The Myth of the Wipers Times

There are a lot of myths surrounding the history of reading. From time to time, we aim to correct historical misconceptions that have entered the realm of received wisdom. This one relates to the most celebrated trench newspaper to be printed on the Western Front during the First World War.

The title of The Wipers Times is a combination of the soldiers’ common parlance for Ypres and a scatalogical joke about its ultimate destiny, the pages filled with clever humour and subversive jibes at the ‘expense’ of officialdom. Its notoriety is due largely to its subsequent circulation during the war in facsimile, issued by the London publisher Herbert Jenkins, and in several editions since. Among other duties, Jenkins was an informant to the Official Press Bureau whose archives indicate that from the beginning of the war Jenkins clandestinely reported to the authorities on the activities of his book trade colleagues. On 31 March 1916, he had written to the Bureau to say that ‘If at any time I can be of any assistance, I hope you will not hesitate to make use of me.’ Shortly afterwards he sent the Bureau a list of publishers and newspaper proprietors for closer government scrutiny. When he applied for permission to reissue The Wipers he assured the Bureau that it had been cleared by the censors before its original appearance, ‘each and every number’ having been ‘submitted to and approved by the Army Authorities in France.’

This is very different from the popular story that has tended to exaggerate the subversive nature of the Wipers. The story told by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman in the 2013 docudrama, for instance, presents it as the epitome of subversion, a real-life combination of Oh! What a Lovely War and Private Eye. In fact its closest affinity was with the society magazine, The Tatler, with which it had humorous sport in both of their correspondence columns throughout the war years. Its pages may be peppered with jocular references to the censor’s incursion, lending the paper an ironic air of mock insubordination, but, in practice, The Wipers was far from subversive.

Trench journals were not just tolerated but were sanctioned as part of the campaign for morale, both at home and at the front. They often portrayed themselves to their readers as autonomous, home-grown anarchic publications but they were regarded by the authorities as an outlet for potential discontent. The fundamental role of such magazines, observes Graham Seal, was to engender the ‘willingness of soldiers to endure the palpable insanity to which they were consigned by forces beyond their control.’ Three decades and a world war later the debate was still raging about the political efficacy of a free press among allied troops. In the face of Churchill’s attempts to impose a more patriotic and conservative tone on newspapers ‘produced from below’, surviving censorship reports indicate that ‘what troops liked was not necessarily what senior military figures believed should be given to them.’ Despite their employment of a dissenting tone, many understood that such publications were actually good for building esprit de corps. In giving voice to the disaffected, through irreverent jokes about commanding officers and frank satires on day-to-day conditions, front line print culture offered a public sphere that provided catharsis, or what Field Marshal Montgomery, who gave a free hand to such publications in the 1939-45 Eastern campaign, referred to as a ‘valuable safety valve’.

Before he published his facsimile, Jenkins approached General Haig to write a foreword. That he declined is not necessarily evidence of the old man’s disapproval but that it might have compromised one of the most sophisticated kinds of frontline propaganda deployed by the authorities in the First World War.

Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa

‘I have no books’ Robert Louis Stevenson complained to one of his correspondents shortly after he arrived in Samoa in 1890.  A full six months later he was able to report, not without a little ambivalence:

Our books and furniture keep slowly draining up the road, in a sad state of scatterment and disrepair; I wish the devil had had K. by his red beard before he had packed my library.  Odd leaves and sheets and boards – a thing to make a bibliomaniac shed tears – are fished out of odd corners.  But I am no bibliomaniac, praise Heaven, and I bear up, and rejoice when I find anything safe.

Stevenson may not have classed himself as a bibliomaniac but we do get a sense from this statement of the intimate relationship that he had with his library. In a passage from the Ebb Tide, one of the final works he wrote before his death in 1894, he meditates on the importance of reading to the condition of exile:

One, as he sat and shivered under the purao, had a tattered Virgil in his pocket. Certainly, if money could have been raised upon the book, Robert Herrick would long ago have sacrificed that last possession; but the demand for literature, which is so marked a feature in some parts of the South Seas, extends not so far as the dead tongues; and the Virgil, which he could not exchange against a meal, had often consoled him in his hunger. He would study it, as he lay with tightened belt on the floor of the old calaboose, seeking favourite passages and finding new ones only less beautiful because they lacked the consecration of remembrance. Or he would pause on random country walks; sit on the path side, gazing over the sea on the mountains of Eimeo; and dip into the Aeneid, seeking sortes. And if the oracle (as is the way of oracles) replied with no very certain nor encouraging voice, visions of England at least would throng upon the exile’s memory: the busy schoolroom, the green playing-fields, holidays at home, and the perennial roar of London, and the fireside, and the white head of his father. For it is the destiny of those grave, restrained and classic writers, with whom we make enforced and often painful acquaintanceship at school, to pass into the blood and become native in the memory; so that a phrase of Virgil speaks not so much of Mantua or Augustus, but of English places and the student’s own irrevocable youth. 

It was of course not England that haunted Stevenson’s own memories in his final years at Vailima, but his own early years in Scotland.  ‘Scotch is the only History I know,’ he wrote in 1891, ‘it is the only history reasonably represented in my library’. Throughout his time in the Pacific we find him returning in his reading to what he referred to as the ‘Auld Lichts’, and in particular the Covenanting writers of his youth to whom he claimed he turned most often for ‘consecration and remembrance.’ 

An annotated virtual inventory allows us to reconstruct RLS’s personal library at the time of his death. Of the over 1200 titles identified, many are association copies. Drawing together items of correspondence and marginalia it documents a life punctuated by the acquisition of books. Early items include a copy of James Aikman’s Annals of the Persecution in Scotland bearing an inscription of the young Stevenson’s name by his father. On 7 September 1868 the eighteen year old had written to his mother to thank her for this addition to his library: ‘This morning I got a delightful haul,’ he wrote, ‘a precious and most acceptable donation, for which I tender my most ebullient thanksgivings. I almost forgot to drink my tea and eat mine egg.’

Even when he was far away from his books, they were very much on his mind. He referred to the volume by name in a letter from San Francisco written to his friend Charles Baxter in 1880: ‘Among my books there is one . . . in the shelves immediately behind one as one sits at the business table on which I think you will find my name written by my father; if it is so, please keep it.’ In such acts of giving and receiving, Stevenson reinforced his personal relationships and his sense of his own past through the many books he had owned.

Curiously, RLS confessed to having based a number of details in Treasure Island on his reading of Robinson Crusoe, going on to identify the specific appeal of Defoe’s novel for him:

It is the grown people who make the nursery stories; all the children do, is jealously to preserve the text. One out of a dozen reasons why Robinson Crusoe should be so popular with youth, is that it hits their level in this matter to a nicety; Crusoe was always at makeshifts and had, in so many words, to play at a great variety of professions; and then the book is all about tools, and there is nothing that delights a child so much.

Stevenson’s own copy of the novel, an edition of 1851, was given to him when he was eight and is bound in with a Life of Alexander Selkirk. It was heavily annotated and the illustrations appeared to be coloured in by RLS himself.


Jane Austen in the Trenches?

Ever since the publication of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Janeites’ – a short story about a secret society of officers in the First World War with an overwhelming devotion to the works of Jane Austen – it has been rumored that Tommy Atkins was a big fan. It is an idea that appears to have been given historical credibility 70 years after the war. In a letter to the TLS (3 Feb. 1984), Martin Jarrett-Kerr recollected having been told five decades earlier by his non-combatant tutor at Oxford, H.F. Brett-Smith, that the latter had been employed to recommend suitable works for the rehabilitation of shell-shocked troops. Brett-Smith had apparently confided to his student that ‘His job was to grade novels and poetry according to the “Fever-Chart”. For the severely shell-shocked he selected Jane Austen.’ In the 1930s, when Jarrett-Kerr was an undergraduate at Oxford, the relatively young subject of university English Literature still had a relevance problem. This was also a period when the scars of another battle at Oxford (between Eng Lit and German Philology) were still raw. All in all, the conditions were rife for peddling a belief in the patriotic credentials of Pride and Prejudice.

In 2009, Brian Southam wrote a letter to the Times Literary Supplement asking whether anyone had documentary evidence for Brett-Smith’s ‘fever chart’. No reply appears to have been forthcoming. Since which time the myth of the First-World-War-Austen has been reproduced, recycled, and embellished countless times. John Mullan, picking up on Jarrett-Kerr’s anecdote, wrote in The Guardian in 2013 that ‘It is impossible not to speculate as to his reasons for thinking Austen the best solace for those who were severely traumatised.’ From The Telegraph to The Daily Mail, newspapers were soon jumping on the bandwagon and Oxford professors were happy to oblige them with soundbites: ‘She was read in the trenches. She was a prescribed script for tortured, troubled souls . . . . She’s always been adored by the academic community and the popular community and there are few people who do inspire that kind of devotion.’

Soon the same myth was being peddled with ever greater confidence, a story that became truer in the retelling. In 2016 an exhibition at The Folger Library on Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity took for granted the novelist’s special status in military circles, dedicating a section on ‘Will and Jane go to War’. While admitting that the ‘fever-chart’ story has ‘very little evidence to go on’, one critic in the following year went on to write a whole book chapter on ‘Conscripting Gentle Jane’ speculating why Austen might have been popular with troops. The collision of the novelist’s bicentenary and the memorialization of the First World War made the connection almost irresistible to copy writers in and around 2017. Since which time, the dubious story of real troops with an overwhelming passion for her works was being taken for granted in certain quarters.  

Anyone who knows anything about the changing fortunes of the ‘immortal Jane’ can be forgiven for their skepticism. Although it is not impossible that there were some Austen devotees among the millions of men at the Front, there is scant evidence for a Janeite cult in the trenches: in soldier’s accounts I have found only two references, one of which includes ‘Austin’s [sic] Pride and Prejudice’ among an otherwise long list of titles that one man encountered. All of the evidence would seem to suggest that Austen’s fiction held far less popular appeal among troops than Charles Dickens, Rider Haggard, and Nat Gould, who figure in their diaries and letters with far greater frequency. And that, of course, was the whole ironic purpose of ‘The Janeites’ which was not meant to document the way that soldiers identified with the gentil world of Georgian middle-class respectability but was, in fact, Kipling’s conceit on the anomaly of polite tea parties and marriage proposals in the heat of battle.

It seems that Kipling scholars have always got the joke. In 1959 J.M.S. Tompkins remarked about the way that the horrors of war “contrast in every way with the exquisite art of Jane Austen, the strange but natural resource of the men whose duty it is to deal familiarly with carnage.” In 1971, Charles Carrington remarked that “the story would have the same point if it had been called ‘The Trollopians’.            

After the war Kipling himself sent a consignment of books to the Western Front for the entertainment of the occupying force, a full inventory of which can be found in the YMCA Archives at the University of Birmingham. Margaret Ballie-Sanders, Violet Jacobs, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Buchan, Stanley Weyman and a host of other popular writers were sent, but Kipling didn’t think to include a single volume of Jane Austen.

Unpacking my Library

One of the most poignant meditations on the intimacy that can exist between the exile and his books was written by Walter Benjamin in the 1930s. After the breakup of his marriage he found himself alone in a new city and, having spent years drifting from place to place, he reflected on the way that his books evoked in him deeply personal memories. Describing the sensation of opening his crates, Benjamin writes in ‘Unpacking my Library’ that ‘Everything remembered and thought, everything conscious, becomes the pedestal, the frame, the base, the lock of his property.’ Like a latter-day Crusoe, Benjamin the exile describes it as a magical event serving ‘to renew the old world’, invoking past times and geographies, allowing for the reconstitution of an otherwise vulnerable psyche.

Walter Benjamin

Turning to this episode, Alberto Manguel describes the way in which the act of unpacking a familiar book after a separation of time and distance can suddenly transform it into ‘a token, a keepsake, a relic, a piece of DNA from which an entire body can be rebuilt.’ Manguel, the son of a diplomat, reflecting on his own itinerant childhood, recalled how reading provided ‘a permanent home, and one I could inhabit exactly as I felt, at any time, no matter how strange the room in which I had to sleep or how unintelligible the voices outside my door’. Every book that accompanied him on his travels was ‘a world unto itself’, reflects Manuel, ‘and in it I took refuge.’

john Gielgud as Prospero

The image of the exiled reader reconstituted through books was of course familiar long before Defoe took up the theme. That famous Shakespearean castaway, Prospero, who prized his library above his dukedom, tells us that the precious books with which the faithful Gonzalo has furnished him in his island solitude is a source of magical power. A century earlier, Thomas More’s fictional envoy, Raphael Hythloday, not expecting to see home any time soon, loaded a collection of the finest classical editions on his fourth voyage. When he arrived in Utopia, he bequeathed them to his hosts along with a printing press, thereby establishing a new canon of learning far from Europe, based on the best examples of early sixteenth-century knowledge. So resilient was the idea of the library in exile that, in the 1840s, the solitary Henry Thoreau was still keeping a familiar copy of The Iliad at his bedside during his sojourn at Walden Pond. Turning to his well-worn copies of Homer and Aeschylus in an age of mass circulation, he reflected on how they seemed as ‘solitary, and the letter in which they are printed as rare and curious, as ever.’

The library as a cultural carapace for the individual against the tyranny of distance is a trope that has not only repeated itself time and again in literature and visual culture but is an idea which has appealed to generations of itinerant readers.

Welcome to Crusoe’s Books

After I had been there about Ten or Twelve days, it came into my Thoughts that I should lose my Reckoning of Time for want of Books and Pen and Ink, and should even forget the Sabbath Days from the working Days; but to prevent this, I cut it with my Knife upon a large Post, in Capital Letters; and making it into a great Cross, I set it up on the Shore where I first landed, viz., I came on Shore here the 30th of Sept. 1659 . . . .  among the many things which I brought out of the Ship in the several Voyages, which, as above mentioned, I made to it, I got several things of less Value, but not all less useful to me, which I omitted setting down before; as in particular, Pens, Ink, and Paper, several parcels in the Captain’s, Mate’s, Gunner’s, and Carpenter’s keeping, three or four Compasses, some Mathematical Instruments, Dials, Perspectives, Charts, and Books of Navigation, all of which I huddel’d together, whether I might want them or no. Also I found three very good Bibles, which came to me in my Cargo from England and which I had packed up among my things; some Portugueze Books, also, and among them two or three Popish prayer-books, and several other Books, all of which I carefully secured.

Daniel Defoe, The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719)

This is a blog about the history readers on the move. Thematically, it is located somewhere between travel writing and book history, two fields in which I’ve long had an interest. More specifically it is somewhere to think about the important place that travelling libraries have held in the lives of itinerant readers. What do people read on planes, trains, and space ships? Why do they read on the road? Where do they read and what are the consequences? These questions are what this blog is all about.

When Daniel Defoe shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe on his island, he allowed him to rescue from the ship before it went down a catalogue of belongings that would help his castaway survive throughout the coming years. As well as pens, ink, and paper, Crusoe makes sure to rescue a neat little library. Together, the instruments of reading and writing serve to preserve his story as well as his sanity. In the three centuries since Crusoe first turned to his Bible far from home at moments of existential crisis, readers under strange skies have use their libraries as a means of sustenance, hope, and recreation. Emigrants to the New World, prisoners to Australian penal colonies, explorers in Antarctica, troops in the trenches of the First World War, are among those who have shared Crusoe’s devotion to reading in extreme circumstances.

This blog also happens to share a title with a book that is to appear in 2021 from Oxford University Press. It’s a topic on which I have been thinking and writing almost as long as Crusoe’s three decade sojourn on his island. This blog is a place where I propose to go on thinking about hermeneutic castaways beyond the appearance of that book later this year. If anyone happens to find this message in a bottle, do please let me know by leaving your responses in the comment box.