Our blog has a new home! You can now read about all our latest discoveries at the Tower Project blog
Where is today’s Friday feature? you ask. (I hope we’ve become as indispensable to your Friday mornings as coffee and Friday cake)
Sadly, we’ve become so popular that WordPress has added adverts to our site, which isn’t a look that we’re keen on. We could get an upgrade, but we’ve decided to move the blog to the tender care of the University Library domain instead. Please be patient for a week while we get ourselves organised: updates will appear on this blog so please please don’t forget us! We would really miss you!
One of the books I most enjoyed reading during the Christmas holiday was PD James’ “Death comes to Pemberley.” It’s in some ways a sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and prejudice, and revives many of the characters from Pride and prejudice and other Austen novels, but given the fact that it’s written by PD James, also involves a corpse. So imagine my surprise when I returned to work in January and the first book I picked up to catalogue was another Jane Austen revival – Old friends and new fancies: an imaginary sequel to the novels of Jane Austen by Sybil G. Brinton, published in 1913.
Sybil G. obviously enjoyed herself hugely while writing this book. In a brief note she says that she wrote the book with her friend Edith Barran “for those who, like ourselves, owe to Jane Austen some of the happiest hours of their lives. ” In the opening chapters she gathers up (nearly) all of Jane Austen’s characters and throws them together into the dizzy social whirl of the Bath season. It’s as if she’s involved in a literary game of Consequences: if Elizabeth and Darcy met Lucy Steele and Mary Crawford, in the Assembly rooms at Bath, whatever would happen? Have the characters changed after their novel experiences? Has Lucy Steele seen the error of her ways? Has Mary Crawford been softened and humanized by suffering? Some people haven’t changed a bit: Lady Catherine de Bourgh moves like a tank through the Pump room, destructive as ever. Emma (Woodhouse-that-was) has persuaded her Mr Knightley to go into Parliament and has established herself in town, organizing social circles in London just as she did those in Hartfield.
The great thing about using someone’s else’s characters is that you can re-arrange their fate to suit your own preferences. Colonel Brandon was clearly not a favourite with Sybil Brinton, he has been killed off before the story begins. I haven’t yet finished reading this story so I can’t spoil the ending for you, but I can highly recommend it to all the Jane Austen fans. Although I thought I knew Austen’s books pretty well, I was made giddy by the speed with which so many characters appear or are referred to, and luckily there’s an index of characters listed by their original Austen novel.
May Wynne’s “The honour of the school” published in 1918, has one of the most curious dustjackets I’ve ever seen. Who wouldn’t want to take this book off the shelf to find out what happens? The story begins traditionally with a new girl arriving at Polgrath school, which is housed in an old manor house on the Cornish coast, providing an exciting setting of wild sea, rugged cliffs, and smugglers’ caves. The war intrudes mainly during meals: weak tea, no sugar and “war bread” which is unpopular. But the war is only the background to the real adventures: before a fortnight has passed the girls have been trapped in a smugglers’ cave and blown up a woodshed when practising chemical experiments. After a single morning recovering with her Latin grammar the heroine manages to fall down a cliff, and is rescued by a young man in khaki, who has come from Canada “to fight the Germans”, his ship has been torpedoed and he has swum ashore. Beat that.
Still wondering why the hero has been hiding behind the panelling in the picture gallery? I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the surprise ending. Read it and find out!
What information was given to children at the time of the first world war? The world had changed. “We see khaki everywhere now, because we are at war” explains the author of “The army told to the children.” (classmark 1916.6.20) No space is given to discussing the causes of the war, the book simply describes how the army works and what it does. The book’s presentation makes it clear that the book is aimed at older children. It has a text-book like clarity and focuses on the practical. The photographs are the highlight of the book for me: the trenches are shown in detail but in their newly dug, tidy state. The text coolly explains what needs to be done. Soldiers need trenches so that they can shoot at the enemy without being seen themselves. Emergency ‘shelter’ trenches, less than a foot deep with a low ridge of earth at the front, could be dug in half an hour. But each day the army stays in one place, the trenches are improved, deepened so that men can stand upright. Sandbags are used to create a barrier at the front of the trench through which the soldiers can fire. “In the present war hundreds of miles of these trenches have been made, with tunnels between them so that men can move about under cover.”
I can imagine that in war-time even children became theroretical experts about fighting battles, that some child would confidently repeat to others that “There’s danger from shells and bullets, but shells are really not so dangerous because it is difficult to judge the range and take a good shot”.
However, some of the descriptions are more graphic than I would judge suitable for children “men crouching behind a bank of earth, with showers of shrapnel bullets crashing down upon them, and high explosive shells bursting in and around the bank in front, blowing men to pieces, smothering all the front in clouds of smoke and dust and flying fragments …”
So, not suitable for children but a brilliant explanation of how the war was fought – how it was fed, supplied and armed. For most children the war was seen chiefly through fiction – to be covered next week …
Do you remember that episode of “Dad’s army” when Private Pike dresses up as a squanderbug to raise money for a Spitfire? “Patriotic pence” (classmark 1917.7.1005) is a play for children, written for similar fundraising activities during the first world war. The play centres around Mrs Smith and her children who are wasting money. The Home Fairy visits (Costume suggestion – silver tinselled gauze. “That’s a smart outfit for a district visitor” says Mrs Smith) and points out that the pennies are being wasted on peppermints and going to the pictures, while they could be used to help soldiers at the front.
“When shells thick in air they are hoverin’,
I want so to help them, don’t you?
But the tip of a shell costs a sovereign,
So what can a poor penny do?”
Enter Serjeant Shilling, who explains that pennies do matter: “every fourpence saved pays for three cartridges for the boys out in the trenches.” The play ends in a wild dance featuring the children dressed as pennies, chanting:
“A saving we will go!
A saving we will go!
Put our money in a box and mend our socks,
A saving we will go!”
As you can tell, I enjoyed this play very much, and was excited to see that it was actually performed in at least two junior schools during the first world war (see David Parker’s “Hertfordshire children in war and peace”)
Sometimes you see an older book that makes you realise just how much the world has changed. “Firework making for amateurs” is one of these. Even the adverts are thrilling: my favourite is for John Page, a “pyrotechnic chemist”. Wouldn’t you just love to have a pyrotechnic chemist on your street?
Mercury and cyanide feature heavily in the book as ingredients, and even the author breezily admits that firework-making can be dangerous. But it’s the sheer ambition of the book that impresses, leaving me with feelings of inadequacy very similar to those inspired by the “average boy“. The chapter on rockets, for example, has a page of beautifully illustrated ‘rocket-making apparatus’ and states cheerfully that “they can be made by any good wood-turner and machinist.” Later pages are even more daunting: “fig 56 shows rocket complete, with clay top, brass stud and spindle”. Giving up on hopes of successfully making a rocket (a balsa-wood model of Concord was all I managed in school woodwork) I was consoled by the admission that things that can go wrong. Your home-made sparkler may “detonate in a violent manner” instead of fizzing elegantly. Another indoor firework ‘the Pharoah’s serpent’ gives off a cyanide-filled smoke when lit, and so must be lit near an open window unless you want to kill off your admiring spectators. Other disasters could result from “buying cheap explosives” if you were unfortunate enough not to have a local pyrotechnic chemist. For those feeling really ambitious, chapter 21 is entitled ‘shells and mortars’, making it quite clear why firework displays were banned in Britain during the first world war.
What words of inspiration or comfort did soldiers take with them to the front?
The books published in late 1914 include many slim paperbound pamphlets of ‘inspirational’ thoughts. Some are cheap and basic, a kind of spiritual first aid book. ‘So fight I’ is a compilation of quotations from the Bible and Christian writers, only a few pages and only 12 cm tall. Similar is “The happy warrior”, a collection of Biblical texts for each time of day and each day of the year, based on the soldier’s daily routine. So at Reveille on Monday April 19th, the text was “Awake thou that sleepest and arise from the dead, and Christ will give thee light.”
There are also packets of postcards with suitably cheerful texts on them, like these ‘cheer cards’ (above) published for Christmas 1914. And finally there are more expensive productions printed on fine paper with silver lettering, like “The happy warrior: in memory of the gallant sons who, by land or sea, have laid down their lives for the Empire.” The happy warrior is the hero of a painting by G. F. Watts, which is reproduced as the frontispiece:
The hero is at the point of death on the battlefield, when a ‘spirit form’ appears and kisses him, while the shaft of light falling on his face seems to come from another world, beyond the clouds. Watts’ painting appeared in 1884, but during the first world war it became a “talismanic image” for some. These pocket-sized pamphlets include pictures, hymns and poetry – whether quotations from Homer’s Iliad or a printed card with the understated text “Pluck is the ability to face a difficult situation with brave calmness and undiscouraged energy.”
We’ve just started to catalogue books published at the end of 1914. It’s noticeable how fast and how completely the outbreak of the First World War came to dominate the books published. Since about 1907 we’ve noticed several pamphlets on the arms race, and glossy brochures about Britain’s new warships, but by the end of 1914 every shelf in the bookshops must have been filled with books about the war.
Some of these are so out of date as to be of no practical use: the book entitled ‘Cold steel’ has a chapter on dealing with ‘savages’ which I think would be useless when faced with an enemy armed with guns instead of spears. The author of a book on the treatment of wounds explains that his advice is based on experience of the Boer war.
Poetry is famously important to our understanding of the first world war, but the poetry published in late 1914 was centred on one theme: patriotism. The titles say it all:
Poems of war and battle
The flag of England: ballads of the brave and poems of patriotism
England, my England, a war anthology.
The Union Jack.
And finally the card (left) issued for Christmas 1914.
A crisis hit the project this week when we came to plan our blog post. We’d catalogued energetically all week but nothing inspired us to admiration or witty comment, nothing tempted us to smile. To be honest, we couldn’t escape the feeling that we’d seen it all before. Yet more heroic tales of British boys travelling around the world making a nuisance of themselves, fairy stories that were frankly tedious, romantic novels that failed to grip. Was 1910 really so dull?
Luckily, just in time to avoid having to fake enthusiasm for something, I discovered Printers’ Pie: “a festival souvenir of the Printers’ Pension, Almshouse and Orphan Asylum Corporation” which instantly lifted my spirits. It’s a sort of annual published for Christmas, a collection of light short stories and colourful cartoons, including one by W. Heath Robinson. The adverts were particularly entertaining, covering everything from a replica for the Great Sphinx of Cairo (14 inches high, can be cleaned with soap and water) to “dainty motor millinery”.
I also found several remedies for people in 1910 who were feeling “out of sorts”. Some of these sounded drastic: for example, Lactobacilline (soured) milk, which even the advertiser said had “a certain peculiar flavour that is impossible to describe”. My favourite was this startlingly colourful advert for Vibrona tonic wine. Perhaps the project should order a case?