The Secret History – Procopius

Procopius was born around 500AD and died sometime after 565AD, a period during which the Roman empire was in serious decline. For many years he worked for the celebrated military commander General Belisarius during which time he wrote the work he became known for in the time of the empire ‘History of the Wars’. This series of eight books is a standard document of the campaigns of Belisarius who seemed to be leading his armies, and even the navy at some point, everywhere. It is clear from the level of detail that Procopius was on the scene for most of the battles he describes even though his official role, at least initially, was as legal advisor to the general. Less well known is his work ‘The Buildings’ which is largely a hagiography of Emperor Justinian (527AD to 565AD) as it describes the major construction works undertaken during his reign and exclaims the greatness of Justinian due to these churches and other civil engineering projects. His third work however is the one that I have read this week and it is very different to the rest, not least because it wasn’t available during his lifetime and indeed was only discovered in the Vatican library centuries after his death and finally published in 1623. So why wasn’t it available in the preceding thousand years, well Procopius gives us the explanation in his foreword.

This book is basically a scandal sheet denigrating Justinian as a genocidal leader interested only in the money he could confiscate or swindle out of everyone else and slaughtering tens of thousands of people on a whim whilst losing vast chunks of what was left of the empire. His wife is portrayed as a scheming whore, free with her body from an outrageously young age, stripping off in public places and letting anyone have their way with her as they wished. His former boss Belisarius and his wife are similarly pilloried by Procopius as is the previous emperor Justin who is described as an idiot and little more than a jackass. It is quite clear why he decided not to publish in his lifetime or indeed whilst anyone mentioned in the book was still alive, the repercussions would have been swift and brutal.

One slightly irritating feature of the book is the constant references back to Procopius’s eight volume history, this is usually where he is giving a scandalous reason for something that he had previously written about but which he had glossed over the causes of in the earlier book. This becomes more annoying if, like me, you don’t own ‘History of the Wars’ so can’t refer back, the notes in this edition simply tell you which of the eight volumes the story was first told, it would have been nice if a short precis was available so that the reader can compare the two accounts but that would have made the book probably over long. All in all I quite enjoyed this book though, it is unusual by being a character assassination of a couple of Roman emperors written at the time of their reigns, the only work I can think of that I have read with a similarly blunt although not as brutal or scandalous assessment of the emperors is ‘The Twelve Caesars’ by Suetonius although all the rulers he wrote about were dead before he started work on that.

As can be seen from the foreword the writing style is fairly chatty, although the subject matter with it’s never ending tales of depravity can get a little wearing at times. The translator of this Folio Society edition is Geoffrey Williamson and it was originally published as a Penguin Classic (L182, first published August 1966). The Folio Society first printed it in 1990 and it has gone through several editions since then.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit – Beatrix Potter

October 2022 marks the 120th anniversary of the first commercial publication of The Tale of Peter Rabbit and this magnificent collection of facsimiles of items from the Frederick Warne Archives was produced by The Folio Society to mark the occasion. The set is limited to 1000 examples and mine is number 5. There is so much to look at and compare from the very first appearance of Peter in a picture letter eight years before Beatrix Potter privately printed Peter’s first book to replicas of some of the tiny Christmas letters she created, There is also a wonderfully informative booklet which tells the story of the creation of The Tale of Peter Rabbit and has a introduction by Emma Thompson who wrote her own Peter Rabbit stories starting with the 110th anniversary set published by Frederick Warne, see here.

Just how much is included can be seen in the following list:

  • Facsimile of picture letter, 1893, printed on Arena Wove paper – 8 pages. 8˝ × 4¾˝
  • Facsimile of privately printed edition, 1901 bound in Wibalin paper, printed on Sirio Calce Stucco paper – 88 pages. 5¾˝ × 4¼˝
  • Facsimile of maquette, 1902, printed on Arena Wove paper and presented in an archive folder made from Sirio Color paper blocked in silver foil – 88 pages. 5˝ × 3¾˝
  • Facsimile of deluxe edition, 1902, bound in cloth with an inset label, printed on Sirio Calce Stucco paper with gold page tops and printed endpapers – 104 pages. 5½˝ × 4˝
  • Five Christmas letters printed on Arena Wove paper, each 3˝ × 1½˝
  • Giclée print on Modigliani Insize Neve paper with blind embossed frame line – 9˝ × 6½˝
  • Commentary set in Caslon, printed on Abbey Pure paper and bound in Sirio Color paper blocked in silver foil – 80 pages. 9½˝ × 6½˝
  • Limitation certificate printed letterpress on Fedrigoni Tintoretto Ceylon paper

Lets look at some of the items in more detail

Above are the 1901 (grey) and 1902 deluxe (yellow) edition facsimiles, posed on top of the history booklet. These are beautiful replicas from the black and white privately printed edition to the first commercial version in full colour.

1901 Privately printed edition
1902 Deluxe version of the first commercial edition

The number of changes between the two volumes makes reading them side by side is a fascinating experience, even the text of the first page of the commercial edition is split over two pages in the original and consequently has two pictures only the second of which survived into the later book. There are also new pictures in the 1902 edition which aren’t in the 1901, but the most noticeable difference when you first pick them up is that only the frontispiece in the early edition is coloured whilst all commercial versions are full colour throughout. I hadn’t seen the original black and white sketches before and they are a lot more crude than the final watercolours that Beatrix produced but they do have a certain charm about them which makes me glad I spent the £325 that The Folio Society charges for the set. Engaging as these books are, and the text is a lot longer in the 1902 version, although the words and picture shown above from the 1901 edition don’t appear at all in the later version it is the maquette that comes between them that is truly interesting.

1902 Maquette

Here we can see in Beatrix’s own handwriting how she wanted the Frederick Warne edition to appear and apart from a couple of pages reproduced in other books I had never seen this unique edition before. To have the complete book in this form (missing a cover as she didn’t produce one for this version) What I found particularly interesting about this page is that you can see crossing out of words where she intended to change the original text but the words used here are exactly the same as in the 1901 edition but different to what Warne actually printed for this page which runs as follows:

Then he tried to find his way straight across the garden, but he became more and more puzzled. Presently he came to a pond where Mr McGregor filled his water-cans. A white cat was staring at some gold-fish; she sat very, very still and now and then the tip of her tail twitched as if it were alive. Peter thought it best to go away without speaking to her; he had heard about cats from his cousin little Benjamin Bunny

As you can see the text ends the same way as Beatrix’s plan but the start is quite different. The other items included as facsimiles are the 1893 letter which again I had seen small pictures of in various books but never the whole thing and the tiny Christmas letters, there is also a lovely print of Peter eating the radishes in Mr McGregors garden.

This wonderful box set is a lovely edition to my Beatrix Potter collection and has already provided hours of enjoyment in looking at the differences as the story evolved. You can see the video produced by The Folio Society to mark the launch of this collection here.

Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman

The third of The Folio Society’s editions of Neil Gaiman’s greatest works, after American Gods and Anansi Boys, is the first one I have purchased as I already have very nice editions of the first two. However I had somehow not actually read Neverwhere, although I was familiar with it having listened to the 2013 radio play version several times. Whilst reading Neil’s ‘Introduction to this text’ I was surprised to discover that it had originally been a BBC TV series back in 1996 which I had completely missed and that Neil wrote the original novel partly so he could save the bits he liked that were either impossible to film within the constraints of the budget or were subsequently being cut from the show. He further expanded the book and removed some of the more obscure London references for a later international version and the version here is what is now known as the ‘Author’s Preferred Text’ where in 2006 he went back to both earlier iterations and merged them, bringing back the bits cut and also writing yet more new text to blend them seamlessly. The cast list for the radio adaptation, which was my first introduction to the book, is frankly amazing as can be seen in the Wikipedia entry for it and it was because of this when it was announced as a title for this years Autumn/Winter collection by The Folio Society I bought it immediately.

Neverwhere is a dark fantasy set in London Above and London Below, Richard Mayhew is an ordinary office worker but one evening on his way to restaurant for a meeting with his fiance and her boss finds an injured girl lying on the pavement. Ignoring his girlfriend’s insistence to just leave her as they are already late for the meal he instead decides to take her back to his home when she refuses medical assistance. Later his fiance calls to break off their engagement but by then Richard’s life has changed completely for the girl is a lady from one of the great houses of London Below and he is now irrevocably caught up in her escape from assassins sent to wipe out her family and her plans to avenge them.

London Below is a hidden place from almost all the inhabitants of London Above, partly on the tube lines, partly in the sewers, partly on the rooftops of London as we know it and partly in huge caverns invisible to those above. Door, for that is the girls name, needs help to escape from the murderous Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar and asks Richard to find the Marquis de Carabas with the assistance of the Rat Speakers. A lot of the character names seem very familiar to anyone who knows London, an aged man living on the rooftops is Old Bailey, Earls Court rides a tube train in a carriage that nobody seems to notice and which resembles a medieval court inside. There is also the scary Night’s Bridge where people disappear into the darkness and the realm of The Black Friars. One touch I particularly liked was The Floating Market, which moves around London Above completely invisible to the people there. Richard first encounters it in Harrod’s then later on it is on HMS Belfast, this is a place for the inhabitants of London Below to gather with a truce between all peoples.

This version of the book also includes the follow up short story ‘How The Marquis Got His Coat Back’, written in 2014, which introduces the very dangerous Shepherds of Shepherds Bush and the Elephant who controls Elephant and Castle. It has also been confirmed by Gaiman that he is writing a sequel novel called ‘The Seven Sisters’ which is paused whilst he is working on TV adaptations.

It’s only four chapters in, and waiting for me to stop showrunning and start writing.

Neil Gaiman’s twitter feed 24th January 2019

The book is, of course, beautiful with seven full page and two double page illustrations along with twenty one chapter headings all produced by Chris Malbon and the chosen font, Mentor with Tommaso as the chapter headings, is extremely clear making the 392 page book a delight to read and I devoured it in just two sittings getting completely immersed in the story. The picture above is of Richard and Door’s first encounter with The Angel Islington. The Folio Society also produced a short video on the release of this book on the 1st September 2022, which can be found here.

I loved the book, and the short story, and can’t work out why it took Folio Society to publish this version before I finally got round to owning a copy and reading it, roll on The Seven Sisters.

The Knight in Panther Skin – Shota Rustaveli

This prose translation of Rustaveli’s Georgian epic poem from the twelfth century by Katharine Vivian was praised by The Director of the Institute of the History of Georgian Literature in Tibilisi, A G Baramidze, as

an interesting attempt to render Rustaveli’s poem in prose – not to give a literal word by word translation, but rather a free rendering which may bring to the reader the contents of the poem and thus contribute greatly to Rustaveli’s popularity throughout the English-speaking world.

Prefatory note

The poem is seen as one of the greats of Georgian literature and Rustaveli is regarded there in much the same way as Shakespeare is here so it was a surprise on reading it that it doesn’t appear to have any action take place in Georgia. Instead Avtandil and his great love Tinatin are portrayed as coming from Arabia whilst Tariel and his love Nestan-Darejan are Indian. The story concerns how Avtandil and Tariel are separated from the loves of their lives and ultimately win their hands in marriage although in two very different ways. But let us start at the beginning because that is where the story is closest to Georgian history. The first chapters deal with Tinatin being raised to be Queen of Arabia by her father as he steps aside and this mirrors the ascension of Queen Thamar in Georgia who was monarch during Rustaveli’s lifetime and this is still seen as a golden age for Georgia. Avtandil is commander of Tinatin’s army and a favourite of her father Rostevan whilst Queen Thamar’s second husband was a highly successful military commander. From here onwards though the poem leads off on a mythical path.

One day whilst Rostevan and Avtandil were out hunting they see in the distance a knight on a black charger clad in a panther skin and when they get nearer it can be seen that he is weeping. Rostevan dispatches some of the soldiers with them to bring the knight to him but he seeing soldiers approach kills them assuming that they meant him harm. When the king attempts to get near the knight turns his horse and vanishes. Greatly intrigued by this mysterious knight and saddened by the loss of his men Rostevan sends Avtandil on a three year quest to find the knight in the panther skin. Now this is where the tale could have been padded out considerably in describing Avtandil’s journey, and the poem is already 200 pages long, but within a page we find ourselves near the end of the three years and all we are told is that he hadn’t found him, Rustaveli is clearly keen to get to the action.

Finally about to turn back and report failure Avtandil spies his quarry but remembering what happened to the last soldiers he saw approach the knight decides to track him rather than approach directly. He discovers his home in some caves and finally manages to talk to the woman who lives with him and persuades her to get the knight to talk to him. This knight turns out to be Tariel and king of one of the seven kingdoms of India and prospective heir to other six who are all held by one man, he is also maddened by grief. It turns out that he is desperately in love with Nestan-Darejan who is the daughter of the other king and she is in love with him but that he had killed the man who had been arranged to be her husband and fled the country to avoid the repercussions. Nestan-Darejan, once it was discovered that she was in on the plot was exiled in secret and Tariel had been looking for her ever since and this is where the story really begins to pick up.

The tale of how Avtandil returns to Arabia to report finding the knight and then heads back to him against the wishes of Rostevan, thereby making himself an outcast, but he does so in order to aid Tariel find Nestan-Darejan. The great quest he makes in this search (which this time is covered by the poem) and the ultimate success not only in defeating the many enemies he comes up against but also in rescuing her and into the arms of Tariel is the main part of the story. That all ends well for our heroes, including the other characters that assist them greatly is happily the result and the way the story builds in excitement is really well done. Avtandil and Tariel are endowed with mythical abilities in war and either singly or with a few hundred men are capable of taking on foes with considerably greater numbers whilst emerging with at worst a minor injury to themselves. This truly is a tale of the Heroic Age and what would probably have been a daunting read, a 200 hundred page poem is something to take care with, was transformed in Katharine Vivian’s prose to be a romp through a great story. Georgian literature is poorly represented in English translation so I am glad I finally took this book off the shelves.

The book was published by The Folio Society in 1977, unusually by using letterpress, and is bound in Princess Satin cloth with a very attractive device on the cover by Levan Tsutskiridze. Sadly for A G Baramidze’s hopes that this would spread the word about their great epic it was never reprinted and I cannot find Katharine Vivian’s translation being subsequently published by anyone else. In fact this appears to be the only English translation of Rustaveli’s masterwork ever printed in the UK.

The Road to Oxiana – Robert Byron

The Road to Oxiana is more than a travel diary, indeed it isn’t really a diary at all although it reads like one, as Byron actually took several years to produce something that appears to have been written at the time with it finally being first published in 1937. This is one of the all time classic travel books, like Patrick Leigh Fermors’ A Time of Gifts, also about a journey undertaken in 1933, this is a book by a young man who was experiencing the world at a momentous period between the two wars. Byron was 28, Fermor was even younger at just 19 and like Byron actually wrote his classic work several years later although in his case it wasn’t finished and published until 1977 when Fermor was 62. The Road to Oxiana is unfortunately not as well known as Fermor’s work but it deserves to be just as well read, partly for it’s historical nature but also for the insight it gives to countries and peoples that it can be very difficult to visit nowadays.

Byron’s humour and infectious enthusiasm for the countries he travels through and the people he meets starts with an apparent disaster with the non-arrival in Beirut of the experimental, and somewhat surreal, charcoal powered Rolls Royce that he had intended to travel in with his long suffering companion Christopher Sykes. We then continue on the road in a series of unpredictable and often ramshackle vehicles and an equal collection of unpredictable and ramshackle horses and ponies whilst continually dodging the Persian secret police who were desperate to find out what on Earth these men were doing. It was concern about these not very surreptitious although supposedly secret followers that led him not to refer to The Shah by name at any time in the notes he took whilst in Iran but to instead have that tiresome fellow Marjoribanks. The book is quite often funny especially in the reconstructed conversations that Byron has with varied notables during the trip often as they attempt to fleece him as he is seen as a wealthy traveller.

Not for nothing is the book called the Road to Oxiana, as the River Oxus, which is ostensibly the destination, only gets a brief mention at the very end although I won’t spoil the story by saying how. No, this is a book of a journey and the care and time that Byron took over his choice of words draws the reader into the extraordinary life of Iran at the peak of the Peacock throne, from unbelievable wealth to grinding poverty. We travel the length and breadth of this huge and truly spectacular country, about two thirds the size of the European Union with enormous mountain ranges and vast deserts all faithfully illustrated by Byron’s pen. However it isn’t just Iran that is covered in the narrative, although the majority of the book covers this vast country, we also visit Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and finish in Peshawar which was then in India and is now part of Pakistan.

This was Byron’s eighth, and final, book and his previous travel books had included a drive from England to Greece (his first book Europe in the Looking-Glass) and a couple of further books detailing his experiences in Greece along with a journey to Russia and Tibet and a visit to India. He also fitted in a history of Western painting and a book on architecture, but it is for The Road to Oxiana that he is known today. Sadly Byron was on board a ship that was torpedoed in 1941 on his way to Africa presumably on a mission for British Intelligence and his body was never found. Who knows where he would have got to had he survived the war and what books he would have written. Christopher Sykes went on to write a short memoir to his friend in his book Four Studies in Loyalty which was published in 1946.

I first read the book whilst travelling around Iran myself in 1998 and have returned to the book with increasing pleasure several times. I promise that you don’t need to visit Iran to love this book although be warned it may make you want to go there as well. The copy I currently have on my shelves is the Folio Society edition from 2000 which is beautifully illustrated with seventeen of Byron’s photographs taken whilst on the trip and bound in full cloth, gold blocked with a design by Francis Moseley.

Hangman’s Holiday – Dorothy L Sayers

By way of a complete contrast to last weeks religious poetry I’ve gone for this lovely Folio Society edition of Hangman’s Holiday by Dorothy L Sayers which I bought in the recent Folio Society autumn sale. I thought I’d read all the Lord Peter Wimsey tales but this includes four Wimsey short stories which I didn’t know, along with six Montague Egg shorts and a couple of other mysteries not featuring either of her long running characters. It has forty four illustrations along with the cover by Paul Cox who has worked on all the Dorothy L Sayers and P G Wodehouse editions for the Folio Society for more than three decades along with many other titles providing a lovely consistent feel to these series. I bought the book mainly for the Montague Egg tales as I’d not read any of those before and he is a definite contrast to Lord Peter, but let’s start with the Wimsey stories. All four of these are Wimsey alone without his trusty batman and collector of evidence Bunter and frankly I missed the interaction between the two of them. Two of the stories are quite disappointing, especially ‘The Incredible Elopement of Lord Peter Wimsey’ where Wimsey takes on the character of a magician in rural Spain and you are left wondering why Sayers decided to have Wimsey do this as he is completely out of character throughout most of the tale. The other one I didn’t enjoy much was ‘The Queen’s Square’ which was just too convoluted to be much fun to read. The remaining two Wimsey tales are ‘The Image in the Mirror’ and ‘The Necklace of Pearls’ both of which are fine as far as they go, but are definitely not in the first rank of Wimsey stories.

Moving on to Montague Egg, he is less of a detective like Wimsey than ‘a noticer of details’ which can be used by the police to solve a crime. His six stories are all quite short varying between nine and twelve pages when the space for illustrations is discounted but they each have quite a lot going for them despite their relative brevity.’The Poisoned Dow 08′ is an excellent introduction to Monty Egg as he is a commercial traveller selling wines and spirits and this is entirely within his area of expertise. Whilst on a return visit to a customer he arrives to find the police in attendance and his client dead, presumably by a poisoned bottle of port. Egg proves that there was nothing wrong with the port, that his firm had supplied, and that there was evidence of murder. Both ‘Murder in the Morning’ and ‘One Too Many’ have Monty Egg in the position of witness to a crime or rather the aftermath of a crime and the little details that he spotted at the time are critical to finding the solution whilst the remaining three stories have him operating much more as the archetypal amateur detective much loved by Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie and the other Queens of Crime from the 1920’s and 30’s.

I quite warmed to Montague Egg, the shortness of the stories meant that I could read one whilst waiting for my evening meal to cook and there was sufficient complexity to make the mystery worthwhile.

The two final stories are quite good fun and I’m sure I’ve read both of these before. ‘The Man Who Knew How’ has a character on a train talking to a fellow passenger and claiming that he knew a foolproof way to kill people and get away with it as it would be assumed that they died due to the temperature shock of getting in a bath that was too hot. His fellow passenger then starts noticing a pattern in news reports of people dying in hot baths and is convinced he was talking to a serial killer. ‘The Fountain Plays’ is a story of blackmail and murder with an excellent twist at the end and rounded off the book perfectly.

I’m not sure that is I had known how weak the Lord Peter Wimsey stories were I would have paid the full £39.95 for this book but at half price in the sale I’m glad to have added it to my Dorothy L Sayers collection. Now to find and read the other five Montague Egg stories.

Voyages to the Moon and the Sun – Cyrano de Bergerac

For a long time I believed that the author of this book wasn’t a real person but had been made up in some obscure French novel and that the character had lived on beyond the original work, so to find that Cyrano de Bergerac was not only real but an author as well as the famous soldier and duellist was a pleasant surprise. His life is however poorly documented, but this work can be dated reasonably well as it mentions the death of the philosopher Descartes, which happened in 1650 and de Bergerac himself died in 1654. My copy is the Folio Society edition published in 2018, illustrated by Quentin Blake and rounds off my selection of works translated from French that I have been reading throughout August. The illustrations to this blog were taken from the Folio Society web site entry on the book.

The book is in three sections so I’ll review it in the same way:

Journey to The Moon

The time that de Bergerac was writing in was a period of considerable scientific advancement as people moved away from the ancient Greek science towards the start of physics as we know it but there was much that was still up for debate such as if the Earth was the centre of the universe with everything else revolving around it. It is clear right from the start that de Bergerac had moved on from this notion and he understood that the Earth rotated, that the Moon orbited the Earth and that together they orbited the Sun. Journey to the Moon starts with the hero trying to reach the Moon by means of dew collected in jam jars. The reasoning is fair, dew rises in the morning so if you could collect enough of it and attach it to your body then it should take you with it, this he duly does and rises up into the air from Paris one morning. After a few hours he decides to land, releases the dew and is surprised to find it is still morning and he is in Canada as the Earth has rotated underneath him, de Bergerac didn’t consider that the atmosphere also rotates with the land beneath. Later he builds another machine this time powered by fireworks which does lift him to the Moon, leaving from Quebec.

The Moon he arrives at is however unrecognisable from the one we know as he finds the Garden of Eden there along with several old testament prophets and here the book starts to fail as he indulges in pages of theological arguments which drag the pace so much that I almost gave up at this point and began searching for another book to read, however I’m glad I persevered. Ultimately he leaves religion behind and goes on a fantastical exploration of his version of the Moon before returning to Earth by catching hold of the Devil on his way to deposit an inhabitant of the Moon to Hell and of course he has to pass the Earth on the way.

Journey to The Sun

For a long time it looked as if Journey to the Sun wasn’t actually going to get there, for the first twenty five pages it covers being persuaded to write up and publish Journey to the Moon and his subsequent denouncement as a sorcerer. Which leads to him being jailed, escaping and undertaking a very funny chase sequence which results in him accidentally running full circle and seeking shelter from his pursuers through the back door of the very jail he had escaped from. Eventually he builds a contraption which uses the power of sunlight via lenses to build up lift so that he can escape again, however he misjudges the power of his invention and instead of just rising and then landing again he is drawn all the way to the Sun and aims to land on a sun spot which he takes to be an area of land floating on the sun’s surface. The Sun in the book is not the flaming ball of gas that we understand but simply a larger globe that it is perfectly possible to traverse.

Eventually he meets a tiny king who with his subjects can transform themselves into anything they wish either singly or as a group to make something as large as a tree and in this tree is a Nightingale who leads him to the Kingdom of the Birds.

Story of the Birds

On arrival in the Kingdom of the Birds he is arrested and put on trial for the heinous crime of being a man and therefore a destroyer and killer of birds. Here de Bergerac demonstrates his ecological credentials and tries our hero for the damage mankind has done to the Earth and the wanton killing of bird life. He is ultimately sentenced to be eaten to death by insects but is reprieved when a parrot that he once set free from its cage speaks up in his defence.

Various adventures follow his release as he travels towards the Kingdom of Philosophers, although again de Bergerac gets distracted and spends pages retelling Greek myths without progressing with the story. Eventually this rather tedious section finishes and the hero continues on his way, meeting people from the Kingdom of Truth and the Kingdom of Lovers before the book suddenly finishes mid paragraph.

Overall I enjoyed the book but the large sections of ‘philosophising’ I could definitely have done without.

The Nun – Denis Diderot

The story behind this book is as fascinating as the novel itself and it would probably be good to start there, because it all grew out of an elaborate practical joke which was based on a real incident. In 1758 a young nun, Marguerite Delamarre, tried to get herself extricated from the vows she had taken in a Paris convent and returned to the outside world. However it was almost impossible for this to happen at the time and she duly failed but not before it had become the talk of the city. She ended up living her entire life, presumably unhappily, in the convent. Her story suggested itself to Diderot and a group of his friends as a means of persuading another of their company who had retired to the countryside to come back to Paris. They duly started a correspondence with him in 1759 pretending to be Suzanne Simonin, a nun who had escaped the cloister but needed assistance to avoid being forcibly taken back. They also included fake letters from Madame Madin, who was known to both parties and was supposedly sheltering the girl. Unfortunately for the friends of M. de Croismare he fell for the story rather too well and offered Suzanne a place in his household, even going so far as to try to arrange transport for her. They were forced to claim she was ill and then when he became more insistent that he wanted to help her they made the illness more severe and killed her off.

In a postscript, eight years later M. de Croismare did come to Paris and met Madame Madin and was surprised to find that she knew nothing of the whole episode. The story should have ended as a practical joke but Diderot had by now been so fascinated by their tale of woe that he decided to write Suzanne’s autobiography from childhood to how she ended up in the convent and then to her escape and he worked on it through most of 1760 although with no intent to publish, however once he found out that the joke was exposed he did finally publish in 1770.

To provide a reason for Suzanne to be shut up in a convent from the age of sixteen she had two slightly older sisters but it was becoming clear that potential suitors for them were getting more interested in Suzanne so she was put out of the way. This decision by her father was driven more by his (correct) suspicion that he was not actually her biological father and he wanted to prevent her having any call on the families money. He therefore determined that she should be got rid of in the most convenient way and as the story of Marguerite Delamarre proved it was almost impossible in 18th century France for a girl to leave a convent once she had been made to take her vows. However at the first convent she was sent to Suzanne refused to take her vows and created a scene in the church for which she was punished and later taken to a second convent.

At this second convent she was persuaded to take her vows despite protesting she had no vocation to become a nun and so started a horrific experience of neglect, beatings, sleep deprivation, etc. as the Mother Superior had a sadistic side and was determined to beat and torture a vocation into the young girl. Several of the illustrations in the book are based around these episodes and it is the one failing of this edition that the artist appears to be mainly interested in the voyeuristic depictions of a naked and half naked Suzanne than a more balanced view of the plot and the other sufferings she endures at the hands of this Mother Superior and her coterie of similarly sadistic senior nuns.

Eventually she is assisted to go to a third convent and here although the beatings and humiliation are not present she becomes the object of affection of the lesbian Mother Superior much to the confusion of the innocent Suzanne. Diderot appears keen to heap all the exploitative possibilities of a cloistered group of women some of whom are driven half mad by the regime and being locked away from the outside world from such a young age. It is not an easy book to read as it is written entirely from Suzanne’s viewpoint, but I’m glad this session of French works has persuaded me to get it off the shelves.

My copy is the Folio Society edition from 1972 and is notorious for its fading cloth spine, all copies I have ever seen are this badly faded, the rest of the book being protected by a slipcase. It is illustrated by Charles Mozley and translated by Leonard Tancock and is the fourth in my selection of books translated from French for August 2021.

Memoirs of Prince Alexy Haimatoff – Thomas Jefferson Hogg

This book is quite possibly unique in the annals of publishing in that the first review of it is far more famous than the book itself and that review has also been reprinted many more times than the book it was reviewing. This however is not difficult as following the first edition in 1813 (reprinted 1825) the next edition appears to be this one by The Folio Society in 1952 which has never been reprinted and apart from some modern ‘print on demand’ publishers offering it, as they offer most out of copyright works, that appears to be the sum total of published editions. So what about the review? Well that was written by Hogg’s friend Percy Bysshe Shelley and first appeared in The Critical Review in 1814. Hogg and Shelley had met at University College, Oxford where they were fellow undergraduates, one was destined to become a London barrister and the other one of the great romantic poets but if Hogg is remembered for anything nowadays it is his unfinished biography of Shelley which he was still working on when he died in 1862 forty years after the untimely death of his subject. The two nineteenth century printings of Memoirs of Prince Alexy Haimatoff are both extremely rare. Worldcat, the international library catalogue, lists one copy of each, both of which are in the British Library in London, there is also one copy of the 1825 reprint currently for sale in San Francisco. Regular readers of my blog will know that I sometimes include a link to out of copyright books at Project Gutenberg but I can’t do it for this book because it doesn’t even exist on that site.

Shelley’s review has however been reprinted many times either as a very short stand alone booklet or in collected editions of Shelley’s works, it is also included at the back of this Folio Society edition. It is 9½ pages long, which as it includes large chunks of the original book to illustrate his points is not very long at all but the real surprise is that The Critical Review published such a lengthy review by an unknown critic of a book that sold so badly that it has virtually vanished without trace.

But lets look at the book itself, the Folio Society edition is beautifully bound in quarter buckram with marbled boards and has eight wood engravings by well known Scottish artist Douglas Percy Bliss who was then Director of the Glasgow School of Art. It also has an interesting introduction written by Sidney Scott which looks not just at the novel but the friendship between Hogg and Shelley, they had collaborated a couple of times at university including on a pamphlet entitled ‘A Necessity of Atheism’ which, although published anonymously, was soon traced to the two friends who were both summarily rusticated, never to return to their studies. Hogg continued this idea of hiding the true author through to this book as the Memoirs were originally published as though it was a genuine translation from the original Latin by a mysterious John Brown and it was many years before Hogg was identified as the actual author.

Meeting the Sultana – Wood engraving by Douglas Percy Bliss

You may feel that I’m taking a long time to get to the novel itself. There is a very good reason for that and it is the same reason that the book is so rarely published and that is that it isn’t actually very good. The narrative is disjointed and whilst there are passages that are beautifully written these are soon let down by huge gaps where much has clearly happened but it is covered in just a line or two with no explanation as to how we have moved from one position to another. At one point after escaping from the clutches of the Sultana in Constantinople, who intends to poison him if he leaves her, he wishes to replace his desire for her by bizarrely buying a female slave that reminds him of the Sultana. We spend several pages at the slave dealer but then after getting her to Naples she bears him two sons before dying along with the children of smallpox within a few lines. This is not the only occasion where the treatment of women is reprehensible but serves as a good example of the whole. The extremely odd German cult that Haimatoff joins is just plain strange and it really isn’t clear why he would have committed himself to it which includes being locked in a room for three months with no human contact or any means of passing the time such as books or pen and paper. I have categorised this blog as a book tale not a review as the story of how the book appeared and disappeared is actually more interesting than the plot. The Folio Society edition is almost seventy years old now and I can’t imagine any publisher setting out to publish it again but it was interesting to read such a rare book, if you want to then the Folio edition is easily found secondhand online for just a few pounds. The 1825 copy I found in San Francisco is over £3000.

I will leave this with the final two paragraphs of Percy Byssche Shelley’s review which I think sums up the book quite well even if he was being overly generous to a friend.

In the delineation of the more evanescent feelings and uncommon instances of strong and delicate passion we conceive the author to have exhibited new and unparalleled powers. He has noticed some peculiarities of female character, with a delicacy and truth singularly exquisite. We think that the interesting subject of sexual relations requires for its successful development the application of a mind thus organised and endowed. Yet even here how great the deficiencies ; this mind must be pure from the fashionable superstitions of gallantry, must be exempt from the sordid feelings which with blind idolatry worship l the image and blaspheme the deity, reverence the type, and degrade the reality of which it is an emblem.

We do not hesitate to assert that the author of this volume is a man of ability. His great though indisciplinable energies and fervid rapidity of conception embodies scenes and situations, and of passions affording inexhaustible food for wonder and delight. The interest is deep and irresistible. A moral enchanter seems to have conjured up the shapes of all that is beautiful and strange to suspend the faculties in fascination and astonishment.

Percy Byssche Shelly in The Critical Review 1814

There is an extremely badly formatted version of Shelley’s review available online here. If anyone knows of a better version I would love to hear of it so I can replace this link.

Chekhov: A Life in Letters – edited by Gordon McVay

Rather than produce a standard biography, Gordon McVay has translated and edited a selection of letters from Anton Chekhov which give a wide view of his interests and career development from starting medical school in Moscow in 1879 through to his final letter in June 1904 written the day of his heart attack which would ultimately prove fatal four days later. There are extensive notes that put the letters into context and this has proved to be an excellent use of the material as Chekhov is a lively letter writer and travelled extensively so his correspondence is full of detailed descriptions of his experiences both good and bad. My copy is the Folio Society 1994 edition bound in black buckram and embossed with Chekhov’s signature across both covers. The book is currently available as a Penguin Classics edition. To give a feel for the letters I’ll selected a few extracts and will add them between paragraphs in this blog.

23 December 1888

That this represents just a tiny fraction of Chekhov’s letters is proven by the regular mention in the notes of a thirty volume Soviet edition and even that is not complete because it can only include those letters that were kept by the recipients. The Soviet edition is also censored to remove things they didn’t feel appropriate, such as his dalliance with a Japanese woman on his trip to Sakhalin, and anything judged not politically sound. The edition I have has 365 pages dedicated to the letters along with a useful 22 page introduction and an excellent index which made going back to find things I wanted to refer to very easy. That the Soviet edition is censored is actually quite appropriate as Chekhov complains many times about what the censors in his own time had done to his stories and plays, some of which he regarded as particularly badly damaged so that the sense of the play is lost.

In Siberia on his way to the island of Sakhalin 1890

In 1890 Chekhov travelled to the penal colony of Sakhalin to survey the conditions and interview prisoners for what he explains in various letters is a payback to medicine. It eventually took him three years to write up his findings to appear in ten parts in one of the serious journals and then more work to produce a somewhat longer book. Presumably he wrote letters from his months on Sakhalin but none of them are included in this collection however there are quite a few describing his massive journey by horse drawn carriages and river boats right across Russia as Sakhalin is as far east as it is possible to go and he started in Moscow. The extract above highlights that even then Siberia was a place of exile for people that had offended the state in someway but his observation that now they can say what they like as where else would they be sent is to the point. On Sakhalin he was only allowed to interview a small number of the political prisoners but he still produced a comprehensive report and oddly his health, which was never very good appeared to improve during his time away from Moscow and St Petersburg. Although he was a doctor he seemed to have a blind spot regarding his own tuberculosis which he suffered from for decades, describing many occasions of ‘blood spitting’ although he was never formally diagnosed until 1897.

4 July 1888

The letters are also often quite humorous which lightens the tone overall against some of the more serious pieces or times when things are just plain going wrong like his descriptions of the disastrous first performance of The Seagull in 1896 or when his health issues cause significant problems which was quite often. One of the more interesting features is the continuation of his career as a doctor even as his fame as a playwright and story writer grew dramatically. As can be seen below this devotion to medicine had serious implications in his ability to write of travel to oversee productions of plays and talk to his various publishers. By the early 1890’s he had purchased an estate in Melikhovo and become the local doctor in preference to renting a home in Moscow which he had done since arriving there to study as a doctor.

16 July 1892

By the mid 1890’s however he had started travelling extensively in Europe and correspondence from various Italian, French and German cities amongst other countries he passed through bring a different outlook to the letters, some places he loved others he was glad to see the back of. There is also a lot of letters to women throughout the book some of which he probably came close to marrying but in fact he was a confirmed bachelor until just three years before he died when he finally married an actress he had come to know from her performances in his plays. Oddly his letters to women, even the ones he was particularly close to, are rarely romantic and quite often have some slight barb to them. The ones to his future wife, Olga, are mainly about her performances rather than anything else even though they actually lived almost 1000 miles apart most of their married lives as she was in Moscow and he was in Yalta to get a better climate for his tuberculosis. Chekhov was much happier on his own, hence his long time avoidance of marriage and indeed living apart suited him well.

13 June 1890

The letters are great fun to read and show much more of Chekhov’s character than would be found in a biography. I don’t think I could cope with the full thirty volumes, even assuming they were available in English, but this selection made an excellent way to pass a few evenings this week.