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Saturday, 25 May 2013


I’ve been writing about books recently, those handed down from generation to generation in my family, and the inscriptions inside them. One that came up was Essays on Two Moderns by my great uncle, the historian William Henry Salter (1880-1969). It’s a 1911 collection of four essays: three about Euripides, the ancient Greek tragedian, and one on Samuel Butler, author of the 1872 Utopian novel Erewhon. My copy belonged to my father, and he got it from his father, my grandfather Frederick Gurney Salter, to whom it was given by his brother the author. It’s inscribed
“F.G.S. from W.H.S.
With thanks for much valuable assistance
6 Feb. 1911”
My father produced it for me as an example of a “proper book” (by which I think he meant one with serious ideas and no pictures) when I tried one last time to impress him with one of mine (a frivolous and illustrated approach to kick-starting your artistic genius, since you ask) in 2008.

Arthur Woollgar Verrall (1851-1912)

In his preface, Uncle Willy pays lavish tribute to the leading Euripidean scholar and translator of the day, Arthur Woollgar Verrall. Both men attended Trinity College, Cambridge. Verrall was a tutor there from 1889 to 1899, the year Salter went up to Cambridge, and Willy (who graduated with a 1st Class degree in 1901) mentions having attended one of Dr Verrall’s lectures on Euripides in around 1908. Their views on Euripides chimed, and Willy was at pains in the preface to stress that he had reached his long before hearing Dr Verrall’s thoughts or reading Verrall’s latest books on the subject.

Verrall’s views were, in his day, unorthodox. He was one of the first classicists to consider ancient Greek drama on its theatrical merits and not just as dead poetry. He used examples from modern literature to illuminate the text, a radical departure from traditional self-contained classics practice. Verrall sometimes overthought challenges of interpretation, choosing over-complicated explanations for difficult passages instead of the more obvious ones generally accepted by other scholars. Supporters described him as ingenious, detractors as convoluted.

Euripides (or is it Dr Verrall?)

His translations reflected his idiosyncratic approach, to the extent that Uncle Willy remarked in his preface, “Euripides (or is it Dr Verrall?) is the most notable dramatist of the modern school.” Verrall’s very modern approach made him an excellent choice when the university appointed its first ever professor of English literature in 1911. Before then he had already given popular lectures on Walter Scott and on Victorian poets, and in the new chair he delivered a course on Dryden. But by 1911 he had become so disabled by arthritis that he had to be carried to and from the lectern, and he died the following year.

The two men, Verrall and Salter, certainly knew and respected each other through their academic work at Trinity College. I would like to think that they were friends too, not least because four years later Willy married Arthur’s daughter Helen, my great aunt.

William Henry Salter and Helen Verrall on their wedding day, 28th September 1915

Helen, like her mother Margaret, was amongst other things a psychic medium, active in the Society for Psychic Research and particularly involved in receiving the so-called Cross-Correspondences from beyond the grave. One of her correspondents after 1912 was, it was claimed, her father.

Helen, named I feel sure after Euripides’ romantic comedy of the same name, introduced her new husband to the work of the Society, which he joined in 1916 and served at various times as Treasurer, Secretary and – in 1947-48 – as President. As far as I can tell, all his published work after his marriage was concerned with psychic phenomena. Probably not what my father would call “proper books.”

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