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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.”

Saturday 18 May 2013


I am struck by how many of these articles are bookish. The subjects have in many cases written books, or been the subject of books, and copies of many of them are in my possession. It has set me off on a new project, a more formal survey of all the books on my shelves with family connections. Several came from my father’s library. He was an English Literature lecturer and he inherited hundreds of his books from his father and aunt. They in turn … and so on, back into the eighteenth century.

Every book with an inscription in it adds to the family story. My grandparents for example seem to have conducted their courtship through the gift of books. There are several volumes of poetry to F.G.S. (Frederick Gurney Salter) from E.M.C. (Eleanor May Castle), including a collection called Georgian Poetry 1912-1915, published by the Poetry Bookshop in Devonshire Street, London, in November 1915. It’s intended to be a survey of “poets of the newer generation” and has works by DH Lawrence and Rupert Brooke among others. It is dedicated in part to the latter, who had died in the war in May that year.

Georgian Poetry 1911-1912 and 1913-1915 – F.G. Salter already owned the first volume when E.M. Castle gave him the second

May’s brother was Tudor Castle, himself a rising poet and a peripheral member of the Bloomsbury set, who had given to Fred one volume of Brooke’s work (Poems, the only one published in Brooke’s lifetime) in February 1913 and to May a companion volume (1914 and Other Poems, published posthumously) in October 1915. I don’t know, but it’s very possible that Tudor and Rupert knew each other.

F.G. Salter's and E.M. Castle’s volumes of the poetry of Rupert Brooke

Tudor died in a gas attack at the start of the Battle of the Somme on the 31st August 1916, another dead poet. Fred himself only lost a leg in the war – a note on his war record says “eligible for S.W.B. 20.11.15” and the S.W.B., the Silver War Badge, was awarded to soldiers who were honourably discharged from service through injury.

The Silver War Badge
“For King and Empire, Services Rendered”

The inscription in Georgian Poetry is dated 29th January 1916. Another book confirms that Fred was convalescing in March 1916. It’s a Longman’s Pocket Library edition of William Morris’s The Pilgrims of Hope and Chants for Socialists, published in 1915. The copy I have inherited from my father has an inscription: “1916, to F.G. Salter, from May Morris.” A long letter dated 13th March 1916 from May, William Morris’s daughter, is tucked inside the small volume, in which she writes: “Lately I heard sad news of you, and scarcely knew what to write, feeling so grieved, and yet knowing that like all the other men I know who are fighting, you are taking the thing that has come to you with fine courage and serenity.”

Letter and book from May Morris to F.G. Salter

Fred Salter and May Castle were married on the 16th May that year. They raised a family of three sons and continued to give each other books. On Fred’s 46th birthday in 1922 he received not one but three volumes of the Heinemann edition of the novels of Dostoevsky. From his parents he got The Idiot, rather formally inscribed “To F.G. Salter, with best birthday wishes from W.H. Gurney Salter and Jane Gurney Salter;” and from May, now signing herself E.M.S., Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Kramazov.

Dostoevsky, translated by Constance Garnett

Britain had only just begun to discover Russian literature. The earliest translations appeared in 1894, and they were all made by Constance Garnett – the Heinemann Dostoevsky’s, first published just before the First World War, were by her. Garnett, who had once worked as a reader for Heinemann, translated 71 Russian works in forty years after meeting two Russian revolutionary exiles, Sergei Stepniak and Felix Volkhovsky, in 1891. She learned Russian and travelled there on several occasions. She deserves great credit for introducing the works of Gogol, Checkhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and others to an English-speaking audience.

She is not however without her critics. Working at speed, she would sometimes gloss over difficult or sensitive passages “for readability,” and if she did not understand a word or phrase, she was quite likely simply to omit it from the text. This was particularly true of the versions of Dostoevsky which Fred received on his 46th birthday. In general, she tended to ignore matters of individual style, to the extent that post-war Russian poet Josef Brodsky, remarked: “The reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is that they aren't reading the prose of either one. They're reading Constance Garnett.”

Saturday 11 May 2013


We live by the moral standards of our times, not those of any others. It is to be hoped that we gradually improve and refine our moral and social values; that is the process of civilisation, and historically civilisations have reached a zenith of cultural and moral sophistication before corruption and decline set in. The Roman Empire is one example, and sometimes I worry that I see the early signs of decay in the present age of greed and extremism. Are we in the west past our best, our best-before date?

Sorry! Gloomy thoughts, the typical “in my day” perspective of a fifty-something, and what’s more a fifty-something who spends all his time writing about the past. But it’s part of the same perspective that says it seems crazy to apologise, as politicians often do these days, for the sins of your distant predecessors. Invasion, genocide, neglect – regret them, offer reparations, but don’t make meaningless apologies for acts for which you weren’t responsible and which you could not have prevented.

The Amritsar Massacre, 13th April 1919

The Amritsar Massacre of 1919 is a case in point. A British brigadier-general, afraid of insurrection, ordered his troops to fire continuously into a crowd of 20,000 men, women and children until their ammunition as exhausted. Afterwards, 2500 had been killed or injured. Ever since, there have been calls for a national British apology. The brigadier-general was at once removed from duty and Winston Churchill described the event as “monstrous” as early as 1920; in 2005 the then foreign secretary jack Straw called it “a terrible occasion … for which I feel ashamed and full of sorrow;” and in February this year David Cameron spoke in similar terms of the "deeply shameful" episode. The Queen, visiting Amritsar in 1997, said: “History cannot be rewritten, however much we might sometimes wish otherwise. It has its moments of sadness, as well as gladness. We must learn from the sadness and build on the gladness.”

I know there’s’ a philosophical and legal argument for saying that politicians are not individuals but representatives of their constituency or nation and all its decisions, because the past has an impact on the present. But you can’t choose your past any more than you can choose your family. You can choose your friends, and shape your future. That’s where your responsibility lies.

Wedgwood jasperware anti-slavery medallion, designed and produced by prominent abolitionist Josiah Wedgwood

This train of thought is prompted by Hinton Castle, a pillar of Bristol’s elite society who – I discovered very recently – owned 243 slaves on two estates in Trinidad. Bad man. When slavery was finally abolished in 1833, the British government set aside a vast sum, £20 million, to compensate slave owners for their loss. Hinton, a first cousin of my 3x great grandfather, received £11,293 6s for the slaves on his Palmiste and Cascade plantations, a vast sum in 1834 when the payments were agreed and a modest annual income even in today’s terms.

Even then the slaves were not freed. They were reclassified as apprentices and required to serve out their apprenticeship indentures for anything up to a further six years. In Trinidad, where Hinton had his properties, a group of former slaves drowned out the voice of the governor (who was addressing them about the changes in their status) with chants of “No six years.” This began a protest movement on the island which succeeded in winning full emancipation for all Trinidadian slaves without apprenticeship, ahead of slaves in other colonies.

But Hinton was a prominent Bristol citizen, a major local employer at the Castle brandy distillery, elected twice (1809 and 1832) as sheriff and once (1812) as mayor of the city. In 1820 he was president of the Anchor Society, a Bristol charitable institution founded in 1769 and still operating today. The Society cares for the poor and elderly in the city, and its main fundraising activity has always been the annual President’s Collection. Hinton’s father Robert Castle and uncle Michael had both held the office and raised generous amounts; but under Hinton’s tenure the collection reached a new record level – £374. Good man.

The Anchor Society’s annual dinner in 1909 – guest speaker Winston Churchill – when the President’s Collection raised £1216

Moral values have changed over the years, and Hinton’s ownership of slaves would of course not be tolerated today. But his charitable work, at a time when David Cameron's government is actively and enthusiastically withdrawing from social responsibility, is as important now as it has ever been. And for that I make no apology.

In the mid-1830s when so many of the Bristol great and good were presumably receiving their slavery pay-offs, it is disappointing to see that the Presidents’ Collections of the Anchor Society did not rise significantly. But in 1838 president Henry Palmer rounded up a worthy £757, a sum almost double the previous year’s effort and not surpassed for another thirty years.

Saturday 4 May 2013


Louisa Powell married George MacDonald in 1851. Their daughter Caroline Grace MacDonald married my great great grandfather’s nephew Kingsbury Jameson thirty years later in 1881. George is the best known of these, a prolific nineteenth century fantasy author and theologian whom no less a theologian and fantasy author than C.S. Lewis regarded as the master of the genre. I’ve written about Kingsbury and Grace here before; Louisa wrote the stage adaptation of Pilgrim’s Progress which brought Grace and Kingsbury together.

The English Church, Bordighera

Kingsbury Jameson was the chaplain of the English Church in Bordighera, a small town on the Italian Riviera which the MacDonalds had made their winter home. Their home, Casa Coraggio, became a hub of entertainment in the town, not only for the British residents but the whole population. Entertainments and lectures were regularly held there in a huge room on the first floor, which (it is reported) held five pianos.

Born before women were considered worthy of an education, Louisa had acquired the usual genteel Victorian woman’s skills – literacy (which led her to play-writing), needlework (which she applied to scenery and costume-making) and music. She could sing and play the piano and must have played a central part in musical evenings at Casa Corragio.

The Salon in Casa Corragio, with Louisa and one of her daughters sitting on the left

She also took on the role of choirmistress in her son-in-law’s church and played the organ there, considered the best such instrument in all of Liguria – a masterpiece of late eighteenth century Genoese woodcarving. The church became the last resting place of Grace in 1884 and Louisa must have felt close to her daughter through her musical duties. Louisa herself is buried there now.

At 5.30am on 23rd February 1887 a massive earthquake struck the northern Mediterranean coast, with its epicentre at Nice, only twenty miles west of Bordighera. A tsunami struck Mentone, the French resort midway between Nice and Bordighera. Tremors continued for three or four hours and there was great loss of life, much of it from the collapse of buildings onto refugees sheltering inside them. 3000 people died in the event and Bordighera was, as Louisa’s son Greville later wrote, “entrapped in [the earthquake’s] fellest grip.”

Searching the rubble in Diano Marina, about 30 miles further east of the epicentre than Bordighera, after the Riviera earthquake of 1887 (from the Illustrated London News)

Casa Coraggio (literally “the house of courage”) suffered some damage. The MacDonalds in their position at the centre of local society did what they could to provide aid and cover to the displaced and injured. The following morning Louisa was in the church playing the organ when aftershocks began again to shake the town. In an act of almost stereotypical Englishness she did not stop what she was doing but moved seamlessly into a defiant rendition of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus!

Four years later Louisa got an organ of her own, which she inherited from her brother George Powell. The organ had been made for George by English manufacturer William George Trice at his factory in Genoa. Louisa had it installed in the salon at Casa Coraggio above the five pianos. Variety concerts there must have been extraordinary events.

The Salon in Casa Coraggio after 1891, with the organ installed

After the deaths of Louisa and three years later her husband George, the MacDonalds ended their connection with Bordighera. Their son Greville sold the Casa Coraggio organ to a local parish church in Bordighera, Borghetto S. Nicolograve. There it remains, almost unchanged save for some minor additions of 1934. It fell into disuse, but was restored to its former glory in 2001. I like to think of her music soaring above the many tragedies and losses of her life. Along with the organ in the English Church, the Borghetto organ now serves (to me at any rate) as a reminder of Louisa Powell MacDonald’s spirited playing, come hell or high water.

 The restored Borghetto organ (built in 1890), and Louisa Powell (1822-1902)
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