The link below is to an article reporting on the approval for a museum to be built in Bath, England, for a Mary Shelley/Frankenstein Museum.
For more visit:
The link below is to an article reporting on the approval for a museum to be built in Bath, England, for a Mary Shelley/Frankenstein Museum.
For more visit:
In early April, writer Jen Miller urged New York Times readers to start a coronavirus diary.
“Who knows,” she wrote, “maybe one day your diary will provide a valuable window into this period.”
During a different pandemic, one 17th-century British naval administrator named Samuel Pepys did just that. He fastidiously kept a diary from 1660 to 1669 – a period of time that included a severe outbreak of the bubonic plague in London. Epidemics have always haunted humans, but rarely do we get such a detailed glimpse into one person’s life during a crisis from so long ago.
There were no Zoom meetings, drive-through testing or ventilators in 17th-century London. But Pepys’ diary reveals that there were some striking resemblances in how people responded to the pandemic.
For Pepys and the inhabitants of London, there was no way of knowing whether an outbreak of the plague that occurred in the parish of St. Giles, a poor area outside the city walls, in late 1664 and early 1665 would become an epidemic.
The plague first entered Pepys’ consciousness enough to warrant a diary entry on April 30, 1665: “Great fears of the Sickenesse here in the City,” he wrote, “it being said that two or three houses are already shut up. God preserve us all.”
Pepys continued to live his life normally until the beginning of June, when, for the first time, he saw houses “shut up” – the term his contemporaries used for quarantine – with his own eyes, “marked with a red cross upon the doors, and ‘Lord have mercy upon us’ writ there.” After this, Pepys became increasingly troubled by the outbreak.
He soon observed corpses being taken to their burial in the streets, and a number of his acquaintances died, including his own physician.
By mid-August, he had drawn up his will, writing, “that I shall be in much better state of soul, I hope, if it should please the Lord to call me away this sickly time.” Later that month, he wrote of deserted streets; the pedestrians he encountered were “walking like people that had taken leave of the world.”
In London, the Company of Parish Clerks printed “bills of mortality,” the weekly tallies of burials.
Because these lists noted London’s burials – not deaths – they undoubtedly undercounted the dead. Just as we follow these numbers closely today, Pepys documented the growing number of plague victims in his diary.
At the end of August, he cited the bill of mortality as having recorded 6,102 victims of the plague, but feared “that the true number of the dead this week is near 10,000,” mostly because the victims among the urban poor weren’t counted. A week later, he noted the official number of 6,978 in one week, “a most dreadfull Number.”
By mid-September, all attempts to control the plague were failing. Quarantines were not being enforced, and people gathered in places like the Royal Exchange. Social distancing, in short, was not happening.
He was equally alarmed by people attending funerals in spite of official orders. Although plague victims were supposed to be interred at night, this system broke down as well, and Pepys griped that burials were taking place “in broad daylight.”
There are few known effective treatment options for COVID-19. Medical and scientific research need time, but people hit hard by the virus are willing to try anything. Fraudulent treatments, from teas and colloidal silver, to cognac and cow urine, have been floated.
Although Pepys lived during the Scientific Revolution, nobody in the 17th century knew that the Yersinia pestis bacterium carried by fleas caused the plague. Instead, the era’s scientists theorized that the plague was spreading through miasma, or “bad air” created by rotting organic matter and identifiable by its foul smell. Some of the most popular measures to combat the plague involved purifying the air by smoking tobacco or by holding herbs and spices in front of one’s nose.
Tobacco was the first remedy that Pepys sought during the plague outbreak. In early June, seeing shut-up houses “put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll-tobacco to smell … and chaw.” Later, in July, a noble patroness gave him “a bottle of plague-water” – a medicine made from various herbs. But he wasn’t sure whether any of this was effective. Having participated in a coffeehouse discussion about “the plague growing upon us in this town and remedies against it,” he could only conclude that “some saying one thing, some another.”
During the outbreak, Pepys was also very concerned with his frame of mind; he constantly mentioned that he was trying to be in good spirits. This was not only an attempt to “not let it get to him” – as we might say today – but also informed by the medical theory of the era, which claimed that an imbalance of the so-called humors in the body – blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm – led to disease.
Melancholy – which, according to doctors, resulted from an excess of black bile – could be dangerous to one’s health, so Pepys sought to suppress negative emotions; on Sept. 14, for example, he wrote that hearing about dead friends and acquaintances “doth put me into great apprehensions of melancholy. … But I put off the thoughts of sadness as much as I can.”
Humans are social animals and thrive on interaction, so it’s no surprise that so many have found social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic challenging. It can require constant risk assessment: How close is too close? How can we avoid infection and keep our loved ones safe, while also staying sane? What should we do when someone in our house develops a cough?
During the plague, this sort of paranoia also abounded. Pepys found that when he left London and entered other towns, the townspeople became visibly nervous about visitors.
“They are afeared of us that come to them,” he wrote in mid-July, “insomuch that I am troubled at it.”
Pepys succumbed to paranoia himself: In late July, his servant Will suddenly developed a headache. Fearing that his entire house would be shut up if a servant came down with the plague, Pepys mobilized all his other servants to get Will out of the house as quickly as possible. It turned out that Will didn’t have the plague, and he returned the next day.
In early September, Pepys refrained from wearing a wig he bought in an area of London that was a hotspot of the disease, and he wondered whether other people would also fear wearing wigs because they could potentially be made of the hair of plague victims.
And yet he was willing to risk his health to meet certain needs; by early October, he visited his mistress without any regard for the danger: “round about and next door on every side is the plague, but I did not value it but there did what I could con ella.”
Just as people around the world eagerly wait for a falling death toll as a sign of the pandemic letting up, so did Pepys derive hope – and perhaps the impetus to see his mistress – from the first decline in deaths in mid-September. A week later, he noted a substantial decline of more than 1,800.
Let’s hope that, like Pepys, we’ll soon see some light at the end of the tunnel.
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It is 250 years since the birth of the great English poet William Wordsworth. A lover of nature, his poetry abounds with images of lambs, flowers in full bloom, windswept crags and woodland scenes. His pleasure in nature, particularly that of his home the Lake District, is famous.
His contemporary Samuel Taylor Coleridge once describes his genius as “not a spirit that descended to him through the air; it sprang out of the ground like a flower.” Wordsworth did find much inspiration in the natural landscape that he would revel in on his long walks. In these house-bound times and on this anniversary, we can all find inspiration in the great poet and his love of walking as we take our daily exercise.
In a comic article from 1839 entitled Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets: “Mr Wordsworth”, the writer Thomas De Quincey criticised Wordsworth’s unshapely legs while also noting that:
[He calculated], upon good data, that with these identical legs Wordsworth must have traversed a distance of 175,000 to 180,000 English miles
In his summer vacation from Cambridge University in 1790, he walked right across revolutionary France, over the Alps and back through Germany (arriving late for the start of term). Wordsworth was still able to ascend Helvellyn, one of the highest peaks in the Lake District, aged 70 – a feat celebrated in Benjamin Robert Haydon’s portrait of him in 1842.
Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy were not only interested in large-scale walking tours but walked almost every day, at all times of the day. Dorothy’s famous Grasmere Journal, documents their walks and is itself a wonderful example of nature writing. In it she logs the minute details they would see on their walks, like daffodils near the Lake District’s Gowbarrow Park:
I never saw daffodils so beautiful. They grew about the mossy stones about and about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the lake.
Walking was not just for pleasure, though. We know that Wordsworth frequently walked to write. Dorothy’s Journal describes how:
Though the length of his walk maybe sometimes a quarter or half a mile, he is as fast bound within the chosen limits as if by prison walls. He generally composes his verses out of doors, and while he is so engaged he seldom knows how the time slips away, or hardly whether it is rain or fair.
In a poem entitled When first I Journey’d Hither to his brother John, who was away at sea, Wordsworth writes of the joy of finding a path carved into the earth by him:
With a sense
Of lively joy did I behold this path
Beneath the fir-trees, for at once I knew
That by my Brother’s steps it had been trac’d.
My thoughts were pleas’d within me to perceive
That hither he had brought a finer eye,
A heart more wakeful: that more loth to part
From place so lovely he had worn the track,
Out of his own deep paths!
The poem ends by imagining John, walking up and down on the deck of his ship at sea in tune with William as he also walks up and down to write the poem on the path that John has made for him. He imagines an empathetic connection between the two constrained spaces:
Alone I tread this path, for aught I know
Timing my steps to thine
Wordsworth is known for composing in the rhythm with the pace of his walking. In his epic autobiography, The Prelude, Wordsworth describes himself doing this and sending his terrier (Pepper) ahead to warn him of others:
And when at evening on the public way
I sauntered, like a river murmuring
And talking to itself when all things else
Are still, the creature trotted on before;
Such was his custom; but whene’er he met
A passenger approaching, he would turn
To give me timely notice, and straightway,
Grateful for that admonishment, I hushed
My voice, composed my gait, and, with the air
And mien of one whose thoughts are free, advanced
To give and take a greeting that might save
My name from piteous rumours, such as wait
On men suspected to be crazed in brain
This is also a wonderful example of why walking alone can be freeing. It allows us to be alone with our thoughts and to act freely (till someone happens by that is).
So, as you undertake your permitted daily walk, remember that constraint can also be creative, the familiar walk enjoyable in its very familiarity. Enjoy the calm of nature and, like William’s brother, John, receive that calm as a “silent poet” appreciative and receptive to the simple pleasures around you.
In 1605, England’s parliament was sitting on a powder keg, literally. Like now, the country was bitterly divided between two factions, with religion at the heart of the schism after the Reformation pitted Protestants and Catholics against each other in a life or death struggle. History tells us that instead of seeking a political solution such as an election, a group of 13 Catholic conspirators plotted to blow up parliament.
The conspiracy aimed to assassinate King James I and the Protestant establishment with a massive explosion under the House of Lords. Every “fifth of November” since then, what is now known as the Gunpowder Plot is remembered in Britain through bonfires, fireworks and the burning of effigies of one of the conspirators, Guido (Guy) Fawkes. Following the torture and execution of Fawkes and his co-conspirators, accusations of treason, heresy, and witchcraft were used to persecute many of the perceived enemies of the crown.
The process of arrest, torture, trial and execution was widespread, as the king sought to rid the country of his twin hatreds: Catholicism and witchcraft. This purge caused many Catholics, especially priests, to flee northwards to escape the king’s revenge. Lancashire came to be perceived by the royal court as a lawless area where Catholicism and witchcraft thrived – and it was there that the infamous Pendle witch trials of 1612 took place.
Though evidence remains from the actual trials, one of the most intriguing accounts didn’t come until 400 years after the events, when author Jeanette Winterson published her work of fiction, The Daylight Gate. In this story, the fates of a group of vagrant women and a Catholic nobleman, Christopher Southworth, converge when the attention of the law turns towards them. Winterson uses the genuine names of the women who were tried for witchcraft – though freely fictionalising their lives. Southworth was also a real person, a Jesuit priest from one of the oldest families in Lancashire.
As in real life, the women in the novel are charged with murder by witchcraft. Whether they committed acts of witchcraft or not, that is not their true crime here. These women have too much power and liberty for the patriarchal Protestant society in which they live. Southworth, meanwhile, is hunted in the novel for his involvement in the Gunpowder Plot. Captured previously, he had escaped from prison and fled to France, before returning to England to save his sister from her own witch trial.
There is no evidence to show the real Southworth was a part of the Gunpowder Plot. But historical record shows us Southworth was accused of coaching a young girl to make false accusations of witchcraft against her family – possible because the family had renounced Catholicism and converted to Protestantism. Given this, it’s likely he would have supported at least the aims of the Gunpowder Plot.
The fictional women’s bodies are sites onto which the men of the law project both their fears and desires. “Look her over for the witch marks – go on, Robert, run your hands across her. Do you like her breasts?”, remarks a constable’s assistant. But these are bodies made monstrous by the effects of poverty. The feet of the appropriately named Mouldheels are described as stinking “of dead meat … wrapped in rags and already beginning to ooze”. Yet despite this monstrosity, these women are still raped by their captors as desire, disgust and domination merge.
Southworth’s status in the novel is initially different from the women. He was born and raised with the twin privileges of being male and wealthy. With no marks on his body to denote his Catholic faith, he could not be identified as an “other” without specific knowledge of his religious divergence from the ruling class. But, following the failed Gunpowder Plot, his torture at the hands of the king’s jailers results in his body being made monstrous. Attempts to blind Southworth leave scars on his eyelids and cheeks, and pictures are carved into his chest with knives.
Like the women, he is raped by his jailers. He is then literally emasculated when his penis and testicles are cut off. Perhaps luckily for the real-life Southworth, there is no evidence of an arrest, although his historical records are very scant. By comparison, the archives indicate the torture of Fawkes at the hands of the king’s inquisitors.
In this febrile, paranoid society of post-Gunpowder Plot England, the connection between Catholics and witches is stated explicitly. As Potts, the prosecutor sent by the royal court to seek out heretics, says: “Witchery popery, popery witchery. What is the difference?”. The outcomes are certainly very similar. And the burning of the womens’ bodies after their execution mirrors the ritual bonfires and immolation of Guy Fawkes effigies that have celebrated the failure of the Catholic plotters ever since.
Winterson’s novel forces the reader to consider what a monster is and what they might look like. Elizabeth Device, one of the supposed witches, is described as follows: “The strangeness of her eye deformity made people fear her. One eye looked up and the other looked down, and both eyes were set crooked in her face.” But her disfigured appearance had not saved her from being raped nine years before the novel’s setting. Throughout the book, fear and disgust mix dangerously with desire and power to produce awful crimes.
The real monsters are the men who savagely abuse and oppress the unfortunate – whether women or Catholics. Yet, they are not represented as physically repulsive. One of the torturers even has a “pleasant voice” as he questions his victims. In the end, The Daylight Gate reveals that monstrous desires produce and prey on monstrous bodies, and all those subjected to the burning heat of the king’s revenge eventually turn to ash. While the political situation in Britain today has moved away from the Catholic/Protestant schism of 1605, it is worth remembering the human tragedies behind the celebration of Bonfire Night.
The link below is to an article that investigates the case of the book ripper of Herne Bay in Kent.
We live at probably the last moment when press barons such as Rupert Murdoch can hope to shape the political agenda, such are the waning fortunes of the print media. But who founded the popular press – and who created the sensationalist approach of the tabloids?
Some say it was Lord Northcliffe, who established the Daily Mail in 1896. Northcliffe was, however, preceded by the transformative figure of Edward Lloyd. Never heard of him? Lloyd (1815-1890) has never been given his due. He published the first newspaper to sell a million copies and shaped the popular imagination in fundamental ways.
Before he became a Victorian press baron, Lloyd was one of the dominant forces behind the sale of popular fiction to a growing market of increasingly literate working-class people. When we think of the 1840s, we think of the publication of major novels such as Jane Eyre or Vanity Fair. The reality is that many readers were as likely to consume Ada the Betrayed as well as Vileroy, or, The Horrors of Zindorf Castle – both shockers issued by Lloyd’s publishing house.
Hailing from a humble background, Lloyd became a leading publisher in London, promoting a group of hacks who would knock out cheap fiction. He knew what would sell: horrors, romance and thrills.
He launched a wave of “penny dreadfuls” on to the market in the 1830s and 1840s, all assisted by lurid pictures. As Lloyd exclaimed to his illustrators: “There must be blood … much more blood!”
The best known of these stories was The String of Pearls in 1846 which introduced the enduring character of Sweeney Todd. Even before the serial had finished publication, Sweeney Todd had been taken up by the popular stage.
Audiences loved the barber who murdered men who came to his Fleet Street shop for a shave and gave their bodies to Mrs Lovett next door to be made into meat pies. The dark humour is captured in the words of one character who says: “I’d eat my mother, if she was a pork chop.”
This was not the only ghoulish character to emerge from Lloyd’s offices. James Malcolm Rymer wrote Varney the Vampire for Lloyd, the most important undead character before Dracula. This was a form of distinctly working-class horror fiction, marked by a taste for blood and violence.
Lloyd had no time for originality. He built up his firm by publishing plagiarisms of Charles Dickens’s works. The reading public was thus treated to works such as The Penny Pickwick, Oliver Twiss and Nickelas Nickelbery. Dickens was outraged by this treatment but was powerless to prevent such works appearing.
It is possible that many working-class readers first encountered Dickens via a Lloyd plagiarism, rather than one of the author’s own works (a perspective that should make us rethink the initial reception of Dickens).
Cheap newspapers came to dominate Lloyd’s output. Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper was launched in 1842 and became one of the most important newspapers aimed at a popular readership at a time when the press had been forced since 1819 by the government to pay stamp duties (the “Taxes on Knowledge”) which inflated the price of print. He combined serious news reporting with stories of horrible murders, train crashes and aristocratic divorces. In some respects, his newspaper employed the techniques of popular fiction to grab an audience with accounts of true crime.
Lloyd also revolutionised newspaper production by introducing Richard Hoe’s rotary press to Britain, which sped up the process of putting out newspapers and made mass publication possible. With the abolition of the stamp and paper duties by the early 1860s, Lloyd was able to lower the price of his paper to one penny. The popular press had arrived.
Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper was one of a series of mass circulation Sunday papers, including The News of the World (issued in 1843), which created a newspaper reading habit in increasingly literate workers.
Lloyd was also a great believer in self-promotion. At one point he took to embossing coins with which he paid his workers with a stamp promoting his paper. This was denounced by The Times and an act of parliament had to be passed in 1853, making the defacing of the coinage illegal.
As his newspaper became more popular, Lloyd left his penny dreadfuls behind and was later embarrassed that they had been the source of his fortune. His paper tended to support Gladstone and the Liberal party, helping it to dominate mid-Victorian politics. The Conservative Party identified Lloyd’s as promoting “pernicious doctrines”, which included worker rights, free trade and democracy.
Lloyd died in 1890 but his newspaper remained popular, selling a million copies for the first time in 1896. As it went into the 20th century, the paper was outgunned by new rivals such as the Daily Mail and came to an end in 1931, having appeared for almost 90 years.
Lloyd’s reputation has gone into eclipse and he is seldom remembered. He was, however, a true pioneer. His legacy remains the sensationalism of the popular press but it can also be found in every slasher film, vampire drama and gothic romance from Twilight to the television series Penny Dreadful.
A dense work of early English prose, strewn throughout with serious and teasing marginalia from its author, might not be the most likely candidate for stage adaptation – but this project has just been undertaken by a team of artists and academics in Sheffield. William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat, written in 1553, will be performed in September as part of the university’s 2018 Festival of the Mind.
As a literary form, the novel is usually thought to have developed in the 18th century with the mighty classics Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne. But researchers believe we should be looking back to the relatively neglected prose fictions of the Tudor era to find the earliest English examples. Beware the Cat, an ecclesiastical satire about talking cats, is a prime candidate and is now thought to be the earliest example of the novel form in the English language.
Baldwin is barely known outside the circles of Renaissance literature, but he was highly celebrated and widely read in Tudor England. In the mid-16th century, he was earning an inky-fingered living as a printer’s assistant in and around the central London bookmaking and bookselling area of St Paul’s Cathedral. As well as writing fiction, he produced A Mirror for Magistrates, the co-written collection of gruesome historical poetry that was highly influential on Shakespeare’s history plays. He also compiled a bestselling handbook of philosophy, and translated the controversial Song of Songs, the sexy book of the Bible.
Beware the Cat tells the tale of a talkative priest, Gregory Streamer, who determines to understand the language of cats after he is kept awake by a feline rabble on the rooftops. Turning for guidance to Albertus Magnus, a medieval alchemist and natural scientist roundly mocked in the Renaissance for his quackery, Streamer finds the spell he needs. Then, using various stomach-churning ingredients, including hedgehog’s fat and cat excrement, he cooks up the right potion.
And it turns out that cats don’t merely talk – they have a social hierarchy, a judicial system and carefully regulated laws governing sexual relations. With his witty beast fable, Baldwin is analysing an ancient question, and one in which the philosophical field of posthumanism still shows a keen interest: do birds and beasts have reason?
But rights and wrongs of a different order coloured Baldwin’s book release. He self-censored for several years before making the work public. Beware the Cat was written in 1553, months before the untimely death of the young Protestant king, Edward VI. Next on the throne (if you disregard the turbulent nine-day reign of Lady Jane Grey) was the first Tudor queen, Mary I. Her Catholicism was fervent and these were terrifying days. By the mid-1550s, Mary was burning Protestant martyrs. One of her less alarming, but still consequential, decisions was to reverse the freedoms accorded the press under her brother Edward.
At the height of his power during the 1540s, the Lord Protector during the young Edward’s reign, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, had relied on particular printers to spread the regime’s reformist message. Men such as John Day (printer of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs) and Edward Whitchurch – Baldwin’s employer – printed and circulated anti-Catholic polemic on behalf of the state. Not content to persecute these men by denying them the pardon she accorded other Protestant printers, Mary I banned the discussion of religion in print unless it was specifically authorised by her officials.
As a print trade insider, Baldwin was intimately connected with the close community of this radical Protestant printing milieu – and Beware the Cat is deliberately set at John Day’s printing shop. Having written a book that parodies the Mass, depicts priests in some very undignified positions and points the finger at Catholic idolatry, Baldwin thought better of releasing it in the oppressive religious climate of Mary’s reign. But by 1561, Elizabeth I was on the throne and constraints on the press were less severe – despite the infamous case of John Stubbs, the writer who in 1579 lost his hand for criticising her marriage plans.
Baldwin, now in his 30s, had become a church deacon. He was still active as a writer and public figure, working on his second edition of A Mirror for Magistrates and preaching at Paul’s Cross in London, a venue that could attract a 6,000-strong congregation.
Once it was released, Beware the Cat went through several editions. It was not recognised for the comic gem that it is until scholars such as Evelyn Feasey started studying Baldwin in the early 20th century and the novel was later championed by American scholars William A. Ringler and Michael Flachmann.
Now, it has been adapted for performance for the first time and is being presented as part of the University of Sheffield’s Festival of the Mind. This stage version of Beware the Cat has been created by the authors with Terry O’Connor (member of renowned performance ensemble Forced Entertainment) and the artist Penny McCarthy.
Baldwin’s techniques of embedded storytelling, argument and satirical marginalia are all features that have been incorporated into this interpretation of the text. The production also includes an array of original drawings (which the cast of four display by using an onstage camera connected to a projector), but none of the cast pretends to be a cat. Instead, it is left to the audience to imagine the world Baldwin’s novel describes, in which cats can talk and – even if just for one night – humans can understand them.
The link below is to another article reporting on the IKEA reading rooms in London associated with the Man Booker Award.
The link below is to an article reporting on ‘reading rooms’ being set up by IKEA in London to celebrate the announcement of the Nam Booker Prize longlist.
He is famous for his love of honey, and being a bear of “little brain”. So Winnie the Pooh might be a little surprised to find himself the subject of a major new museum exhibition.
Winnie the Pooh: Exploring a Classic will explore the creative partnership of writer A.A. Milne and illustrator E.H. Shepard. Together they produced the much-loved whimsical stories featured in Winnie the Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928).
The decision by the Victoria and Albert museum in London to hold the exhibition proves that the bear and his friends have become establishment figures. As children’s literature expert Peter Hunt notes, they are “part of British culture, passing from generation to generation”.
One element of the incredible success of the Pooh books is that they reflect ideas about childhood that emerged in what is widely known as the “golden age” of children’s literature, spanning from the mid-19th century to World War I.
The golden age view of a child’s world was one that was close to nature – the child an innocent before the imposed horrors of school and education, and a figure of loss and nostalgia for the adult. This was very much the landscape of Winnie’s home in Hundred Acre Wood.
As cultural theorist Stefan Herbrechter said: “Children are supposed to live in a world of their own, which is clearly defined and marked out as the space and time for play and in which toys are the main objects and controlling devices of socialisation.”
However, Milne’s books are more poignant and have a slightly different flavour, than other examples, such as Wind in the Willows (of which Milne was a great fan, writing a stage adaptation). They came after World War I, when many illusions about innocence, the upper class, Englishness and patriotism had reached breaking point.
They contain traces of the experiences in the trenches that marked both Milne and Shepard, whose illustrations of carnage at the Somme and Paschendale were the subject of a separate recent exhibition.
The pastoral paradise of Hundred Acre Wood was one that Milne, who wrote passionately in favour of pacifism, conjured from his own childhood memories – back to a time before the terrifying intrusion and destruction of the war.
As such, Milne’s invented world is also saturated with loss, poignantly embodied in the depressed donkey character of Eyore, who sees no reasons to be cheerful. It is also haunted by the threat of leaving the safe space of the wood for places over the horizon that can’t yet be seen. When Christopher Robin and Pooh organise an “expotition” to the North Pole, they find a large pole in the woods and label it accordingly.
Toys, argues Herbrechter, are intimately concerned with storytelling. They are “like little story machines, narrative catalysers, objects that help make sense of the world”.
This idea is addressed with humour and complexity in Milne’s writing, and beautifully rendered in Shepard’s illustrations that always emphasise the “toyness” of the animals. It explains much about why these books have remained so loved.
Milne shows his real life son Christopher (whom Christopher Robin was named after) how playing with his toys is a kind of writing, just as the playwright makes scenes for his characters. Before he wrote the Pooh stories, Milne worked as a playwright and as a satirist at Punch magazine.
We can detect the specific pleasures of introducing the craft of storytelling to his son from a man who made a living from writing. Milne’s stories gently teach the young credulous reader, who reads literally, that they may be other more rewarding ways of interpreting the world, and what the difference is between what people say and what they mean.
Milne offers the pleasures of word play. The narrator explains that “Winnie the Pooh lived in the forest all by himself under the name of Sanders”, which meant “he had the name over the door in gold letters and lived under it”.
The non-literal reader is invited to find this funny. Similarly, if Piglet says anything “carelessly” he is probably concealing a very important wish. He will say he isn’t afraid when he wants to appear brave.
Although the Pooh books were famously dismissed by fellow satirist Dorothy Parker, who wrote a dismayed and withering review of Winnie-the-Pooh, the success of Milne’s works suggests that he managed to translate his love of making stories into a form that beguiled the child reader. Stories which showed how they too might make an imaginative life for themselves in the world of storytelling and understand how to master words and meanings.
In one notable scene Pooh finds himself stuck on the doorway to Rabbit’s house, and must wait for a week until he is thin enough to be pulled free. Christopher Robin sits down with him and reads him a “sustaining book”, such as would help and comfort a Wedged Bear in Great Tightness.
The comforting presence and companionship of a good book is something all readers of Pooh take away with them. And it is perhaps this which explains the enduring popularity of these stories, which taught us how to read and write in our own way.