Open up a book from the late 19th or early 20th century and chances are that you will find an inscription inside the front cover. Often, they are nothing more than handwritten names that state who owned the book, though some are a little more elaborate, with personalised designs used to denote hobbies and interests, tell jokes or even warn against theft of the book.
While seemingly insignificant markers of ownership, book inscriptions offer important material evidence of the various institutions, structures and tastes of Edwardian society, and act as tangible indicators of class and social mobility in early 20th century Britain. They can also reveal vast amounts of information on how both attitudes of ownership and readership varied according to geographical location, gender, age and occupation at this time.
My research involves collecting these inscriptions from secondhand books and working with archives to delve into the human stories behind these ownership marks. I am particularly interested in “everyday” Edwardians – the miner, the servant, the clerk – who are so often forgotten by time, yet played an essential role in ensuring Britain ran smoothly during the war years.
My latest work has focused on the stories of the female heroes of World War I. They weren’t fighting on the battlefield but their contributions at home and abroad were nothing short of incredible. Using the inscription marks they left in books, censuses, local history, and Imperial War Museum archives, I have tracked several untold tales, two of which I’ve written about here.
Elizabeth Veronica Nisbet
Elizabeth Veronica Nisbet was born in 1886 in Newcastle. The daughter of a colliery secretary, Nisbet was part of the lower-middle class that emerged in Britain at the end of the Victorian era. She studied art at Gateshead College before serving as a nurse with St John Ambulance and the Royal Victoria Infirmary.
In 1913, Nisbet’s father gave her a copy of the biography of cartoonist George Du Maurier, and inscribed it “with dear love”. Du Maurier was well-known for his cartoons in the satirical magazine Punch, which inspired Nisbet’s own artwork. Just one year after receiving the book, World War I broke out and Nisbet headed to France to aid wounded soldiers at St John Ambulance Brigade Hospital in Étaples. This hospital was the largest to serve the British Expeditionary Force in France and treated over 35,000 casualties.
Throughout these troubled times, Nisbet’s passion for art was her salvation: she kept a scrapbook of cartoons, sketches and photos, which provide an insight into wartime Étaples and the vital work of the female nurses. Looking at her artwork, it is clear that she was strongly influenced by the cartoon style of Du Maurier, suggesting that the book remained a treasured artefact to her while she was serving in France.
Today Nisbet’s work is kept at the Museum of the Order of St John in London. After the war, she returned to Newcastle and worked again as a nurse until the 1920s when she became a full-time artist, travelling regularly to the US and Canada to showcase her work. She died in 1979 at the age of 93.
Gabrielle de Montgeon
Born in France in 1876, Gabrielle de Montgeon moved to England in 1901 and lived in Eastington Hall in Upton-on-Severn throughout her adult life. She was the daughter of a count of Normandy and part of the upper class of Edwardian society.
Her affluence is showcased in the privately-commissioned bookplate found inside her copy of the 1901 Print Collector’s Handbook. The use of floral wreaths and decorative banderoles in her plate – both features of the fashionable art nouveau style of the period – mimic the style of many of the prints in her book. This demonstrates the close relationship that Edwardians had between reading and inscribing.
Stepping out of her upper class life, during World War I, de Montgeon served in the all-female Hackett-Lowther Ambulance Unit as an assistant director to Toupie Lowther – the famous British tennis player who had established the unit. The unit consisted of 20 cars and 25-30 women drivers, who operated close to the front lines of battles in Compiegne, France. De Montgeon donated ambulances and was responsible for the deployment of drivers. After the war, she returned to Eastington Hall and led a quiet life, taking up farming, before passing away in 1944, aged 68.
Considering the testing circumstances of war, the survival of these two books (and their inscriptions) is a remarkable feat. While buildings no longer stand, communities have passed on, and grass on the bloody battlefields grows once more, these books keep the memories of Nisbet and de Montgeon alive. They stand as a testimony of the unsettling victory of material objects over the temporality of the people that once owned them and the places in which they formerly dwelled.
When he published “The Sun Also Rises” in 1926, Ernest Hemingway was well-known among the expatriate literati of Paris and to cosmopolitan literary circles in New York and Chicago. But it was “A Farewell to Arms,” published in October 1929, that made him a celebrity.
With this newfound fame, Hemingway learned, came fan mail. Lots of it. And he wasn’t really sure how to deal with the attention.
At the Hemingway Letters Project, I’ve had the privilege of working with Hemingway’s approximately 6,000 outgoing letters. The latest edition, “The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, Volume 4 (1929-1931)” – edited by Sandra Spanier and Miriam B. Mandel – brings to light 430 annotated letters, 85 percent of which will be published for the first time. They offer a glimpse at how Hemingway handled his growing celebrity, shedding new light on the author’s influences and his relationships with other writers.
The success of “A Farewell to Arms” surprised even Hemingway’s own publisher. Robert W. Trogdon, a Hemingway scholar and member of the Letters Project’s editorial team, traces the author’s relationship with Scribner’s and notes that while it ordered an initial printing of over 31,000 copies – six times as many as the first printing of “The Sun Also Rises” – the publisher still underestimated the demand for the book.
Additional print runs brought the total edition to over 101,000 copies before the year was out – and that was after the devastating 1929 stock market crash.
In response to the many fan letters he received, Hemingway was typically gracious. Sometimes he offered writerly advice, and even went so far as to send – upon request and at his own expense – several of his books to a prisoner at St. Quentin.
At the same time, writing to novelist Hugh Walpole in December 1929, Hemingway lamented the amount of effort – and postage – required to answer all those letters:
“When ‘The Sun Also Rises’ came out there were only letters from a few old ladies who wanted to make a home for me and said my disability would be no drawback and drunks who claimed we had met places. ‘Men Without Women’ brought no letters at all. What are you supposed to do when you really start to get letters?”
Among the fan mail he received was a letter from David Garnett, an English novelist from a literary family with connections to the Bloomsbury Group, a network of writers, artists and intellectuals that included Virginia Woolf.
Though we don’t have Garnett’s letter to Hemingway, Garnett appears to have predicted, rightly, that “A Farewell to Arms” would be more than a fleeting success.
“I hope to god what you say about the book will be true,” Hemingway replies, “though how we are to know whether they last I don’t know – But anyway you were fine to say it would.”
He then goes on to praise Garnett’s 1925 novel, “The Sailor’s Return”:
“…all I did was to go around wishing to god I could have written it. It is still the only book I would like to have written of all the books since our father’s and mother’s times.” (Garnett was seven years older than Hemingway; Hemingway greatly admired the translations of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy by Constance Garnett, David’s mother.)
An overlooked influence
Hemingway’s response to Garnett – written the same day as his letter to Walpole – is notable for several reasons.
First, it complicates the popular portrait of Hemingway as an antagonist to other writers.
It’s a reputation that’s not entirely undeserved – after all, one of Hemingway’s earliest publications was a tribute to Joseph Conrad in which Hemingway expressed a desire to run T.S. Eliot through a sausage grinder. “The Torrents of Spring” (1926), his first published novel, was a parody of his own mentors, Sherwood Anderson and Gertrude Stein and “all the rest of the pretensious [sic] faking bastards,” as he put it in a 1925 letter to Ezra Pound.
But in the letter to Garnett we see another side of Hemingway: an avid reader overcome with boyish excitement.
“You have meant very much to me as a writer,” he declares, “and now that you have written me that letter I should feel very fine – But instead all that happens is I don’t believe it.”
The letter also suggests that Garnett has been overlooked as one of Hemingway’s influences.
It’s easy to see why Hemingway liked “The Sailor’s Return” (so well, it appears, that he checked it out from Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Co. lending library and never returned it).
A reviewer for the New York Herald Tribune praised Garnett’s “simple but extremely lucid English” and his “power of making fiction appear to be fact,” qualities that are the hallmark of Hemingway’s own distinctive style. The book also has a certain understated wit – as do “The Sun Also Rises” and “A Farewell to Arms.”
Garnett’s book would have appealed to Hemingway on a personal level as well. Though it’s set entirely in England, the portrait of Africa that exists in the background is the same sort of exotic wilderness that captured the imagination of Hemingway the boy and that Hemingway the young man still longed explore.
But Hemingway’s praise of Garnett leads to other, unsettling questions.
From its frontispiece to its devastating conclusion, Garnett’s book relies on racial stereotypes of an exoticized, infantilized Other. Its main character, an African woman, brought to England by her white husband, is meant to command the reader’s sympathy – indeed, the choice she makes in the end, to send her mixed-race child back to his African family, hearkens to an earlier era of sentimental literature and decries the parochial prejudices of English society.
However, that message is drowned out by the narrator’s assumptions about inherent differences between the races. Garnett’s biographer Sarah Knights suggests that Garnett was “neither susceptible to casual racism nor prone to imperialist arrogance,” yet Garnett’s 1933 introduction to the Cape edition of Hemingway’s “The Torrents of Spring” claims “it is the privilege of civilized town-dwellers to sentimentalize primitive peoples.” In “The Torrents of Spring,” Hemingway mocked the primitivism of Sherwood Anderson (cringe-worthy even by 1925 standards), but as Garnett’s comment indicates, Hemingway imitated Anderson’s reliance on racial stereotypes as much as he criticized it.
What, then, can we glean about Hemingway’s views on race from his exuberant praise of “The Sailor’s Return”? Hemingway had a lifelong fascination with Africa, and his letters show that in 1929 he was already making plans for an African safari. He would take the trip in 1933 and publish his nonfiction memoir, “Green Hills of Africa,” in 1935. The work is experimental and modernistic, but the local people are secondary to Hemingway’s descriptions of “country.”
Late in life, however, Hemingway’s views on Africa would shift, and his second safari, in 1953-4, brought what scholar of American literature and African diaspora studies Nghana tamu Lewisdescribes as “a crisis of consciousness” that “engendered a new commitment to understanding African peoples’ struggles against oppression as part, rather than in isolation, of changing ecological conditions.”
But back in 1929, when Hemingway was wondering what to do with an ever-growing pile of mail, that trip – along with another world war, a Nobel Prize and the debilitating effects of his strenuous life – were part of an unknowable future.
In “The Letters 1929-1931” we see a younger Hemingway, his social conscience yet to mature, trying to figure out his new role as professional author and celebrity.
South Africa has produced two must-read thrillers in the past week. They are non-fiction, yet are as gripping and readable as any page-turner.
Veteran investigative journalist Jacques Pauw’s “The President’s Keepers” has, within a week, become a global best seller. It has had the advantage of the best available marketing push by South Africa’s State Security Agency, under the illusion that they were going to stop the book. The State Security Agency sent a cease and desist letter to a defiant Pauw and his publisher, claiming the exposé is in violation of the Intelligence Services Act.
I recommend you read them together. It will take some courage, as they are a most unsettling combination, but worth it.
Pauw’s book takes you on his journey to uncover the nature of Jacob Zuma’s presidency and its impact on South Africa, a trip that begins in the small Western Cape town of Riebeek-Kasteel and goes, via Moscow, to the Tshwane coffee bars where he meets his sources. Much of what emerges has been reported in bits and pieces elsewhere, but he weaves it together with great storytelling skill, and adds some important new revelations.
It is the most comprehensive picture of the rot at the heart of the Zuma presidency and the toll it has taken on important state institutions. Once he has worked through the tax collector, the South African Revenue Service, the National Prosecuting Authority, and the police, one is left gasping for air at the scale and depth of the destruction.
I don’t think it is necessary to weigh up the accuracy of his much-detailed and well-documented story, except to say that Pauw is a veteran muckraker whose credentials for getting sources to talk, putting his hands on the evidence, weaving all this into readable horror-stories, and withstanding the attacks of those who would stop him, are well established. So much so that the onus is on his detractors to disprove what he is saying. Even if half of it is true, it is chilling.
Oil for the ANC’s political machinery
Olver’s book might be even more important. It’s an insider’s view of how corruption has become the oil that keeps the ruling African National Congress’s political machinery working. Olver was sent in by ANC leaders to help clean up the metropolitan Nelson Mandela Bay region on the country’s east coast and pave the way for local politician and national football boss Danny Jordaan’s 2016 mayoral election campaign. At the same time, Olver was commissioned by then Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan to clear out the rot in the city structure.
Olver’s story of how he identified and drove out the worst culprits in the city’s corruption, is heartening. He shows that it can be done when you have the political will, and Olver’s toughness. But he also describes how every cent raised to fund Jordaan’s campaign was exchanged for a job or a tender.
The ANC political engine runs on the fuel of transactional politics; without the offerings of jobs and tenders, the machine grinds to a halt. His tale provides rare insight into how the party funding system works as a driver of corruption.
Olver himself starts off as a knight in shining armour, but finds himself increasingly compromised as time passes, until he loses his political backing and flees the region.
Both these writers showed great courage. Pauw left the peace and quiet of running a country restaurant in Riebeek-Kasteel, knowing that this book would bring him the kinds of threats and harassment he experienced in the 1980s when he exposed the dark heart of apartheid’s police hit squads. Olver had to have a bodyguard at his side, so tough was the fight to regain control of the party and city.
Pauw’s book is a triumph of investigative reporting, but also contains a worrying critique of some of its practitioners. Pauw details at least three instances when his fellow reporters have allowed themselves to become part of the partisan mudslinging aimed at driving the good people out of state institutions, and protecting the venal. It is striking that some of the same names come up in all three instances, and all are centred around the local Sunday Times.
While South Africans can celebrate the important role investigative reporters have played in exposing state capture, they should be reminded that some have facilitated it, wittingly or unwittingly.
Women have always been central to true crime stories: as victims, perpetrators, readers, and (increasingly) as tellers of these tales. Indeed, these tales, often dismissed as sensationalised violence, offer important opportunities to reflect on crime and crime control.
Many true crime writers today – including numerous women, working in a once male-dominated market – have been biographers, coroners, detectives, historians, journalists, lawyers, and psychologists. These backgrounds bring a style of storytelling that educates us about, not just merely entertains us with, crime. Importantly, many privilege complex and nuanced storytelling over simplistic stereotypes of women as just “bad” or just “good”.
The first Australian true crime stories were transmitted orally, jotted down in journals, and entered into official records. George Howe, editor of our first newspaper, The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, enthusiastically embraced the topic of crime: the paper’s first issue in 1803 included stories of fraud, attempted murder, and the brutal rape of 17-year-old Rose Bean.
The first Australian publication dedicated to true crime is Michael Howe: The Last and the Worst of the Bushrangers of Van Diemen’s Land (1818), by T.E. Wells. This short work is also the story of Howe’s companion, then victim, Mary Cockerill a young Indigenous woman. Cockerill supported Howe in a landscape forbidding and wild to the European settlers. After being betrayed by Howe – he shot her as they were being pursued, facilitating his own escape – Cockerill then used her knowledge of the bush to help authorities. Howe was captured and killed in 1818, bringing his bushranging career to an end.
In the colonial era, a woman’s status as a victim was upheld, or denied, based on her character and her ability to conform to social mores of the time. Today, women are often still judged by what they say and what they wear; their education and their occupation. How many sexual partners have they had? Are they too emotional? Are they not emotional enough? Likewise, some perpetrators have been seen as more heinous because they are women.
Women as perpetrators
In Captain Thunderbolt & His Lady (2011), Carol Baxter skilfully tells the story of Frederick Ward (“Captain Thunderbolt”), a bushranger in the mid-1800s, and his Indigenous partner-in-crime Mary Ann Bugg (“Mrs Thunderbolt”). Bugg – an intelligent, gutsy, trouser-wearing woman – is brought vividly to life, as she breaks the law and defies the feminine expectations of her time.
As Baxter notes, Bugg was dissatisfied with the social status quo, and, like many bushrangers, she received support and sympathy from the wider population. She was not all “bad” but not all “good” either. Indeed, some suggested Mrs Thunderbolt was merely blamed for the deeds of her husband. Bugg outlived her outlaw partner by 35 years, dying in obscurity in Mudgee in 1905.
One of the more dramatic true crime tales of the late colonial period, is the story of Louisa Collins. Caroline Overington looks at the life, and death, of Collins in Last Woman Hanged (2014). Accused of murder, Collins famously endured four trials in 1888, which, as Overington argues, were effectively trials of all Australian women. If women wanted equal rights, including the right to vote, “then, such equality had to be universal: women, too, would hang for murder”. In the first three trials, the juries failed to deliver a verdict. In the fourth trial, the jury found her guilty and Collins was hanged in 1889.
The Worst Woman in Sydney (2016) by Leigh Straw documents the life of Kate Leigh, born Kathleen Beahan, an icon of Sydney’s underworld from the 1920s through to the 1950s. A “famed brothel madam, sly-grog seller and drug dealer”, she is best known for her involvement in the “Razor Wars” when Sydney gangs used razors instead of guns. Leigh could handle a rifle (or any other weapon) and was “an intelligent criminal entrepreneur” who quickly capitalised on opportunities as they emerged. A hardened crook (who was in and out of prison), Leigh was also very generous; her Christmas parties for poor children, in Surry Hills, were legendary for the food and presents given out.
In Nice Girl (2011), Rachael Jane Chin looks at the many dreadful secrets kept by Keli Lane. Found guilty of murder and of lying under oath, Lane’s case is one that is still difficult to believe. Gender, and gendered ideals, stand out within it. Chin unpacks how Lane was a solid, middle-class young woman. She had her boyfriends but was not promiscuous. She was a teacher and had worked hard to become an elite athlete.
But underneath Lane’s “good upbringing and clean-cut appearance”, which earned her the benefit of the doubt from those around her, were five secret pregnancies during the 1990s. Two pregnancies were terminated, two infants were put up for adoption and one baby, Tegan, was murdered. Lane is serving her prison sentence, the crimes she committed as shocking now as when they were discovered. She will be eligible for parole in 2023.
Women as victims
In 1921 the body of 12-year-old schoolgirl Alma Tirtschke was found in an inner-Melbourne alleyway. Colin Campbell Ross was charged with rape and murder, as described in Kevin Morgan’s Gun Alley (2005, updated 2012). We learn the victim, just a child, was quiet but also clever and creative. As readers, we cannot help but speculate who Tirtschke could have grown up to be.
Ross was hanged in 1922: a result of false allegations, a flawed investigation, and a trial held in the press and in the courtroom. He received a posthumous pardon in 2008. This case is particularly important in the history of Australian true crime writing because, as Tom Roberts explains, it highlights the commercialisation of crime, focusing on the headline of the defenceless female, and media-driven moral panics.
One of Australia’s most famous crimes is the “Pyjama Girl Case”. In 1934 the remains of Linda Agostini, born Florence Platt, was found. She had been shot, beaten, and burnt. Most notably, Agostini was wearing yellow, silk pyjamas, patterned with a dragon: a flamboyant garment in Depression-era Australia. Agostini’s body was placed on public display in an attempt by the police to discover the name of the murdered woman but it took 10 years to identify the victim. In the 1940s and 1950s, Frank Johnson published his Famous Detective Stories series, which included The Pyjama Girl Mystery. Like many of Johnson’s true crime storytelling efforts, the woman at the centre of the criminal case is presented as a sexual object.
The story of Anita Cobby, born Anita Lynch, has been told many times. The first major telling of the brutal rape and murder of the 26-year-old in 1986, is Julia Sheppard’s Someone Else’s Daughter (1991). Sheppard contrasts Cobby and her numerous contributions to the community, as a charity worker as well as a nurse, with the senseless cruelty of the men who took Cobby’s life. Stories like this one, which have stayed in the public imagination over decades, highlight how the impacts of crime extend beyond the victim, family, and friends. They also show how women can be victims of completely random acts of violence.
Many women are victims of domestic violence. The murder of Lisa Harnum, by her fiancé Simon Gittany, is described by Amy Dale in The Fall (2014). Gittany threw Harnum to her death from their apartment balcony, situated on the 15th floor of an inner-Sydney building in 2011. This is a story of control, surveillance, and toxicity. Harnum was trapped in an untenable position: too frightened to leave but also too frightened to stay. When she did try to escape, the result was tragic. Gittany was sentenced to 26 years in prison, with a non-parole period of 18 years.
Changing true crime narratives
The once “either/or” binary of “bad/good” women has given way to demands from readers to see women as complex figures within these works. As a result, more and more writers are now increasingly focussed on the human cost of crime.
Women are also telling their own stories, as seen in Lindy Chamberlain’s work Through My Eyes (1990). Chamberlain was falsely imprisoned for the murder of her baby daughter, Azaria, at Uluru in 1980. This book delivers a very personal account of one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in Australian history.
Crime is never without context and is never straightforward. Many writers – women and men – know that simplifying these stories with stereotypes, female or male, is just not good enough: for the innocent, for the guilty, or for readers.