Wise as serpents, innocent as doves

December 1, 2022

For want of a male heir to the throne of England, tens of thousands of people were murdered when Henry VIII, defying the Pope, divorced Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn and declared himself head of the Church in England. Among the dead were, ironically, two diametrically opposed people: John Frith, a Protestant reformer who advocated religious toleration, and Thomas More, Henry’s Lord High Chancellor, a staunch Catholic who deplored Henry’s break with the Pope. A theological argument between Frith and More is laid out in A Boke Made by John Fryth, Prysoner in the Tower of London, written just before Frith was burned at the stake in 1533. Thanks to the volunteers at Distributed Proofreaders and Project Gutenberg, this important piece of Reformation history – a revised edition published in 1546 – is available with its original orthography intact.

Frith burning

Catherine of Aragon had failed to produce a son for Henry. He became infatuated with the young and beautiful Anne Boleyn and decided to make her his Queen in hopes that she would bear him a male heir. The sticking point was that divorce was impossible under Catholicism, then the official religion of England. In 1527, Henry asked the Pope to annul his marriage on the ground that Catherine was his brother’s widow, but the attempt failed. By 1531, Henry had had enough and began forcing the clergy to recognize him as the supreme head of the Church in England.

Despite Henry’s break with the Pope, persecution and execution of Protestant reformers in England continued. As Henry’s Lord High Chancellor, Thomas More was a vehement opponent of the Reformation and favored burning Protestants to root out heresy. More was also concerned that some of these “heretics” – like Frith – were rather well educated and well informed on religious doctrine, making them dangerous adversaries.

Frith, the son of an innkeeper, became acquainted with Protestant ideas while attending Cambridge University. In 1525 he had the honor of being invited to study at Cardinal Wolsey’s new Cardinal College (now Christ Church) at Oxford University. But the honor didn’t last long. In 1528, Frith and a number of other students were accused of possessing Protestant books and were imprisoned in the college’s fish cellar for six months. Four students died in the horrifying conditions, but Frith managed to survive. After his release, he fled to Antwerp.

While abroad, Frith wrote treatises criticizing the Pope and Catholic doctrines. Among them was a pamphlet, A christen sentence and true iudgement of the moste honorable sacrament of Christes body [and] bloude (available at Early English Books Online), outlining arguments against the Catholic concept of transubstantiation, i.e., the transformation of the Communion bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ. Frith unwisely returned to England in July 1532. Because England was still nominally a Catholic country in spite of Henry’s dispute with the Pope, Frith was arrested for heresy and imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Thomas More, meanwhile, had already resigned as Lord Chancellor in May 1532 because he could not in good conscience sign an oath recognizing Henry as head of the Church in England. But More remained concerned about the advance of the Protestant Reformation. After Frith’s arrest, More got hold of a copy of A christen sentence. Realizing that Frith’s theories on transubstantiation were buttressed by impressive scholarship, More wrote a Letter against Frith refuting Frith’s arguments (available as a PDF from Thomas More Studies). Frith, despite his imprisonment, managed to get a copy of More’s Letter and wrote A Boke Made by John Fryth to rebut More’s points.

Frith’s argument was essentially that the sacrament of Communion at the Mass was merely symbolic of Christ’s death. It could not be an actual transformation of the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood, because it was impossible for a physical being to be in more than one place at once.

The rationality of this argument posed a problem for More, who was a lawyer, not a clergyman. But More shrewdly couched his own arguments in his Letter against Frith in terms that laymen could understand. And because Frith’s pamphlet was in English, More wrote his rebuttal in English, not Latin as a Catholic clergyman might. Both Frith and More understood that this would give them the widest possible audience in England. The essence of More’s argument was that Christ’s physical body can be in many places at once (multilocation) because God, being omnipotent, can make it so. What might seem unreasonable to a human would be perfectly reasonable to God, who in his almighty wisdom can make anything happen.

Frith did not accept this position. In his Boke, he did not deny God’s omnipotence. His first argument rested on science: “Christe had a naturall bodye, euen as myne ys (savynge synne) and that yt coulde no more be in two places at ones then myne can.” His second rested on the fundamental Scriptural concept of Christ as human, asserting that those who argue for transubstantiation “do take awaye the truthe of hys naturall bodye, and make it a very fantastycall bodye: from the which heresye God delyuer hys faythfull.” Thus Frith, accused of heresy, turned the tables on his opponents by calling them the heretics. He even suggested that they were cannibals, for they believed that “hys very fleshe is present to the teth of them that eate the Sacramēte, and that the wycked eate hys verye bodye.”

Frith’s Boke appends an account of his examination at trial, written while he was in Newgate Prison awaiting execution. Although he was questioned on several aspects of his theological beliefs, he baldly states that “The cause of my deathe is thys, because I can not in conscyence abiure and swere, that our Prelates opynyon of the Sacramente (that is) that the substaunce of breade ād wyne is verely chaunged into the fleshe and bloode of our sauyoure Iesus Christ is an vndoubted artycle of the faythe, necessarye to be beleued vnder payne of dampnacyon.”

While Frith languished in prison, the royal divorce crisis had rapidly come to a head. In 1533, Henry secretly married Anne Boleyn, got his new and compliant Archbishop of Canterbury to annul his marriage to Catherine, then had Anne crowned Queen Consort in June 1533. On July 9, 1533, the Pope excommunicated Henry. But it was too late for Frith, who had already been burned at Smithfield on July 4 at the age of 30. He was commemorated in John Foxe’s famous Fox’s Book of Martyrs.

Almost exactly two years after Frith’s execution, Thomas More himself became a martyr. As depicted in the play and film A Man for All Seasons, More once again refused to sign an oath denying the Pope’s supremacy. This time, Henry had him arrested and imprisoned in the Tower. Though given many chances to change his mind, More refused to do so. He was beheaded on July 6, 1535. Four centuries later, the Roman Catholic Church canonized him as a saint.

Frith closes his Boke with Christ’s advice to his Apostles: “Be wyse as Serpentes, and innocent as Dooues.” The full quote from the King James Version is, “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves. Be ye therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matt. 10:16). Frith became a sacrificial sheep, but he was certainly wise: His position on Communion was later officially adopted by the Church of England.

This post was contributed by Linda Cantoni, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.


A Classical Dictionary

November 1, 2022

Thanks to the volunteers at Distributed Proofreaders, the 1904 edition of A Classical Dictionary by John Lemprière is now available in the Project Gutenberg library. The complete title, A Classical Dictionary containing a copious account of all the proper names mentioned in ancient authors with tables of coins, weights, and measures used among the Greeks and Romans and a chronological table, shows just how comprehensive it is.

Bust of Homer (c. 1st Century A.D.), Musée du Louvre

Lemprière (1765-1824) began work on the Classical Dictionary in 1786 while a student at Pembroke College, Oxford, possibly inspired by the ground-breaking Dictionary of the English Language compiled by fellow Pembroke graduate Samuel Johnson. Lemprière published the completed work in 1788 under the title Bibliotheca Classica. For over 200 years, it has been an essential reference work, not just for teachers and students of the ancient Greek and Roman classics, but also for novelists, journalists, playwrights, and poets. John Keats – whose poetry is filled with classical allusions – is said to have known the book almost by heart.

The study of classical literature has long been considered a fundamental requirement to understanding the development of our modern Western culture. The lack of classical studies in recent years leaves many feeling inadequate to the reading or study of classical literature. A Classical Dictionary is the perfect companion for those who are interested in a self-study of classical authors like Homer, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Euripides, or Sophocles. When I prepared the e-book version, with the bountiful help of fellow DP volunteer Stephen Rowland, I took the liberty of expanding most name and title abbreviations to their full commonly known names, and changed many Latin abbreviations for books, chapters, lines, etc., to their common English abbreviations, to improve ease of reading.

A Classical Dictionary identifies and explains the plethora of Greek and Roman deities with their alleged authority and powers and the myths surrounding them. Names of rivers, cities, and regions are identified, when possible, with 19th-Century names and descriptions.

With this dictionary, you can travel along with Jason and the Argonauts in the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes; learn how Helen of Troy’s abduction sparked the Trojan War in Homer’s Iliad; or follow Odysseus on his 10-year journey home after the Trojan War in Homer’s Odyssey. It will bring to life for you the Greek tragedies of King Agamemnon, Orestes, and others, or enable you to study the Roman histories by Julius Caesar, Josephus, Tacitus, and many more. Open your horizons now to these ancient works that have had such an impact on the development of today’s society.

This post was contributed by Rich Hulse (BookBuff), a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer who post-processed the e-book version of A Classical Dictionary.


Celebrating 44,000 Titles

July 19, 2022

This post celebrates the 44,000th title Distributed Proofreaders has posted to Project Gutenberg: The Trial of Emile Zola. Congratulations and thanks to all the Distributed Proofreaders volunteers who worked on it!

The Trial of Emile Zola is a first-hand account of a crucial stage in one of the most important events of French history: the Dreyfus Affair. In September of 1894, an operative of French counterintelligence found, in a wastebasket at the German embassy in Paris, an unsigned note (generally referred to as the “bordereau”) that proved that French military secrets were being delivered to foreign powers. Immediately an investigation was launched, and before long the military authorities had settled on Captain Alfred Dreyfus as the culprit: because he was taciturn and unpopular, because his handwriting bore a vague resemblance to that on the bordereau, and, most of all, because he was Jewish. Dreyfus was convicted in a closed military trial on the basis of tenuous evidence such as his handwriting, and other evidence that was wholly fabricated, and sentenced to life imprisonment in the awful conditions of the penal colony of Devil’s Island in the Caribbean. Before his deportation, he was stripped of his rank in a ceremony wherein his marks of rank were torn off his uniform, his sword was taken from him and broken, and he was made to parade around a square in front of his former comrades and a huge crowd of civilians shouting, among other things, “Death to the Jew.”

Dreyfus’s family believed his claims of innocence, and campaigned for his release to what was, initially, an overwhelmingly hostile public, influenced by extreme anti-Semites for whom Dreyfus’s supposed guilt was a vindication of their beliefs about the Jewish race. Gradually, evidence emerged that pointed to a Catholic French officer, Ferdinand Esterhazy – a heavily indebted drunkard – as the bordereau’s likely author. His handwriting matched it perfectly. French society became split between the Dreyfusards, who believed in Dreyfus’s innocence, and the anti-Dreyfusards, who believed in his guilt. Both camps felt themselves to be defending their own vision of French society – the Dreyfusards defending the liberal Republic against a reactionary, anti-Semitic political Catholicism, and the anti-Dreyfusards defending Catholic France against a conspiracy of liberal intellectuals, Jews, and foreign agents. By January of 1898, the Dreyfusards had sufficient support to compel the military to place Esterhazy on trial for the same crimes of which it had convicted Dreyfus, but this trial was another closed military tribunal, and Esterhazy was acquitted.

Contemporary postcard of Zola - from Wikimedia

It was at this point that Émile Zola, already a notable novelist, entered the controversy. He had published in L’Aurore, a liberal newspaper edited by future French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, an open letter addressed to President Félix Faure, with the now-famous title “J’Accuse…!” The letter, which is reprinted in full in this volume, accused the leadership of the French military of a conspiracy to condemn an innocent man, because of an initial incompetent and prejudiced investigation, and the subsequent necessity to defend the false verdict it reached because, otherwise, “the war offices would fall under the weight of public contempt.” He directly accused the trials of both Dreyfus and Esterhazy of illegality, and of having convicted Dreyfus and acquitted Esterhazy according to orders, asserting: “It is my duty to speak; I will not be an accomplice. My nights would be haunted by the spectre of the innocent man who is atoning, in a far-away country, by the most frightful of tortures, for a crime that he did not commit.” Unable to ignore Zola’s accusations – which would have been a tacit admission of their truth – the government sued Zola, as well as the legally-responsible editor of the article, Alexandre Perrenx, for libel, and thus on February 7, 1898, the trial of Zola, which is recorded in this book, began.

Zola’s trial lasted fifteen days in total, with each day the courtroom’s public gallery packed with anti-Dreyfusards, and Zola obliged to pass through hostile crowds to enter the courthouse. From the first day, the difficulties which the defence would face became apparent – after each side had set out their case initially, the day was taken up by the reading of refusals to appear on the part of most of the high-ranking military witnesses, including Esterhazy himself, whom the defence had called. On the second day, the defence called its first witness, Alfred Dreyfus’s wife, and began to question her regarding her husband’s innocence in order to establish Zola’s good faith in making his accusations. Immediately, the judge cut him off, establishing another pattern for the trial, as the judge, prejudiced against Zola and unwilling to have embarrassing details of the Dreyfus trials publicly revealed, repeatedly prevented the defence from justifying those allegations for which Zola was on trial. Similar restrictions were not placed upon the prosecution, nor upon those witnesses hostile to Zola. At the end of this first exchange, Zola’s lawyer, Fernand Labori, asked the judge, given these restrictions, “what practical means you see by which we may ascertain the truth?”

“That does not concern me,” came the reply.

In the days that followed, a long sequence of witnesses spoke of the inconsistencies of the trial of Esterhazy; various generals made evasive or obstructive answers without reproach from the judge. More than once, witnesses were called by the defence, and then prevented by the judge from taking the stand, on the grounds that their testimony would relate to the Dreyfus case. On the sixth day, the Socialist Jean Jaurès recounted a remark from a right-wing editor which perhaps sums up the anti-Dreyfusard position, loyalties and prejudices superceding truth: “I believe profoundly in the guilt of Dreyfus. I believe it, because it seems to me impossible that French officers, having to judge another French officer, should have condemned him in the absence of overwhelming evidence. I believe it, because the power of the Jews, very great four years ago, as it is today, would have torn Dreyfus from the hands of justice, if there had been in his favor the slightest possibility of salvation.”

On the eleventh day, Major Esterhazy himself was called to the stand, protesting that “during the last eighteen months, in the shadow, there has been woven against me the most frightful conspiracy ever woven against any man. During that time I have suffered more than anyone of my contemporaries has suffered in the whole of his life.” He then refused to answer any questions that would be put by the defence, and for some time, Clemenceau, who had been present throughout the trial, proffered dozens of questions, all met with silence. Finally, as the judge attempted to prevent him from speaking, Clemenceau asked “how is it that one cannot speak of justice in a court?”

The judge replied: “Because there is something above that,—the honor and safety of the country.”

“I note,” finished Clemenceau, “that the honor of the country permits these things to be done, but does not permit them to be said.”

Finally, after fifteen days, the summing-ups were concluded and the jury retired to deliberate on their verdict. Just thirty-five minutes later, they returned, and declared both Zola and Perrenx guilty of libel. Minutes after that, the judge handed Zola the maximum sentence: a fine of 3,000 francs and a year’s imprisonment. The court was filled with the shouts of the audience: “Long live the army! Long live France! Down with the insulters! To the door with Jews! Death to Zola!” Zola appealed, but was defeated again, and fled to England to avoid jail.

On the face of it, Zola and the Dreyfusards had suffered a massive defeat – the law was brought down against Dreyfus’s highest-profile supporter, and Dreyfus himself was still suffering on Devil’s Island. However, where both Dreyfus’s and Esterhazy’s trials were conducted in the secrecy of a closed military tribunal, Zola’s took place in a public court. Every day, the newspapers of France summarised the trial’s proceedings, and this 1898 edition shows that the full text of the court records had been translated into English and published in New York not long after it took place. Thus, a great deal of new information had been made available to the public, and while it did not convince the jury, it did, over time, convince an increasingly large proportion of the French population. Civil unrest increased, and a new left-wing government was formed in response to the crisis. In September 1899, the new president, Émile Loubet, pardoned Dreyfus, who was released after almost five years of imprisonment for a crime he had not committed. Finally, in July 1906, a civilian court of appeals formally cleared Dreyfus of all charges; he was reinstated as a captain and made a knight of the Legion of Honour. The Radical governments which emerged from the Dreyfus Affair would inaugurate a strict policy of secularism in the French government, which has survived to the present day – realising, ironically, some of the deepest fears of the anti-Dreyfusards.

Among many other things, the Dreyfus Affair illustrates the importance of public access to information, and conversely the danger of its restriction, without which the French military could not have conducted its closed, unfair trial of Dreyfus in the first place. It was only when the truth became public property, through the Zola trial and subsequent revelations, that justice could be done. It is a wonderful thing, therefore, to have been able to contribute to the free, maximally-accessible publication of these records through Project Gutenberg. I hope that, if you read them, they remind you of the value of the work that Distributed Proofreaders does in bringing such texts to light. As Zola wrote in “J’Accuse!”, the letter that triggered his trial, “when truth is buried in the earth, it accumulates there, and assumes so mighty an explosive power that, on the day when it bursts forth, it hurls everything into the air.”

This post was contributed by Thomas Frost, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer who post-processed The Trial of Emile Zola.


Behind the Camera

June 1, 2022

Film historians disagree on who invented the first movie camera – Louis Le Prince, who made a short film in 1888 and then disappeared before he could exhibit his new invention? Thomas Edison, who allegedly stole credit for an employee’s invention in 1892? But one thing is certain: “moving pictures” radically changed the face of entertainment worldwide. By 1914, technical developments had brought movies from short clips of only a few minutes to compelling narratives lasting an hour or more. Audiences flocked to “dream palaces” to be immersed in romance, comedy, suspense, and adventure on the silver screen. But few understood how exactly these “dreams” got there.

In Moving Pictures: How They Are Made and Worked (1914), author Frederick A. Talbot explains to a general audience the technical aspects of film-making as then known. Talbot wrote a number of similar books on railways, lighthouses, airplanes, and “waste reclamation” (an early term for recycling). He also followed his Moving Pictures book with one on cinematography for amateurs.

Moving Pictures begins with a lengthy history of “animated photography” that, not surprisingly, omits the vanished Le Prince and mainly focuses on Edison, who was not just a talented inventor but also a very shrewd businessman. The book also duly credits the Lumière Brothers, Robert Paul, George Eastman, and others with important advances in camera, film, and projection processes.

Talbot’s book is chock full of photos of devices, laboratories, studios, and film sets. We learn how celluloid – the old, flammable, perishable medium for film – was made from a chemical soup known as “dope.” There are chapters on how perforated film was developed to move film through the camera quickly, how film cameras worked, how film was developed, and how moving images were projected onto a screen. He explores the technical aspects of filming major events and natural processes, the creation of what were later called newsreels, and even the possibility of home movies.

We also learn how films were staged in the studio. Talbot tells us that Edison’s tiny “Black Maria,” built in 1892 and believed to be the world’s first film studio, had become a gigantic glass building by 1914, with a 2,400-square-foot stage and a 130,000-gallon water tank for “aquatic spectacles.” But film producers without such resources also knew how to answer when opportunity knocked. Talbot recounts how one producer, hearing of a huge fire in a Los Angeles department store, sped a film crew to the scene. They somehow persuaded the fire department to let the lead actor, costumed as a fireman, rush into the still-burning building to “rescue” an actress who was set in an upper window screaming for help. “The players ran great risks,” says Talbot, “but the film producer was satisfied.”

Talbot also pointed out the special problems presented by narrative films. We may find the exaggerated expressions and gestures of silent movies laughably quaint today, but the primitive medium of the time made them vitally necessary, as Talbot explains:

The stage management of a play before the celluloid film is far more exacting than the staging of a play behind the footlights. . . . The picture play is essentially pantomime and the camera is a searching, unequivocal critic. It produces a stern, matter-of-fact representation of what is enacted before it. There is no dialogue to conceal blemishes, or mitigate the deficiencies of the actors and actresses. Words have to be converted into action and gestures.

Although “talking pictures” were still 13 years in the future, Talbot has a chapter on early attempts to make sound films. But he didn’t think much of them. “[U]ntil the peculiar nasal sound is eliminated from the talking machine it will not prove popular. . . . [T]he majority of picture-theatre lovers, after the first wave of excitement and curiosity, will patronise those establishments where they can see movement alone.” One wonders what he would have made of today’s ultra-realistic Dolby sound systems. Talbot also bemoans the failure of attempts to make true-color films, which had begun as early as the 19th Century.

The six chapters on trick cinematography are especially fascinating, showing how early filmmakers thought outside the box to enthrall audiences with special effects – all created without the aid of a computer. Stop-motion photography, double-exposure, miniature models, invisible wires, and other devices, some still in use today, were all invented at this period. Camera tricks to make people look gigantic or tiny – in the 21st Century used to very great effect in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films – also dated from this time. One interesting, if sad, example of a film trick known as “stop and substitution” involved a real-life “legless cripple,” as Talbot calls him, who was paid to be a stunt-double in a French film about a car accident. A character played by the lead actor gets his legs severed by a car. The legless double, with fake severed legs, substitutes for the actor. The legs are then miraculously reattached by a passing doctor, the actor now substituting for the double. Talbot surmised, “Probably the unfortunate had never before found his misfortune so profitable to him.”

Film preservation was of great concern to Talbot, but he was fatalistic about it because of

the perishable character of the celluloid film, and also of the photographic image upon the emulsion. Both would deteriorate, even if preserved in hermetically sealed cases, with the flight of time, and the chances are if a film were held for one hundred years that it would be found useless when opened at the end of that period.

He also feared that, because celluloid was so flammable, “The end is tragic: the film slips from sight in flame and smoke.” His fears were not unfounded. The Library of Congress estimates that some 75% of American silent films have been “completely lost to time and neglect.”

Talbot stays entirely on-topic in his discussion of the technical side of movie-making. You won’t find gossipy references to the top movie stars of the day, like Mary Pickford. But you will marvel at how early filmmakers developed the very equipment and techniques that still keep us entertained over a century later.

This post was contributed by Linda Cantoni, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.


Children’s Book Week 2022

May 1, 2022

Tomorrow kicks off the first of two Children’s Book Weeks for 2022 – May 2 to 8 and November 7 to 13. Established in 1919, Children’s Book Week has engaged children with books through events at schools, libraries, bookstores, and, in recent years, online. Distributed Proofreaders and Project Gutenberg have been proud to be part of this online initiative by making available to everyone, for free, a wide variety of public-domain children’s books. And over the past year, DP has contributed some fun and interesting children’s books to Project Gutenberg in celebration of Children’s Book Week.

Animals are always a popular category in the juvenile genre. Elizabeth Stafford Fry’s Bully Bull Frog and His Home in Rainbow Valley (1921) is a series of gentle stories about various animals in idyllic Rainbow Valley, with pretty color illustrations by Frances Beem. Published the same year, The Woodcutter’s Dog is a translation of 19th-Century French author Charles Nodier‘s short story about a heroic canine. It features charming color illustrations by English artist Claud Lovat Fraser. And from the previous century is Eliza Grey’s The Adventures of a Marmotte (1831), the whimsical “memoir” of a large ground squirrel. This book is unusual in that it was “sold for the distressed Irish,” apparently a reference to the 1830 potato crop failure and subsequent food riots in Ireland (not to be confused with the later, and far worse, Great Famine).

Children have always loved book series with engaging heroes and heroines. In 1842, educator and clergyman Jacob Abbott followed up his successful educational “Rollo” series (many of which are at Project Gutenberg) with one for girls featuring Rollo’s Cousin Lucy. Cousin Lucy at Play and Cousin Lucy at Study are both interesting slices of a child’s life in pre-Civil War America, with an emphasis on good conduct and kindness to others.

Good conduct for children is meticulously laid out in the 1856 guide, Etiquette for Little Folks, by an anonymous author. Given how highly class-conscious that era was, it’s not surprising to find advice such as, “Be meek, courteous, and affable to your inferiors; not proud nor scornful. To be courteous, even to the lowest, is a true index of a great and generous mind.” And in The School-Girls in Number 40, published in 1859 by the American Sunday-School Union, the boarding-school heroines learn about sharing, tolerance, penitence, and forgiveness.

The antebellum period in America is also represented by Fanny Fern‘s story collection The Play-Day Book, published in 1857. Fern was the most highly paid newspaper columnist of her day and is said to have coined the saying, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” The Play-Day Book followed on the success of her first children’s book, Little Ferns for Fanny’s Little Friends (1853). Fern’s conversational style made both her newspaper columns and her breezy little stories highly readable.

The author of Alice and Beatrice, published in 1881, is listed simply as “Grandmamma,” who is also the character who tells young Alice and Beatrice the stories in the book. Each story has an educational component, on such diverse subjects as lacemaking, life in Russia, rainbows, bees, and more.

Before writing the immortal Winnie-the-Pooh, A.A. Milne wrote a lovely collection of fantasy stories, appropriately entitled A Gallery of Children. The book, published in 1925, features exquisite color illustrations by Dutch illustrator Henriette Willebeek le Mair, also known as “Saida.”

Poetry is a perennial childhood favorite. Miriam Clark Potter’s Rhymes of a Child’s World (1920) has delightful line drawings and decorations by Ruth Fuller Stevens. Its dedication reads:

TO MY MOTHER AND FATHER
WHO ALWAYS HAD TIME
TO WAIVE GROWN-UP MATTERS
AND READ A SMALL RHYME:

WHOSE HEARTS EVER HELD
THROUGH THE FLIGHT OF THE YEARS
A SOFT UNDERSTANDING
OF SMALL JOYS AND TEARS.

A much earlier little volume of children’s poetry, Simple Poems for Infant Minds (1856), anonymously written and illustrated, contains just what the title says, with a blend of whimsy and moral instruction.

Dime novels were wildly popular in the 19th Century and beyond. The Boy Ranger; or, The Heiress of the Golden Horn, by Oll Coomes, published in 1874, is a good example of the kind of Western adventure much loved by children back then. This one is a bit unusual for the time in that it portrays a Native American tribal chief and his warriors in a heroic light.

Lastly, music makes an appearance with The Pinafore Picture Book (1908), a delightful children’s version of Gilbert & Sullivan’s popular operetta H.M.S. Pinafore. It was written by W.S. Gilbert himself and beautifully illustrated by Alice B. Woodward. The e-book version contains audio files so you can listen to the musical excerpts from the operetta that were printed in the original book.

We hope these selections will delight your inner child this Children’s Book Week!

This article was contributed by Linda Cantoni, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.


Celebrating 43,000 Titles

February 1, 2022

This post – in English and German – celebrates the 43,000th title Distributed Proofreaders has posted to Project Gutenberg: Die Sitten der Völker, Zweiter Band (The Customs of Peoples, Volume II). Congratulations and thanks to all the Distributed Proofreaders volunteers who worked on it! This post was contributed by salmonofdoubt, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.

‘… much of the material possession of the tribes on their way to extinction, their weapons, tools, clothes, and many other everyday objects could just be preserved and included in the ethnographical museums. This is much less the case with the spiritual and intellectual heritage of the peoples in question, such as customs, practices, religious views, and so forth, even though some of the explorers attach importance particularly to this area of interest; but, unfortunately, an enormous amount of time and effort is needed to penetrate deeply into the inner life of the primitive peoples, which is quite different to how it is with us civilised people, and on the other hand, their perceptions have been subject to change in earlier times, as a result of European influences, which wound their way to them, sometimes in a roundabout way that one might never had expected.’

G. Buschan, The Customs of Peoples, Vol. I.

Georg Buschan, in his time, was a quite well-known and prolific author who devoted himself to anthropological, ethnological, and ethnographical questions, thereby reaching a large audience. His works counted among the most eminent and most comprehensive depictions in this range of subjects. Without doubt, Buschan still belongs to the older branch of ethnographers, classifying the cultures of peoples into ‘uncivilised’ and ‘civilised,’ even though the sense of mission and the narrow-mindedness of social scientists of the 18th and 19th Centuries can be found in Buschan’s works merely in a somewhat reduced form. At the same time, he was well aware that the original and unaltered cultural practices were already a thing of the past.

After serving as a military surgeon, Buschan travelled to Eastern Asia and to the Balkan Peninsula, but he was especially interested in the former German colony of Cameroon. Most of the chapters in The Customs of Peoples concerning this region of Africa can be ascribed to his authorship. Many of the book chapters from other regions of the world were written by well-known and renowned explorers, such as Sven Hedin, the Swedish explorer of Asia, and the Australian biologist and ethnologist Sir Baldwin Spencer.

‘Ethnography can be considered a fundamental methodology of the social sciences. Over the past century, ethnographic methodology has led to the discovery of some of the most valuable concepts, theory and data produced in the social sciences.’

Faye Allard and Elijah Anderson, Encyclopedia of Social Measurement, 2005.

The past decades have brought a substantial change to ethnography, particularly after the heyday of colonialism gradually came to an end after the First World War. Up to that time the depiction of foreign peoples had always been compared to the paradigm of the own culture. The ‘alien’ was considered to be the less developed, with a need for development; the colonial powers’ culture, on the other hand, was made out to be the shining example. This perspective also provided a pretext for the colonial powers to actively interfere in the affairs of foreign peoples.

Today, ethnography rarely depicts entire groups of peoples but rather addresses smaller social groups, even units as small as a football team or a work group. One important reason for this reorientation might be found in the intense mixing of cultures. Probably, an environment unaffected by the outside world no longer exists anywhere.

Even by the time Buschan published his three-volume The Customs of Peoples in 1914-1916, this was more or less true. The contributors to the work keep encountering outside influences of European culture wherever they go. Sometimes the influences manifest themselves very plainly, as seen in the omnipresent Christian symbolism in some colonies, for example, in Central and South America. Objects of European production can be seen in some of the illustrations, sometimes subtly hidden, but they are still there; for example, articles of clothing or tools that found their way into the everyday life of the observed peoples, having thus changed their traditional practices.

Without doubt, The Customs of Peoples can be considered one of Buschan’s most important works. In the first volume, Buschan focused on the peoples of Australia, Oceania, and the southern and eastern parts of Asia. In the second volume he delved into the civilisations of the remaining parts of Asia, as well as Northern, Eastern, and Southern Africa. The third volume, in progress at Distributed Proofreaders, concludes the series with the description of the peoples of Western Africa, the Americas, and Europe. Each of the three volumes contains about 500 illustrations, mostly photos and colour drawings. In fact, the books create the impression of being picture books, probably to appeal to a wider audience. Today the choice of the subjects might not be classed as ‘politically correct.’ A disproportionately high number of illustrations show scantily dressed women and young girls, which might be intended to get the predominantly male readers interested in the contents of the books.

Yet, it would not be right to impose today’s standards on yesterday’s ways of thinking. Our variety of different cultures is continually changing. A great number of things are changing almost daily, and in a hundred years’ time our view of the world may well be just greeted with smiles.


Dieser Blog-Artikel auf Englisch und Deutsch würdigt das 43.000ste Projekt, das Distributed Proofreaders bei Project Gutenberg veröffentlicht hat: den Die Sitten der Völker, Zweiter Band. Herzlichen Glückwunsch und vielen Dank an alle Freiwilligen bei Distributed Proofreaders, die an diesem Projekt gearbeitet haben! Dieser Blog-Beitrag auf Deutsch wurde von salmonofdoubt, einer Freiwilligen für Distributed Proofreaders, verfasst.

„… vieles von dem materiellen Besitz der im Aussterben begriffenen Stämme, also von ihren Waffen, Werkzeugen, Kleidung und vielen anderen Gegenständen des täglichen Lebens konnte noch gerettet und den ethnographischen Museen einverleibt werden. Weniger trifft dies aber für den geistigen Kulturbesitz der fraglichen Völker, wie Sitten, Gebräuche, religiöse Ansichten und dergleichen zu, obwohl manche der Forschungsreisenden gerade auch auf dieses Gebiet bei ihren Forschungen Gewicht legten; aber leider gehört, um in das Innenleben der primitiven Völker einzudringen, das ein ganz anderes als bei uns Kulturmenschen ist, viel Zeitaufwand und Mühe, und zum anderen haben ihre Vorstellungen verschiedentlich durch europäischen Einfluß, der manchmal auf Umwegen, auf denen man es gar nicht vermuten würde, schon in früheren Zeiten zu ihnen gelangte, eine Abänderung erfahren.“

(G. Buschan, „Die Sitten der Völker“, Erster Band)

Georg Buschan war in seiner Zeit ein ziemlich bekannter und produktiver Autor, der sich mit anthropologischen, ethnologischen und ethnographischen Fragen beschäftigte und damit ein großes Publikum erreichte. Seine Werke zählten zu den bedeutendsten und umfassendsten Darstellungen dieser Themengebiete. Buschan selbst muss zweifellos noch dem älteren Zweig der Ethnographie zugerechnet werden, der die Kulturen der Völker wertend in „primitiv“ und „entwickelt“ einordnet, wenngleich sich das Sendungsbewusstsein und die Engstirnigkeit der Sozialwissenschaftler des 18. und 19. Jahrhunderts sich bei ihm nur noch in abgeschwächter Form findet. Ihm selbst war dabei sehr wohl bewusst, dass die Inhalte der ursprünglichen und unverfälschten Kulturen bereits der Vergangenheit angehörten.

Nach seinem Dienst als Militärarzt reiste Buschan nach Ostasien und auf die Balkanhalbinsel, vor allem aber galt sein Interesse der damaligen deutschen Kolonie Kamerun; die meisten seiner Buchbeiträge, die sich mit dieser Region Afrikas beschäftigen, stammen daher aus seiner eigenen Feder. Die Beiträge für seine Bücher, die aus anderen Weltgegenden stammen, wurden oft von berühmten und angesehenen Forschern, wie beispielsweise dem schwedischen Asienreisenden Sven Hedin und dem australischen Biologen und Ethnologen Sir Baldwin Spencer verfasst.

„Ethnographie kann als eine fundamentale Methodik der Sozialwissenschaften begriffen werden. Im Laufe des vergangenen Jahrhunderts hat die ethnographische Methodik zur Entdeckung einiger der wertvollsten Konzepte, Theorien und Fakten geführt, die in den Sozialwissenschaften hervorgebracht wurden.“

(Faye Allard, Elijah Anderson, Encyclopedia of Social Measurement, 2005)

Die vergangenen Jahrzehnte haben der Ethnographie einen beträchtlichen Wandel beschert, insbesondere nachdem die Blütezeit des Kolonialismus mit dem ersten Weltkrieg allmählich zu Ende ging. Bis dahin wurde die Beschreibung fremder Völker ausschließlich am Paradigma der eigenen Kultur gemessen. Das „Fremde“ wurde stets als das weniger Entwickelte, Entwicklungsbedürftige, angesehen, die eigene Kultur dagegen als leuchtendes Vorbild dargestellt. Diese Sichtweise lieferte dann auch einen Vorwand der Kolonialmächte, als selbsternannte Weltverbesserer in die Geschicke anderer Völker eingreifen zu dürfen.

Die moderne Ethnographie beschreibt heute nur noch selten ganze Völkergruppen, sondern widmet sich vielmehr kleineren sozialen Einheiten, sogar bis hinunter zu Fußballmannschaften oder Arbeitsteams. Ein wichtiger Grund für diese Umorientierung dürfte unter anderem in der starken Durchmischung der Kulturen zu finden sein. Eine von der Außenwelt unbeeinflusstes Umfeld kann heute nirgendwo mehr bestehen.

Bereits zur Entstehungszeit der „Sitten der Völker“, von 1914–1916, lagen die Dinge schon ganz ähnlich. Wo immer sie hinkommen, treffen die Beitragenden der Bücher in den jeweiligen Gegenden der Welt auf die Einflüsse europäischer Kultur. Manchmal treten diese Einflüsse so deutlich zutage wie bei der allgegenwärtigen christlichen Symbolik in einigen Kolonien, beispielsweise in Mittel- und Südamerika. Bei vielen Gelegenheiten erkennt man in den Abbildungen Gegenstände aus europäischer Produktion, manchmal subtil versteckt, und dennoch sind sie vorhanden; zum Beispiel Kleidungsstücke oder Werkzeuge, die schon längst in das Alltagsleben der betrachteten Völker Einzug gehalten, und somit die althergebrachten Gebräuche verändert hatten.

Zweifelsohne können „Die Sitten der Völker“ als eines der wichtigsten Werke des Autors betrachtet werden. Im ersten Teil widmet sich Buschan den Völkern Australiens und Ozeaniens sowie dem südlichen und östlichen Teil Asiens. Im zweiten Band befasst sich der Autor mit den Kulturen aus den restlichen Teilen Asiens sowie dem nördlichen, östlichen und südlichen Afrika. Der dritte Teil beschließt die Reihe mit der Beschreibung der Völker Westafrikas, Amerikas und Europas. (Der dritte Band ist bei Distributed Proofreaders in Arbeit.) Jeder der drei Bände enthält etwa 500 Abbildungen, meist Fotos und farbige Zeichnungen. Tatsächlich erwecken die Bücher manchmal den Eindruck eines Bildbandes, sicher auch um ein breiteres Publikum anzusprechen. Die Wahl der Motive würde man heute wohl kaum als „politisch korrekt“ einstufen. Überdurchschnittlich viele Abbildungen zeigen spärlich bekleidete Frauen und junge Mädchen, was möglicherweise die überwiegend männliche Leserschaft für den Inhalt der Bücher interessieren sollte.

Es wäre jedoch nicht richtig, die heutigen Maßstäbe an die Denkweisen von gestern anzulegen. Auch unsere heutige Vielfalt an verschiedenen Kulturen ist in immerwährendem Wandel. Viele Dinge ändern sich beinahe täglich, und in hundert Jahren wird man für unsere Sicht auf die Welt wohl nur noch ein mildes Lächeln übrig haben.


Freud’s Dreams

January 1, 2022
The Nightmare, by Henry Fuseli (1781). Freud reportedly had a copy of it hanging in his apartment.

I am very incompletely dressed, and I go from a dwelling on the ground floor up a flight of stairs to an upper story. In doing this I jump over three steps at a time, and I am glad to find I can mount the steps so quickly. Suddenly I see that a servant girl is coming down the stairs, that is, towards me. I am ashamed and try to hurry away, and now there appears that sensation of being impeded; I am glued to the steps and cannot move from the spot.

Who among us hasn’t had that dismaying dream of being in a state of undress in front of others? Or of desperately wanting to get away but being frozen to the spot? Even Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, had this classic anxiety dream, as he recounts in Chapter V of his groundbreaking work, The Interpretation of Dreams, first published in 1899. Thanks to Distributed Proofreaders and Project Gutenberg volunteers, you can read the 1914 fourth edition in German, Die Traumdeutung, or the 1913 English translation of the third edition by A.A. Brill, the first psychoanalyst to practice in the United States.

Humans have been trying to make sense of their dreams for thousands of years. The ancient Sumerians treated them as prophecy. In the Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 1800 BCE), one of the earliest surviving pieces of human literature, the hero dreams of a falling star; his mother interprets the dream to mean that he will soon have a new friend. Shortly thereafter, he meets Enkidu, his boon companion through many adventures, and both of them have significant dreams that are portents of things to come.

This view of dreaming as an aid to divination persisted for many centuries in many cultures. But, as Freud points out in Chapter I of The Interpretation of Dreams, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle was probably the first to recognize a psychological component to dreams. Unlike his contemporaries, Aristotle did not believe that dreams were prophetic. Rather, he believed that they were sleep-altered forms of impressions the dreamer received during his waking life. And that’s exactly how Freud interpreted his staircase dream:

The situation of the dream is taken from everyday reality…. When I have finished my work downstairs late at night, I go up the steps into my bedroom. On the evening before the dream I had actually gone this short distance in a somewhat disorderly attire—that is to say, I had taken off my collar, cravat, and cuffs; but in the dream this has changed into a somewhat more advanced degree of undress, which as usual is indefinite. Jumping over the steps is my usual method of mounting stairs; moreover it is the fulfilment of a wish that has been recognised in the dream, for I have reassured myself about the condition of my heart action by the ease of this accomplishment.

The impetus for the dream arises from events in Freud’s daily life, consistent with Aristotle’s view. But Freud goes further. The meaning he assigns the dream is the cornerstone of his dream theory: wish fulfillment. The unconscious mind forms a wish; the wish is expressed in a dream, but in a disguised form due to an internal “censor” in one’s mind. Freud believed that the wish fulfillment in this particular dream revolved around his health – his concerns about his heart were assuaged by his being able to easily jump three steps at a time in the dream. As for the rest, he felt he “must postpone the further interpretation of this dream until I can give an account of the origin of the typical dream of incomplete dress.” Although his appearing before the servant partially dressed was “undoubtedly of a sexual character,” it puzzled him because the servant involved was an unattractive older woman.

Freud interprets several of his own dreams, as well as his patients’ dreams, along the same lines. In discussing some of them, he introduces his famous theory of the Oedipus complex – the unconscious wish to kill one parent and have sexual relations with the other. Freud argued that all children have such wishes to some extent, although most don’t have them in an intense form. He noted that “parents play a leading part in the infantile psychology of all later neurotics, and falling in love with one member of the parental couple and hatred of the other help to make up that fateful sum of material furnished by the psychic impulses, which has been formed during the infantile period, and which is of such great importance for the symptoms appearing in the later neurosis.” These “psychic impulses” are sometimes expressed in violent and/or erotic dreams about one’s parents. Indeed, Freud points out, such dreams are even referred to in Sophocles’s play Oedipus Rex, when Jocasta tells her husband Oedipus (who does not yet know that he has murdered his father and married his mother) that “it hath already been the lot of many men in dreams to think themselves partners of their mother’s bed. But he passes most easily through life to whom these circumstances are trifles.” This “trifle,” however, inevitably leads to tragedy for Oedipus and Jocasta. In Freud’s view, it could lead to neurosis.

Freud acknowledges that the ancient belief in dreams as prophecy is “not entirely devoid of truth. By representing to us a wish as fulfilled the dream certainly leads us into the future; but this future, taken by the dreamer as present, has been formed into the likeness of that past by the indestructible wish.” And to Freud, this method of interpreting a patient’s dreams is a critical tool in psychoanalysis, as it is “the via regia to a knowledge of the unconscious in the psychic life.” He considered it so crucial that in 1901 he published an abridged version of The Interpretation of Dreams, entitled On Dreams, to make it more accessible to those interested in this new method of psychoanalysis. Another abridgement, Dream Psychology: Psycholanalysis for Beginners, was published in 1920 in an authorized English translation by British psychoanalyst M.D. Eder.

Freud later adjusted some of his theories, and later psychoanalysts have refined or taken issue with some of his interpretations, but The Interpretation of Dreams remains a seminal work in the development of psychoanalysis.

This post was contributed by Linda Cantoni, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer. Hot off the Press wishes all its readers a happy and healthy New Year – and hopes those wishes are fulfilled.


Grammar-Land

December 1, 2021

grammarland-parsing

What a delightful book is Grammar-Land. I only wish I had first encountered it while in school learning grammar. Every chapter has an awesome initial illustrated capital letter. The book is worth reviewing just for the fun illustrations.

Subtitled “Grammar in Fun for the Children of Schoolroom-shire” (yes, that’s “in” not “is”), this book introduces the Parts of Speech in story form. Each part of speech is represented by a character who is pleading his case for ownership of his words.

The charm of this book makes me want to quote extensively from it to fairly represent it. Let me see if I can give you an idea of it, enough to make you want to read it for yourself.

Our kings and queens, and emperors too, have all to obey Judge Grammar’s laws, or else they would talk what is called bad grammar; and then, even their own subjects would laugh at them, and would say: “Poor things! When they were children, and lived in Schoolroom-shire, they can never have been taken to Grammar-land! How shocking!”

The parts of speech start quarreling about ownership of words and are called before Judge Grammar to defend their ownership of disputed words or explain whether they are stealing one another’s words. They also disagree concerning whose words are most important. Judge Grammar calls on Serjeant Parsing and Dr. Syntax as counsellors.

The exercises for the students are far from dry and boring. For example, while the Judge recesses to lunch off a few pages of dictionary, the Schoolroom-shire friends are to fix these verses by replacing nouns with appropriate pronouns.

Little Bo-peep has lost Bo-peep’s sheep,
And does not know where to find the sheep;
Leave the sheep alone till the sheep come home.
And bring the sheep’s tails behind the sheep.

I’m sure this textbook taught while entertaining many school children. I would not be surprised to find that Dr. Seuss was influenced by this book. Doesn’t this remind you of his verses in One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish? or of Thing One and Thing Two in The Cat in the Hat?

A beautiful thing, an ugly thing, bad things, good things, green things, yellow things, large things, little things; and so you can say, one thing, two things, some things, any things; and also, this thing, that thing, these things, those things.

The conversations among the characters are entertaining as well as educational. For example:

Dr. Syntax rose and said: “The first person is always the person speaking, and the second is the person spoken to. Let every one in the court say, ‘I am the first,’ and we shall all be right, and all satisfied.”

I first, we first,” they all shouted; “and you, you, you, only the second.”

The noise was tremendous, and the Judge, finding himself only one against a number, thought he had better turn the subject; and clapping his hands loudly, to call for silence, he called out:

“But if we are all firsts and seconds, pray where is the third person to go?”

“Oh, the third person,” said Pronoun, contemptuously, “is only the one we are talking about. He may not be here, so it cannot matter if we call him only the third person.”

Hmm. Perhaps Abbott and Costello studied with this book before creating “Who’s on First?”

Or this:

“Yes, my lord,” answered Serjeant Parsing, “that is my way, and therefore, of course, it is the best way. My way is always the best way. Now there is a sentence all ready for you: My way is always the best way. I’ll find the nominative before you can dot an i. ‘What is
always the best way?’ Answer, my way is always the best way; – so my way is the Nominative.”

“But you asked ‘what?’ not ‘who?’ there, Brother Parsing,” remarked the Judge.

“Because way is a thing, not a person, my lord. When we are talking of a thing, then we ask ‘what?’ instead of ‘who?’ If you said ‘the pudding is boiling in the pot,’ I should say ‘what is boiling?’ not ‘who is boiling?’ for I should hope you would not be boiling a person in a pot, unless you were the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk.”

There are many more gems in this book as well as an opportunity for a solid grounding in grammar. I hope this enticed you to give it a look. May you enjoy it as much as I did.

This post was contributed by WebRover, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.


Frédéric and George

November 1, 2021

During what had to be one of the world’s worst vacations, Frédéric Chopin completed his sublime Preludes (Op. 28), 24 piano miniatures covering all the major and minor keys and evoking the gamut of human emotion. Perhaps as astounding as their brilliance is the fact that he was able to focus on them at all, when he was ill and chilled to the bone, on a cold, rainy island with hostile locals, incompetent doctors, and a dreadful piano.

It’s a testament to his genius and dedication that he was able to finish these and several other great works during that miserable trip. Distributed Proofreaders volunteers have contributed to Project Gutenberg a number of books touching on Chopin’s short but fascinating life and his relationship with the eccentric and passionate female novelist George Sand, who brought him to that inhospitable island.

Born in Warsaw in 1810 to a French father and a Polish mother, Chopin was a piano prodigy who settled in Paris at 21. He immediately made the right connections, including the wildly popular Hungarian pianist and composer Franz Liszt. Despite Chopin’s reluctance to give public performances in concert halls – unlike Liszt, the inveterate showman, Chopin preferred to perform in intimate salons – he became a celebrity whose compositions and services as a master piano teacher were very much in demand.

Eugène Delacroix‘s unfinished 1838 double portrait of George Sand and Frédéric Chopin was cut in two and sold as separate pieces.

In 1836, at one of those intimate salons, Chopin met George Sand, a free spirit who frequently dressed like a man and smoked cigars. Although not attracted to her at first (“Is she even a woman?” he asked a friend), he soon fell under her spell. It was with her and her children – she was divorced from a French baron – that he traveled to the island of Majorca in November 1838 for what they hoped would be a healthful, warm winter in the Mediterranean sun. But, as Sand relates in her 1842 memoir, Un hiver à Majorque (A Winter in Majorca), it was a catastrophe. It was chilly and rained continually, Chopin became ill, and their landlord in Palma kicked them out for fear of contagion. They were forced to move from town to an abandoned hilltop monastery, the Valldemossa Charterhouse, with a bad locally-made piano – Chopin’s fine Pleyel was stuck in Customs until just three weeks before they left. (The Pleyel now takes pride of place at the Chopin/Sand Museum there.)

It was at the monastery that Chopin completed the Preludes and other works. In her 1855 autobiography, Histoire de ma vie (Livre 3), Sand wrote of the Preludes, “Ce sont des chefs-d’œuvre. Plusieurs présentent à la pensée des visions de moines trépassés et l’audition des chants funèbres qui l’assiégeaient” (“They are masterpieces. Several bring to the mind visions of departed monks and the sound of funeral chants that besieged him”). Chopin did not agree with her narrativist interpretations of his music, and was even angry when she suggested that one of them imitated the sound of the endless raindrops on the monastery roof. This was probably a reference to the famous Prelude No. 15 in D-flat Major, the so-called “Raindrop,” a name decidedly not given it by Chopin, who hated descriptive titles. Meanwhile, Sand, a prolific writer, completed Spiridion, an atmospheric novel about a young monk haunted by the ghost of an abbot.

Though the weather eventually improved, they left for France in February 1839. Chopin continued to compose, teach, and occasionally perform, and Sand continued to churn out novels. But he was becoming more and more ill, to the point where Sand found herself more a nurse than a lover. And there were already simmering tensions in the love affair. In 1846, she wrote Lucrezia Floriani, in which a long-suffering actress cares for a sickly and jealous prince. Their friends, appalled, immediately recognized Chopin as the prince. Liszt, in his Life of Chopin, one of the first full-length appreciations published after Chopin’s death, decried the “false proportions” of the prince’s character. But Sand, while respectful of her old friend Liszt, retorted in her autobiography that he “s’est fourvoyé de bonne foi” (“went astray in good faith”) by relying on their friends’ mistaken notions. Sand was, perhaps, protesting too much.

Sand ended the relationship in 1847 after family squabbles involving Sand’s now-grown children – though she claimed in her autobiography that he ended it by accusing her of no longer loving him. Chopin died of tuberculosis two years later, aged only 39. Sand was deeply affected by his death but did not attend his funeral. In her autobiography, though she still complained of her role as nurse, she had the grace to admit that he had repaid her “de mes années de veille, d’angoisse et d’absorption par des années de tendresse, de confiance et de gratitude” (“for my years of vigil, of anguish, and of devotion with years of tenderness, of trust, and of gratitude”).

Other 19th-Century accounts of Chopin’s life can be found at Project Gutenberg, including Frederick Chopin, as a Man and Musician, by Frederick Niecks, which criticizes George Sand’s “pretentions to self-sacrificing saintliness”; and Frederic Chopin: His Life, Letters, and Works, by Maurycy Karasowski, which, by contrast, relies extensively on her autobiography. There’s even a short biography for children, Chopin: The Story of the Boy Who Made Beautiful Melodies, part of the “Child’s Own” series of composer biographies. Not surprisingly, it omits all mention of Sand, whose place in his life could hardly be explained to a child, at least not in 1917. Biographies of Sand include the sympathetic Famous Women: George Sand, by Bertha Thomas, which vehemently denies that Sand “blighted” Chopin’s life. Whatever conclusion one may draw from their relationship, it certainly can’t be said it was dull.

This post was contributed by Linda Cantoni, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.


Astrea Triumphant

September 1, 2021
Aphra Behn, by Sir Peter Lely, c. 1670

What do you do when you’re a 17th-Century Englishwoman whose parents and husband are dead and you have no resources other than your own courage and wit? Well, first you become a royal spy. And when that doesn’t pan out, you take up your pen and write some of the hottest plays on the London stage, throwing in some racy, ahead-of their-time novels and poetry.

And so Aphra Behn (c. 1640-1689) – playwright, novelist, poet, spy – survived as one of the first Englishwomen to make her living by writing. Distributed Proofreaders volunteers have contributed to Project Gutenberg a six-volume collection of her works, edited by literary scholar Montague Summers and published in 1915.

Behn’s early life is obscure – possibly because she herself obscured it – but she may have been born in Kent, the daughter of a barber and a wet-nurse. The couple is believed to have brought her to the South American colony of Surinam in 1663. Behn’s best-known novel, Oroonoko (in Volume V of the collected works), a tale of an enslaved African prince, was allegedly based on her experiences there, and is considered by some to be the first anti-slavery novel, preceding Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s Uncle Tom’s Cabin by almost two centuries.

In 1664, Behn returned to England and may have married a German or Dutch merchant named Johann Behn. The relationship apparently ended quickly, but she referred to herself as “Mrs. Behn” for the rest of her life. Somehow she managed to acquire enough social and political influence to bring her to the attention of Charles II’s spymasters. England was at war with the Dutch, and Charles wanted to identify English exiles in the Netherlands who were plotting against him. Under the code-name Astrea, which she later used as a pen-name, Behn embarked on a mission to befriend a potential double-agent in Antwerp. But the mission failed and Charles never paid her. She managed to get back to England on borrowed funds.

Once again thrown upon her own resources, Behn took a job with an acting company as a scribe. The re-opening of the theatres under Charles II (after the Puritans’ fun-free Interregnum ended) and the consequent demand for new entertainments gave Behn the opportunity to write her own plays. Her first, The Forc’d Marriage (in Volume III), was staged in London in 1670. She did not shy away from the lustiness of the time. Her plays are peppered with erotic innuendos that her audiences found highly entertaining, despite Alexander Pope sourly tut-tutting in his Satires and Epistles of Horace Imitated, “The stage how loosely does Astraea tread,/ Who fairly puts all characters to bed!”

Behn wrote 19 plays in all, as well as several novels. Her success (and her private life) led to frequent criticism of her as an immoral woman, but that didn’t stop her from writing and certainly didn’t hurt the popularity of her work. She got into more serious trouble when she unwisely dabbled in politics – she criticized the King’s illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, in a prologue and epilogue to the play Romulus and Hersilia (see Volume VI) and was briefly arrested in 1682.

She also wrote a fair amount of poetry (Volume VI), often with topical references, disguised allusions to real people, and erotic subjects. One poem, “The Disappointment,” frankly explores themes of attempted rape and male impotence. She even celebrated lesbian love in “To the fair Clarinda, who made Love to me, imagin’d more than Woman.”

After her death in 1689, Behn’s work was all but forgotten, except by prudish scholars who were apt to denigrate her as “shameless” and “coarse.” More respectful interest in her was revived in the early 20th Century, beginning with Summers’s collection of her works, and continuing with tributes to her in the 1920s from Vita Sackville-West in Aphra Behn: the Incomparable Astrea and Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own. Appreciation for her increased with the dawn of the Women’s Movement in the 1970s. Behn is now regarded as a pioneer for women’s literary independence, or, as Woolf put it, “the right to speak their minds.”

This post was contributed by Linda Cantoni, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.


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