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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Industrial tourism


Just over hundred years ago, after the Napoleonic Wars had ended, a Swiss industrialist called Johann Conrad Fischer (1773–1854) decided to travel to England to see for himself how iron and steel were manufactured there.  His first visit (six weeks) took in London, Birmingham, Manchester, and Sheffield, and his diary offers precise details of the factories Fischer visited, and the people he met, among them Timothy Yeats-Brown (the friend of Foscolo, who shows the Swiss the ‘treasures of his valuable library’), James Watt, then 78 years old (‘Talking to such a man is alone worth a journey from London to Birmingham’), who provided Fischer with a number of letters of introduction, and the Wedgwood factory at Etruria.  ‘Under the influence of what he had seen and experienced in Britain, there now began for Fischer what was probably the most fruitful period of his activity as a steel manufacturer …  The extent to which the fame of his products had spread beyond the narrow frontiers of his home country, and the degree to which his experiments on the alloying of various metals had attracted the attention of the scientific world, are proved by a notice in the «Annalen der Physik and der physikalischen Chemie» of 1821 [which] describes Fischer’s cast steel factory … as one of the first ever to be set up, and as one of the most outstanding’ (Rudolf Gnade, The Metallurgist Johann Conrad Fischer, 1773–1854, and his Relations with Britain, pp. 23, 24).



Fischer travelled to England again in the summer of 1825.  In London, he visited Michael Faraday to show him his ‘Meteor Steel’, ‘the hardness and elasticity of which caused considerable surprise to Faraday since it was possible to produce with equal success from the same steel both razor-blades and percussion springs’ (op. cit., p. 28).  He then proceeded to Oldham, Birmingham, and Sheffield, where he visited various factories.  ‘It was a matter of great gratification to Fischer that from all experts he received the best and very often most flattering opinions as to the quality of his steel …’ (op. cit., pp. 30–1).

As one might expect, Fischer’s accounts of his visits, published in Aarau in 1816 and 1826 respectively, are both quite scarce.


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Crash-landed in North Carolina


A few weeks ago, I wrote about a fictitious Boston imprint from 1777.  Here’s something in the same vein, or so I first thought: a German novel from c.1789, written by Johann Wolfgang Andreas Schöpfel (1752–1827).  Inspired by the craze for balloon travel that hit Europe and America in the 1780s, it opens with a balloon flight from Versailles which ends up in America, near Churchill.  (The frontispiece shows the hero being rescued after his crash landing, the balloon just visible in the background.)  The narrator, Crébillon, is immediately seized by American soldiers and pressed into military service, before becoming the gatekeeper in the town of Hirum Harum, where he is also put in charge of the local newspaper.  It is a comedy of manners, marriage, and small-town etiquette, though with occasional serious comment on political matters, such as employing foreigners in positions of authority.

This is an unacknowledged second edition.  The first included ‘bei H. Bagge’ in the imprint.  ESTC notes: ‘According to the Library of Congress, this was printed in Nuremberg.  The imprint appears not to be false, however, as Traugott Bagge was a storekeeper in Salem, NC.  Bagge’s name appears in the imprints of several German almanacs to be had of Bagge at his store, and it appears that some copies of the Nuremberg edition of Hirum Harum were printed for Bagge’.


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Happy Birthday, Tolstoy!

As you may have seen from today’s Google Doodle, 9 September is Lev Tolstoy’s birthday:


But where did it all start?  How did Tolstoy become a writer?  It all began in 1852, when Tolstoy was 23 years old, and convalescing in Tiflis after mercury treatment for ‘the venereal sickness’ when he completed the first part of Childhood, his first attempt at fiction.  In the September of that year, the story duly appeared in a St Petersburg monthly, Sovremennik (The Contemporary), above the initials ‘L. N.':


It created an immediate sensation, one reviewer writing: ‘If this is the first production of L. N. Russian literature must be congratulated on the appearance of a new and remarkable talent.’  It was Tolstoy’s first published work.

‘The original plan comprised a great novel (with the general title of Four Epochs of Growth) founded – but only founded – on the reminiscences and traditions of his family, so that Tolstoy was displeased when the magazine altered his Childhood to The History of My Childhood.  “The alteration is especially disagreeable,” he complained to the editor, “because, as I wrote to you, I meant Childhood to form the first part of a novel”’ (Rosemary Edmonds, preface to her translation, 1961).  That novel, Detstvo i otrochestvo (Childhood and Boyhood), was published in 1856.

Tolstoy 1

‘The History of My Childhood’, the title of Tolstoy’s story as it first appeared, altered by the editor of ‘Sovremennik’.


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Three Men in a Boat encounter Russian pirates

This year is the 125th anniversary of the first appearance of Three Men in a Boat, published by J. W. Arrowsmith in Bristol (who, three years later, was to bring out that other classic comic novel, George and Weedon Grossmith’s The Diary of a Nobody).  Although slated by some critics at the time, the book sold in huge numbers, leading Arrowsmith to comment: ‘I pay Jerome so much in royalties, I cannot imagine what becomes of all the copies of that book I issue.  I often think the public must eat them.’  It has never been out of print since.

A few years later and translations followed, one of the earliest being into Russian, in 1894.

The first appearance in Russian of "Three Men in a Boat", across seven monthly parts of "Vestnik Inostrannoi Literatury", 1894.

The first appearance in Russian of “Three Men in a Boat”, across seven monthly parts of “Vestnik Inostrannoi Literatury”, 1894.


Once the reading public has got the taste for something, the need must be fed.  That was certainly the case in Russia, where Jerome was insatiably devoured.  Jerome was himself involved in the process, liaising with his translator, Nadezhda Zharintsova, during her work.

"Na podmostkakh" (literally "On the boards"), 1896, a translation of "On the Stage and off" (1885) and "Stageland" (1889), with original illustrations by D. Pakhomov.

“Na podmostkakh” (literally “On the boards”), 1896, a translation of “On the Stage and off” (1885) and “Stageland” (1889), with original illustrations by D. Pakhomov.


First edition in Russian of "Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow" (1886) and "The Second Thoughts of an Idle Fellow" (1898), published in St Petersburg in 1899.  According to the preface, Zharintsova corresponded directly with Jerome over the translation, receiving corrections etc.

First edition in Russian of “Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow” (1886) and “The Second Thoughts of an Idle Fellow” (1898), published in St Petersburg in 1899. According to the preface, Zharintsova corresponded directly with Jerome over the translation, receiving corrections etc.


First edition in Russian of "Three Men on the Bummel", literally here "A Threesome on Four Wheels" (both 1900).  ‘This book, like all the previous works of Jerome K. Jerome, was translated by me from corrections sent by the author before the publication of the original in England.  The title “Three Men an a Bummel” [sic] is substituted for the Russian edition at the instructions of the author himself’ (Preface).

First edition in Russian of “Three Men on the Bummel”, literally here “A Threesome on Four Wheels” (both 1900). ‘This book, like all the previous works of Jerome K. Jerome, was translated by me from corrections sent by the author before the publication of the original in England. The title “Three Men an a Bummel” [sic] is substituted for the Russian edition at the instructions of the author himself’ (Preface).

However, when it seen there is money to made from a book, others may try and cash in.  Following the success of Jerome’s works in Russia, unauthorised translations began to appear.  Not only that, other stories, not written by Jerome but passed off as his, appeared under his name.  By 1902, things had come to a head and Jerome wrote a letter to The Times entitled ‘Literary Piracy in Russia’:

‘The Germans have a proverb, “Let him who is hurt cry out.”  In the interests of international copyright I would that some English writer of more importance than myself were equally a sufferer by reason of the incomprehensible disinclination of the Russian Government to conform to the Berne Convention.  Failing a more potent voice, I venture to raise my own feeble plaint against the inhospitable treatment Russia metes out to the literary guests she herself invites to visit her.  For reasons the justification of which it is not for me to attempt, the Russian public, wooed by the admirable translations of my friend Mme. Jarintzoff, commenced some years ago to take an interest in my work.  Free as the literary temperament is supposed to be of vanity, I confess to some feeling of pride at the honour thus accorded to me.  Of late my gratification has been considerably marred, however, by my powerlessness to prevent the issue of unauthorized translations, which, I am assured by my Russian friends, are at the best garbled and incorrect, and at the worst more or less original concoctions, of the merits or demerits of which I am entirely innocent, but which, nevertheless, are sold labelled with my name …  I have no remedy.  I must rest passive, knowing myself to be misrepresented …  If an author be worth translating at all, he ought to be given the right to make certain that he is translated correctly.  This can only be done by giving him and his translator legal protection …’ (The Times, 8 July 1902).


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