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04 March 2015

‘To the men and women of the British Empire … a Russian voice is speaking to you’: Once I Had a Home by ‘Nadejda’, an eyewitness account of the Russian Revolution?

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The 1926 book Once I Had a Home purports to be the memoir of émigrée Russian aristocrat ‘Nadejda’, including diary extracts and remembrances. ‘Nadejda’ recounts her childhood in Tsarist Russia, and her early adulthood through the First World War, the February Revolution, the October Revolution, the Russian Civil War and her eventual escape aboard HMS Marlborough in 1920, alongside the dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna. Apparently, in order to protect the identities of those suffering persecution under the continued Bolshevik rule, most names have been changed. The narrative is explicitly addressed  ‘to the men and women of the British Empire’, a warning to take the dangers of socialist agitation seriously from one who had suffered it first-hand.

Or had she? The British Library catalogue lists Once I Had a Home under the authorship not of ‘Nadejda’, but of Phyllis M. Gotch, the daughter of Pre-Raphaelite artist Thomas Cooper Gotch. She was the model for some of his most successful paintings, most importantly The Child Enthroned, and had a number of books published. These ranged from illustrated ‘Boo-Bird’ children’s books in the 1900s under her own name (British Library 012803.a.49) to the novel Golden Hair in 1938, now in the guise of ‘Felise, Marquise de Verdieres’ (NN.28863), a title conferred from an ex-husband. In this work, 12 years later, Once I Had a Home is listed as the only other book ‘by the same Author’.

The Child Enthroned
, Thomas Cooper Gotch’s portrait of his daughter (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Once I Had a Home was published in the wake of a number of successful memoirs of the revolution by White Russian émigrés, such as The Real Tsaritsa, Lili Dehn’s defense of the Empress, and Anna Vyrubova’s Memories of the Russian Court. Material about Russia had high market value in the years after the revolution, and as Ben Yagoda writes of the memoir form, ‘in any society where a particular currency has high value and is fairly easily fashioned, counterfeiters will quickly and inevitably emerge’ (p. 243). There is little evidence whether the audience would have related to the bookas fact or fiction, despite its advertisements clearly labelling it as fact. The book itself is consistent in its claim that ‘a Russian voice is speaking to you’, and nothing in its publishing information betrays its secret.

Once I had a Home
Title-page of Once I had a Home by ‘Nadejda’

So why would she write about the Russian revolution? As Phyllis Gotch related in a letter to a family member in 1960:

My Mother told me that perhaps their most outstanding visit was to Russia. They had many letters of introduction and were received by the Tsar’s Court. There were two court balls while they were there. My Mother went to them with the Embassy party, but her father could not make the effort. A special entertainment of gypsy songs and dances was given to both of them however, and the Tsar presented my Mother with a set of beautiful Russian dessert mats, all hand made and worked in gold, silver and fine silk. I have them carefully packed away at home. My Mother met many distinguished Russian authors and musicians while they were in St. Petersburg and she was actually given a manuscript copy of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Chanson Triste’. (Christopher Gotch, 2011. p. 196)

Possibly, her inspiration for ‘Nadejda’ came from her mother’s stories about the Tsarist court and its ‘mad, gipsy music’ (p.70). Equally, this could be an invented story used to bolster Gotch’s claims to aristocratic status – after her divorce she claimed to have inherited the Verdieres title. I have so far been unable to find any references to this trip elsewhere.

Judging from the book’s warnings against revolution, there may be another reason why it was written. Published in 1926, the first advertisement for Once I Had a Home in The Times came on the 22nd of October, some five months after the end of the General Strike in Britain and a month before many of the miners ceased their action. In its propaganda around the General Strike the government consistently played on fears of a British revolution, and the middle and upper classes responded to the call in force, volunteering in various ways to combat the strike. Writing such an anti-socialist book as Once I Had a Home may have been one of these ways.


Phyllis M. Gotch, Once I Had a Home: The Diary and Narrative of Nadejda, Lady of Honour to Their Imperial Majesties the late Empress Alexandra Feodorovna and the Empress Maria Feodorovna of Russia. (London, 1926). Copies at, W30/1037 and 947.08 *2905*

Ben Yagoda, Memoir: A History. (New York, 2009). m10/.10045

Christopher Gotch, The Gotch Family of Kettering 1755-1964 (2000), updated by Adam Robin Gotch.  ([Kettering, 2011). YK.2012.b.12504

Keith Laybourn, The General Strike Day by Day (Gloucestershire, 1996) YC.1996.b.9218

Rachelle H. Saltzman, ‘Folklore as Politics in Great Britain: Working-Class Critiques of Upper-Class Strike Breakers in the 1926 General Strike’, Anthropological Quarterly 67, 3 (July, 1994) Ac.2692.y/37.

Lili Dehn, The Real Tsaritsa (London, 1922) 010795.c.23

Anna Vyrubova,  Memories of the Russian Court.  (London, 1923)

Michael Carey, CDA PhD student 


02 March 2015

Allegories with labels

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A minor by-product of the Charlie Hebdo controversy has been the realisation that even in their less controversial cartoons the cartoonists made sure the figures they were lampooning were recognised because they were clearly identified in a caption.

7-headed Luther
A labelled caricature of a seven-headed Martin Luther, detail from the title-page of J. Cochlaeus, Sieben Köpffe M. Luthers vom Hochwirdigen Sacrament des Altars (Leipzig, 1529) British Library 3905.f.81.(1.)

Classical and medieval rhetoricians distinguished simile (which makes clear what is being likened to what) and metaphor (which doesn’t). Quintilian says:

In general terms, Metaphor is a shortened form of Simile; the difference is that in Simile something is [overtly] compared with the thing we wish to describe, while in metaphor one thing is substituted for the other.—Institutio Oratoria, 8.6, 8–9.

The same distinction obtained at a higher level between “full allegory” and “mixed” (Quintilian 8.6.44-53): full allegory doesn’t tell you what it means (El espíritu de la colmena or The Prisoner being modern examples which have perplexed me over the years) while mixed prefers labels and personifications (like Pilgrim’s Progress, with Mr Worldly Wiseman and the Slough of Despond).  Calderón wrote two versions of La vida es sueño: a comedia with characters called Segismundo, Clotaldo et al., and an allegorical auto sacramental, where these become Man and Wisdom.

My granny had a hat which my mother used to say made her look like the poster “Keep death off the roads” (I have to point out in filial piety that the resemblance was limited to the hat.) The relationship between image and word here is a subtle one:  we understand easily that the spooky lady is Death with a capital D, but we also need the prompt from the text.

In modern (and early modern) times it’s seen as bad form to use words to explain an image: as Cervantes has it:

“Thou art right, Sancho,” said Don Quixote, “for this painter is like Orbaneja, a painter there was at Ubeda, who when they asked him what he was painting, used to say, ‘Whatever it may turn out’; and if he chanced to paint a cock he would write under it, ‘This is a cock,’ for fear they might think it was a fox.” (Don Quixote, II, lxxi).

A common exchange from my childhood was:

“What are YOU looking at?”
Dunno: the label’s dropped off.”

Doubtless an allusion to Quintilian.


Cervantes, Miguel de, The ingenious gentleman: Don Quixote of La Mancha: a translation with introduction and notes by John Ormsby. (London, 1885). 12489.k.4. (Available online at

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Pedro Calderón de la Barca, La vida es sueño: edición crítica de las dos versiones del auto y de la loa, ed. Fernando Plata Parga (Pamplona, 2012) YF.2014.a.11638

Barry Taylor, Curator Hispanic Studies

27 February 2015

Florio’s Montaigne – and Shakespeare’s?

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Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was born on 28th February 1533, and by the time of his death 59 years later had enriched French literature with a new genre – the essay. Brought up by his father to speak Latin as his first language, he rapidly lost his mastery of it when at the age of six he was despatched to the Collège de Guyenne  in Bordeaux so that, by the time that he left, he claimed that he knew less than when he arrived. However, throughout his life he retained a love and reverence for classical authors including Cicero, Plutarch and Seneca, which shaped not only his philosophy but his chosen form of literary expression, and ultimately made him one of the most beloved and accessible authors to readers outside his native land.

Montaigne 1st editionThe title-page of the first edition of Montaigne’s Essais (Paris, 1580) British Library G.2344.

Witty and aphoristic, the collection of essays, first published in 1580, comprises three books divided into one hundred and seven chapters on topics ranging from coaches, cruelty and cannibalism to thumbs and smells. Their discursive nature reveals many details about their author and his milieu, drawn from his experiences as a Gascon landowner and official who rose to become mayor of Bordeaux, his travels through Italy, Germany and Switzerland, the turbulent years of the Wars of Religion, and his family life, in which we catch glimpses of his masterful mother, his wife Françoise, and his only surviving child Léonor – a household of women from which, at times, he would retreat to the peace and solitude of his tower, fitted with curving shelves to accommodate his library, to enjoy the company of his cat – another female – who has achieved immortality through his observations of her at play.

Montaigne catMarginal picture of a man with a cat, drawn by Pieter van Veen in his copy of Montaigne’s Essais (Paris, 1602) British Library C.28.g.7.

The Essais rapidly achieved wide popularity, and not only in France. They ran into five editions in eight years, and in 1603 an English translation appeared, the work of John Florio. Florio, born in 1533 as the son of an Italian father and an English mother, had left England as a small child when the accession of Mary Tudor to the throne had sent his family into exile, and as they wandered around Europe he acquired a knowledge of languages which equipped him to earn his living on returning to England as a teacher of French and Italian and the author of an English-Italian dictionary (London, 1578; 627.d.36).

It was at the behest of his patroness, the Countess of Bedford, that he set about translating the Essais, assisted by a multitude of collaborators who, through the Countess’s offices, tracked down quotations and publicized his work, earning fulsome dedications by doing so. His lively and spirited version contains colourful turns of phrase which sometimes expand the original, as when, in Book 1, chapter xviii, ‘des Loups-garous, des Lutins et des chimeres’ emerge as  ‘Larves, Hobgoblins, Robbin-good-fellowes, and other such Bug-bears and Chimeraes’ – a catalogue which, as Sarah Bakewell points out in her How to Live: a life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer  (Bath, 2011; LT.2011.x.3266) is  ‘a piece of pure Midsummer Night’s Dream’.

Shakespeare did in fact know Florio, and Bakewell speculates that he may have been one of the first readers of the Essaies, possibly even in manuscript form. Scholars have taken pains to detect echoes of Montaigne in Hamlet, which was written before the published translation appeared, and frequently cite a passage from his last play, The Tempest, which, as Gonzalo evokes a vision of civilization in a perfect state of nature, is strikingly close to Montaigne’s account of the Tupinambá, an indigenous people from South America whom he encountered when a group of them visited Rouen.

Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn or wine, or oil;
No occupation, all men idle, all.

Montaigne remarks of the Tupinambá that they have ‘no kind of traffike, no knowledge of Letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate, nor of politike superioritie; no use of service, of riches or of povertie; no contracts, no successions, no partitions, no occupation but idle; no respect of kindred, but common, no apparel but natural, no manuring of lands, no use of wine, corn or mettle’.

Such passages were eagerly seized upon in the controversy in the 18th and 19th centuries about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, and in 1901 Francis P. Gervais published his Shakespeare not Bacon: some arguments from Shakespeare’s copy of Florio’s Montaigne in the British Museum (London, 1901; 11765.i.18.). However, Edward Maunde Thompson countered with Two pretended autographs of Shakespeare (London, 1917; 11763.i.37), which argued that not only the signature ‘William Shakespere’ in an edition of the Essaies in the British Museum Library (but also that in a volume of Ovid in the Bodleian Library) was false, subjecting both to rigorous calligraphic analysis.

Shakespeare signatureAlleged signature of William Shakespeare on the flyleaf of The Essayes, or Morall, Politike, and Millitarie Discourses of Lo: Michaell de Montaigne ... Now done into English by ... John Florio. (London, 1603) C.21.e.17

Whatever the truth of the matter may be, we can make an educated guess at Montaigne’s response. An even-handed and balanced man who needed all his reserves of philosophy and Stoicism to confront the horrors of a century which saw the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and decades of conflict springing from religious extremism, he would no doubt have advocated a similar perspective on the resurgence of similar dangers in the 21st. And to those who argued about the authenticity or otherwise of these notorious signatures, he would certainly have recommended the phrase from the Greek philosopher Pyrrho which became his motto, engraved on his medallion:  ‘Epekhō – I suspend judgement’.

Susan Halstead Curator Czech & Slovak