Thursday 4 August 2022

Charlotte's coming home....


 A Book of Ryhmes by Charlotte Brontë, and portrait of Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond (1850)

A Book of Ryhmes (sic) by Charlotte Brontë, the last Brontë miniature manuscript book in private hands, has been bought by the Friends of the National Libraries, and on Monday 1st August it was handed over to the Brontë Society at the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, Yorkshire. The miniature manuscript, containing ten poems (measuring just 3.8 x 2.5 inches) finally came home to the house in which it was originally composed, hand written and stitched together by Charlotte Brontë, aged thirteen. The poems have never been transcribed or published.

Guests on the lawn at the Brontë Parsonage Museum Haworth, 1st August 2022

It was a great honour for us to be among a small number of guests at the Parsonage, where Henry Wessells (on behalf of James Cummins Booksellers of Manhattan, US, in association with Maggs Bros. Ltd, London) gave the miniature book to Ann Dinsdale, Principal Curator of the Brontë Parsonage Museum. From today (Thursday), it will be exhibited to the public in the Museum.

A Book of Ryhmes by Charlotte Brontë

The miniature Brontë books are fascinating. After Branwell Brontё was given a dozen toy soldiers by his father, Patrick, all the Brontë children began to create stories and poems, many of which were written down, about Glass Town and Angria. Later, Emily and Anne composed stories about the Kingdom of Gondal. The stories were written in tiny facsimiles of books, a list of which is included in Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë. One of these, Charlotte’s A Book of Ryhmes, disappeared from view after it was sold at auction in New York in 1916 for $520. 

Left to right, Henry Wessells, Ann Dinsdale and Ed Maggs, Haworth, 1st August 2022

One very early owner of A Book of Ryhmes was a ‘Mr Maggs’, who bought it for £34 before selling it on. It was therefore appropriate that Ed Maggs, current proprietor of Maggs Bros should have helped facilitate the return of the book to Howarth Parsonage. Ed pointed out to us on Monday that the media are all too inclined to talk about ‘lost’ manuscripts in cases such as this. As he said, most supposedly lost books and manuscripts are simply a part of somebody’s collection where they are recognised and treasured.

The handover

From today A Book of Ryhmes will be on public view, thanks to the Friends of the National Libraries who raised 1.25 million dollars to buy it. In terms of size, it is the most expensive book that we have ever seen in the flesh! We are immensely grateful to our friend Henry Wessells and to Ann Dinsdale at the Brontë Parsonage Museum for a magical afternoon and evening in Haworth. We shared the once-in-a-lifetime experience with Mark and Jo Valentine.

Brontë Parsonage Museum Haworth (photograph by Jo Valentine)

There are plans afoot to transcribe A Book of Ryhmes and to eventually publish the poems. You can keep up with progress by following the Brontë Society and the Brontë Parsonage Museum here:

Guest post: Sarban by Mark Valentine

Sarban's passport photo, 1950

Tartarus Press have just announced new editions of The Sound of His Horn and Other Stories (first published 1952) and The Doll-Maker and Other Tales of the Uncanny (1953) by ‘Sarban’, joining a third title, Ringstones and Other Curious Tales (1951) already available. These three highly original volumes of supernatural fiction are notable for several reasons.

Written in the 1940s and 1950s, the stories have all the qualities of the earlier, classic age of the uncanny in literature. Sarban specifically acknowledged the influence of H.G. Wells and Walter de la Mare, and we know he also read John Buchan, Arthur Machen and Lord Dunsany, among others.

The attention to atmosphere and to a distinguished style that he must have learnt from these past masters is everywhere evident in his work. There is, for its time, a slightly old-fashioned feel to his prose, but this means it will appeal greatly to admirers of the late nineteenth century and Edwardian classics. The title story of ‘Ringstones’, for example, invoking elemental creatures among Roman and prehistoric remains on a Northern English moor, would not be out of place as part of the Machen canon. The travellers’ tales of great beasts and implacable gods in the same volume could be from a Dunsany collection.


The first edition, and later paperback editions of The Sound of His Horn

But he is far from simply an imitator. Sarban also had a strong sense of more modern concerns. In The Sound of His Horn, a timeslip fantasy into a world where the Nazis have won, he shows a sound insight into the Völkisch mentality underpinning the movement and where this might well have led: to the hunting of human prey in special forest reserves.

The first edition, and later paperback editions of The Doll Maker

The Doll Maker has, on the face of it, a much more subdued plot, involving a young woman at a school in a country house, and a charismatic neighbour who makes strange puppets. Yet in its insight into the allure of the fantastic, and the chilling attraction of a dominant, manipulative figure, Sarban shows an acute understanding of the contrarieties of the human spirit.

But there is another reason why Sarban’s work is notable, which may not be obvious from his books. As I explore in my study of him, Time, A Falconer, Sarban’s achievement both in literature and in his career is the more notable in view of his origins. 

Time, A Falconer by Mark Valentine

There are simply not many working-class writers in the field of classic fantasy and supernatural fiction. Almost all come from gentry, clergy or the professions. It is true that, nevertheless, in some cases their families had fallen on hard times and they experienced real hardship: Arthur Machen, the son and grandson of priests, lived for a while in penury in a London garret on dry bread, green tea and tobacco.

But of the other leading figures, we might think only of Walter de la Mare, who worked at dreary tasks as a statistical clerk in an oil company before a Civil List pension for his poetry set him free: and Charles Williams, the son of a London clerk, who made his way in publishing as well as prolific writing (prolific, partly because he needed the money): people still commented on his lower-middle-class accent.

Sarban was John William Wall, and although there were some family origins in farming in Lincolnshire, Sarban’s father was a railwayman, and the young Wall grew up in what he described as the ‘meanly dingy’ town of Mexborough, South Yorkshire. He won admission to the local grammar school, where ambitious and forward-looking teachers recognised his potential and coaxed him on to university, aided by a scholarship and local authority support.

John Wall, Consulate General, Alexandria, 1966 (photograph copyright the Estate of John Wall)
He had a great facility for languages, and this led him, after his degree, to take the highly competitive examinations for the Diplomatic Service, then try for the even more demanding competition for the Levant Consular Service. Despite his social origins, and the lack of the connexions and ease of manner that others would have had, he was successful. He went on to a career mainly in the Middle East, and was later an Ambassador to Paraguay.

As well as his books of fantasy and supernatural fiction, we should not overlook how remarkable also was his diplomatic career. He was characteristically modest about it, but to achieve such high office from unpromising beginnings indicates his extraordinary talent, adaptability and determination. He did not, however, neglect or disown his origins: he was a lifelong Marxist.

John William Wall, Cairo, spring 1950
And I think we can see something of the influence of his personal background in his stories too. Though they have complex psychological and indeed erotic undercurrents, his tales evince a keen sympathy for the underdog. They portray convincingly the perverted minds of those who would wield power and control over fellow-creatures, but they also celebrate resistance, independence, integrity and human solidarity. Sarban understood both the hunters and the hunted, and his art is enhanced by subtlety and ambiguity as to these primeval roles: but we know where his allegiances are.

In print titles by Sarban from Tartarus Press

The Tardebigge Myth

The only known photograph of Robert Aickman and Tom Rolt together ( Yorkshire Post , 31st August 1948) Robert Aickman’s primary ambition w...