A Dickensian Christmas

Everyone knows A Christmas Carol (1843), and perhaps other famous Christmas stories by Charles Dickens such as The Chimes (1844) and The Cricket on the Hearth (1845).  But Dickens wrote other Christmas tales, later in his career, the last of them being No Thoroughfare, written in collaboration with Wilkie Collins (who was then working on The Moonstone), which appeared as both a novel and a stage play at the end of 1867.


Of course, Dickens did not just have readers in Britain and America.  He was also enormously popular in Europe, particularly in Russia.  Dostoevsky wrote: ‘We understand Dickens in Russia, I am convinced, almost as well as the English, and maybe even all the subtleties; maybe even we love him no less than his own countrymen …’ (Diary of a Writer, 1870).  Given the ready readership abroad, it is perhaps not surprising that No Thoroughfare was published in Russian very quickly, in 1868:


Some warming Christmas cheer for readers during a long, cold Russian winter.  Fascinatingly, it was passed by the Imperial censor on 3 January 1868, just weeks after it had appeared in All The Year Round.  The speed of transmission, from London to St Petersburg, and from English into Russian, does seem extraordinary.


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Imitating a forgery


James Macpherson (1736–1796) has been called ‘in literary and cultural terms perhaps the most influential of all forgers …  Rare among educated Scots of his era in his familiarity with the Gaelic language and its still primarily oral tradition, he drew largely on both in his early poetry (The Highlander, 1758), which brought him little critical success.  Turning to “translations”, however (i.e. adaptations, or even wholecloth inventions) of alleged ancient Scots verse, Macpherson found himself taken up by patriotic countrymen like John Home, Lords Hailes and Kames, James Beattie, and above all Hugh Blair, and when copies of his work – collected in 1760 as Fragments of Ancient Poetry, collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and translated from the Galic or Erse Language – circulated south of the Tweed, he added Gray, Walpole, Mason, Shenstone, and Burke to his admirers.  Repeatedly encouraged by the Edinburgh literati … Macpherson soon came up with an astonishingly extensive find: a 19,000-word epic by “Ossian”, a blind bard of third-century Argyllshire, recounting the faded glory of his warrior-brethren among the Highland clans’ (Arthur Freeman, Bibliotheca Fictiva, p. 33).  Nearly everyone appears to have been taken in by it, and Ossian became widely popular, in Britain, America (Jefferson was an admirer), and Europe.  ‘By 1800 some if not all Ossianic verse had been translated into ten languages, a figure that had risen to twentry-six by 1860′ (op. cit., p. 35).

A couple of years ago, I wrote about how the young Goethe produced his own edition of Ossian, and earlier this year I came across another piece in the Ossianic jigsaw: scarce imitations of Macpherson’s original published by an Irish soldier–poet called Edmund Harold in Düsseldorf in 1787.  What’s particularly fascinating is that he published them simultaneously in English and German versions:



Born in Limerick, Harold (1737–1808) was one of the ‘Wild Geese’ who left Ireland to seek military service in Europe.  Boswell met him on a visit to Mannheim in 1764, calling him ‘a genteel young fellow [who] talked well, though with affectation’.  Though a professional soldier, Harold also became known as a minor writer in German literary circles, corresponding with Herder and Lichtenberg.  The seventeen pieces published in his book, all but two ascribed to Ossian, are a kind of follow-up work to Harold’s own German translation of Ossian (1775, an early complete version, later used by Schubert for his settings).

‘Both Edmund von Harold and John Smith [Galic Antiquities, Edinburgh, 1780], as imitators of Macpherson, enjoyed little or no success in Britain, and it is easily overlooked that abroad they often came to rival their illustrious model in popularity and impact, if in a geographically more limited way [Harold in Northern, Smith in Southern Europe] …  Harold made no secret of his methods as “translator”, freely admitting in the preface to the 1787 edition that he had simply taken the bare bones of ancient stories and legends, and dressed them up as he saw fit.  In this he was following the procedure which he assumed Macpherson himself has adopted.  Harold’s candour does not, however, prevent his light-heartedly attempting to sustain the fiction that he has had privileged access to hitherto unknown sources, and he is capable of littering his pages with asterisks to suggest defective transmission – no doubt influenced here by Macpherson himself.  Harold is, however, innovative in some respects.  He insists on Ossian’s Irish origins, and he also reintroduces religion into the poetry …  It is interesting that it is in Northern Europe … that Harold seems to have enjoyed his major success’, in Scandinavia, Holland, and Russia (Gaskill, The Reception of Ossian in Europe, pp. 15–16).


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Mystics and dandies


As I wrote a couple of years ago, Oscar Wilde had a particular following in early twentieth-century Russia.  Here is another example: the first separate edition in Russian of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), printed in Moscow in a limited edition of just 500 numbered copies in 1906.

Wilde 2


It is the first appearance of this translation.  Others had previously appeared, in 1905, in a St Petersburg journal and in a set of collected works published by Sablin (though slapdash work, according to contemporary reviews, translated from another translation).  The translator here was Anna Mintslova (1865–1910), an enigmatic woman who exerted a powerful influence on various Symbolist writers of the time, among them Vyacheslav Ivanov, Andrei Bely (who likened her to Madame Blavatsky), and Maksimilian Voloshin.


Mintslova with Ivanov


The striking illustrations are the work of the decadent artist Modest Durnov (1867–1928), ‘a dandy in the English style’ who, according to Rachel Polonsky (English Literature and the Russian Aesthetic Renaissance, 1998), was known as an authority on matters of taste and was at the centre of Moscow artistic life at the turn of the century.  He was a friend of the great Symbolist writer Konstantin Balmont, and had apparently met Wilde on a visit to London.

Wilde 3

Wilde 4


Wilde 5


Wilde 6

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Far from Thanksgiving

Schaden 1

I had quite a bit of interest when I wrote about this book over on The New Antiquarian, so thought I’d share it here, too.  I’ve written before about a fictitious Boston imprint.  That book had no obvious connection with the United States, but this one does: it’s an early satire on emigration to America, from 1818.

Schaden 2


The author couches his satire in the form of a play, set on the deck of a merchantman bound for America.  Partly in prose, partly in verse, the ship’s captain leads discussions with representatives from around the German-speaking world, all driven to emigrate due to conditions in post-Napoleonic Europe: a former officer from Hesse, an Austrian parson, a speculator from the Rhineland, a Frankfurt Jew, etc.  The conversations range from education (one of the women on board, inspired by Pestalozzi, wants to set up a girls’ school) and economics (the Saxon waxes lyrical on Adam Smith and Le Mercier), to books (a printer from Baden has brought a set of type with him, with the intention of issuing reprints of British classics).

America is depicted as an Eldorado flowing with milk and honey (sic) before, as they near other side of the Atlantic, they realise how much it stinks.  Schaden (1791–1840), a young Berlin playwright, gives his view of emigration in his ‘prefatory sigh’: ‘We hereby freely and publicly acknowledge German emigrants to be people who have sadly lost their way, and that our satirical sketch has the intention to scourge no one but these deranged folk …’

Thousands of Germans, and others, who went to live in America in the nineteenth century surely held a different view.  A very Happy Thanksgiving to all my American readers.

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The Raft of the Medusa


Théodore Géricault’s vast masterpiece Le Radeau de la Méduse (now at the Louvre) is, of course, based on fact.  But how did he find out about what happened on that ill-fated voyage?  Answer: he read a book.  The book he read, written by two of the shipwreck’s survivors, Jean-Baptiste Savigny (the ship’s surgeon) and Alexandre Corréard (a geographer travelling to Africa), was this:


In it, they tell how La Méduse—a forty-gun frigate of the French Navy—was en route to Senegal when disaster struck.  They describe how a series of mistakes by captain and crew led to ship-wide efforts to prevent her running aground on a reef.  These were unsuccessful, and the lifeboats being too few, a makeshift raft was deployed to carry some 147 passengers to shore.  Not far into their journey, beset by poor weather, the flotilla comprising life boats and raft disintegrated, and the raft was cast adrift without navigational equipment and with limited supplies.  Two weeks of horror ensued.  The raft was nightly battered by gales, which saw people swept overboard and led groups of the passengers to ignore rationing in the face of what seemed like imminent death.  At least two separate mutinies occurred, each exacting a high death toll, and several passengers embraced the shark-infested waters in despair.  The survivors turned increasingly to cannibalism as well as turning overboard the sick and injured in an effort to conserve resources.  By the time of the raft’s eventual rescue they numbered just fifteen.

The authors describe their rescue in terms of religious deliverance, and their story was an immediate sensation.  Inspired by the tale, Géricault began work on a huge canvas which would become his evocative depiction of tempestuous seas and humanity cast adrift.  The painting, now famous as a work of extreme pathos, contrasts strikingly with Corréard’s technically precise frontispiece illustration of the raft:


The work ran to several editions, and was widely translated.  To fight against illegal copies circulating, the book is signed by both authors:

Naufrage 2

Even now, the episode continues to fascinate and inspire: Julian Barnes devotes one of his ‘10½ Chapters’ to the shipwreck of the Medusa, as a reflection the zenith and nadir which combine in human survival (A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, 1989).


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After the Wall

I remember back in 1996, when I was living in Germany, you could still buy good-quality music scores from Editions Peters in Leipzig very cheaply.  There I was, an impecunious student, scooping up cloth-bound editions of J. S. Bach’s choral works—which I still have, of course—for next to nothing.  When I asked about the low prices, I was told that they were old GDR stock and could not be sold at ‘Western’ prices.


This book seems timely, as Germany celebrates the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Dating from 1990, it’s a catalogue of some 2500 books published in the GDR which are now to be distributed in West Germany, with wholesale prices.  The deadline for the catalogue was 13 September 1990, only a fortnight after the reunification treaty was signed.  This little catalogue thus contains almost the entire book production of a state soon to be dissolved.


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The writer Aleksandr Griboedov (1795–1829; his name means ‘mushroom-eater’ in Russian) died tragically young: while serving at Russia’s ambassador to Persia, he was killed and his body mutilated when a mob attacked the Russian legation in Teheran.  In A Journey to Erzurum, Pushkin describes meeting the cart bringing Griboedov’s body from Teheran for burial in Tiflis.

Griboedov is remembered today for one work: Gore ot uma, or Woe from Wit as it’s usually known in English, one of the classics of the Russian stage.  The play had a notoriously complicated publication history.  Completed in 1824, but forbidden by the censor, it first circulated in manuscript, before four scenes from Act I and the whole of Act III were published in Bulgarin’s miscellany Russkaia Taliia (‘The Russian Thalia’) in 1825, the play’s only appearance in print during Griboedov’s lifetime.  The first authorised edition of the play was published in Moscow in 1833, though this had substantial cuts.  Two editions, described as ‘complete’, appeared in Germany in 1858, but the full text was not allowed in Russia until 1862.

The first reasonably complete performances had taken place in 1831, and that same year Karl von Knorring published a German translation in Reval (modern-day Tallinn, Estonia) in the short-lived almanac Russische Bibliothek für Deutsche:


English readers had to wait another 26 years before being able to read the play, as Gore ot ouma a Comedy from the Russian of Griboiedoff, in a translation by Nikolai Benardaki (Nicolas de Benardaky, 1838–1909, the son of Dmitry Benardaki, one of Russia’s first millionaires).  He settled in Paris with his new wife, Maria, around 1873, where their salon became well known; Tchaikovsky conducted a concert there, and wrote pieces for Maria, who was an enthusiastic singer.

Griboedov 2

As well as being in prose rather than verse, Bernadaki’s version is rather ‘free’, presumably as he was working from a very faulty copy of the text.  The next English translation, by S. W. Pring, did not appear until 1914.




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Picture this


This little book (it measures only 138 × 108 mm), ‘The Secret of taking Daguerreotypes, or the Art of producing Photogenic Pictures with a Camera Obscura’, has been described as ‘the first photographic manual in the world’ (Gernsheim, Concise History of Photography (third edition, p. 11), and is also the first German publication on photography.

The year 1839 marks the beginning of photography as we know it today.  Although both Louis Daguerre and Henry Fox Talbot had been experimenting independently for a number of years on their different photographic processes, it was the daguerreotype which was first announced to the world, on 7 January 1839, by François Arago, secretary of the Académie des sciences in Paris.  Talbot responded with demonstrating his positive–negative process to the Royal Institution on 25 January, and then presenting a paper to the Royal Society on 31 January.  The official ‘birth date’ of photography, however, is generally seen as 19 August 1839, when Arago printed the full text of his report (Rapport … sur le daguerréotypie); Daguerre’s own Historique et description des procédés du daguerreotype … followed on 6/7 September.

The author here, Karl von Frankenstein (1810–1848), an Austrian writer of technical manuals, dates his preface ‘Juli 1839’, a month before the publication of Arago’s report.  The exact publication date of Frankenstein’s manual is not known, but it was being advertised for sale in the Klagenfurter Zeitung on 24 August, i.e. before Daguerre’s own manual.

The book itself is intended as a layman’s guide to photography, an intentional change from the earlier scholarly articles and official reports.  Frankenstein begins with a long account of Daguerre’s invention, including a discussion of the chemical reactions between light and various organic and inorganic materials, and the work of Talbot, Friedrich Gerber (a Swiss who had managed to fix images from a camera obscura with silver salts in the 1830s), etc.  This is followed by a chapter on the preparation of photogenic paper, describing first Talbot’s, then Daguerre’s method.


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The last couple of weeks have seen me in Germany and America, visiting book fairs, customers, and libraries.  I have always enjoyed the international nature of the book trade.  As regular readers of this blog will know, I have a particular interest in the cultural history of France, Germany, and Russia, especially in how these cultures interact with the anglophone world.  So it was a pleasant surprise to find the following, two weeks ago, in Frankfurt:

Amerikafahrt 1

It’s a piece of promotional literature for an American tour for German bibliophiles, organised by the shipping company Norddeutscher Lloyd in Bremen, in October 1930.  The opening lines set the scene: ‘America: the land of limitless possibilities in the world of the book.  It has the greatest libraries in the world (public as well as private), the best-organised library system, the collectors with the most purchasing power, the most dynamic bibliophilic societies, and the greatest printers and bookbinders.’

Amerikafahrt 2

The tour was to set off from Bremen on 3 October, arriving in New York on the 9th.  There they were to spend three days visiting the New York Public Library, Columbia University Library, the Morgan , the Hispanic Society, the Jewish Theological Seminary Library, the Met, the Grolier Club, private libraries of great collectors (Pforzheimer, Folger etc.), the New York Times, the American Art Association, and booksellers such as Rosenbach, Lathrop Harper, and Gabriel Wells.  Next on the itinerary was New Jersey (Jenkinson Collection, Newark Public Library; typographic library at the American Typefounders Company, Jersey City), then up to Yale and on to Boston (Boston Public Library, Harvard).  19 October was to see them at Niagara Falls; 20–21 October in Washington (Mount Vernon, Library of Congress); 22 October in Philadelphia (Curtis Publishing Co., Fine Art Museum, College of Physicians, and Rosenbach), before travelling back up to New York for the final couple of days.  The price for the tour was 1990 Reichsmarks.

Library of Congress

Library of Congress

The bibliophiles are advised to take a warm coat, and to restrict themselves to one suitcase.  ‘The possession of firearms is punishable in the United States, likewise the possession or importation of alcoholic drinks and narcotics (cocaine, opium, etc.).  It is important to note that the importation of heron, bird-of-paradise and similar fancy feathers is prohibited…’ (p. 18).


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Dr Watson, theatre buff


This volume is not an ordinary printed book, but a bound-up collection of 89 playbills, documenting a whole season in the life of the Theatre Royal, Manchester, 16 December 1799 – 24 November 1800.

‘The new season opened on December 16, 1799, with revivals of The Castle Spectre [by “Monk” Lewis] and Rosina [by Frances Brooke].  Three newcomers, Grant, Rowswall and Cross, were in the first piece and Miss Griffiths, destined to be a favourite in Manchester in the following years, appeared as Rosina.  The first performance of real interest was in February, when Sheridan’s latest success, Pizarro, was given in Manchester for the first time …  The Mercury, which rarely contained any notices of performances at this period, made an exception in its favour; finding it performed “in a very superior manner.  The scenery is superb, the dresses characteristically elegant, the processions and music conducted with the utmost precision and correctness; and the performers in general, particularly Mr. [Charles Mayne] Young and Mrs. [Sarah] Ward, exerted their talents to the greatest effect.  Every praise and encouragement is due to the managers for their spirited and liberal conduct in bringing forth so magnificent a performance”.  Another new play destined to become a stock favourite far and wide was [Thomas Morton’s] Speed the Plough which Mrs. Ward announced for her benefit [31 March 1800], although it had been produced at Covent Garden less than two months earlier.


‘Despite these outstanding items, all was not well.  It was not merely that an outbreak of pamphleteering had begun, notably in a publication called A Peep into the Theatre Royal, which the Monthly Mirror not unfairly dismissed as “vulgar and scurrilous”, the Monthly Mirror critic himself, in the issue for March, 1800, makes it clear that there are grounds for discontent.  The theatre, he tells us, had been very thinly attended.  “The town is dissatisfied with the company, which is by no means equal to what Manchester has been accustomed to, though we observe several names of respectability among the performers—Ward and Banks (the Managers), Young, Grist, Turpin, Penson, Mrs. Hatton, Mrs. Ward, Miss Griffiths, etc.” …  Before Whit, George Davies Harley came from Dublin for an engagement of three nights, during which he played Richard III, Shylock, and Iago …  It was then announced that John Banks had decided to retire from management, and that his place as Ward’s partner would be taken by Thomas Ludford Bellamy [who] had been on the professional stage only about three years’ (Pogson, The Early Manchester Theatre, pp. 155–6).


The collection was put together by James Watson, a local eccentric who kept a druggist’s shop—he was known as ‘the Doctor’—and, from 1803 onwards, produced The Townsman, a weekly publication which, according to the Monthly Mirror, ‘threatened destruction and annihilation to the managers, and their adherents, for not furnishing them with a company, or, in short, such a one as they could approve of’ (quoted in Pogson, p. 164).  Watson (1775–1820), a theatre fanatic, has had a couple of his manuscript notes on slips of paper, recording changes in the cast etc., bound into his book.  ‘He was one of those whose genius and ability are overclouded by a complete want of will-power.  Although possessed with a talent for the stage, which enabled him to take a lead in amateur theatricals and brought him into personal contact with many actors … and also some literary talent, as shown in his poems, published [posthumously] under the title of The Spirit of the Doctor [1820], his life was a complete failure.  Appointed librarian when the Portico was opened in 1806, he soon lost that position in consequence of his drinking habits and neglect of duty’ (Swindells, Manchester Streets and Manchester Men, Series I, quoted by Pogson, p. 180).

I am pleased to say that the volume has now been reunited with another of Watson’s bound collection of local playbills, for the 1803–4 season, at the John Rylands Library in Manchester.


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