idealist often not up to grappling effectively; generous to a fault but also occasionally petty and stubborn. These and other contradictions within his personality, and the wealth of detail that poured from his pen, give us a unique view of a disorienting and frightening time in Germany.’

Here are several extracts.

17 December 1938
‘The first evening of Hanukkah. This morning I worked on my box of manuscripts and threw a few things out. This is the time of year when it makes sense to burn things. Delved into decades well before mv birth, when my father built his beautiful store with iron determination! Life smiled on us German Jews back then.

Went to synagogue, Shabbat afternoon service; first day of Hanukkah. The men’s section was very full, and we all proudly sang the old song of the Maccabees, which has been heard for more than two thousand years and will hopefully be heard for another two thousand. I firmly believe in the future of our people, and in its healthy inner life force. The Jews who pray in our synagogue, and who returned from the Buchenwald camp, all said the Birkat Hagomel, the prayer of deliverance.

Spoke with Tischler, the classifieds representative, and he told me that the Famlienblatt has been liquidated, that Schatzky sold it. How many Jewish livelihoods are now finished as a result; there will be no renewal of Jewish intellectual life in Germany now that all of the major sources of income have been blocked.

Celebrated Hanukkah in the evening with all three daughters. Trudi held Tamara in her arms. It is my most fervent hope that my family will celebrate this day next year in Erez Israel, in freedom. Whether I can still accomplish that, with all the efforts needed to get ready! Tamara will be five months old day after tomorrow! Susannchen knows all of the verses of “Ma’oz Tzur.”

This morning I sent both of my big girls to see Mother. Ruth was able to get half a chicken, and we sent a bar of soap along as well. Unfortunately, I can’t do much; I’m short on money right now myself, and I don’t know how we are going to get through this. I don’t want to ask anyone, either. It is very difficult for a father when he is unable to do what he would like to do, but of course that is also happening to innumerable Jews right now. I think that few of us Jews wall escape this mouse trap. Sometimes, a person must push his thoughts aside and bear in mind all of the good things that he has!’

18 December 1938
‘I don’t think I have yet noted that Curt Proskauer returned home from Buchenwald. His health seems to have been badly affected by it. I called him yesterday.

I went to see Czollak to greet him after his return from Buchenwald. He was in bed because of a nail-bed infection; other than that, thank G’d, he did not look too bad. He is very impractical about his emigration plans. I will help him to the extent I can. Urbach, in Jerusalem, is treating him and Daniel very decently. We have to help each other through these times!’

19 December 1938
‘Unfortunately, Trudi has to make the rounds of the police this morning about Ruth’s passport. First the district station, and then headquarters. She doesn’t want me to do it. The matter of Ruth’s identity card seems to be going smoothly; she will pick up her passport tomorrow. I don’t expect any other problems either. I am always quite anxious whenever one of my children’s emigration approaches. But it is not helpful, and I just have to get through it. We must fight against every sort of failure.’

22 July 1939
‘Yesterday was a horrible day. Terrible upsets, with Trudi as well. Arrangements for additional payments to the Palestine Trust Office so that we can at least take Tamara with us. To the bank, where I spent an hour negotiating; then came Dr. Latte, whom we had selected as our foreign currency advisor. We found a possible way out, namely if we can use the boys’ money that was placed in blocked accounts, we may be able to take Susanne with us. I cannot even imagine separating from the child.

Regarding yesterday, I must add that I was summoned to the Gestapo in the morning in the context of a so-called “street action.” They wanted my families personal information to the extent that they are registered in Breslau, and then he asked, “When are you emigrating?” I told him that my son had applied for me. “How long could that take?” I replied, “A few months.” “You can go home now," he said. The whole matter took a few minutes.’

2 September 1939
‘Thank G'd, the first nightly blackout went without incident. Sat on the balcony. There was a nice breeze, and I could see the darkened city. Toward evening, Trudi returned from shopping with the news that the airport in Warsaw had been bombed, and that Pless, in Polish Upper Silesia, had apparently been leveled. In the morning we will hear what is true and what is not.

I didn’t attend synagogue in the evening, nor did we light the Kiddush candles. Lay awake in bed thinking about Wölfl. We are completely cut off, and our thoughts alone connect us. It is sometimes difficult to turn them off. Emotionally, in fact, I have lost all hope that our emigration to Palestine might succeed. One has to consider the loss of money that would make possible such a transfer. But it makes no sense tearing my hair out about that now; all I can do is live from hour to hour. At this moment, I have no idea how the other powers will respond to the German-Polish war.

From a Jewish perspective, I can say the following about the situation. The Aryan population is surely not well disposed to us, and if Germany suffers failure in Poland, we can almost certainly expect pogrom-like assaults. Today on the street for the first time I heard two older men make an anti-Semitic remark: “The Jews must get out.” It wasn’t aimed at me, but that makes it all the more characteristic.’

6 September 1941
‘Yesterday a lovely and quick letter from Wölfl dated August 20, full of warmth. He asks about each and every one of us; a boy on whom we may rely.’

7 September 1941
‘No newspaper to be had yesterday. Paper is in such short supply that newspapers are quietly sold out. A number of streetcar lines won’t be running in the morning as of this Sunday. There is a shortage of personnel! I think that Germany’s situation continues to be very unfavorable, even though the newspapers report victories each day.’

8 September 1941
‘The day began with the barber telling me that, as of September 19, we will have to wear a badge bearing the word “Jew,” even six-year-old children. This won’t break us either, even though life will be made more difficult. In spite of it all, we will have to try not to lose our nerve. All of these measures show how increasingly bad Germany’s situation is, and how the people’s rage is being vented on the most helpless part of the population! This trumps the Middle Ages! Each violation carries a fine of 500 marks or one month in jail! In addition, travel by Jews has been banned throughout the Reich, and the obligation to report to the Gestapo tightened.

Worked in the Cathedral Archive and did some excerpting for Germania Judaica! Nonetheless, these matters coursed around my mind! Director Engelbert told me that I may continue to work there despite the badge. He is a man of great character, far different from Walter, the archivist, and Mother Huberta. Mother Innocentia is also a person with a large spirit.

9 September 1941
‘Dictated a considerable piece of my memoirs yesterday afternoon; I have now written more than 1,000 pages. I also wrote a lengthy letter to Wölfl! Given current circumstances, it is hard to find the right words. I was exhausted by evening. I went for a walk, but I am very unnerved by the decree about the yellow badge! I read it this morning!’

Saturday, December 2, 2023

A very provincial lady

Today marks the 80th anniversary of the death of E. M. Delafield, a British writer much loved for The Diary of a Provincial Lady, first published in 1930, and its sequels. Although classed as fiction, the books - a journal of the life of an upper-middle class Englishwoman living in a Devon village - are considered to be thinly-veiled autobiography.

Edmée Elizabeth Monica de la Pasture was born in Steyning, Sussex, in 1890, the elder daughter of a count and a novelist. During the First World War, she worked as a nurse, and she published her first novel Zella Sees Herself. In 1919, she married Major Paul Dashwood, and after two years in Malay States they returned to England and lived in Devon, where Dashwood became a land agent. They had two children, Lionel and Rosamund.

Delafield (Mrs Dashwood’s pen name) became a prolific novelist, writing one or two books a year. But she is best remembered for The Provincial Lady, a series she wrote for
Time and Tide, a political and literary weeklyAlthough ostensibly fiction, the diary is considered to be barely-disguised autobiography.  The sketches were first published in book form under the title Diary of a Provincial Lady by Macmillan, in 1930, with illustrations by Arthur Watts. Several sequels followed, including The Provincial Lady Goes Further, The Provincial Lady in America and The Provincial Lady in Wartime. These books have remained popular and have never been out of print.

During the Second World War, Delafield did some work for the Ministry of Information, and she spent time in France, but she died on 2 December 1943. Further information about her, and/or some extracts from the diaries can be found at Wikipedia, The Guardian, Starcourse, and Amazon. The full text of the first book - Diary of a Provincial Lady - with Watts’s illustrations can be read freely at Project Gutenberg Australia. And various other editions can be freely borrowed from Internet Archive (with log-in). The following extracts come from The Diary of a Provincial Lady published by Virago Press in 1984 (which is a compilation of three of the original books).

7 November 1929
‘Plant the indoor bulbs. Just as I am in the middle of them, Lady Boxe calls. I say, untruthfully, how nice to see her, and beg her to sit down while I just finish the bulbs. Lady B. makes a determined attempt to sit down in armchair where I have already placed two bulb-bowls and the bag of charcoal, is headed off just in time, and takes the sofa.
Do I know, she asks, how very late it is for indoor bulbs? September really, even October, is the time. Do I know that the only really reliable firm for hyacinths is Somebody of Haarlem? Cannot catch the name of the firm, which is Dutch, but reply Yes I do know, but I think it is my duty to buy Empire products. Feel at the time, and still think, that this is an excellent reply. Unfortunately, Vicky comes into the drawing room later and says: “Oh, Mummie, are those the bulbs we got at Woolworths?”

Lady B stays to tea. (Mem: Bread-and-butter too thick. Speak to Ethel.) We talk some more about bulbs, the Dutch School of Painting, Our Vicar’s Wife, sciatica, and All Quiet on the Western Front.

(Query: Is it possible to cultivate the art of conversation while living in the country all the year round?)

Lady B enquires after the children. Tell her that Robin - whom I refer to in a detached way as “the boy” so that she shan’t think I am foolish about him - is getting on fairly well at school, and that Mademoiselle says Vicky is starting a cold.

Do I realise, says Lady B., that the Cold habit is entirely unnecessary, and can be avoided by giving the child a nasal douche of salt-and-water every morning before breakfast? Think of several rather tart and witty rejoinders to this, but unfortunately not until Lady B.’s Bentley has taken her away.

Finish the bulbs and put them in the cellar. Feel that after all the cellar is probably draughty, change my mind, and take them all up to the attic.

Cook says something is wrong with the range.’

30 June 1930
‘The Sweep comes, and devastates the entire day. Bath water and meals are alike cold, and soot appears quite irrelevantly in portions of the house totally removed from sphere of Soot’s activities. Am called upon in the middle of the day to produce twelve-and-sixpence in cash, which I cannot do. Appeal to everybody in the house, and find that nobody else can, either. Finally, Cook announces that the Joint has just come and can oblige at the back door, if I don’t mind its going down in the book. I do not, and the Sweep is accordingly paid and disappears on a motor-cycle.’

7 October (1931?)
‘Extraordinary behaviour of dear Rose, with whom I am engaged - and have been for days past - to go and have supper tonight. Just as I am trying to decide whether bus to Portland Street or tube to Oxford Circus will be preferable, I am called up on telephone by Rose’s married niece, who lives in Hertfordshire, and is young and modern, to say that speaker for her Women’s Institute to-night has failed, and that Rose, on being appealed to, has at once suggested my name and expressed complete willingness to dispense with my society for the evening. Utter impossibility of pleading previous engagement is obvious; I contemplate for an instant saying that I have influenza, but remember in time that niece, very intelligently, started the conversation by asking how I was, and that I replied Splendid, thanks - and there is nothing for it but to agree.

(Query: Should very much like to know if it was for this that I left Devonshire.) Think out several short, but sharply worded, letters to Rose, but time fails; I can only put brush and comb, slippers, sponge, three books, pyjamas and hot-water bottle into case - discover later that I have forgotten powder-puff, and am very angry, but to no avail - and repair by train to Hertfordshire.

Spend most of journey in remembering all that I know of Rose’s niece, which is that she is well under thirty, pretty, talented, tremendous social success, amazingly good at games, dancing, and - I think - everything else in the world, and married to brilliantly clever young man who is said to have Made Himself a Name, though cannot at the moment recollect how.

Have strong impulse to turn straight round and go home again, sooner than confront so much efficiency, but non-stop train renders this course impracticable.

Niece meets me - clothes immensely superior to anything that I have ever had, or shall have - is charming, expresses gratitude, and asks what I am going to speak about. I reply, Amateur Theatricals. Excellent of course, she says unconvincingly, and adds that the Institute has a large Dramatic Society already, that they are regularly produced by well-known professional actor, husband of Vice-President, and were very well placed in recent village-drama competition, open to all England.

At this I naturally wilt altogether, and say Then perhaps better talk about books or something - which sounds weak, even as I say it, and am convinced that niece feels the same, though she remains imperturbably charming. She drives competently through the night, negotiates awkward entrance to garage equally well, extracts my bag and says that It is Heavy - which is undeniable, and is owing to books, but cannot say so, as it would look as though I thought her house likely to be inadequately supplied - and conducts me into perfectly delightful, entirely modern, house, which I feel certain - rightly, I discover later - has every newest labour-saving device ever invented.

Bathroom especially - (all appears to be solid marble, black-and-white tiles, and dazzling polish) - impresses me immeasurably. Think regretfully, but with undiminished affection, of extremely inferior edition at home - paint peeling in several directions, brass taps turning green at intervals until treated by housemaid, and irregular collection of home-made brackets on walls, bearing terrific accumulation of half-empty bottles, tins of talcum powder and packets of Lux. [. . .]

Evening at Institute reasonably successful - am much impressed by further display of efficiency from niece, as President - I speak about Books, and obtain laughs by introduction of three entirely irrelevant anecdotes, am introduced to felt hat and fur coat, felt hat and blue jumper, felt hat and tweeds, and so on. Names of all alike remain impenetrably mysterious, as mine no doubt to them.

(Flight of fancy here as to whether this deplorable but customary, state of affairs is in reality unavoidable? Theory exists that it has been completely overcome in America, whose introductions always entirely audible and frequently accompanied by short biographical sketch. Should like to go to America.)

Niece asks kindly if I am tired. I say No, not at all, which is a lie, and she presently takes me home and I go to bed. Spare-room admirable in every respect, but no waste-paper basket. This solitary flaw in general perfection a positive relief.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 2 December 2013.

Sunday, November 26, 2023

I feel shocked and ashamed

‘The atomic bomb was used yesterday for the first time on the Japs. I must say I feel shocked and ashamed. Nobody knows what the effects of it, indirect or direct, will be on the area. I don’t think posterity will think it was a very creditable action.’ This is from the war diaries of Oliver Charles Harvey, first Baron Harvey of Tasburgh, born 130 years ago today. At the time, Harvey was Private Secretary to the Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, and he wrote his diaries believing their future value would lie in their “hotness”, in providing immediate impressions and atmosphere.

Harvey was born on 26 November 1893 at Rainthorpe Hall, near Norwich, the only son of Sir Charles Harvey, second baronet, landowner, and his second wife, Mary Anne Edith. He was educated at Malvern College and at Trinity College, Cambridge. He served throughout the First World War in the Norfolk regiment, in France, Egypt, and Palestine, and was mentioned in dispatches. In 1920, he married Maud Annora (with whom he had two sons); and that same year he joined the Diplomatic Service, advancing to Second and then First Secretary with stints in Rome, Athens and Paris. Between 1936 and 1943 he was - in two different stretches (1936–1938 and 1941–1943) - private secretary and confidant to Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log-in required) has this assessment: ‘As private secretary to the foreign secretary, and as a convinced anti-appeaser, Harvey interpreted his duties widely, often proffering advice on matters of policy in terms critical of the prime minister and of his interference in foreign affairs. After Eden's resignation in February 1938, Harvey continued to offer unofficial advice to his former chief. His personal relations with Eden's successor, Halifax, were good but unenthusiastiic .[. . .] it was no surprise that when Eden returned to the Foreign Office in December 1940 he took the first opportunity of reappointing his old private secretary, although Harvey was by now well above the rank normal for the post. [. . .] 

From then on Harvey was closely involved in all the complicated issues which beset the Foreign Office during the war. He accompanied Eden on three trips to Moscow, the first at the dramatic moment when the Germans had been halted a bare 20 miles away in December 1941, and once to the United States. He was closely involved too in the controversies over the employment of Darlan and Giraud, the struggle over the recognition of the national committee of de Gaulle, the difficulties with the exiled Polish government, and the like. In all these questions his advice was forward looking, realistic, and on the side of the new forces which he believed would emerge in the open at the end of the war.’

After the war, Harvey served as Deputy Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (1946 to 1948) and as Ambassador to France (1948 to 1954). On retirement, in 1954, he was created a baron, and he succeeded his half-brother as fourth baronet. Though attending the House of Lords, he rarely took part in debates. He died in 1968. Further information is also available from Wikipedia and The Peerage.

From 1937 through the Second World War, Harvey kept detailed diaries. These were edited by his son John Harvey and published by Collins in two volumes: The Diplomatic Diaries of Oliver Harvey 1937-1940 (1970) and The War Diaries of Oliver Harvey 1941-1945 (1978). Digital copies of both can be borrowed at Internet Archive

In the first volume, Harvey explains how he came to keep a diary, and why. ‘I was appointed Private Secretary by Anthony Eden shortly after he became Foreign Secretary. I came over from Paris, where I had been Head of the Chancery, arriving in January 1936 on the day King George V was dying, the end of another chapter. It was some time before I began my diary. Owing to pressure of new work, I was too busy to think of it, but as time went on it seemed to me that it might be valuable to set down day by day the course of events and our first reaction to them as they struck us at our particular centre of things. The diary was thus written down “hot” at the time, sometimes hour by hour, rarely a few days or a week or so after the events, and it has in no case been written up or adjusted subsequently. Indeed, its whole value, if it has a value, lies in its “hotness”, in the immediate impression and atmosphere. I am the first to recognise how many of the first reactions and impressions and judgments were proved wrong and would be admitted wrong by myself now, but that is not the point. This is how we saw things at the time.’

And here are several extracts from the second volume.

13 July 1941
‘I drove down to Frensham this morning with A.E.’s box. He greeted me with the news that Winston had been on the telephone five times over a government reconstruction. He wished to send Duff to Far East as coordinator à la Lyttelton, Brendan Bracken to M. of I R.A.B. to Ministry of Education and Dick Law to be Undersecretary at F.O. A. was against Duff going to Far East and thought it preferable to make no change at M. of I. but to see how new arrangement worked there. He said he would miss R.A.B. who was good with the House of Commons and took a lot of work off his shoulders, but he had always wanted Dick - though latter suffered from diffidence and lack of authority. I said I was sure this would be a good change and it was important to bring Dick on. Anyway we get rid of Chips [Channon]! I think A.E. feels R.A.B. was useful in keeping Munichers in Parliament in order. He also wondered whether he should have had a Labour Under-Secretary - but who? I think this is the best arrangement and Dick deserves the opportunity.

Instructions were sent to Cripps last night to sign Anglo-Soviet Declaration - we expect news of it at any minute.

The Polish-Soviet conversation on Friday went fairly well. Maisky agreed to most of the Polish points. The trouble is that half the Polish Government here is violently anti-Russian. There is also an ugly snag in the Polish political prisoners whom the Poles want released and who are believed to have been “liquidated”. A.E. is using all pressure to bring them together.

There was a last-minute hitch last night over Syrian armistice, Dentz refusing to treat with us if Free French were also included. But this seems to have been got over and we hear French plenipotentiaries crossed our lines early this morning.

Meanwhile things don’t look too bad. Russians are doing far better than was expected and must have badly delayed German programme. The Russian Mission here are getting on very well with our staffs. But I still wish it were possible to do more to help them than bombing in the West.

A most important thing is how well A.E. and the P.M. get on. Latter, I think, really trusts him and listens to him, headstrong though he is. He apologised to A.E. for being so tiresome over his personal telegrams to Stalin. He is an eternal schoolboy.’

3 July 1942
‘P.M. made, as usual, a great speech yesterday and on the whole seems to have won the sympathy of the House. All were rather overawed by the issues being fought out in Africa and slightly ashamed of themselves.

A.E. dined with P.M. afterwards. He told me this morning he found the P.M. “in the greatest heart” and planning to go off at once to Egypt himself by aeroplane! He told A.E. he had got the King’s permission as well as that of Attlee and Bevin. A.E. and Bracken did their best to shake him out of such a mad idea which, tho’ admittedly most heartening to the troops, would only hinder General Auchinleck. P.M. was like a naughty child. He went on to say to A.E. he had prepared his political testament which he would leave behind. “You may like to know what is in it. You are in it.”

Battle yesterday still uncertain. Very hard fighting round Alamein. Late last night our most secret sources said that Rommel was talking of making “one more attempt” to take the place today. That is encouraging.’

28 July 1945
‘I had just gone home last night when Bob Dixon rang up to say would I come back to F.O. at 9 as Mr. Bevin (who had been appointed F.S.) wanted to be given an idea of the Potsdam Conference before starting off the next morning.

We all met at 9 in the empty and gloomy office. Mr. B. very genial and friendly. I congratulated him. He said “commiserate rather”. He had only known at 4.45 that he was to be F.S. - up till then he had thought he was to be Chancellor of the Exchequer which he would have rather liked. “However, I didn’t mind taking this”. The election itself had been the surprise of his life. He was so sure the Tories were in that he had taken a little cottage in Cornwall for the holidays.’

We went over the doings of the Conference. I asked him whether he and Mr. Attlee proposed to carry it on. He said he hadn’t had a talk with A. yet but believed the idea was that the latter would return on Sunday but that he himself should stay on. He was ready to do so and to stay as long as the Soviets and U.S. wished. He thought it wouldn’t be at all desirable that we should propose an adjournment. He would leave that to the others.

Earlier in the day, A.E. had had a farewell tea-party in the Ambassador’s waiting room at the Office. He called me to his room later to say goodbye. Poor man, he had heard while at Potsdam of the discovery of the aeroplane in the jungle with the bodies of his son and the crew. But otherwise he seemed well and not much concerned at the Government’s defeat. He was worried about Winston, and wished he could get him away and out of the House. He would like now to be Leader of Opposition himself and mould the Party as he wants it. But he fears Winston will stay on and get everything wrong. I begged him to give himself a rest, saying that for him personally it couldn’t have been better. He could never have stood another Government as No. 2 to Winston and as Leader of the House plus the F.O. Now he could make a complete recovery. He was worried about the Garter which Winston had offered to recommend him for. He was reluctant to accept it. He thought it would rather diminish him in the public eye.’

7 August 1945
‘The atomic bomb was used yesterday for the first time on the Japs. I must say I feel shocked and ashamed. Nobody knows what the effects of it, indirect or direct, will be on the area. I don’t think posterity will think it was a very creditable action.

I’ve seen no more of Mr. Bevin, but those who were at Potsdam were extremely pleased with his performance there. He says he wants to improve Anglo French relations, thank goodness!

I’m afraid Winston and A.E. had latterly become quite exhausted. They could no longer look at the problems properly or read the papers about them. It had become mere improvisation. Bevin, we hope, will really devote his mind to foreign policy, read the papers, and not divide up his time with other duties.’

Saturday, November 18, 2023

What poems people are

‘I felt more powerfully than ever today what poems people are; not the part of them that speaks, but the mysterious, intricate network of thoughts and feelings which remain unexpressed.’ This is from an early diary of Ruth Crawford Seeger, American composer and folk music specialist, who died 70 years ago today. Her diaries, though not published, have underpinned at least two biographies.

Crawford was born in East Liverpool, Ohio, the second child of a Methodist minister. The family moved several times during her childhood, settling in 1912, in Jacksonville, Florida. Her father died of TB, and her mother then opened a boarding house to help make ends meet. Having shown promise in poetry and music from an early age, she started, in 1913, taking piano lessons with Bertha Foster (founder of the local School of Musical Art). Further studies followed with Madame Valborg Collett. After leaving high school in 1918, she began to pursue a career as a concert pianist, sometimes performing at musical events. She also began teaching at Foster’s school and began composing for her pupils. In 1921, she moved to Chicago, and enrolled at the American Conservatory of Music.

In Chicago, Crawford studied piano with Heniot Levy and composition/theory with Adolf Weidig; she also wrote several early works. After receiving her degree in 1924, she enrolled in the master’s degree programme. That year, she took up private piano lessons with Djane Lavoie-Herz, a teacher who introduced her to the ideas of theosophy, the music of Alexander Scriabin, and to a wider world of artists and thinkers. She moved to New York where she studied composition, and where she worked as a piano teacher for the children of poet Carl Sandburg. Through Sandburg, she became interested in American folksongs, contributing arrangements to his 1927 book The American Songbag. In 1929 she began study with Charles Seeger. The two married in 1932 with Ruth assuming responsibility for Charles’ children by a previous marriage, including Pete, soon to become America’s best known folksinger (see They mix it up almost as I do). With Charles, she had two children, Peggy and Mike, both of whom also became renowned folksingers and teachers.

In 1936, the Seegers moved to Washington, D.C. to collect folk songs for the Library of Congress. Ruth acted as transcriber for the book Our Singing Country and, with Charles Seeger, Folk Song USA, both authored by John and Alan Lomax. Subsequently, she published her own pioneering collection, American Folk Songs for Children, in 1948. This and other Crawford Seeger books of the kind came to be regarded as key texts in primary music education. Having composed little since 1934, she returned to serious composition with the Suite for Wind Quintet in 1952. By the time it was complete, she learned she had cancer. She died on 18 November 1953 aged only 52. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Peggy Seeger’s website, The New York Times, Encyclopaedia Britannica, or the Los Angeles Public Library.

Seeger kept a diary from the age of 13 though only portions are extant. Those from her late teens cover daily activities, some philosophical musings and self-analysis. Later entries (1927-1929) ruminate on her first serious love affair, her decision nonetheless to pursue a career in New York, and the beginning of her long friendship with Marion Bauer. Her diaries have not been published as far as I can tell, but at least two biographies mention them often. Ruth Crawford Seeger: memoirs, memories, music by Matilda Gaume (Scarecrow Press, 1986) is freely available at Internet Archive (log-in required). This provides a number of direct quotes from the diaries, and, where not clear in the narrative, their dates are given in the extensive notes at the back of the book. Here are several examples.

6 January 1918
‘What is the soul? When it leaves the body we do not see it. And where is God? Everywhere? But what is he? Why can’t I know all these things? Because thou shouldst then know as much as God. Yes, true. But how -how I want to know it all.’ 

28 October 1927
‘I felt more powerfully than ever today what poems people are; not the part of them that speaks, but the mysterious, intricate network of thoughts and feelings which remain unexpressed.’

16 August 1929
‘Marion Bauer - she has freed me - I am writing again. She asks me to lunch on Tuesday; after lunch she plays some of her preludes . . . One thing I learned from this beautiful afternoon with Marion Bauer was that I had been forgetting that craftsmanship was also art. I have not been composing and have felt tense, partly because I relied on inspiration only. I was not willing to work things out; I felt that inspiration, emotion within, but when it started to come out, my attitude was so negative that the poor thought crept back into darkness from fear. Discipline. We talked on discipline a few nights ago - necessary - ear-training - hearing away from the piano. Lie on your couch and hear and study Bach chorales. Make yourself hear; also improvise, not wildly, but making your self hear the next chord. Courage, Marion Bauer tells me - work. You have a great talent. You must go ahead. I do not mean that you must not marry, but you must not drop your work.’

17 February 1930
‘Only God and my creditors know how poor I am. I wish my creditors were like God. He takes his pay too, but he does it gradually, and you don't realize it until the peanut bag is empty. Then he blows into it and claps it between his two hands, and throws away a bag that isn’t any good any more because it has a hole in it. All the time he is putting peanuts into new bags, and taking them out of old bags, and there is a regular stock exchange of peanuts. But he isn’t the kind of creditor who sends you a bill.’

More recently, Judith Tick in her biography, Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer’s Search for American Music, (Oxford University Press, 1997), also available to borrow at Internet Archive, does not include so many complete quotes, but she does weave short excerpts into her narrative, for example, as follows:

Page 22
‘Ruth Crawford found her way to composition through the routine of playing through music for her small pupils. A few notations in her diary outline the steps. On December 18, 1918, Ruth “looked over more music [for teaching] and improvised some.” January 3, 1919: “Have made up another piano piece - the 2nd one,” she wrote, adding, “Love to do it!” She showed her compositions to a Mr. Pierce, who perceived talent and decided to teach her some theory. He gave her what she later belittled as “four dry lessons from Chadwicks harmony book”; but on January 17, she wrote in her diary that she was “crazy about harmony.” Two piano pieces, Whirligig and The Elf Dance, date from this period. The Elf Dance was pronounced “real cunning” by Mrs. Doe, a teacher at the School of Musical Art, and a “cute thing” by Madame Collett.’

Page 57
‘Sandburg, moreover, stood on the shoulders of writers whom she perhaps loved even more: Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman. Crawford opened her 1927 diary with a quotation from Walden Pond, underlining Thoreau’s admonition to “probe the universe in a myriad points.” She alluded to Whitman frequently. One diary entry recounts a telling incident at Djane Herz’s studio: “I pick up Leaves of Grass and find a good many of the first verses of Song of Myself underlined. I feel at home.” Whitman’s cosmic metaphysics inspired her. “His constant reiteration of the oneness of himself with all other creatures - a sense of bigness” was an article of faith in her aesthetic theology.’

Page 60
Despite her success, 1926 was a difficult year. One diary entry refers to 1926 as a “nightmare,” with a darker reference to one “bitter, irritable day” in which “more sensitive morbid people become suicides. My wretchedness comes from the returning to my eyes of last year’s pulling, wracking strain, which makes practice and composing hard.” Little else is known about this crisis of nerves and health, or about an operation that Ruth had in the fall of 1925 to alleviate these symptoms. They abated but did not disappear entirely, and could trigger what Crawford described as spells of “depression.” ’

Page 90
‘Clara Crawford slipped into a coma a few days before her death on August 14. In the last diary entry Ruth’s own sense of loss finally tempered her journalistic fever, as she began to grieve. “I find myself often thinking of something I want to tell or ask Mother. Can it be that I shall never be able to talk to her again? It seems incredible. How little I realized how close she was to me, and what a child I still was, and how very much her interest and love and thoughts for my music were woven into my life! I feel stifled to think she will never again be there to hear and sympathize; I look forward through the years, and feel tragically alone. I begin to wonder how I can live. And to think that I had been feeling during the past year or two a desire to live alone, never dreaming how painfully soon Fate would answer my misplaced and erroneous desire. . .  How pitifully small was my realization of my love and need for Mother. . . I sit here by her bedside and though she breathes and I feel comfort just in holding her hand on my knee, yet my heart aches and I feel like one in prison, for I can tell her nothing, and if I could, she could not answer.” ’

Thursday, November 16, 2023

The Prospect of Constantinople

‘The Prospect of Constantinople, when ye behold it from the top of the Channel, at the distance of two Miles, is beyond compare, as being to my Eyes, as to all that ever saw it, the most Charming Prospect that can be seen.’ This is from the published travel memoir/diary by Jean (or John) Chardin, born all of 380 years ago today. He was an obsessive traveller, revelling in the culture and riches of the Near East, particularly Persia, and his works are considered valuable information sources about the region and period. John Evelyn, in his diary, described him thus: ‘A very handsome person, extremely affable, a modest, well-bred man, not inclined to talk wonders. He spoke Latin, and understood Greek, Arabic, and Persian, from eleven years’ travels in those parts, whither he went in search of jewels, and was become very rich.’

Chardin was born in Paris on 16 November 1643, the son of a wealthy merchant jeweller. He joined his father in business, and in 1664 he was sent overland, with another merchant from Lyon, on a trading mission to the East Indies. In Persia, he won the confidence of the Shah, Abbas II, who appointed him as a royal merchant and also commissioned jewellery of his own design. After travelling to India, he returned to Paris in 1670. The following year, he again set out for Persia, traveling through Turkey, Crimea, and the Caucasus, not reaching Isfahan for nearly two years. He remained in Persia for four years, revisited India, and returned to France (in 1677) via the Cape of Good Hope.

Fleeing French persecution of the Huguenots in 1681, Chardin settled in London, where he became court jeweler and was knighted by King Charles II. That same year, he married Esther, daughter of M. de Lardinière Peigné, councillor in the Parliament of Rouen, then also a Protestant refugee in London. Chardin was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. And in 1684, the king sent him as envoy to Holland, where he stayed some years, operating as agent to the East India Company. He died in 1713, and a funeral monument was raised to his memory in Westminster Abbey, bearing the inscription Sir John Chardin – nomen sibi fecit eundo (‘he made a name for himself by travelling’). Further information is available from Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Iranica.

Chardin kept diaries of his journey, and wrote detailed travelogues - these works are considered highly valuable first hand sources, covering the Safavid period in Persia, and specifically the coronation of the Persian sultan Suleiman III. He published a first volume in 1686, under the title, Journal du voyage du chevalier Chardin en Perse et aux Indes orientales: par la mer Noire et par la Colchide. This is freely available at Internet Archive. Chardin planned three further volumes, also to include some diaries, but these never appeared as envisaged. Thenceforward, the history of Chardin’s written works - republished, reissued and translated in many versions - is both complex and confusing - see Encyclopaedia Iranica for details. Although there is many a reference to his diaries and journals, the narratives in the published books rarely look like verbatim diary extracts.

The following extracts - which are taken from a modernised text of the original 1686 volume: The Travels Sir John Chardin into Persia, Through the Black-Sea, and the Country of Colchis - can be found at the Early English Books Online website, hosted by The University of Michigan Library

‘I Departed from Paris, with an Intention to return to the East-Indies, the Seventeenth of August 1671, just Fifteen Months after I came from thence. I undertook this tedious Journey a second time, as well to perfect my self in the Knowledge of the Languages, the Customs, the Religions, the Trades and Sciences, the Commerce and History of the Oriental People as to endeavour the Advancement of my Fortunes and Estate.

[. . .]

The 10th of November we Embark’d in a Vessel under a Holland Convoy, bound for Smyrna. This Fleet was compos’d of six Merchant Men, and two Men of War. The whole Cargo amounted to three Millions of Livers, besides what the Passengers, Mariners, and Captains themselves kept close and undiscover’d, to prevent the Payment of Freight, Custom, and the Consuls Dues. We touch’d at Messina, Zant, and several other Islands of the Archipelago. Near the Island of Micona we had a considerable Dispute with a Corsair of Legorn, about one of his Men who had made his escape aboard us, by swimming a Mile. Upon demand of him, the Corsair sent us word, He would Fight us, if we did not restore him his Seaman; and for our parts we did not think it worth our while to protect him.

[. . .]

I arriv’d at Smyrna the seventh of March 1672, after being four Months at Sea. In which tedious Voyage we endur’d much Cold, and many a boystrous Storm. We were in want of Victuals; nor could we have made this Voyage with more Danger or more Hardship.

I shall not trouble my self to make any Description of Smyrna, where I found nothing worthy Remark, or in any other part of the Archipelago, more than what is to be found in the Relations of Spon, and other Travellers, Men of Learning and Exactness, who have been there since my time. I shall therefore content my self with recounting some Particulars relating to Commerce and History, of which they have not spoken.

The English drive a great Trade at Smyrna, and over all the Levant. This Trade is driv’n by a Royal Company setled at London; which is Govern’d after a most prudent manner, and therefore cannot fail of success. It has stood almost these hundred Years, being first Confirm’d towards the middle of Queen Elizabeth’s Raign. A Raign famous for having, among other Things, giv’n Life to several Trading Companies, particularly those of Hamborough, Russia, Greenland, the East-Indies and Turkie, all which remain to this Day.’

[. . .]

After I had staid twelve days at Smyrna, I embark’d for Constantinople, where I arriv’d the Ninth of March, and Landed without any trouble, any danger, or any expence a very great Quantity of Rich Goods, which I brought along with me, being more then two Horses could carry. For M. de Nointel did me that favour as to give me leave to put his Name and the Flowre de Lices upon my Chests, and then sent for ‘em as belonging to himself. Which was done with the greatest ease in the World. For he presently sent his Interpreter to the Officer of the Custom-House, to let him know that he had two Chests aboard a Flemish Vessel that arriv’d the day before, which belong’d to him; and therefore desir’d they might be deliver’d Custom-free. Accordingly the Officer gave such Order, that the Interpreter went aboard the Dutch Vessel, unladed the two Chests, and sent ‘em to the Ambassador's House, who did me Kindnesses to send ‘em to my Lodging the next day.’


‘The 19th of July the Greek Merchant who was to Conduct me to Mingrelia, came to give me notice that the Saic lay at an Anchor near the Mouth of the Black-Sea, and only expected a fair Wind. So that I would presently have gone aboard, but my Friends did not think it convenient, till the Vessel was ready to Sail, for fear I should be discover’d for a French-Man. Thereupon I staid three days with Signor Sinibaldi Fieschi, Resident of Genoa, at a Country-House which he had upon the Bosphorus, and four days more at a fair Monastery of the Greeks, at the end of the Channel upon Europe side, over against the Harbour where the Saic lay at Anchor.

The Thracian Bosphorus is certainly one of the Loveliest parts of the World. The Greeks call Bosphori, those Streights or Arms of the Sea which an Ox may be able to swim over. This Channel is about Fifteen Miles in length, and about Two in breadth, in most parts, but in others less. The Shores consist of Rising Grounds cover’d over with Houses of Pleasure, Wood, Gardens, Parks, Delightful Prospects, Lovely Wildernesses Water’d with Thousands of Springs and Fountains.

The Prospect of Constantinople, when ye behold it from the top of the Channel, at the distance of two Miles, is beyond compare, as being to my Eyes, as to all that ever saw it, the most Charming Prospect that can be seen. The Passage through the Bosphorus is the most lovely and fullest of Divertisement that can be made by Water: And the number of Barks that Sail to and fro in fair Weather is very great. The Resident of Genoa told me, He made it his Pastime to tell the Boats that Sail’d to and fro before his House from Noon to Sun-set, in what time he told no less then Thirteen Hunderd.

There are Four Castles that stand upon the Bosphorus well Fortifi’d with great Guns: Two, Eight Miles from the Black-Sea, and Two more near the Mouth of the Channel. The Two latter were built not above Forty Years ago, to prevent the Cossacks, Muscovite and Polanders from entring into the Mouth of the Channel; who before made frequent Inroads into it with their Barks, almost within sight of Constantinople.’


‘The 14. we travell’d five leagues, through a Country full of little Hills, following the same course as the days before, that it is to the North-West, leaving that spacious Plain upon the left hand, which has been the Stage of so many Bloody Battels, fought in the last ages; and in the beginning of this between the Persians and Turks. The people of the Country shew you a great heap of Stones, & affirm it to be the Place where that Battel began, between Selim the Son of Solymon the Great, and Ismahel the Great. Our days Journey ended at Alacou. The Persians assert that this place was so call’d Alacou, by that famous Tartar Prince who conquer’d a great Part of Asia, and there founded a City, ruin’d during the Wars between the Turks and Persians.

The 15. our Journey was not so long as the day before, but the way through which we travell’d was more smooth and easie. We lodg’d at Marant; which is a good fair Town, consisting of about two thousand five hundred houses, and which has so many Gardens, that they take up as much ground as the Houses. It is seated at the bottom of a little Hill, at the end of a Plain, which is a league broad and five long: and which is one of the most lovely and fairest that may be seen; a little River call’d Zelou-lou running through the middle of it: from which the people of the Country cut several Trenches to water their Grounds and their Gardens. Marant is better peopl’d than Nacchivan, and a much fairer Town. There grows about it great plenty of Fruits, and the best in all Media. But that which is most peculiar to these Parts is this, that they gather Cocheneel in the Places adjoyning; though not in any great quantity, nor for any longer time then only eight days in the Summer, when the Sun is in Leo. Before that time the People of the Country assure us, that it does not come to Maturity; and after that time the Worm from whence they draw the Cocheneel, makes a hole in the lease upon which it grows, and is lost. The Persians call Cocheneel Quermis from Querm, which signifies a Worme, because it is extracted out of Worms.’


‘The 18. our Journey reach’d to Cashan, where we arriv’d, after we had travell’d seven Leagues, steering toward the South, over the Plain already mention’d: and at the end of two Leagues, we found the Soyl delightful and fertile, stor’d with large Villages. We pass’d through several, and about half the way left upon the left hand, at a near distance, a little City call’d Sarou, seated at the foot of a Mountain.

The City of Cashan is seated in a large Plain, near a high Mountain. It is a League in length, and a quarter of a League in breadth; extending it self in length from East to West. When you see it afar off, it resembles a half Moon, the Corners of which look toward both those Parts of the Heavens. The Draught is no true Representation, either of the Bigness or the Figure; as having been taken without a true Prospect. And the reason was the Indisposition of my Painter, who being extremely tir’d with the former days Travel, was not able to stir out of the Inn, where we lay. All that he could do was to get upon the Terrass, and take the Draught from thence.

There is no River that runs by the City, only several Canals convey’d under Ground, with many deep Springs and Cisterns as there are at Com. It is encompass'd with a double Wall, flank’d with round Towers, after the Ancient Fashion; to which there belong five Gates. One to the East, call’d the Royal Gate; as being near the Royal Palace, that stands without the Walls. Another call’d the Gate of Fieu; because it leads directly to a great Village, which bears that name. Another between the West and North, call’d the Gate of the House of Melic; as being near to a Garden of Pleasure, which was planted by a Lord of that Name. The two other Gates are opposite to the South-East, and North-East. The one call’d Com Gate, and the other Ispahan Gate; be cause they lead to those Cities. The City and the Suburbs, which are more beautiful then the City, contain six thousand five hundred Houses, as the People assure us; forty Mosques, three Colleges, and about two hundred Sepulchres of the Descendants of Aly. The Principal Mosque stands right against the great Market Place, having one Tower, that serves for a Steeple, built of Free Stone. Both the Mosque and the Tower are the Remainders of the Splendour of the first Mahumetans, who invaded Persia.


It is worth noting that although I have not been able to find any extracts from Chardin’s actual diaries, he does appear a few times in the pages of John Evelyn’s diary. Here’s Evelyn’s most substantial passage about Chardin.

30 August 1680
‘I went to visit a French gentleman, one Monsieur Chardin, who having been thrice in the East Indies, Persia, and other remote countries, came hither in our return ships from those parts, and it being reported that he was a very curious and knowing man, I was desired by the Royal Society to salute him in their name, and to invite him to honor them with his company. Sir Joseph Hoskins and Sir Christopher Wren accompanied me. We found him at his lodgings in his eastern habit, a very handsome person, extremely affable, a modest, well-bred man, not inclined to talk wonders. He spoke Latin, and understood Greek, Arabic, and Persian, from eleven years’ travels in those parts, whither he went in search of jewels, and was become very rich. He seemed about 36 years of age. After the usual civilities, we asked some account of the extraordinary things he must have seen in traveling over land to those places where few, if any, northern Europeans, used to go, as the Black and Caspian Sea, Mingrelia Bagdad, Nineveh, Persepolis, etc. He told us that the things most worthy of our sight would be, the draughts he had caused to be made of some noble ruins, etc.; for that, besides his own little talent that way, he had carried two good painters with him, to draw landscapes, measure and design the remains of the palace which Alexander burned in his frolic at Persepolis, with divers temples, columns, relievos, and statues, yet extant, which he affirmed to be sculpture far exceeding anything he had observed either at Rome, in Greece, or in any other part of the world where magnificence was in estimation. He said there was an inscription in letters not intelligible, though entire. He was sorry he could not gratify the curiosity of the Society at present, his things not being yet out of the ship; but would wait on them with them on his return from Paris, whither he was going the next day, but with intention to return suddenly, and stay longer here, the persecution in France not suffering Protestants, and he was one, to be quiet. 

He told us that Nineveh was a vast city, now all buried in her ruins, the inhabitants building on the subterranean vaults, which were, as appeared, the first stories of the old city, that there were frequently found huge vases of fine earth, columns, and other antiquities; that the straw which the Egyptians required of the Israelites, was not to bum or cover the rows of bricks as we use, but being chopped small to mingle with the clay, which being dried in the sun (for they bake not in the furnace) would else cleave asunder; that in Persia are yet a race of Ignicolac, who worship the sun and the fire as Gods; that the women of Georgia and Mingrelia were universally, and without any compare, the most beautiful creatures for shape, features, and figure, in the world, and therefore the Grand Seignor and Bashaws had had from thence most of their wives and concubines; that there had within these hundred years been Amazons among them, that is to say, a sort or race of valiant women, given to war; that Persia was extremely fertile; he spoke also of Japan and China, and of the many great errors of our late geographers, as we suggested matter for discourse. We then took our leave, failing of seeing his papers; but it was told us by others that indeed he dared not open, or show them, till he had first showed them to the French King; but of this he himself said nothing.’

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Baekeland makes Bakalite

‘I consider this days very successful work which has put me on the knot of several new and interesting products which may have a wide application as plastics and varnishes. Have applied for a patent for a substance which I shall call Bakalite.’ This is Leo Baekeland, born 160 years ago today and sometimes referred to as ‘The Father of the Plastics Industry’, writing in his diary on the very day he named the first synthetic plastic - a substance which would soon be known as Bakelite and take over the world. 

Baekeland, the son of a cobbler, was born in Ghent, Belgium, on 14 November 1863. He studied at Ghent Municipal Technical School and the University of Ghent, receiving a doctorate in chemistry aged only 21. He taught in Bruges and then back at the university until 1889. He married Céline Swarts that same year, and they would have two children. Together they emigrated to the US. There he worked for a photographic firm before launching his own company to manufacture Velox - his own invention, a photographic paper that could be developed under artificial light (indeed it was the first commercially successful photographic paper). In 1899, he and his partner, Leonard Jacobi, sold their Velox venture (Nepera Chemical Company) to the inventor George Eastman for $1m. With some of the money he purchased a house in Yonkers, New York, where heset up his own research lab.

Having signed a non-compete clause with Eastman, prohibiting him from photography research, Baekeland journeyed to Germany for a refresher course in electrochemistry. On returning to New York he was in demand as a consultant becoming involved in various successful ventures. But, in 1905, he began searching for a synthetic substitute for shellac (a natural secretion from a bug which had many uses), a search which led him to the discovery of Bakelite, a thermosetting plastic (produced from formaldehyde and phenol at high temperature and pressure). It was the first plastic invented that retained its shape after being heated, and it also held excellent electrical insulation properties. A process patent was awarded in 1909.

In time, his invention led Baekeland - dubbed The Father of the Plastics Industry - to receiving many honours. He served as president of the American Chemical Society in 1924. At the time of his death, in 1944, Bakelite was being used in over 15,000 different products, and world production was totalling around 175,000 tons. By then, too, Baekeland held more than 100 patents. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, and the National Academy of Sciences

Baekeland kept detailed diaries all his life, 62 of them, from 1907 to 1934, are held by Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History Archives. Before they were given to the Smithsonian, Céline Karraker, a granddaughter of Baekeland, read the diaries taking meticulous notes and intending to write a biography of her grandfather. They were also read by Carl Kaufmann, husband of Céline Karraker’s step sister, Ruth Wyman, who used the diaries to flesh out his master’s thesis, published as Grand Duke, Wizard and Bohemian: A Biographical Profile of Leo H. Baekeland.

More recently, however, the diaries have been digitalised and transcribed by Smithsonian Digital Volunteers, and are freely available online. A pdf of volume 1, for example, can be found here, with this intro: ‘The diary entries discuss his experiments during the time period in which he filed process patents for Bakelite. This diary [. . .] details Leo H. Baekeland’s daily activities. He writes often of his visits and discussions, as well as the subjects of correspondence he has written and received. Furthermore, Baekeland’s diary sheds light on the use and distance of travel by automobile in the early twentieth century. In the notes, Baekeland explains increasing time spent in the laboratory at the end of 1907 into 1908. The diary spans the spring months through the winter.’ Here are a few extracts, including the first mention of Bakalite. (Baekeland continued to use the term ’Bakalite’ in his diary for some time but he first started also using the term ‘Bakelite’ in November 1907.)

18-21 June 1907
‘Spent all days in my laboratory and found many interesting things. An exceedingly active period which allowed me to learn many mysterious reactions with which Thurlow has been struggling unsuccessfully since over a year. See laboratory notes marks CLS and BKL.

I consider this days very successful work which has put me on the knot of several new and interesting products which may have a wide application as plastics and varnishes. Have applied for a patent for a substance which I shall call Bakalite. Have found also a very practical solution for improving Novolak and make it practical as a varnish. All this work has been carried out while Thurlow was in Detroit showing to Berry Brothers how to deodorize Novolak. I am sure he will be surprised to hear about all what I have accomplished in so short a time.’

3 April 1907
‘I spent the morning at Westchester Hat Co. Yonkers and made an experiment so as to determine whether I could felt asbestos fibre in one of the hat machines so as to produce a cheaper diaphragm than the asbestos cloth diaphragm we are using now at Niagara Falls. The experiment was thoroughly satisfactory. In a very few seconds the whole operation was finished. I used asbestos fibre No.1 of the Johns Mandeville Asbestos Co. I intend to have the experiment repeated directly on flat cathode plates in such a way that they are placed above an opening on a flat table with suction below and a distributer of fibre above. It occurs to me that in order to utilize shorter fibre, we might stretch cheesecloth either free or over the cathode plate and thus produce an initial support for the asbestos fibre. Wetting and pressing the surface favors felting. I shall try wetting with gummy solutions or perhaps silicate of soda. We might also apply the iron paint we are using now at Niagara Falls so as to bind everything together. It occurs to me that in order to counteract the difference in hydrostatic pressure at the diaphragm in the cells we might make the lower part of the diaphragm thicker than the upper part. I have given instructions to Mr. Rowland and Marsh to carry out some further experiments on the subject. Afterwards I intend to apply for a patent.

In the afternoon went to the office of D. & F. Co. and wrote some letters.’

13 July 1907
‘A very active day which I spent in my laboratory on further research work on Bakalite. Thurlow worked on acetone formaldehyde and acetone - phenol products. See laboratory notes’

14 July 1907
‘Sunday. Started very early in my laboratory. Obtained  the first large sample of Bakalite in a bottle. The subject looks very encouraging. I believe I have an excellent thing. and it would be a great disappointment if my patent application had been preceeded by an earlier invention of somebody else.’

15 July 1907
‘Got a telegram from Townsend that Bakalite patent has been filed at Patent Office last Saturday.’

16 July 1907
‘Hard at work in laboratory.’

17 July 1907
‘Another busy day in laboratory further research work in relation to Bakalite.’

18 July 1907
‘Another hot sultry day. But I do not mind it and thoroughly appreciate the luxury of being allowed to stay home in shirt sleeves and without a collar. How about these Slave millionaires in wall street who have to go to their money making pursuit notwithstanding the sweltering heat. All day spent in laboratory - Bakalite’

25 October 1907
‘Went to N.Y. with Mr. Oppenheimer in his Limousine. Met Prof Ira Woolson at Columbia and asked him to test Bakalized Wood for me. He seemed much interested in my subject when I showed him Bakalite and told him the wood was impregnated with it. He gave me some black gum to try the process on it.

Spent remainder of morning in Prof. Tuckers laboratory testing conductivity of Graphite-Bakalite. He too seemed much interested when I showed him my samples.

Went to Wall Street where I was astonished to see mounted police men and rather dense crowds. Run on the Trust Co of America in front of office of Development & Funding Co. Good metered patient crowd line extending overlay the block until beyond custom house. Probably mostly small depositors judging from looks and appearance. Great uneasiness everywhere on account of financial condition.

Received two first copies of my book which has appeared yesterday. Consulted with Marsh & Lansing three hours, (chge 1/2 day)

Hook, Marsh & myself went to Delmonicos for lunch. Wilcox secretary of Public Utilities commission came to our table. General talk everywhere. The unsatisfactory financial condition. Asked my payment of my last bill to Hooker but he asked that I should wait and be satisfied with half of it.

Evening went to Toch’s where took supper he told me all his cash was tied up at Knickerbocker Trust Co which had suspended payments. He was rather more depressed than he ever appeared to me. Lewis fetched me at Chemists club with motor car . Took Bogurt and Toch home and we arrived here about midnight.’

23 November 1907
‘Spent all day writing letters wrote one to Quigley of Armstrong Cork Co telling him how cork Bakelite could be made in a continuous process by feeding continuously hot granulated cork with Bakelite then compressing and let the hot mass harden by itself.

All afternoon was utilized for laboratory and making a condensed report on the result of my wood impregnation tests.

Evening Mandel & wife came to eat mussels. After supper Branchi & wife joined. Showed Mandel in my lab alone my products and told him how Bakalite was made.’