Treasures at The Keep: the Doris Lessing Letters
4 March 2016
By Jo Baines
It’s an old stereotype, but one of the joys of working with archives is seeing researcher’s reactions when they discover items in collections for the first time – whether the material is relevant to their research, fascinating in itself or just beautiful to look at. Luckily, staff get that excitement too – when we catalogue new collections of material. When I started working on the Doris Lessing Letters last year, it was doubly thrilling: Special Collections had held the material for years, but Lessing did not wish the collection to be open for research during her lifetime.
Doris Lessing (1919 – 2013) is widely regarded as one of the most important writers of the 20th century. She was born in Persia (now Iran) and moved to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1925, where her family ran a large farm. Lessing left home at 15 and moved to Salisbury (now Harare), where she met her first husband Frank Wisdom. They divorced in 1943, a year before the letters begin.
The letters we hold are from Doris Lessing to Leonard Smith, who is referred to as ‘Smithie’ throughout the correspondence. The letters begin in 1944, when Lessing was 25 – shortly before she married her second husband Gottfried. The Lessings were at the centre of a political social group called the ‘Left Club’, and it is clear from that Lessing was romantically involved with Smithie and others. The correspondence spans nearly 50 years, but the majority of letters sent to Smithie by Lessing are from the first six years after they meet.
The letters are an absolute joy to read, regardless of how familiar you are with Lessing’s work: she puts her heart and soul into the correspondence and it’s really possible to sense how Lessing is feeling at any given time. Romantic relationships are alluded to often – Lessing discusses the struggles and eventual breakdown of her marriage, as well as detailing her own (and others’) affairs. Whilst reading, you’re left with a sense that Salisbury society was far more liberal than expected of the time.
As the majority of letters were written before Lessing’s first novel ‘The Grass Is Singing’, it’s also possible to explore Lessing’s desire to become a writer – she constantly discusses her current projects, and they span from novels to plays, poetry and short stories. Some of the letters include drafts of poems, such as a December 1945 message to Smithie and his lover Graham (SxMs62/2/27). Lessing famously travelled to England with the manuscript of ‘The Grass Is Singing’ in order to embark on a writing career, and the latter half of the letters briefly explore her success. Throughout much of the correspondence, Lessing continually discusses writers (Virginia Woolf is mentioned frequently) and what she’s been reading – it’s possible to trace these influences on her work.
The Doris Lessing Letters shed invaluable light on Lessing’s early writing career, showing how both politics and personal life can influence creativity. They provide insights into colonial politics in Africa and the wider socialist movements of the 20th century, as well as shedding light onto the formational early years of a truly unique author. Do come and view them if you can!
Stories from the Collections: Rosey Pool and Langston Hughes
30th October 2015
By Jo Baines
Continuing on from Kate’s post about Sake Deen Mahomed, Black History Month also allows us to delve back into the wonderful world of Rosey Pool, who we’ve previously written about during our International Women’s Week series.
Rosey Pool (1905 – 1971) was a Dutch cultural anthropologist and teacher, who was passionate about African-American literature and poetry. For many years she lived in London, but she made several visits to America to give workshops and lectures. Her archive includes correspondence with many Harlem Renaissance writers, including Langston Hughes.
Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967) is primarily remembered for being a poet, although his writing spanned most genres including novels, short stories, plays, non-fiction and children’s books. He was one of the key leaders of the Harlem Renaissance (c.1918 – 1930s), a cultural movement that developed in Manhattan, New York and influenced writers across the world, particularly in Paris. The movement sought to celebrate African-American culture and define a black identity that was entirely separate from traditional white stereotypes. Hughes was one of the early innovators of jazz poetry, which uses the rhythms and sounds of jazz and blues music. His work was particularly influential because he addressed poems directly to his black audience; unlike many writers of his era, Hughes’ poetry is direct and uncomplicated.
Rosey Pool’s friendship with Langston Hughes dates from at least 1945 onwards (based on the material in the Rosey Pool Archive) and continues throughout their lives until Hughes’ death in 1967. Langston sent Rosey drafts of his own poetry and writing, details of current projects and copies of others’ work. The drafts of writing sent from Langston to Rosey are rich and varied; we hold music cues, poems old and new, posters and programs for theatrical adaptations of his novels and postcards from other countries. There are also several booklets from events celebrating Hughes’ life and work after his death.
It is evident that Langston Hughes and Rosey Pool shared a love of African-American literature and poetry as writers sought to examine what it means to be black in turbulent 20th Century America; within the correspondence, there is a list of writers Hughes recommends Pool get in contact with. Indeed, Pool was acquainted with many other black artists including the poet Owen Dodson and the writer Chester Himes. However, it’s Hughes’ and Pool’s friendship that continues to compel; as tensions between white and black groups became increasingly politicised in 1950s and 1960s America, the Rosey Pool Archive provides a fascinating snapshot into how black culture was working creatively to redefine itself for many years to come.
Fashion in the Archives: Baker Rare Books Collection – W.H. Pyne and The Costume of Great Britain
23rd September 2015
By Jo Baines
W.H. Pyne’s work The Costume of Great Britain, published in London in 1804, is held by the University of Sussex in the Baker Collection of Rare Books. Pyne (1770 – 1843) was a writer and artist, who was one of the first artists to use the new lithographic method of printing by drawing on stone to reproduce images. In The Costume of Great Britain, Pyne seeks to show readers from other countries “the political, statistical and literary characteristics” of Britain at the start of the 19th century. He does this by exploring occupations through costume. Occupations from a wide span of classes, from brickmaker to speaker of the House of Commons, are described. Every entry is illustrated with a full page colour drawing – enabling the reader to visualise how people dressed for their work, even if they were not familiar with the roles.
An interesting aspect of The Costume of Great Britain is how the occupations were described. Roles are frequently compared and contrasted to work in other countries – for example, Pyne notes how washing linen by beating it with a wooden spatula “is not confined to the Welsh…the same method is used in many parts of France,”. These comparisons form Pyne’s second aim: to inform readers about “the sentiments, customs, and even prejudices,” of other countries. As travel was not as widespread in the 19th century as it is today, Pyne seeks to offer those unable to travel a visual insight into other parts of the world – and overcome prejudices by showing that we share many cultural and occupational traditions with countries elsewhere.
As well as depicting occupations, The Costume of Great Britain offers the reader an insight into cultural traditions in the early 1800s; he depicts several leisure activities, including a country fair and a round-about. Pyne is very judgemental about some forms of entertainment – the round-about is described as “noisy”, a “low amusement” and creating “a scene of the utmost bustle and confusion”.
What is interesting, though, is how the illustration depicting the round-about is a very colourful, attractive image; a variety of dresses and characters are shown. The scene, like many of the other working-class activities in the book, is shown as being clean and tidy; a slightly rose-tinted view of urban society in the grip of industrial change. Pyne is perhaps aware that the illustrations in The Costume of Great Britain are more important, and more likely to be examined, than the text accompanying the images. The images also convey Pyne’s desire to portray Great Britain in a romantic, almost timeless, light: many of the fashions, customs and occupations he depicts are traditional rather than contemporary and there is little reference to current events like the Anglo-Spanish war.
The Costume of Great Britain forms part of a wider series about international costume published in London in 1804: the Baker Collection of Rare Books contains numerous other titles including fashions in Austria, Russia, China and Turkey. W.H. Pyne continued to work as an artist, illustrator and collector: he collaborated frequently with Rudolph Ackermann, whose Repository of the Arts serial remains a brilliant insight into fashion and art in the early 19th Century. If you’re interested in fashion from this period, do come and have a look at these titles – they are truly fascinating viewing.
Myers, Harris. “Pyne, William Henry [pseud. Ephraim Hardcastle] (1770–1843).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition, Jan 2008. [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/22933, accessed 10 Sept 2015]
Smith, Chloe Wigston. “Dressing the British: Clothes, Customs, and Nation in W. H. Pyne’s ‘The Costume of Great Britain’”. Studies in Eighteenth Century Culture, 2009, Vol.38(1), pp.143-171. DOI: 10.1353/sec.0.0039
Stories from the Collections: Quentin Bell and the Emery Collection
13th August 2015
By Jo Baines
The recent BBC drama Life in Squares has sought to reveal more about the lives of the Bloomsbury group to a new generation of viewers. The drama is filmed at a variety of beautiful locations, including several in East Sussex – notably Charleston and Monk’s House. Here at The Keep, the Bloomsbury group’s connections to the area are evident through our many archival collections: the University of Sussex holds Virginia Woolf’s manuscripts in the Monk’s House Papers, the papers of Virginia’s husband Leonard, and a large collection of correspondence belonging mainly to Vanessa and Clive Bell from their home in Charleston.
We also hold several smaller collections of material which tell us a great deal more about the Bloomsbury group, and indeed about some of the people who are not featured prominently in Life in Squares – notably Vanessa and Clive Bell’s youngest son, Quentin. Quentin Bell (1910 – 1996) was an artist and sculptor; as well as being the founding Professor of the History and Theory of Art at the University of Sussex, he played a pivotal role (alongside his half-sister Angelica Garnett) in establishing the legacy of the Bloomsbury group. The Emery Collection is a remarkable collection of letters from Quentin Bell to an American scholar, Dr Jane Emery (nee Novak). The correspondence begins in 1971 with Emery contacting Bell to gain permission to quote from the Virginia Woolf Papers held at the Berg Collection in New York; due to a delay in Bell being able to grant the request, a correspondence was struck up and continued for 26 years over 88 letters.
The letters within the Emery Collection are a fascinating insight into how Quentin Bell managed the legacies of his aunt Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group as a whole. Quentin was, at the start of the exchange, writing a two volume biography of Virginia Woolf – the first major profile of his aunt to be published. The biography won several literary prizes; Bell often fielded queries from scholars about Virginia and her work, and frequently laments the silliness of academic scholarship. Quentin’s wife, Anne Olivier Bell, edited the published volumes of Virginia’s diaries.
Quentin was also fundamental in establishing The Charleston Trust and led a campaign to purchase the house and preserve its decorations by his mother and Duncan Grant; today, Charleston thrives as both a visitor attraction and as a cultural centre, running literary festivals and promoting the legacy of the artists and writers who lived in the house for many years.
The Emery Collection letters are a joy to read; Quentin’s style of writing is witty, generous and erudite with many beautiful comical sketches throughout. They reveal a great deal about a man instrumental in managing the legacy of his parents, aunt and the wider Bloomsbury group – but they also show that Quentin was an artist and historian in his own right, leaving a very notable legacy of his own and contributing enormously to East Sussex’s history.
The other half of the correspondence, from Jane Emery to Quentin Bell, can be found in the larger archive of Quentin Bell’s papers, which are also held here at The Keep. Do come and have a look; if you are intrigued by the Bloomsbury group, there are few better places to start discovering their history than here with us.
International Women’s Day: Trix Kipling, writer and psychic
14th March 2015
By Jo Baines
Alice Fleming (1868 – 1948) – known as Trix Kipling – is remembered as Rudyard Kipling’s younger sister. However, she was also a writer – albeit eclipsed by her brother’s fame. She wrote poetry and fiction throughout her life, both with her family and independently. In 1884, Trix wrote a volume of poetry, ‘Echoes’, with her brother Rudyard. This was followed by ‘A Pinchbeck Goddess’ in 1897 and ‘Her Brother’s Keeper’ in 1901. She wrote numerous stories and articles for the press in both India and England – including, in 1885, works for ‘Quartette, the Christmas annual of the Civil & Military Gazette’ in collaboration with her brother Rudyard and their parents. In 1902 she published a volume of poetry, ‘Hand in hand, Verses by a mother and daughter’, with her mother Alice Kipling. She was also praised for writing excellent letters. Some of Trix’s work and correspondence can be found in the Trix Kipling Papers, the MacDonald Papers and the Baldwin Papers.
Trix was given her nickname by her family when she was young, as she was “such a tricksy little baby”. When she was three years old, she and her brother Rudyard were placed in a boarding home in Southsea, Portsmouth whilst her parents returned to India for five years. Rudyard’s dislike of the home, and feelings of abandonment, are well documented; it seems likely that Trix felt similarly.
After her education was completed, Trix returned to India in 1883. Six years later, at the age of 21, Trix married Colonel John Fleming – a man ten years her senior. Her family, always a close unit, disapproved of the match; it was to prove a source of tension in later years.
Trix was unwell with mental health issues throughout her life; her first bout of illness occurred in 1898. In 1910, shortly after Trix and her husband had moved from India to Edinburgh, Trix received the news that her mother had died and her mental illness returned once again. The death of her father three months later exacerbated matters, and Trix struggled with her health for the next decade. She was moved around regularly, something she resented in later years; Trix’s husband and her family were frequently at odds over her treatment.
Trix returned to Scotland in 1932 and lived in Edinburgh for the rest of her life. She was very active, and enthusiastically supported the foundation of the Kipling Society and regularly wrote articles for the Kipling Journal. She ran a charity shop and enjoyed visiting Edinburgh Zoo regularly; she often talked to the elephants in Hindustani!
Trix was also known for having inherited her ancestors’ gift of ‘second sight’. From an early age she could see ghosts and spirits and later became able to communicate with the deceased. Trix was a member of the Edinburgh Psychic College and contributed to the Psychic Press under a pseudonym, ‘Mrs Holland’.
Hilton Brown notes that it is a great pity Trix was not better known for her writing qualities and close relationship with her brother: “one feels at any rate that her contemporaries did not make all of her that should have been made.”. Much has been written about Trix in relation to her brother; the books ‘Trix: Kipling’s Forgotten Sister’ and ‘A Circle of Sisters’, both available to view at The Keep in the Reference Room, discuss Alice Fleming’s remarkable life in more depth.
International Women’s Day: Rosey Pool, cultural anthropologist and teacher
13th March 2015
By Jo Baines
As part of International Women’s Week here at The Keep, we have been looking at archival collections in which women played a major part. Today and tomorrow our focus turns to the material held in the University of Sussex Special Collections, and the lives of two women in particular: Rosey Pool and Trix Kipling.
Rosey Pool (1905 – 1971) was born in the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam. Whilst training to be a teacher, Rosey developed an interest in African-American writing, particularly poetry and drama. Rosey went on to study cultural anthropology in Berlin and completed a thesis entitled ‘The Poetic Art of the North American Negro.’
In 1938, Rosey returned home to Amsterdam. Raised in a liberal minded family, Rosey spoke out against Nazi persecution of the Jews during her time in Berlin; however, as the Nazis grew in power it became too dangerous for Rosey to stay in Germany. In May 1940, Germany invaded the Netherlands. In May 1943, Rosey and her family were interned in the Westerbork transit camp; within weeks her parents, her only brother, and his wife all died. In September 1943 a small group of inmates travelled to Amsterdam to collect books for a projected library and Rosey escaped. She remained in hiding until the war’s end, writing poetry inspired by her experiences of the camp, and publishing poetry translations through the underground press.
After the war, Rosey returned to Amsterdam. She was one of the first people to see Anne Frank’s diary; Otto Frank was an old friend, and Rosey helped him find a publisher for his daughter’s work. Rosey worked on an English translation of Anne’s diary, but it was rejected by English publishers.
In 1953, Rosey moved to London to live with her close friend Isa Isenberg. She published several anthologies and translations of African-American poetry during her lifetime. Rosey visited North America frequently, to lecture and lead workshops about African-American writing. She was strongly opposed to segregation in America and preferred to eat from a lunchbox in public places if no mixed restaurants were nearby.
The Rosey Pool collection (SxMs19), donated to the University of Sussex by Isa in the 1970s, contains a wealth of material about African-American culture during the mid 20th Century. Rosey corresponded with many Harlem Renaissance writers, including Langston Hughes and Owen Dodson. Typescripts by Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois and James Baldwin can also be found in the collection, along with several printed music scores. Rosey also created several scrapbooks relating to her work and visits to America, providing a fascinating insight into her life’s passions.
However, what I find most interesting about the Rosey Pool Collection is the woman herself. Evidently well admired, hard-working and respected throughout her lifetime, more is known about who Rosey associated with than about the woman who experienced a crucial time of change in both European and American society.