Posts Tagged ‘2009’

Sisters of Sinai: How two lady adventurers found the hidden gospels (book #121)

28 January 2012

Janet Soskice, 2009.

Fascinating book.

Agnes and Margaret Smith were born (twins) in 1843. Their father was a lawyer. He was left around £7 million by his uncle, and when he himself died in 1866 Agnes and Margaret were unmarried at 23 and very rich. They immediately travelled to Egypt. They are known particularly for their discoveries of early versions of the Gospels at St Catherine’s monastery in Sinai, and their editing and translation work on these texts. Their expedition to Sinai in 1892 was evidently very difficult and there were arguments with the people who went with them – other scholars and their wives. Throughout the sister’s lives they struggled both with public perception that they had fallen over manuscripts by chance, rather than setting out, via extensive planning and study, to find them, and also with press reports that minimised other scholars’ participation and therefore alienated their colleagues. These things may appear to be opposed, but in fact were not – as the press were able to exclude other scholars from accounts at the same time as presenting Agnes and Margaret as untutored.

Soskice’s description of the expedition and the interpersonal stuff is gripping and often wince-inducing, and she also makes it clear what difficult work – physically as well as intellectually – the photocopying, copying and translating of the texts was. But I was less interested in the actual results of their work on the Gospels than in their discoveries in Cairo in 1896 leading to their friend Solomon Schechter’s discovery (if that’s the correct word) of the Cairo genizah:

[Schechter] spent many hours, stretching into days, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee with the Chief Rabbi [of Cairo] until this patient nurturing was rewarded with trust and the rabbi took him, by carriage [not sure why she specifies the type of transport], to Cairo’s oldest synagogue, the Ben Ezra. At the end of one of the galleries was an opening high in the wall and accessible only by ladder. Schechter climbed up and peered down into a ‘windowless and doorless room of fair dimensions’. The sight that met his eyes was one to thrill and appal the scholar: a chaos of books and papers, manuscripts and printed texts, tossed in at random over eight centuries. He had found, as he suspected he might, a genizah.
A genizah, as Schechter explained in a letter to The Times [1897] is an institution that takes its name: ‘from the Hebrew verb ‘ganaz’ and signifies treasure-house or hiding place. When applied to books it means much the same thing as burial in the case of men. When the spirit is gone, we put the corpse out of sight to protect it from abuse. In like manner, when the writing is worn out, we hide it to preserve it from profanation.’
Developed Jewish law determined that no document containing the four letters of the Holy Name, or Tetragammaton, should be destroyed. …
As well as ‘dead’ books, Schechter explained, genizot became home to ailing or invalided books (some of whose pages might be missing) and to ‘disgraced’ books whose contents were deemed not entirely orthodox. In time, any document written in the sacred language – love songs and wine songs, wills, marriage contracts, letters of divorce – might find its way into a genizah. The window high on the wall of the Ben Ezra synagogue was a postbox to nowhere that, for 800 years, had received the offcast Hebrew writings of Cairo’s Jewish community.

Soskice quotes more of Schechter’s letter to The Times:

It is a battlefield of books, a battle in which the literary productions of many centuries had their share, and their disjecta membra are now strewn over its area. Some of the belligerents have perished outright, and are literally ground to dust in the terrible struggle for space, whilst others … are squeezed into big, unshapely lumps, which even with the aid of chemical appliances can no longer be separated without serious damage to their constituents. In their present condition these lumps sometimes afford curiously suggestive combinations; as, for instance, when you find a piece of some rationalistic work in which the very existence of either angel or devil is denied, clinging for its very life to an amulet in which these same beings (mostly the latter) are bound over to be on their good behaviour and not to interfere with Miss Yair’s love for somebody.

Agnes and Margaret joined Schechter in Cairo in January 1897 to work on the archive. Soskice lists some of the finds:

fragments of old Talmuds; old and forgotten hymns; rabbinic Midrash; a draft copy in his own hand of the Guide to the Perplexed by Moses Maimonides … many personal documents, such as a letter to Maimonides from his brother … a letter from a schoolmaster about a child’s bad behaviour, ‘As soon as he comes in, he starts fighting with his sister and cursing her incessantly’ … from a father to a schoolmaster, ‘Please don’t spank my son for being late. His homework delayed him’. There are a young child’s doodles from the eleventh century; letters from wives to distant husbands, ‘We have weaned the baby. Do not ask me what we suffer for him: trouble, crying, sleepless nights’ … A woman from Jerusalem writes [in 1567], in Yiddish, to her son in Cairo, asking him to bring the grandchildren to see her …

The book also describes the sisters’ later lives in Cambridge (they had both married, but neither of their husbands lived long) and gives a sense of that society and some of the problems for women in it, and the sisters’ achievements despite this.

Photograph from 1914 – Agnes and Margaret are the two older women to the left:

Agnes and Margaret Smith, 1914
Good quote from Margaret from late 1890s or early nineteenth century, when they were living in Cambridge and involved with St Columba’s church mission. She “was asked by a young Sunday School teacher to visit a pupil about whom she was anxious. Margaret went at once, and reported back, ‘You are quite right. The father does drink. If I lived in a house like theirs, I should drink too’.”

Wd be interesting to read Agnes’s novels – Effie Maxwell and Glenmavis.

Quotes Florence Nightingale’s reaction to exploring the ruins in Egypt then having to return to mundane conversation: “It is very hard to be all day by the deathbed of the greatest of your race, and to come home and talk about quails or London”.

Relevant links

Genizah in Wikipedia
Agnes and Margaret in Wikipedia, including links to texts of their books.
Article about the Cairo Genizah collection now at Cambridge.
Short film about the Cairo Genizah.

IN THE SHADOW OF SINAI: A STORY OF TRAVEL AND RESEARCH FROM 1895-1897 and How the Codex was found : a narrative of two visits to Sinai from Mrs. Lewis’s journals, 1892-1893

Wedlock: How Georgian Britain’s Worst Husband Met His Match (book #114)

28 August 2011

Wendy Moore, 2009.

What a depressing book. It’s about the life of Mary Eleanor Bowes, the Countess of Strathmore and Kinghorne (1749 to 1800), and in particular her marriage to Andrew Robinson Stoney. He deceived her into marriage and was exceptionally abusive even for the time.

Here’s a summary of his treatment of her and her first escape, from the Guardian review:

Her second husband’s relentless physical and mental cruelty left Mary a changed woman. Beating her behind closed doors, he controlled her obsessively in public: she could not dress, eat, or converse without his permission, and was reduced to borrowing stockings from her servants. Jessé Foot, Stoney’s two-faced friend and biographer, described her altered state with uncharacteristic poignancy. Convulsive sideways movements of her lower jaw mirrored Mary’s mental anguish. She was half-deaf from blows, and could barely speak. Redemption came in the figure of a female servant. Stoney’s staff usually ended up his spies, pimps or concubines, but Mary Morgan was different. After seeking legal advice, she recruited a small band of colleagues prepared to help their mistress escape. The support the countess received from retainers, tenants and colliers is stirring – many suffered in the fall-out from the failed marriage. Her loyal gardener tended her beloved plants and hothouses to the bitter end, secretly sending her the occasional consolatory pineapple.

Having escaped from her immediate danger, however, she then had no access to her money or to her children; and in fact was abducted by her husband again before being found and released.

Several of the reviews call it inspiring in that Mary Bowes did finally escape, manage to get a divorce and her fortune and her children back. But her experiences seem to have shortened her life and unsurprisingly left her with extreme anxiety.

Here’s a bit about her ex-husband’s abusive activities whilst in prison:

The teenage daughter of a fellow prisoner, who happened to own a considerable estate, Mary or “Polly” Sutton had caught Bowes’s eye when she visited her father. Applying his customary seduction technique, he charmed his prey with flattery and presents. When Polly fell ill with a fever, he sent Foot to tend her; the surgeon found her ‘feeding a pigeon with split peas out of her mouth’ and described her as ‘a girl of perfect symmetry, fair, lively, and innocent’. Making no attempt to preserve Polly’s innocence by warning her of her admirer’s depravity, Foot observed silently as Bowes duly seduced the girl and brought her to live with him in jail. If his treatment of Mary had made Bowes notorious, his most pitiful victim must surely have been young Polly whose voice would never be heard. Hiring a room for her, to which Bowes alone had a key, he kept Polly confined day and night; she was, effectively, the prisoner of a prisoner. In her lonely cell, she bore Bowes five children, all of whom shared her confinement. Never permitted to attend the dinners Bowes threw for fellow inmates, she lived the life of a recluse. Occasionally Foot caught a glimpse of her, when Bowes called him to treat one of the children, but found it impossible to speak to her since ‘Bowes was always present, hurried the visit as much as possible, locked the door, and took the key in his pocket’. Polly, who would remain with Bowes for the rest of his life, effectively became his third wife and was treated accordingly – subject to extreme domestic violence and blatant infidelity.

There’s an interesting blog review here.

Unseen Academicals (book #110)

30 July 2011

Terry Pratchett, 2009.

Now what would I do at this point if I were in a romantic novel? Glenda said to herself as the footsteps died away. Her reading had left her pretty much an expert on what to do if you were in a romantic novel, although one of the things that really annoyed her about romantic novels, as she had confided to Mr Wobble, was that no one did any cooking in them. After all, cooking was important. Would it hurt to have a pie-making sequence? Would a novel called Pride and Buns be totally out of the question? Even a few tips on how to make fairy cakes would help, and be pretty much in period as well. She’d be a little happier, even, if the lovers could be thrown into the mixing bowl of life. At least it would be some acknowledgement that people actually ate.

Lost London 1870-1945 (book #90)

2 January 2011

Philip Davies, 2009.

With author comments.
Review by John Carey.

Short clips of television interview with Davies.

Blog entry in Russian about the exhibition that accompanied the book, with more of the images. Google translation.

I wasn’t clear from the book what the source of the photographs was – the reviews give different versions. At times it seems to be some sort of attempted comprehensive survey – pictures of adjoining buildings as if they are doing the whole street. Some of the pictures are certainly from the London County Council Photograph Archive, wch is online.

Arch, Shepherd’s Place, off White’s Row, now Tenter Ground, Spitalfields, 10th May 1909. Tenter Ground was bought by Tracey Emin in 2008. This planning application made by her says “at the start of the 20th century much of the housing around Tenter Ground was destroyed to allow the construction of social housing by the LCC”.

Arch of Shepherd's Place, 1909, with local people.

Evans and Witt, Stationers and Bookbinders, Booksellers and Tobacconists. I didn’t note the date of this image, but think it is 190x. There is still an Evans and Witt going, in Long Lane. This may be the same site – I didn’t note that either, but will check.

Evans and Witt, Stationers and Bookbinders, Booksellers and Tobacconists

Cloth Fair, Smithfield, 16th May 1906.
The view from Schoolden Street showing a small 17th century house against the walls of St Bartholomew’s Church. Cloth Fair in this context is a street name, not an event. Schoolden Street doesn’t seem to exist now.

The view from Schoolden Street depicting a small 17th century dwelling against the walls of St Bartholomew’s Church.

I like the little girl with her doll and wearing what looks like an adult’s hat. What are the things that look like cables and an aerial on the roof?

There is a photograph in the BL archive of 1880 of nearby streets. And if you have £6 million you could buy the oldest house in London, round the corner in Cloth Fair.

House with shop. Neglected to note date and location of this one too. 190x again I think.

House with shop

8 Bow Churchyard, Cheapside, 30th August 1908 – near St Paul’s.
17th century house. Someone can be seen peering through the second floor windows on the right (not very visible on scan).

17th century house

The Foundling Hospital, c 1912
The Boys’ Dining Room with bench seating.

Foundling Hospital, boys' dining room

The chapel.

Foundling Hospital chapel

Trafalgar Square, 31st July 1896.
Looking south from the National Gallery. Panoramic photograph on two pages in book.

Trafalgar Square

Printing press, 20-22 Millbank Street, 21st May 1906.

Printing Press

34 Albury Street, Deptford, 30th April 1911.
Nursery in ground floor rear room. Note wooden horse at end of table and copy of Goosey Gander on mantelpiece.

Nursery, Deptford

This one is fascinating. Deptford was a very poor area at the time. I wonder what this nursery was – a private enterprise for working parents (Wikipedia says that girls and women were employed at the butchery in the docks, but I don’t know if this would have included women with children) or some kind of municipal or charitable enterprise (possibly a residential nursery / children’s home). This article from 1934 says that the building is being used as a “baby hospital”, wch I guess could mean almost anything. This site, wch in passing trashes the Nelson myth in the 1934 link, says

In the early twentieth century, nursery pioneers the McMillan sisters held a Boys’ Night Camp at number 24. It provided poor children with the opportunity to wash and get clean nightclothes (the girls’ camp was in Evelyn Street).

The McMillan sisters (and more detailed link about one of the sisters) worked in Deptford from 1910, so the image could be of a nursery run by them, though I can’t see confirmation anywhere online.

The same house in 1935, looking pretty poverty-stricken, and the street in 1906 (scroll down).

Bear Yard, c 1906.
In 1850 Bear Yard was a slaughterhouse. In 1889 the last of the trades connected with this closed. The child appears to be removing a stone sheep, a symbol of its former use. (Caption by Davies.)

Bear Yard - child with stone sheep

Bear Yard, 11th June 1906.
Family outside their home.

Bear Yard - family of chimneysweeper

13 and 14 Archer Street, 20th May 1908.
The upper floors of many Soho houses were given over to workshops, often for the larger West End stores, particularly the rag trade. In this case the women are engaged in upholstery and trimming for the furniture trade. (Caption by Davies.)

Archer St  - inside

This seems odd to me as in fact the women are spinning – despite the sign on the houses that, as Davies says, suggests it’s upholstery work.

Outside of the building, 15th March 1908
Two artisans’ cottages of 1700.

Archer St - outside

The Happiness Project (book #65)

31 January 2010

Gretchen Rubin, 2009.

The author’s blog. Excerpt.

Ben Franklin’s resolutions included less “Prattling, Punning and Joking”.

She uses the Authentic Happiness Inventory (registration necessary) at the start of her project and scores 3.92. She doesn’t take it again at the end of her project.

Often sounds like Sims – eg she sets herself a goal of making three new friends.

Worth reading. Main points are the list of resolutions and the “act how you want to feel,” wch I associate with Elizabeth Goudge.

Venice: Pure City (book #64)

30 January 2010

Peter Ackroyd, 2009.

A big chunk of thematically-organised detail. I suspect if one were wanting a “proper” history of Venice one might be frustrated, but for mental roaming, dreaming and literal and metaphorical pictures, it’s great.

Bits I liked:

Venice in the ninth and tenth centuries was a garden city, where pigs roamed about the streets and where pastures and gardens interrupted the vista of houses and churches. There were districts with the epithet ‘In the Marsh’ or ‘In the Wilderness’ or ‘In the Seaweed’. The citizens travelled on horseback along the main street, the Merceria, and tethered their animals to the great elder trees which flourished in what is now the Piazza S. Marco … There were flat wooden bridges, without steps, connecting the islands. There were trees along the banks of the canals. On the surrounding islands there were meadows where sheep and cattle grazed; there were vineyards and orchards; there were ponds and small lakes.

I looked up the legend he tells about the Roman city of Altinum. He says (and the source seems to be the Altino Chronicle, though I can’t find this online) that the people of Altinum were threatened by invasion. God told them to look at the stars, and they (or their reflections in the water) led them to the lagoon. I found another version of the legend in this terrible poem:

The Pigeons of Altino


FOR three long days the people prayed
“Lord! whither shall we go?

Shew us Thy will, grant us Thine aid,
And save us from the foe! ”

Uprose the pigeons then in flight
The people all among;
The parent birds held safe and tight,
Clasped by their beaks, their young.

Those brave wings quickly cleft the air
Across the blue lagoon;
They sped unto an island bare,
A lonely sandy dune.

“‘Tis there, for sure,” the people cried,
“That God our home has willed;
‘Tis there, the birds have testified;
There let us plant and build.”

A-many towers were builded there,
To guard yon island shore;
The birds, that earned both love and care,
Are sacred evermore.

Caroline, Lady Lindsay.

The islands and sand-ridges, out of which Venice was made, seemed to the first settlers like the backs or dorsi of slumbering whales; one area of modern Venice is still called Dorsoduro or hard back.

He quotes Burckardt that “Venice can fairly make good claim to be the birthplace of statistical science”.

Reynolds apparently – can’t find this online – scraped down one / some of Titian’s paintings to try to work out how he got glowing tones.

Very few women in the book, though he does say “Of course women and children were part of this enormous [textile] trade. The workshop knows no gender. Despite the severe restrictions placed on the movement and freedom of patrician women, the females of the lower orders were treated as fuel for the fire of the Venetian economy. Women were employed as printers and sail-makers, ironmongers and chimney sweeps”.

“The first known collections were Venetian, dating from the fourteenth century.”

Always “on the last day of the Carnival, a figure disfigured by syphiltic sores was pushed around in a barrow”.

He quotes a Venetian invitation to dinner: “come and eat four grains of rice with me”. Looking this up, I found William Howells’s Venetian Life (1867). This is a good (and patronising) bit:

[I had] no deeper joy than I won from the fine spectacle of an old man whom I saw burning coffee one night in the little court behind my lodgings, and whom I recollect now as one of the most
interesting people I saw in my first days at Venice. All day long the air of that neighbourhood had reeked with the odors of the fragrant berry, and all day long this patient old man–sage, let me call him–had turned the sheet-iron cylinder in which it was roasting over an open fire after the picturesque fashion of roasting coffee in Venice. Now that the night had fallen, and the stars shone down upon him, and the red of the flame luridly illumined him, he showed more grand and venerable than ever. Simple, abstract humanity, has its own grandeur in Italy; and it is not hard here for the artist to find the primitive types with which genius loves best to deal. As for this old man, he had the beard of a saint, and the dignity of a senator, harmonized with the squalor of a beggar, superior to which shone his abstract, unconscious grandeur of humanity. A vast and calm melancholy, which had nothing to do with burning coffee, dwelt in his aspect and attitude; and if he had been some dread supernatural agency, turning the wheel of fortune, and doing men, instead of coffee, brown, he could not have looked more sadly and weirdly impressive. When, presently, he rose from his seat, and lifted the cylinder from its place, and the clinging flames leaped after it, and he shook it, and a volume of luminous smoke enveloped him and glorified him … “

Does make one wonder a bit how scholarly Ackroyd is, that a quote like this seems only to be evidenced in one source; but of course it may be attested all over the place that I haven’t found, and as I said he is more concerned with myth than fact (no footnotes).