The Rise and Fall of the In Memoriam Inscription

GUEST BLOG: Dr Lauren Alex O’Hagan, Örebro University/The Open University

In memoriam inscription in The Keepsake Scripture Textbook, 1870

AN 1870 COPY of The Keepsake Scripture Textbook has sat on my bookshelf for years. I picked it up in a second-hand bookshop in Bristol for far more than it was worth out of pure fascination for the inscriptions on its front endpapers. I was haunted to find out who Louisa Rimmer and Cousin Edith were, and what on earth had happened to poor Bertha Dupré.

Through a deep delve into archival records, I was able to discover that Bertha was the daughter of an assistant draper and lived in Altrincham, Cheshire with her parents and four siblings. She suffered from a chronic digestive disorder and, at the start of 1886, fell ill with abdominal pains, loss of appetite and constipation. Just over one week later, she slipped into unconsciousness and passed away in her bed with her father Thomas at her side. She was just 16 years of age. The attending doctor, W. J. Jones, declared her cause of death to be “obstruction of bowels,” which had led to a “syncope”— something that medical historians agree was likely to be a fatal flare-up of Crohn’s disease (not formally diagnosed until 1932). When clearing out Bertha’s belongings, sister Edith came across The Keepsake Scripture Textbook, which she had given to Bertha on her 11th birthday. She decided to reinscribe it to her 16-year-old cousin Louisa Rimmer “in remembrance” of Bertha.

The tragic tale of Bertha Dupré deeply moved me, and I began to hunt for more and more in memoriam inscriptions from the long nineteenth century to build my collection. Over time, I was intrigued to discover that they were almost all written by working and lower-middle class individuals. Could the in memoriam inscription be a uniquely lower-class practice? This was something that I set out to explore in my recent article for Textual Cultures.

The Materiality of Death and Mourning

Deborah Lutz describes the body and the book as interconnected: on a literal level through hidden relics (e.g. locks of hair, cremation dust) hidden between the pages, but also on a metaphorical level through inscriptions that fossilise moving life into static representations. While Bibles had been used since at least the 16th century to mark births and deaths, a significant change began to take place in book culture in the Victorian era in response to the growing cult of mourning. Owners increasingly recognised the blank endpapers of their books as safe spaces to impart private musings on illness, death and grief.

These musings were initially limited to those with a certain level of literacy and the financial means to afford a book. However, by the end of the nineteenth century, the democratisation of education and book ownership meant that such practices were just as likely to be carried out by the working and lower-middle classes. For these groups, the in memoriam inscription became a popular way to transfer book ownership in death, while also memorialising the life of the deceased. It, therefore, offers a unique window into how the working and lower-middle classes developed their own customs of dealing with death, transferral of property and relationship rituals.  

In memoriam inscriptions were written from one family member to another who acted as a mediator, marking the book “in memory of” or “in remembrance of” the deceased. The book was often carefully selected because of its connection between the two people (e.g., shared taste in author or genre, shared memories surrounding its purchase or reading), but it could also be given simply as a stand-in for the person themselves regardless of its content. Through in memoriam inscriptions, books were turned into “contact relics” that “persistently called the dead into the sphere of the living,” which granted them symbolic meanings disproportionate to their everyday value. Thus, they served as a meeting point between life and death, materiality and selfhood, body and personality, enabling the bereaved to adapt to their loss yet maintain a relationship with the memory of the person.

In memoriam inscription in Helps Heavenward, c. 1887

Memorialising the Young

The above inscription marks the death of 12-year-old David Stewart. David was born in 1892 in the slum district of Fountainbridge in Edinburgh and, since the age of seven, had suffered from pseudo-hypertrophic muscular paralysis—a genetic muscle-wasting disease that is known today as muscular dystrophy. In December 1903, he caught tuberculosis—a “fundamental destructive social force” for which there was neither cure nor prevention—and passed away just two months later.

Shortly after David’s death, his sister Beth found the book Helps Heavenward amongst his belongings. She subsequently inscribed the endpapers “in memory of” David, noting that he died on 25 February. Her raw emotion is captured in the heavy underlining of the inscription and insertion of “dear” next to David’s name. On the one hand, being a material object that belonged to the deceased, the book carries its own “aura”[7] which tells a history of the hands that have touched it. Yet, on the other, the new inscription added to the book acts as a frame in the process of loss, signalling the lingering presence of David yet moving him into a new relationship with his sister.

Memorialising the Elderly

In memoriam inscription in The Great Composers, 1896

Behind this inscription lies yet another sad story, this time of William Marshall Lennox—a former printer and Calvinist Minister who lived in Cardiff with his wife Lucretia. On the evening of 30 May 1906, William left his house at 54 Connaught Road and walked to nearby Newport Road to catch a tram to Cardiff Central Station. He was planning to take the 22:30 train to London as he had a meeting early the next morning with the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion. As he reached the corner of Oakfield Street, William fell to the ground suddenly in a fit. An onlooker, Mr. Newbury, immediately flagged down a passing police constable and, together, they carried William to the house of Councillor Kidd who lived just a few doors away. Drs Phillips and Campbell were summoned and pronounced William dead on arrival. The autopsy revealed that he had suffered from a fatal heart attack.

Following William’s death, wife Lucretia sorted through his personal possessions and discovered a copy of The Great Composers by C. E. Bourne. Knowing that their granddaughter Flossie shared a great love for music with William, she inscribed the book to her “in remembrance,” adding that her grandfather was “so proud” of her and that he “went to rest quite suddenly,” which was “much regretted.”


Through the examples of Bertha Dupré, David Stewart and William Marshall Lennox, we see how the in memoriam inscription stands as an important example of how people managed loss and maintained relationships with their deceased loved ones throughout the long nineteenth century.  It particularly challenges the belief that the lower classes had an attitude of fatalism towards death and emphasises that, even though their public lives may have required them to be pragmatic or even stoic, they were by no means indifferent and showed their grief within the private sphere.

Despite its frequent use throughout the Victorian and Edwardian era, the in memoriam inscription experienced a sharp decline in inter-war Britain, perhaps in response to World War One’s “normalization” of death, as well as increased secularism, falling mortality rates and rising life expectancy. Added to this was the expansion of will-making across the working and lower-middle classes, which may have lessened the need for in memoriam inscriptions to transfer book ownership, and the replacement of letter-writing with telephone calls, which left no written trace.

When in memoriam inscriptions were used, they became shorter and less soliloquised, with the use of death dates and crosses occurring far more frequently than fervent appeals “in memory of” or “in remembrance of.” In memoriam inscriptions from the 1930s and 1940s also indicate a clear transition towards the mourning of public figures (e.g., King George V, Neville Chamberlain) and even include newspaper clippings, poems and photos, suggesting an evolution towards parasocial forms of grief that were seen as less taboo.

Surviving in memoriam inscriptions thus represent an important source on people’s experiences of illness, death and grief and offer the opportunity to access the voices of many of those whose experiences might not otherwise be heard. It is therefore important to grant them equal significance to other relics of death, such as hair jewellery and memorial cards, and preserve and research them to keep these individuals’ stories alive and prevent them from becoming “dead letters of the object world.”

Lauren Alex O’Hagan is a Research Associate in the School of Languages and Applied Linguistics at the Open University and a Visiting Postdoctoral Researcher in the Department of Media and Communication Studies at Örebro University. She specialises in performances of social class and power mediation in the late 19th and early 20th century through visual and material artefacts, such as book inscriptions, food advertisements and postcards. Her monograph The Sociocultural Functions of Edwardian Book Inscriptions was published by Routledge in 2021.

Friday’s Subversive Reading

‘Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.’ Frederick Douglass

The Anti-Slavery Alphabet (Philadelphia, 1846)

ONE OF THE FIRST skills that Friday learns under the tutelage of his ‘master’ Robinson Crusoe is the ability to read with the ultimate purpose of instructing him in the precepts of the Christian religion. Throughout the history of Christian missions, the role of literacy among enslaved people has remained a fraught issue. Some have regarded it as means of spreading religious belief; others have feared that it might undermine the authority of the dominant culture; some have embraced both. This was certainly so in the context of the antebellum South, where many enslaved readers first acquired literacy, like Friday, for the purposes of religious instruction.

Frederick Douglass recalled in his memoirs how he was taught to read the Bible from his mistress (illustrated here) and attributed his first awareness of the injustice of slavery to her husband’s disapproval. According to the latter, ‘it would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. ‘ From then on, Douglass claimed, he understood how literacy was ‘the pathway from slavery to freedom.’

Many slaveholders found the prospect of widespread literacy similarly threatening. Jennifer Monaghan observes how, after the American Revolution, ‘the few trickles of suspicion that reading, as well as writing, was actually a dangerous activity would soon swell into a tidal wave of mistrust. From roughly 1820 on, the conviction on the part of slaveholders that reading was a subversive activity would become the dominant one.’ The pioneering historian of slavery and literacy, Janet Cornelius, set out four decades ago to uncover how enslaved men and women learned to read and write against the odds, sometimes by lamplight risking their lives in pursuit of learning. In Georgia, Doc Daniel Dowdy reported that ‘the first time you was caught trying to read or write, you was whipped with a cow-hide, the next time with a cat-o-nine-tails and the third time they cut the first jint off your forefinger.’ Another liberated reader in Georgia recalled: ‘If they caught you trying to write they would cut your finger off and if they caught you again they would cut your head off.’ Among those punished for educating enslaved people, Cornelius noted, was Albert Booker who was whipped to death.

Between 1740 and 1834 a number of Southern states enacted anti-literacy laws, some making the teaching of reading and writing to black learners punishable by fines and flogging. The question continued to be political contentious long after Abolition. The 1902 Virginia Constitutional Convention required the exclusion of voters who had not passed a literacy test. When the measure was questioned, Senator Carter Glass is reported to have replied: ‘Discrimination! Why that is exactly what we propose. To remove every negro voter who can be gotten rid of, legally, without materially impairing the numerical strength of the white electorate.’ Immediately thereafter the number of African-American voters in Virginia dropped from 147,000 to 21,000. To date, the United States is the only country reputed to have framed anti-literacy laws.

Well they might have worried. In giving the gift of reading to Friday, Robinson Crusoe did not foresee its non-religious liberating potential. Once Friday’s religious instruction begins, the technology of reading provides him with a means of challenging the pious mythmaking of Crusoe. On reflection, confesses Crusoe, Friday was the better Christian but, as Defoe goes on to demonstrate, he is also the better logician. While Crusoe is willing to embrace a narrative handed down to him by theological tradition, Friday responds to his prescriptive reading with devastating logic:

I had been telling him how the Devil was God’s Enemy in the Hearts of Men, and used all his Malice and Skill to defeat the good Designs of Providence, and to ruine the Kingdom of Christ in the World, and the like. Well, says Friday, but you say God is so strong, so great; is he not much strong, much might as the Devil? Yes, yes, says I, Friday, God is stronger than the Devil, God is above the Devil, and therefore we pray to God to tread him down under our Feet, and enable us to resist his temptations and quench his fiery Darts. But, says he again, if God much strong, much might as the Devil, why God no kill the Devil, so make him no more do wicked? . . . . I was strangely surpriz’d at his Question, and after all, tho’ I was now an old Man, yet I was but a young Doctor, and ill enough quallified for a Casuist, or a Solver of Difficulties; And at first I could not tell what to say, so I pretended not to hear him . . . .

Thus readers invested in these Strange and Surprizing Adventures were invited to share in the ‘strangely surpriz’d’ response of their hero. After further conversation, Crusoe finds himself ‘run down again by him to the last Degree’, leading him to ‘divert the present Discourse between me and my Man’ as he distracts Friday from his persistent questions by sending him away. If Crusoe is the exemplar of an ideal Christian reader, submitting his critical capacities to the authoritative word, ‘having more sincerity than knowledge’, Friday turns out to be the better casuist. While Friday may allow himself to be ‘mastered’ by Crusoe in other respects, in matters of theology he speaks for the voice of insubordination, the philosophical and rationalist enquirer rather than submissive reader.

While assumptions are commonly made about the power of print to create a stable public sphere, examples from history suggest the power of readers to challenge the intentions of the printed word. When others have seen reading as a force for the inculcation of obedience, historic evidence would suggest otherwise.

Clandestine Reading

In a previous blog, we looked at the ways in which readers display their intellectual credentials throught the use of conspicuous literacy. Here we examine some of the ways in which readers of the past have sought to disguise their uses of print.

A COMMON FIGURE in dystopian fiction is the disaffected citizen whose resistance to authority takes the form of reading. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith reads Goldstein’s Book voraciously behind closed doors. In Fahrenheit 451, Montag finds himself rescuing works outlawed by the book-burning regime. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred devours an illicit copy of Vogue in private.

Such fictional characters have long had their real-life equivalents, as punitive regimes seeking to stamp out unorthodoxy have sought to censor reading. One of the most vilified characters in his own day, but to today’s historian of reading one of the best loved, is the sixteenth-century Italian miller Mennochio. Carlo Ginzburg found in the transcripts of the inquisitors who tried Mennochio for heresy, how the ‘aggressively original’ reading habits that landed the miller in so much trouble seem to have originated in no known exegetical tradition but came from his own private imagination.

Menoccio’s outrageous reading habits led to the stake but some transgressive readers have been more circumspect. One historian observes how during the Portuguese Inquisition reformers sought to disguise heretical reading practices through the use of secret codes and false book covers; still others how at the time of the Reformation Spinoza’s works were smuggled into France from the Netherlands with false bindings. In a later era, the diary of one Polish dissident, Withold Gombrowicz, revealed how sensitive publications were routinely smuggled across the border with false covers at the height of the Communist regime.

Not all attempts to disguise reading matter have been engendered by political subversion.  After its initially modest print sales, the more discreet circulation afforded by electronic text was credited for the phenomenal success of Fifty Shades of Grey. Back in 2012, the author’s agent told the New York Times that women now had ‘the ability to read this kind of material without anybody knowing what they’re reading, because they can read them on their iPads and Kindles.’

Such forms of dissimulation have not always been exclusive to adults. In the face of prohibition, children have long been the most opportunistic of readers. In his survey of child literacy, Jeffrey Wilhelm describes ‘the litany of tricks’ through which one child found time for fiction reading in the face of adult prohibition: ‘flashlight in his bedroom, fake book covers, book inside a math book . . . even faking illness.’

All of which hints at a more profound disconnection between the accepted use of print and the inner lives of readers themselves. The circulation of print prescribed by those in authority, observes Michel de Certeau, ‘tells us nothing about what it is for its users’. Instead of occupying ourselves only with the intentions of the text and its distributor, de Certeau goes on, we must also look at how it is used. Among other things, this is a neat reminder of just how resourceful people can be. From the use of disguised texts by political dissenters to the child reading by torchlight, we should never forget the capacity of readers to misbehave.

Now published . . .

Three Hundred Years of Robinson Crusoe (De Gruyter, 2022)

edited by Christine Haug, Johannes Frimmel, and Bill Bell

2019 marked the 300th anniversary of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. The novel was an immediate success and was soon followed by imitators and translations. With the robinsonade, a new genre of adventure literature was born. These contributions examine the novel within the context of bookselling history, provide new interpretations, and shed light on its multifaceted adaptation history up to the twenty-first century.


Christine Haug
Einleitung: Daniel Defoe zwischen Journalismus, Pamphletismus und
Bestsellerproduktion im 18. Jahrhundert
Robinson Crusoe im Kontext der Frühaufklärung

Daniel Syrovy
On Literary Shipwreck before Robinson Crusoe
Anne Enderwitz
Buchführung, Wert und Fiktion in Robinson Crusoe
Hania Siebenpfeiffer
Robinson Crusoe im All: Daniel Defoes A Vision of the Angelick World

Oliver Bach
Daniel Defoes The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe
und die Hallenser Aufklärung
Die deutschsprachige Rezeption des Robinson Crusoe

Wolfram Malte Fues
Robinson Crusoe und die deutsche Robinsonade
Iwan-Michelangelo D’Aprile
Post aus Felsenburg: Erzählmuster und Nachrichtenverkehr in Johann
Gottfried Schnabels Wunderliche Fata einiger Seefahrer

Peter C. Pohl
Die Robinsonaden von Campe und Wezel und ihre Poetik freier Zeiten
Wynfrid Kriegleder
Robinsonaden in der Literatur der österreichischen Aufklärung
Norbert Bachleitner
(Pseudo‐) Robinsonaden auf den österreichischen Listen verbotener
: Robinson Crusoe und die Kinder-und Jugendliteratur
Hans-Heino Ewers
Robinson Crusoe als Kinder- und Jugendlektüre: Ein kursorischer

Andrew O’Malley
Understanding Robinson Crusoe’s Place in the Literature and Culture of

Daniella Jancsó
Solitude and Survival: Crusoe and the Modern Poet
Bill Bell
Hermeneutic Castaways: Problems in Reading Robinson Crusoe

Further details available from De Gruyter.

Some Early Travelling Libraries

Bodleian Rare Books on Twitter: "#ABCbodbooks M is for Miniature Love tiny  books? We've got you covered: here's our smallest book (Ryder 832), a  German ABC published in 1971. At just 3
Trunk library of Charles I

TODAY the ability to store hundreds of books on a tablet or an e-reader has removed many impediments to far-flung reading. These days, anyone who has access to a mobile phone connection can download an infinite number of titles far from home. But in the past, the itinerating library, aimed mostly at the well-heeled traveller, was one solution for reading on the road.

Innes Keighren has written in a previous article about the libraries that accompanied explorers in the nineteenth century. In another item we looked at the ‘pigskin library’ that Teddy Rooseveldt took with him to Africa in the 1920s. But the travelling library has much earlier beginnings. Alberto Manguel reminds us that ‘Alexander famously kept by his army bedside a copy of the Iliad to give his campaigns classic lustre; almost a couple of millennia later Thomas Jefferson did the same. Both men,’ Manguel goes on, ‘imagined that Homer’s heroes would inform and justify their political campaigns.’

Two Seventeenth Century Examples

In The Tempest Shakespeare has Prospero confess that he prized his library above his dukedom and has the faithful Gonzalo provide his exile with reading matter far from home. There is plenty of evidence such fictional readers had their real-life counterparts throughout the centuries and a number of early examples of the travelling libraries of real readers from the seventeenth century survive. Although there is not much evidence that he used it on the move, Charles I was given a portable trunk library as a child in 1608 (pictured above). Tooled in gold and uniformly bound, the Prince’s collection, which includes a predictable selection of classical authors and standard theological works, is now held in the Bodleian Library.

Among the most impressive early examples is William Hakewill’s of 1617. Hakewill commissioned others for his friends of which several survive. A learned Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, he was a friend of the celebrated bibliopoles Sir Robert Cotton and John Bodley. In 1979, Howard M. Nixon identified four surviving examples of box libraries that Hakeswill gave as gifts to his influential associates. In each instance, Nixon found the contents and arrangement ‘approximately the same’. Hawkswill’s own (pictured below) is now held by The University of Leeds, and, like the others, is contained in a book-shaped trunk. Each decorative case has the catalogue ornately presented inside, and bears the arms of the recipient. While some of the individual titles are now missing, Nixon was able to provide a full inventory of each library’s catalogue. Given their pedigree, there are few surprises in the collections that Hakewill assembled. The major classics are well represented as are early works of theology, all uniformly bound.

Willam Hakewill’s Cabinet Library

Napoleon’s Campaign Library

For many of their influential owners, the personal travelling library served as entertainment and distraction from the rigours and boredom of the journey. For others, it was strategically important to the success of the mission. Alexander the Great’s campaign library had many later imitators. Among the most celebrated are the itinerating collections assembled for Napoleon who was a voracious reader with eclectic tastes, ranging from classical history to romance novels. In the year he became Emperor of France, he issued the following order to his librarian:

The Emperor wishes you to form a traveling library of one thousand volumes in small 12mo and printed in handsome type. It is his Majesty’s intention to have these works printed for his special use, and in order to economize space there is to be no margin to them. They should contain from five hundred to six hundred pages, and be bound in covers as flexible as possible and with spring backs. There should be forty works on religion, forty dramatic works, forty volumes of epic and sixty of other poetry, one hundred novels and sixty volumes of history, the remainder being historical memoirs of every period.

Napoleon’s Campaign Library

During his exile on St Helena, the vanquished emperor found himself with more than enough time on his hands to satisfy his love of reading. Among the titles that he enjoyed the most were the works of Molière, The Sorrows of Young Werther, and Macpherson’s Ossian. In his will, Napoleon bequeathed to his son ‘Four hundred books chosen from my library, among those I used the most.’ Sadly, this final request was never granted and his exile library was auctioned off in London in July 1823.

While, from its origins, the travelling library was associated with the privileged reader, in future articles we will be looking at some modern examples, including commercially produced select libraries for the relatively wealthy traveller as well as more generally available alternatives for the less well to do.


Reading and Resistance: John Mitchel, Fenian Convict

John Mitchel,first martyr of Ireland in her revolution of 1848,Currier &  Ives | eBay
John Mitchel in Custody

THROUGHOUT the transportation period, a number of gentleman convicts (referred to as ‘Specials’) made their way to Australia providing evidence of the vast range of literacies and competencies among the prison population. One class of prisoner, set apart from the ordinary criminal, was those serving out sentences during the periods of Fenian unrest in Ireland.

John Mitchel (1815–75), the son of a Presbyterian clergyman, entered Trinity College, Dublin at the age of fourteen. By 1845 he had earned himself notoriety as a journalist on the staff of the republican Nation and for his associations with the Young Ireland Movement. Three years later he inaugurated The United Irishman, where his editorials advocating armed struggle in the cause of Irish independence brought him to the attention of the British authorities. A central figure of the rebellion that year, he was arrested for ‘Treason-felony’ and consigned first to Spike Island, then Bermuda, and finally to Van Diemen’s Land, from whence he escaped to the United States to continue his career as a political journalist and editor.

The early weeks that he spent in custody ‘were passed in relative comfort’. On his arrival at the Dublin docks he was treated as a celebrity: awaiting his departure he signed autographs for the guards and was given preferential treatment and a single cabin. On his way to Spike Island he dined with the captain, several of the officers loaned him books, and the guards slipped political newspapers under his door. At Bermuda his cell was provided with two bookshelves, which the chaplain offered to furnish, and he was allowed ‘to receive any books I please from home’.

W. B. Yeats called Mitchel ‘the only Young Ireland writer who had a style at all’. Today the block at the Irish fortress prison on Spike Island, where he was held for only two days, is named in his honour. His Jail Journal is full of references to the many titles that he encountered on his way south and the responses they provoked. Mitchel is anything but a passive reader. He uses books deliberately to generate ideas: ‘One feels the value of even a very bad book,’ he wrote, ‘of anything, in short, that will help imagination and memory to take the place of the senses and of human converse, furnishing occasion and stimulus for thought.’ He is also one of the most situational of readers, passionate in his responses, using texts as stalking horses for his hatred of the British state and its colonial agents. Reading Macaulay’s Essays sets him off on a ‘ten pages. . . tirade’ and Alexander Burnes’s Travels in Bokhara leads to a seven-page attack on the abuses of British foreign policy in the East.

Having access to newspapers from Britain and Ireland affords him an opportunity to keep up with the fortunes of his fellow Fenian conspirators and, at the same time, to write long and passionate attacks on Britain’s geopolitical relations. At several points he remarks on the echo chamber of patriotic British journalism, bemoaning the fact that he has no access to the counter-narratives of the contemporary French press.

At times, Mitchel’s diary functions as a commonplace book, and is peppered with quotations from poetry–from Byron to Scott, Moore to Shakespeare–which he takes as relevant to his situation. The quotation of Ovid, Plato, and the Bible in classical Greek are among examples of what we might call conspicuous literacy, a rhetorical strategy that the disenfranchised educated classes often used to signal their resistance to those they regarded as lesser-educated authorities.

The Jail Journal is a highly performative piece of writing full of defiance and intellectual display. Mitchel’s command of languages ancient and modern and his high cultural repertoire are constantly apparent. Most contemporary British fiction, he sneers, would not satisfy ‘the loneliest captive, in the dullest jail, dying for something to read’. Some of the titles he comes across are ‘such offal that there is no use in . . . remembering their names’. More to his liking than the lowbrow taste of his captors are Shakespeare, Rabelais, Carlyle (his hero), and Plato, whose Politics he sets out to translate in captivity. Mitchel’s writing, and his many remarks about his prison literature, show him to have been a complex, sometimes contradictory, but always engaged reader.

While he has long remained a hero to those who have sympathized with the Fenian cause, in recent months the contrarian Mitchel has come in for some severe criticism: his views on slavery and his support for the Confederacy during the Civil War, have led to a recent revaluation of his influence in the wake of the BLM movement. Nevertheless, the Jail Journal, written before his entanglement in American politics, continues to be one of the most detailed and compelling accounts of the mentality of a gentleman prisoner in the period.

Bonhams : MITCHEL, JOHN. Jail Journal; or, Five Years in British Prisons.  New York: Office of the "Citizen," 1854.
First edition of Mitchel’s Jail Journal, 1854

On Not Reading

File:Crusoe 2 (by Paget).jpg - Wikimedia Commons

ALTHOUGH Robinson Crusoe tells us that he managed to rescue several books from the sinking wreck apart from his beloved bible, it is remarkable that, for the next two decades, these scarce commodities go without mention or even apparent use.

Books of course have uses other than reading, uses that would have been immediately apparent to some of Defoe’s early readers. In an age of muzzle-loading rifles, the availability of paper could be a matter of life and death: Crusoe could employ it to pack his shot and to prepare measures of gunpowder for rapid reloading, a technique that would come to save his life on more than one occasion.

And there were more mundane functions to consider: he could use paper to light his pipe, to wrap his food, and for use in the privy. Crusoe’s very account of his years on the island survive because they were written down. When paper was scarce, it was not unusual for the owners of books to write in the empty spaces they offered. The sheer materiality of things, so often overlooked by scholars, is everywhere evident on Crusoe’s island, and remained so in many other social contexts before and after. Whether in the recycled prayer books that convicts fashioned to make playing cards, flyleaves that provided a clandestine writing medium in prisons, or as safe containers for preserving family genealogy, books were never just texts for decoding, but also commodities for use. There are several humorous references to the use of books as bumf (‘bum fodder’) in the First World War. The name of the most famous trench journal of the war, The Wipers Times, and a letter from a soldier in the correspondence column of another (‘I like your paper very much but why print on it?’) are evidence of how the recycling of paper was part of everyday life at the front.

Throughout history, books have served as talismans, occasions for connection—between individuals and the new world and home—protection from alien social worlds, means of spiritual guidance, comfort. Printed paper had material uses as wallpaper, to line pie dishes, to light fires, for packing soldiers’ boots, for smoking. While for many literary scholars books are primarily regarded as carriers of linguistic code, mere receptacles for texts, they were in other words important as a form of real and symbolic capital. A ship’s Bible may have been a charm against disaster, for swearing testimonies, or for pledging allegiances. As we have already seen, private libraries have often allowed for the display of polite credentials. Uniformly bound, lining the walls of a dedicated study, as status markers they indicated that their owner has arrived socially.

In certain contexts, observes Leah Price, ‘a book’s material properties trump its textual content’. The fate of books is not always to be engaged by the reader’s imagination, but also to be ‘bought, sold, exchanged, transported, displayed, defaced, stored, ignored, collected, neglected, dispersed, discarded’. One aspect of the history of reading that we need to consider, therefore, is the existence of texts that were not even read. Lisa Gitelman argues that the history of not reading has largely gone ignored, ‘even apart from the histories of censorship, secrecy, abridgement, or illiteracy that we might imagine’. An attention to these and similar aspects can tell us important things about readers themselves, argues Gitelman, ‘readers with cognitive functions and psychic lives, readers who make decisions and manage their time, readers susceptible to boredom and prone to distraction’. Such remarks apply as well to the many British overseas who were outside the conventional world of literacy, those who either could not or chose not to participate in the kind of signifying practices about which others left historic traces.

Such are the ingrained assumptions surrounding nineteenth-century institutions and the rhetoric of education as to constitute what Harvey Graff has called a ‘literacy myth’. At bottom, argues Graff, the effect of that same myth was to reinforce the values and interests of a hegemonic culture that believed reading, and by implication right reading, was tied to notions of progress—personal, social, and economic—sometimes in spite of evidence to the contrary. In the famous words of E. P. Thompson, ‘the inarticulate, by definition, leave few records of their thoughts’. While traces left by prolific readers can be rich and plentiful, the silence left by others is deafening.

Roosevelt’s Pigskin Library

Roosevelt on the Smithsonian-African expedition

IT is difficult to believe that world leaders once had time for leisurely reading. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt was surely one of the more bookish. Meditating on the intimacy that can exist between readers and their books, Roosevelt once asserted that ‘If a man or a woman is fond of books he or she will naturally seek the books that the mind and soul demand.’ Roosevelt was a demanding reader and books seem to have been for him one of the necessities of life, wherever he found himself.

Between 1909-10, he traveled as a member of an African expedition on behalf of the Smithsonian Institution. In preparation for the mission, his sister, Corinne, commissioned for her brother an extensive traveling library. To be housed in a bespoke aluminum box, over 50 volumes were carefully chosen before departure. Protected from the tropical climate, wrote Roosevelt, and the ‘blood, sweat, gun oil, dust and ashes’ of safari, the volumes were bound in custom pigskin which he later observed ‘grew to look as a well-used saddle looks’. His attitude to his portable library was nothing if not pragmatic. It had to be light enough, he remarked, to allow a porter to handle and in the rebinding process, blank leaves were removed and the margins trimmed to reduce their weight.

An early inventory of ‘The Pigskin Library’ was published in Roosevelt’s account of the mission, African Game Trails. As well as canonical works such as the Bible and Shakespeare, poetry was represented in anthologies of Tennyson, Browning, and Shelley. Lighter works included Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, no fewer than 5 novels by Walter Scott, and Dickens’s Pickwick Papers and Our Mutual Friend. He seems to have been particularly fond of the works of George Borrow, five of whose novels accompanied him to Africa. At the more serious end were Carlyle on Frederick the Great, Gregorovius’s History of Rome, and Bacon’s Essays.

Roosevelt sharing his books in Africa

Throughout his life, Roosevelt was an advocate for the individuality of reading. From Khartoum in 1910 he reflected on the Harvard Classics, the ‘five-foot’ series of great books that had been inaugurated in the previous year. The merits of the Bible and the works of Shakespeare, Homer, and Dante, he remarked, were in no doubt. ‘Mr. Eliot’s list is a good list’, he continued, but it was impossible to make ‘any list of the kind which shall be more than a list as good as many scores or many hundreds of others’. What he really objected to was the Harvard President’s idea of a fixed canon, giving no account of the variety of individual tastes, historical changes, and cultural and geographical difference.

A voracious reader, the 26th President of the United States was sure to keep reading matter on hand throughout the rest of his life and, as time passed, his book acquisitions became ever-more extensive. Later he described his domestic library on Long Island:

The books are everywhere . . . . There are as many in the north room and in the parlor—is drawing room a more appropriate name than parlor?—as in the library; the gun room at the top of the house, which incidentally has the loveliest view of all, contains more books than any of the other rooms; and they are particularly delightful books to browse among, just because they have not much relevance to one another, this being one of the reasons why they are relegated to their present abode. But the books have overflowed into all the other rooms too.

From the intensive relationship that he had with his treasured box collection in Africa, to the assurances he found as he walled himself around with his later domestic library, Roosevelt is an important example of the generations of Crusoe’s successors whose intimate relationship with books has been a source of mental sustenance, wherever they might have found themselves.

President Theodore Roosevelt believed that education was important. He read a book a day to further his own education.

The Pigskin Library, now comprising 55 volumes, is today preserved in the Houghton Library at Harvard.

Now published . . . . . .

Cover for 

Crusoes Books

Available here from Oxford University Press

***Winner of the British Association for Victorian Studies Rosemary Mitchell Prize 2022***

***Winner of the Australian Historical Association Kay Daniels Prize 2022 ***

Crusoe’s Books: Readers in the Empire of Print, 1800-1918

Bill Bell

with a foreword by Alberto Manguel

THIS is a book about readers on the move in an age of empire. It examines the libraries and reading habits of five reading constituencies from the long nineteenth century: shipboard emigrants, Australian convicts, Scottish settlers, polar explorers, and troops in the First World War. What was the role of reading in extreme circumstances? How were new meanings made under strange skies? How was reading connected with mobile communities in an age of expansion? Uncovering a vast range of sources from the period, from diaries, periodicals, and literary culture, Bill Bell reveals some remarkable and unanticipated insights into the way that reading operated within and upon the British Empire for over a century.

This highly original book takes the metaphorical journey as a key to reading itself and goes on to provide several fascinating field histories of specific readers and reading, from prisoners to polar explorers. Providing several brilliant analyses, Crusoe’s Books is striking in its erudition and its scholarship, offering a fresh reappraisal of the classical questions that have exercised historians of the book and reading.  Bill Bell’s book obliges us deeply to rethink the mobility of cultural hierarchies, the practices of popular literacy, and the uses of literature.”

Roger Chartier, Collège de France

Print is mobile, and where one reads matters. Bell’s compelling study of traveling readers disrupts easy generalizations about what print consumption entails.  Whether writing of emigrants or prisoners, explorers or soldiers, Bell brilliantly shows how reading could build community; offer escape or guidance to individuals; and complicate relationship to nation and Empire.  Full of surprising and telling examples about the range of available texts and the different, often unpredictable ways they were read, Crusoe’s Books is a major scholarly achievement.

Kate Flint, University of Southern California

“In this richly rewarding study of the dissemination of books through the contact zones that mark the edges of Empire, Bill Bell explores the waywardness of reading: the propensity of both free and unfree colonial subjects, Antarctic explorers, men and women at sea, and soldiers at the front to read athwart the cultural and political determinations of the libraries they assembled or the books they came across. Crusoe’s Books is a major contribution to the history of Empire and the history of reading.

John Frow, University of Sydney

In Crusoe’s Books, Bill Bell presents a unique and refreshing take on convict history combining exceptional scholarship with a gift for language and narrative style. Using the lens of literacy and observing its impact on the development of culture for those incarcerated or displaced, Bell presents the convict not only as the recipient of text, but as a reading subject. Bell traces the multifarious and embodied relationships of convicts to the printed word, placing this story firmly within an international context during a period of significant change in imperial history. The research is of high scholarly calibre and the writing is accessible and skilful. This is a beautifully crafted book.

Australian Historical Association


Jesus, . . . give me repentance" by George Cruikshank for Daniel Defoe's "Robinson  Crusoe" (1831; rpt. 1890)

SHORTLY after he is marooned on the island that will serve as his home for the better part of the next three decades, Robinson Crusoe fortuitously rescues three bibles before the ship goes down. Although it takes him a full year to begin to read the scriptures, this miraculous provision will prove to be the guiding principle of his life throughout the coming years. With the later arrival of Friday, he begins to teach his only companion to read, as together they embark on a series of discussions about what he takes to be the spiritual implications of its meanings.

In The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, a sequel written by Defoe in the same year, the protagonist returns to his island to find the inhabitants he has left there in what he sees as a degraded condition. One tells him that, although they have endeavoured to commune with the Almighty, they have been unable because Robinson had neglected to leave a bible, remarking on its ‘inexpressible value . . . the privilege and blessing . . . to nations, families, and persons’. Before he leaves, Crusoe sets out to rectify the situation, part of a reconstruction plan that he intends will set the island on a higher moral footing,

A Miracle in Ceylon

Captain Robert Knox (1642-1720), by P Trampon.jpg
Robert Knox

Crusoe was certainly not the first to find a source of identity and stability in isolation through his encounter with the Bible. Homi Bhabha comments on a trope that has ‘played out in wild and wordless wastes of colonial India, Africa, the Caribbean,’ namely the ‘sudden, fortuitous discovery of the English book throughout the history of colonial settlement.’ In fact Defoe was probably reworking an idea derived from Robert Knox’s 1681 An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon, which made the explicit connection between his own discovery of a bible in the wilderness and the delivery of the Law to Moses:

The sight indeed of this Bible so overjoyed me, as if an angel had spoken to me from heaven; to see that my most gracious God had prepared such an extraordinary blessing for me, which I did, and ever shall, look upon as miraculous; to bring unto me a Bible in my own native language, and that in such a remote part of the world—where His name was not so much as known, and where any Englishman was never known to have been before. I looked upon it as somewhat of the nature with the ten Commandments He had given the Israelites out of heaven.

Like the delivery of the sacred tablets to the Israelites, Knox detected the divine hand in the event. The discovery of the printed word in such a strange and remote situation Knox took not only as a direct connection between the old dispensation and the new but as nothing short of an implicit commandment from God to propagate the gospel under strange skies.

The Pitcairn Bible

Stamp: John Adams and "Bounty" Bible (Pitcairn Islands) (Queen Elizabeth II  Issues (1957-63)) Mi:PN 22,Sn:PN 22,Sg:… | Stamp collection ideas, Stamp,  Postage stamps
The Pitcairn Bible

It was an idea that was to find its nineteenth-century apotheosis in the myth of the Pitcairn Bible. In the early years of the century it was discovered that the isolated island of Pitcairn in the South Pacific had been settled by a number of Europeans who had found refuge among the Polynesians after the notorious mutiny on the Bounty. Rumours of the colony began to percolate after its discovery in 1808, by which time it seemed that the chief mutineer, Fletcher Christian, had fathered, with Mi’mitti, a native woman, a child whom he named—in imitation of Crusoe—Thursday October Christian. Shortly after the community was rediscovered it was believed that, by using a bible that had been rescued from the Bounty, one of Fletcher’s surviving countrymen had taught the Polynesians to read and to observe the rites of Christian religion. In the 1830s John Barrow described the sensational myth of this theocratic paradise:

How the patriarch Adams contrived to instil into the minds of these people the true principles of religion and morality is quite surprising. He was able to read, but only learned to write in his latter days: and having accomplished this point, he made a scheme of laws by which he succeeded to govern his little community . . . The celebration of marriage and baptism were strictly observed according to the rites of the Church of England . . . He taught the children the church catechism, the ten commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the creed, and he satisfied himself that in these were comprised all the Christian duties.

The Pitcairn Bible sits today in a glass case in the island’s museum as a sacred relic to the foundations of that little society. Its symbolic importance was commemorated in a postage stamp (pictured here) on the opening of the island’s post office in 1951.

Bibliocracy Now

Donald Trump and the Uses and Misuses of the Bible | The New Yorker

There has been a lot of talk in the past few years, particularly in the United States, about the revival of religious dominionism on the political landscape. There is nothing new about the insistence, by some, on the need to measure the constitution of a political state by an adherence to what they perceive as religious standards. Whatever we might think of such gestures, when the President of the United States choreographed a photo opportunity with a bible during the George Floyd protests in Washington DC last year, he was reenacting a familiar gesture. In its talismanic status, even for those who may never have read it, the identification of social identity with a sacred book is something that has permeated the long history of political culture. The German sociologist Max Weber, describing the tendency to regard the Bible as not just a spiritual and moral guide for its readers alone but the agent of a social and political mandate for a whole Kultur, called it ‘bibliocracy’. While Weber was referring directly to modern European protestantism when he coined the term, the regard for a nation or a sect as a People of the Book can be seen throughout the history of societies and their religions.

moses on sinai with the tablets of the law before the israelites by pietro da cortona
Moses with the Tablets