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20 October 2016

In the service of the children of Serbia 1915-1947

In 1995 a tiny book of great significance for Anglo-Serbian relations was donated to the British Library. It is a brief account of the life of Florence Maw and a record of her years in Serbia and Yugoslavia from 1915 to 1953. The book was privately printed in London in 1957 and only three copies are recorded in British public collections.


 Florence Brereton Maw (1876-1953); front cover of Una P. Moffet, Lena A. Yovitchitch, Florence Maw: the chronicle of her lifework in Serbia. (London, 1957). British Library YA.1995.a.26004.

Maw was one among the hundreds of British women who volunteered their services for Serbian people in the First World War. She was a native of Cheshire, from a Quaker family, and during the war served as a member of the London-based Serbian Relief Fund, a charity formed in 1914 to provide humanitarian aid to Serbia.

This biography also sketches a portrait of Jean Rankin, Maw’s lifelong friend and collaborator, who was among the first to go to war-torn Serbia, whose people were in dire need of help. Rankin served as a trained nurse in the Serbian Relief Fund’s first hospital in Skopje in 1914, while Maw served as an orderly in the Fund’s third hospital in Kragujevac in 1915. They assisted soldiers and civilians affected by war and lived through the great typhus epidemic  Maw took part in the gruelling retreat of Serbia in 1915.

Although only a short biography drawing on a few surviving personal records, the book provides an insightful account of the work of the Serbian Relief Fund. Thanks to the generosity of the British people the Fund organised six hospitals for Serbia, looked after 65,000 Serbian prisoners of war, and supported the education of over 300 Serbian children in Britain, among other humanitarian efforts.

After the liberation of Serbia in 1918, the Serbian Relief Fund played a prominent role in bringing relief to the devastated country. Serbia lost over 22% of her pre-war population and up to 250,000 Serbian children were orphaned by the end of the First World War. In the aftermath of the war the Fund worked with the government of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes to establish modern medical and social institutions primarily for the care of children, disabled war veterans and the sick people.

Funds raised by British children for Serbian orphans during the war were used for the creation and upkeep of an orphanage in the town of Niš in Serbia. In 1919 Maw was put in charge of this orphanage which, in the absence of any suitable housing, was accommodated in a dilapidated former poorhouse.

Maw Serbian orphans (1)Serbian orphans in countryside.  The Home’s annual summer camp was set up in the hamlet of Manastir in Sićevo, 20 kilometres east of Niš. From Florence Maw. 

As the work of the Serbian Relief Fund was ending in 1921, the Committee decided to invest the remaining funds in a purpose-built modern orphanage in Niš. Construction began in 1924 in the grounds of the St. Pantaleon Church, between the village of the same name and the Nišava River, two kilometres from the town centre. Maw closely supervised the building of the orphanage designed by Iulian Diupon, a Russian émigré architect.

Maw OrphangeThe Anglo-Serbian Children’s Home (Englesko-srpski dečiji dom), with British, Serbian and Yugoslav national flags flying. (From Florence Maw).

The Anglo-Serbian Children’s Home was built to accommodate 50 children and about six staff. It had a large open space around it with a garden, an orchard, and a large playground. Its inauguration on 7 November 1926 was a local and national event in the presence of Prince Paul and Princess Olga, government and church officials, British envoys and guests, and Church of England delegates. The Serbian Relief Fund was represented by Mrs Carrington-Wilde, a former president of its subcommittee for the education of Serbian children in Britain, who came from England for the occasion. She continued to visit the Home every two years on behalf of the Serbian Relief Fund estate. The Home was mainly funded by a proportion of the interest earned from the Fund’s final investment, deposited for this purpose in 1921. Other income came from donations from the local authorities, charities and people of Niš.

Maw and Rankin were responsible for the children’s upbringing, with a focus on discipline, practical training and traditional moral values. Children were brought up in the Orthodox tradition and religious holidays were observed according to Serbian and British customs. The children were directed according to their potential or abilities to apprenticeships, the army, engineering, nursing, commerce, teaching, law or religion. Maw was known in Niš and at the Home as “Sister Mother” (сестра-мајка), a term of respect used in Serbia for British nurses in the First World War. She had great authority over the children but never mastered Serbian and addressed her protégés only in English as “my child”.

The book finishes with a chapter on her precarious life under German occupation and the struggle to keep the children safe in the vortex of the Second World War. The Gestapo had taken possession of the Home and by the time the children were allowed to return at the end of 1944 the Home and its estate had been plundered and damaged, and the country was under the control of Yugoslav Partisans.

After the Second World War the communist authorities sought to undermine the Home’s strong link with the Serbian Church and to impose their own ethos and values. These pressures ultimately led to Maw’s and Rankin’s resignations and the handover of the Home to the city of Niš in 1946.

Maw and Rankin decided to retire on modest state pensions to a little cottage in Dubrovnik. In 1951 they made a final visit to Britain before returning to Yugoslavia. Rankin died suddenly in 1952 and only a few months later Maw passed away. Two of Maw’s devoted war orphans were beside her until the end.

Maw Retirement

 The cottage in Dubrovnik where Maw and Rankin lived in retirement from 1947 to 1953 (From Florence Maw).

In 1954 on the initiative of a former member of the staff of the Home, the Serbian Church had a marble plaque made with the following inscription: “To the Glory of God and in memory of Florence Maw and Jean Rankin who devoted their lives to the service of the children of Serbia, 1915-1947.”

Maw Anglo_Serbian Children_s Home 1926-1946

The Home today is a listed building widely known as “The English Home” (Енглески дом). Since 1965 it has been a hall of residence for High School Students. Photograph © Bratislav Arsić, 2016.

In 1953 the British authorities transferred the ownership of the Home to the Yugoslav authorities on two conditions: to serve its original purpose as a home for children, and to set up a Serbian Relief Fund commemorative plaque on a wall of the Home.

Maw Carrington Wilde

A 1938 bust by the sculptor Slavko Miletić of Mrs Carrington Wilde in front of the Home.The Serbian inscription reads “A great friend of the Serbian people.” The bust was removed from the courtyard in 1948 but reinstated in 2004.
Photograph © Bratislav Arsić, 2016.

The Anglo-Serbian Children’s Home is a lasting memorial to the work of the Serbian Relief Fund. It represents the outstanding achievement of a band of truly exceptional people who made a difference in the First World War. Its archives were destroyed in the Second World War, but we can assume that several hundred orphaned children were brought up by this institution from 1919 to 1946.

The Home will celebrate its 90th anniversary on the present site on 7 November 2016.

Milan Grba, Lead Curator Southeast European Collections

Further reading:

Francesca M. Wilson, Portraits and Sketches of Serbia. (London, 1920). 012350.f.15.

Simon Milčić. Engleski dom, kuća nade i ljubavi : svim domcima ma gde bili. (Niš, 2009).

Aleksandar Rastović, Marija Ranđelović. English-Serbian Children’s Home: 1926-2011. (Niš, 2014).



17 October 2016

The Seagull has landed: 120 years of Chekhov’s ‘comedy’

Audiences who enjoyed the recent ‘Young Chekhov’ season of early plays which transferred to London from the Chichester Festival Theatre might be surprised to learn that the work with which it culminated, The Seagull – now generally regarded as the first of Chekhov’s four great mature dramas – was anything but a success when first performed.

17 October marks the 120th anniversary of the play’s première in 1896 at the Alexandrinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg. It is a work which provides more opportunities than most for things to go wrong (a lamp catching fire and a pistol failing to go off in an open-air production in which the present writer took part), and on the first night life imitated art all too closely. As the audience began to boo and hiss, Vera Komissarzhevskaya, in the role of Nina, the aspiring young actress, became so nervous that she completely lost her voice. Chekhov disappeared backstage after the second act, and, although outwardly composed, was so discouraged that he seriously considered giving up playwriting.

Seagull Nina
Vera Komissarzhevskaya as Nina in The Seagull, from P.A. Markov, Vera Fedorovna Komissarzhevskaia (Moscow, 1950) British Library

Nowadays The Seagull is recognized as a masterpiece in its subtle portrayal of the conflicts between youth and maturity, city sophistication and rural simplicity, and the literary values represented by the jaded urbane middle-aged Trigorin, a writer of short stories, and the eager young dramatist Konstantin, son of Trigorin’s mistress, the actress Arkadina. Konstantin’s experimental Symbolist play is greeted with the same bewilderment and mockery that The Seagull received at its first outing. In both cases the audience, failing to appreciate a drama which ran counter to their expectations, were loud in their condemnation; possibly those at the Alexandrinsky were disconcerted as a play advertised as a comedy revealed a succession of thwarted loves, hopes and ambitions and ended with a fatal pistol-shot. When Chekhov’s friend Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko assured him that later performances had been well received and urged him to let it be performed in Moscow, Chekhov initially believed that this was no more than a kindly attempt to reassure him. However, Nemirovich-Danchenko, a successful playwright, persuaded Konstantin Stanislavski  to put The Seagull on at the Moscow Art Theatre, and its opening night there, on 29 December 1898, became a landmark in Russian theatrical history.

Seagull Reading
Chekhov reading from The Seagull to actors from the Moscow Art Theatre in 1898. From S.D. Balukhatyi, Chaika v postanovke Moskovskogo Khudozhestvennogo Teatra (Moscow, 1938) X.908/6396

The British Library holds a translation of Stanislavski’s production score (1952; X5/6281) which demonstrates his psychological penetration of the text and skill in bringing even its most minute details to life. As Thomas Kilroy, who relocated the action to the west of Ireland in his adaptation The Seagull ‘after Chekhov’ (Oldcastle, 1981/93; YK.1994.a.1609) remarks in his introduction, ‘stars like to play minor characters in Chekhov, something which is not even true of Shakespeare’. Stanislavski gave precise directions to his company about such apparently insignificant points as a character’s way of laughing or taking snuff, and his attention to these was triumphantly rewarded. At Chekhov's suggestion he took over the role of Trigorin, playing opposite Olga Knipper, Chekhov’s future wife, in that of Arkadina. This time the play received universal acclaim from critics and public, with members of the audience so transfigured by the experience that one observer described them as ‘looking as if it were their birthday’.

From then on The Seagull never looked back. It was widely translated, with one of the earliest versions being an edition of Chekhov’s plays in Yiddish (New York, 1911; 17107.a.6) where it appeared as Der ṿaser-foygel. Elsewhere it took to the air as Måken in Norway, Die Möwe in Germany, and La mouette in Marguerite Duras’s French version (Paris, 1985; YA.1987.a.4430). The first British production was mounted at the Royalty Theatre, Glasgow on 2 November 1909, in a translation by its director George Calderon.

Seagull Glasgow cast list
Cast list of the first British production of The Seagull, from Two plays by Tchekof, translated by George Calderon (London, 1912)

The play also inspired a ballet score by Rodion Shchedrin (Moscow, 1982; f.541.aa) and an opera by Thomas Pasatieri with an English libretto by Kenward Elmslie (King of Prussia, PA, 2005; MUSIC H06/.10701), as well as numerous film versions, re-workings and adaptations by Tennessee Williams (1981), Regina Taylor (2004), Aaron Posner (2013) and others – most bizarrely, perhaps by the popular Russian crime writer Boris Akunin, whose version contains Chekhov’s original text followed by a continuation exploring the characters’ subsequent lives.

Seagull Akunin
Cover of Anton Chekhov/Boris Akunin, Chaika – komediia i ee prodolzhenie (Moscow, 2000) YA.2001.a.36762 

One thing is clear: unlike the seagull in Chekhov’s original play, shot by Konstantin and carried on dead halfway through Act II, The Seagull continues to soar to new heights 120 years after first taking wing. As Thomas Kilroy observes, `for all their sense of imminence, of the moment about-to-be, all Chekhov’s plays are rooted in an untidy present, full of inconsequentialities, of ordinary helplessness’, and it is this quality which gives The Seagull its timeless appeal.

Susan Halstead, Content Specialist (Humanities and Social Sciences) Research Engagement


13 October 2016

Frederick Cosens, Shakespeare and the Spanish drama of the Golden Age.

Frederick William Cosens (1819-89) had a very successful career in the sherry and port wine trade between Britain and Spain and Portugal. The profits from his businesses permitted him to develop his interests in both fine art and literature. His put together an art collection that included notable Spanish and Italian drawings of the 16th-19th centuries, etchings and two drawings by Goya. His interests in English literature centred on Shakespeare and Dickens. However, his library, containing some 4,950 titles at his death, was remarkable in the British context for its rare editions of major Spanish writers, its manuscripts and for its extensive holdings of 19th-century works. His collections were sold by Sotheby’s after his death, and the British Museum purchased a total of 47 items of which 37 were related to Spain.

Cosens (1)
Frederick. W. Cosens, engraving by Joseph Swain 

Cosens also turned his hand to translation. He translated the Spanish epic, the Poema de Mio Cid, a version that remains unpublished. Three other translations bring together his interests in Spanish literature and Shakespeare. He published a version of Ejemplo 35 from Juan Manuel’s Conde Lucanor (ca. 1335), the tale of the Moor who marries a very strong and fierce young woman (‘fuerte y muy brava’) and succeeds in subjugating her: The Moorish Marriage, bearing some similarity to the story of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. Just ten copies were printed.

Moorish Marriage
The Moorish
Marriage, translated by Cosens (London, 1867; 12490.a.37)

More substantial are two privately published versions of Golden Age comedias based on the legend of Romeo and Juliet: Lope de Vega’s Castelvines y Monteses. Tragicomedia (London, 1869; 11726.i.25) and Francisco de Rojas Zorrilla’s Los bandos de Verona. Montescos y Capeletes (London, 1874; 11725.h.80). Castelvines y Monteses, arguably written before 1604, was first published in Parte XXV of Lope de Vega’s complete works in 1647. Los bandos de Verona (1640) was first printed in 1645 in In the Segunda parte de las comedias de… Rojas Zorrilla (11726.c.25). Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, first printed in 1597, is generally dated to ca. 1595. Both Spanish dramatists drew on an Italian novella by Matteo Bandello (1554); this also lies behind Shakespeare’s immediate source, Arthur Brooke’s The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet (London, 1562; Huth.34.).

LopedeVega (1)
Portrait of Lope de Vega, attributed to Eugenio Cajés (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Cosens translated Castelvines y Monteses because he considered it worthy of a ‘better fate’ than it had received in an earlier version (Castelvines, pp. v-vii). Lope’s play is indeed unjustly neglected. The plot is fast paced from the very beginning, as his audience would have expected. It follows a similar outline to both Bandello’s and Shakespeare’s but with variations: it opens, for example, with the ball scene and Roselo/Romeo’s meeting with Julia/Juliet. Surprisingly, it ends happily with the successful reuniting of the lovers at Julia’s tomb and the resolution of the conflict between the families. As the subtitle ‘tragicomedia’ indicates, comic elements are present: for example, in Julia’s duping of Octavio, Roselo’s none-too-bright rival for her hand. Octavio’s subsequent death, stirred into action by his father, exemplifies this tragi-comic blend. In spite of its quality, Castelvines y Monteses is rarely performed in Spain; Spanish audiences are seemingly more willing to opt for productions of Romeo and Juliet in translation. (Castelvines y Monteses has been translated into modern English by Gwynne Edwards in Three Spanish Golden Age Plays (London, 2005; YC.2005.a.11238) and was performed at the Dell Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in August 2006, directed by Heather Davies.

BandosVeronaOpening scene of Los Bandos de Verona (Madrid, 1645), C.63.h.2.

Cosens considered Rojas Zorrilla’s Los bandos de Verona to be ‘inferior in every way to “Castelvines y Monteses”’. He therefore limited his English version to ‘such portions… as bear some reference to Shakespeare’s tragedy’ (Los bandos de Verona, p. viii). Like Lope, Rojas Zorrilla follows Bandello, but introduces further changes. He adds characters: Carlos Romeo, a friend of Alejandro Romeo (i.e. the Romeo) and, more crucial to the plot, Elena, Romeo’s sister, who is unhappily married to Count París. The latter, now a member of the Capelete clan, wishes to repudiate Elena and marry Julia/Juliet instead. Further innovations follow: Julia supposedly takes poison to thwart her father’s injunction to choose between Count París and her cousin, Andrés. In fact, Los bandos is altogether a very different kind of play both from Romeo and Juliet and Castelvines y Monteses. It contains more action, culminating with Alejandro Romeo’s threat to storm a tower in which Elena and Carlos are held prisoner. Eventually, however, peace is restored and the feud is ended by the marriage of Alejandro Romeo and Julia. The family feud and a possible political dimension predominate over the original, tragic love story.

Recent critical opinion has largely justified Cosens’ opinion of the two Spanish plays.

Geoff West, formerly Lead Curator Hispanic Collections