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Our Head of Reader Services, Helen O’Neill, provided a fascinating series of blog posts in 2012, tracing her journey into The London Library Archive. We hope you enjoy her final post for 2012 – the journey will continue in 2013!

The Victorian membership records of Henry Irving (1838-1905) and Bram Stoker (1847-1912) date from 1890.  Irving is Britain’s most acclaimed Victorian actor and theatre manager who, against considerable odds, not only made it to the top of his profession but changed the perception and status of his profession in the process.  Five years after joining the Library he became the first actor to be recognised with a knighthood for services to the stage.  Irving’s wingman, Bram Stoker joined the Library in the year he began work onDracula.  Within seven years he published his most famous literary work which has never been out of print, and which made the most breath-taking transition onto the global stage with the advent of film.

Stoker’s handwriting is a good example of the challenges involved in deciphering Victorian manuscript records. Stoker’s occupation, if you are struggling with the handwriting reads “Acting Manager Lyceum Theatre” where he was Irving’s right-hand-man for 27 years.   It is perhaps no coincidence that someone intimately involved in the theatre and who worked at close quarters with an actor of Irving’s magnetism, would create a character that would enthral in a visual medium. In the year Dracula was published, Stoker’s nominee Hall Caine publishedThe Christian: the first novel in Britain to sell a million copies.

It is hard to imagine looking at these documents that either Irving or Stoker could have imagined when they dashed them off, that over a century later they would have the power to arrest and captivate in quite the way they do.  Look at Irving’s description of his occupation: verve, wit, humility and pride all wrapped up in that playful, telling word “Comedian”.

Irving’s status as a national treasure is captured in an evocative piece inThe Times on October 20 1905, the day before his funeral.  The piece describes the traffic being stopped at the junction of Stratton Street and Piccadilly as a large number of “humble admirers” assembled to pay their respects as a glass hearse carrying Irving’s flower covered coffin made its way, at walking pace, to Westminster Abbey.  The piece records how Irving’s body had lain in state at the house of Lady Burdett-Coutts (also a member) where “all day long a silent stream of visitors had flowed slowly round the room and out again” a scene “in which gentle and simple joined in great numbers”.

In the Library’s Special Collections there is a copy of Tennyson’s playBecket.  Irving died in a hotel lobby after performing in the title role of this play.  His praise for the play appears on the title page, which is also signed and dated by Bram Stoker. The play, annotated throughout, was donated to the Library in 1937 by N.T. Stoker.  It is an eloquent example of how the collections have been shaped and enriched by past members and it demonstrates how a connection to the library, once made, can spread across generations within the same family.  Taken in conjunction with the membership records of Irving and Stoker it reflects the relationship not only between the archive and the book collection, but between the Library and the cultural life of the nation.

One last membership record before finishing: from 1894 the joining form of Constance Wilde.  Notice her “occupation or position” is given as “Wife of Oscar Wilde Esq”. Within a year Oscar would be in jail and the family home at Tite Street along with all its contents auctioned off. My experience with the membership records to date tells me that wives often turn up in the records after their husbands, so if I come across Oscar while I continue pincher-action on the Victorian records, you will be the first to know.

Next time: John William Waterhouse and George Frederic Watts lead the charge as the artists and illustrators sweep in.

© Helen O’Neill

Bram Stoker’s membership form

Henry Irving’s membership form

Bookplate in Tennyson’s Becket

Annotated pages – Tennyson’s Becket

Constance Wilde’s membership form

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In this, her third London Library archive blog instalment, Helen O’Neill explores Librarian Robert Harrison’s Commonplace Book and discovers fascinating anecdotes about past ‘literary workers’ in the Library…

Robert Harrison, Librarian (1857-1893) used this unwanted ledger to scribble anecdotes and personal experiences about his time at the Library.  His obituary notice in The Athenaeum in 1897 noted that his “long service at the London Library brought him in constant association with most of the leading literary men of the last forty years”.[1]  His entries are dashed off quickly and never re-worked – they brim with social and historical context, but have the immediacy of conversation.   His anecdotes pre-date the construction works of 1896-1898 which brought in the Issue Hall, main reading room, grilled Back Stacks and Literature block. During Harrison’s time, the membership would have rubbed shoulders, in what was essentially still a town house being filled with books. The photographs below pre-date the Victorian construction and remodelling works and give a flavour of the Library as it was in Harrison’s day.

I have picked two entries from Harrison’s Commonplace book: George Eliot, is the subject of the first extract, and Alfred Tennyson, (as he was at the time), is the focus of the second. Transcriptions are displayed below the manuscript image.

Are Harrison’s anecdotes just tittle-tattle or do they provide revealing insights into a network of Victorian literary workers making use of the Library during his time? The extracts, though brief and entertaining are insightful. George Eliot was a formidable intellect and freethinker – and in 1859 no-one would have had more first-hand experience of her ability than the dashing Byron look-a-like, John Chapman; and Tennyson did have very real tensions between his inner and outer worlds, and struggled in the limelight.

In these two short snippets Harrison highlights George Eliot, Tennyson, the Irish poet William Allingham, and Dr Chapman, the influential publisher and proprietor of the radical Westminster Review, but it is the context, as well as the content, of Harrison’s anecdotes which make them zing with interest.  In addition to the literary movers-and-shakers, Harrison provides us with specific Victorian cultural references points.  We get a whiff of phrenology, (in its heyday during this period); and we are whisked off to the Egyptian Halls on Piccadilly (where “sofa stalls for three persons”[4] went for a guinea) to see the illusionist Dr Lynn, “the embodiment of all the strange manifestations and phenomena of the so-called spirit-media”[5] who was enthralling the metropolis every evening at 8pm in 1873, as the Evening Standard reported:

“During the past week an entertainment – one of the most extraordinary ever witnessed by a London audience- has been given nightly at the Egyptian Hall.  Dr. Lynn, who is a wizard of the most marvellous skill … comes to us from Paris with a certificate of excellence from no less a person than the poet Victor Hugo…”[6]

I doubt even Victor Hugo’s personal endorsement would have been any comfort to Tennyson but I confess to being hugely interested in the fact that Tennyson, whose work is littered with protagonists in psychological states of suspension, went to Dr Lynn’s show.  I am intrigued too by Harrison’s conversation with Chapman, and am rather impressed that in his anecdote George Eliot’s intelligence gets prime billing, ahead of her agreeable conversation, her looks, and her radical life choices.

Harrison used the ledger for what he called his “scrawling”[7] but his anecdotes act rather like flares, illuminating momentarily the hubbub of Library members with whom he came into contact, and the cultural and historical context in which they moved.

If you are interested in reading Harrison’s Commonplace Book it was transcribed and published in The Cornhill Magazine in December 1931 under the title “A Bundle of Dry Leaves” by his grandson Douglas G. Browne. The Cornhill Magazine is available in Periodicals 8vo in the Basement, sadly not through JSTOR.

Next time: Bram Stoker and Henry Irving get in on the act…

© Helen O’Neill


[1] Quoted in Douglas G. Browne, “A Bundle of Dry Leaves” in The Cornhill Magazine December 1931, p. 746.

[2] Robert Harrison,  Commonplace book of anecdotes and personal experiences 1857-83

[3] Ibid

[4] Morning Post May 26, 1873, p.1.

[5] Ibid

[6] The Standard May 30, 1873, p. 3.

[7] Quoted in Douglas G. Browne, 1931 p. 746.

1859 Miss Evans, the author of Adam Bede, etc., etc., translator of Strauss’s Life of Jesus,possesses, says Dr. Chapman (of West’ Review), one of the most massive intellects of our time. Combe, the physiologist and phrenologist told him (Chapman) that he had never seen a woman’s head indicative of so much power, and very few men’s heads.  She is an agreeable conversationalist, full of knowledge-but her external graces are small and few, coiffure and toilette generally being of the negligent sort.  She was bred a Wesleyan and “turned out of her father’s house on account of her religious opinions or negations, which being of the most advanced school of freethinking make one wonder at the sketch of “Dinah.” [2]

Dec 4/73 One day last week Tennyson, the laureate went with W. Allingham [the poet], “Laurence Bloomfield”, to see Dr Lynn the conjurer at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly. They are both very self-conscious men but dred to show it, tho’ imagining the world’s eye to be always on them.  The Laureate especially is morbidly sensitive about strangers noticing him in any way or drawing attention to him.   Conjurers however know no distinctions, and Lynn, who probably did not know his visitor by sight, walked up to him and asking what he had in his beard, seemed to pull out an egg therefrom, then another from his ear- the poet’s ear! – and to the amazed attention of the whole audience to the author of the “Idylls”.  Fancy his horror and disgust! [3]

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Helen O’Neill’s journey into the Library’s archive continues. In this second instalment, Helen discovers the Victorian membership records of some leading writers and thinkers – members who reflect social and cultural themes of the era…

We started our archival journey last month with four 20th century membership records. Over the last couple of weeks I have been getting to grips with the Victorian membership records and so here are eight records which date from 1841 and 1875 which reference some of the major scientific, literary, social and political themes of the 19th century.

The early membership records are a simple numerical list of the names and addresses of subscribers as shown in the entries for Charles Darwin and William Makepeace Thackeray.

Occasionally the early records include additional information as in the 1844 entry for Henry James, theologian and father of the American novelist.

In the bottom left of the entry is the name of the Library’s instigating force Thomas Carlyle.  This practice of including the name of the person introducing, nominating or vouching for the applicant rapidly becomes a standard inclusion in the records as can be seen in the entry of Miss Lynn in 1857.

Suffrage and the position of women were hotly contested issues in the Victorian era and no-one contested them more vociferously in the mainstream press than Miss Lynn. She is a contradiction and a conundrum: a woman with a ground-breaking career as a salaried journalist she popularised debate about the changing role of women through her articles in the Saturday Review. Her “Girl of the Period”piece became a catchphrase which passed into common parlance, even shortened to G.O.P in the mainstream Press, but she was adamantly opposed to those she termed the “screeching sisterhood”.  In 1854 Dickens published her article “Rights and Wrongs of Women” inHousehold Words and in 1856 he purchased Gads Hill Place from her, realising a childhood aspiration.

A number of Dickens’ close friends appear in the early records including the painter Daniel Maclise; the theatre actor and manager W.C. Macready; and his confidant and biographer John Forster. Dickens himself appears on the Library Committee in 1847 alongside John Forster, who remains on the Committee into the 1870s.

In 1862 Darwin nominates George Drysdale, an early advocate of contraception and promoter of women doctors.  He also introduces his eldest son William who was the infant object of detailed observational study by Darwin which was referenced in his 1872 work The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

For good measure I have included the membership records of Alfred Russel Wallace because he is an interesting mix of social reformer, scientist and spiritualist; and Mrs Oliphant because she is introduced by the publisher John Blackwood – and the mix of publishers, editors, literary agents, writers, illustrators and reviewers in the records is of interest not least because this is the time of the ascendancy of the novel in the literary marketplace and the huge expansion of writing opportunities through the periodical press.

It is no surprise to find that the women’s rights campaigner, Helen Taylor (1831-1907) was introduced to the Library by her step-father John Stuart Mill. This record dates from 10 March 1873, a month before Mill died.

Mill credits both his wife Harriet and his step-daughter in hisAutobiography (1873) asking all who consider his work to see it as “the product not of one intellect and conscience but of three”. Helen Taylor had an active political life and edited all of Mill’s posthumous publications and Mill left almost half his estate on his death to women’s education.

Crowe had illustrated several of Thackeray’s novels before he accompanied him on his American lecture tour (1852-1853) and it is the work he produced at this time which depicted scenes of slave auctions which appeared in the Illustrated London News. Crowe is introduced to the Library by John Forster whose literary connections, longevity on the Library committee, and small stash of letters in the archive make him a person of particular interest in the Library’s early history.

I am currently capturing the information the membership records contain in electronic format so that we will be able to search, extrapolate and analyse the content they contain rigorously. I want to find out not merely who the members of the Library were, but when they joined, who introduced them, what occupation they held at the time.  I want to look at the literary, cultural and intellectual networks sitting beneath the entries using the people who nominate, propose or vouch for new members, and I want to map that network against the published work of members.

I have been struck, even in the sample of records I’ve examined so far, by the variety of occupations represented in the Victorian membership. In a single year the following occupations, among others, appear: academic, actor, advertising agent, army surgeon, authoress, barrister, civil engineer, governess, Head of a Ladies College, journalist, newspaper editor, MP, manufacturer, merchant, navy surgeon, periodical publisher, physician, spinster, stationer, student and Catholic, Wesleyan and Protestant clergy.

Capturing membership information electronically may allow us to look at the relationship between the Library and the literary life of the nation in greater detail, but it might also bring out into the light a unique and absorbing piece of social history.

Next time – Between 1857 and 1893 the Librarian, Robert Harrison scribbled snippets and anecdotes in a commonplace book of personal reminiscences. He described a particular member as “one of the most massive intellects of our times” and another as “morbidly sensitive about strangers noticing him in any way” To whom was he referring?

© Helen O’Neill

19th century ledgers containing the Library’s Victorian membership records.

18 years before the publication ofOrigin of Species, Charles Darwin (1809-1882) joins The London Library. He is the 593rd person to join in 1841.

London Library member W.M. Thackeray (1811-1863), contactable at the Reform Club in 1844.

Henry James (1811-1862) vouched for by Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)

Proposed by Charles Dickens, the feisty and formidable journalist and novelist Miss Lynn (Mrs Eliza Lynn Linton after her marriage in 1858) joins the Library.

In 1863 Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) becomes a member. It was his independently deduced evolutionary findings which finally pushed Darwin into publication. Both presented findings in 1858 at the Linnean Society. By 1870 Wallace is on the Library Committee, alongside John Forster and G.H. Lewes.

Mrs Oliphant becomes a member in 1868, nominated by her publisher John Blackwood.

In 1875 the artist Eyre Crowe (1824-1910) is nominated by London Library Committee member John Forster (1812-1876). Eyre’s depictions of slavery in America were published in the Illustrated London News and displayed in exhibitions in the 1850s and 1860s.

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