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The Town That Was Mad: Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood

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By Lauren Hepburn

Considering how long Dylan Thomas was cogitating the essence of Under Milk Wood (from 1931, at 17-years-old), it is paradoxically jarring to know how accelerated and chaotic its near-completion became at the end of his life. Theatre performances of its first full-length draft took place in the spring of 1953, but Thomas was still writing lines until his death in October of the same year. Some of those revisions were intended for the play’s reading on BBC radio and its subsequent publication in Condé Nast’s Mademoiselle magazine, but Thomas died suddenly of respiratory issues, aged just 39, while his manuscript was still under review.

Tracking the conception and creation of Under Milk Wood adds to its fascination. A glimpse of it is first seen in teenage Thomas’ submission to the Swansea Grammar School magazine in 1931, which, much like Under Milk Wood, contained surreal domestic conversations; two years later he spoke of writing a play about a fictional Welsh village, again focusing on the daily and domestic lives of its inhabitants. The proposed title (the village’s name), Llareggub, hinted at the direction it would take – read backwards, it reveals the irreverent, bawdy humour that characterise his last work.

Dylan Thomas in the White Horse Tavern New York Photograph: Bunny Adler.


In conversations with the author Richard Hughes in 1939 and 1943, Thomas expressed an interest in writing scripts about Welsh villagers. In the first instance, he had the ambitious idea that real villagers would play themselves; the second discussion confirmed his aim to combine the mundane with madness: perhaps the village would be ‘certified mad’ by the government. Six years later, in 1949, Thomas finally completed the first half of what would become Under Milk Wood, which, at the time, he gave the more self-explanatory title, The Town That Was Mad. In 1952, it was renamed Llareggub, a Piece for Radio Perhaps and published in the Italian literary journal Botteghe Oscure. The new title reflected Thomas’ desire to have the polyphonic tale performed and heard, but he felt unable to complete its second half. He informed the journal’s editor and, in ‘53, wrote to Gwyn Jones, “I’ve been terribly busy failing to write one word of a more or less play set in a Wales that I’m sad to say never was…”

Thomas’ writer’s block remained until just moments before the play’s first stage production in New York later that year, when the producer is said to have locked him in a room backstage to finish the script (it was finally handed to the actors shortly before the curtain went up). Ten years had passed since Thomas first contemplated his Welsh play, but he had frantically drafted its final third on the day of its performance. He continued adding more lines for shows later that month, and more still for New York productions in October, and the manuscripts that were sent to the BBC and Mademoiselle magazine. Douglas Cleverdon, a producer at the BBC, described what he received from Thomas as ‘extremely disordered’ and certainly not a final draft.

THOMAS, Dylan. Under Milk Wood. Advance proofs of the first complete appearance in print of Under Milk Wood, in John Malcolm Brinnin’s article “Dylan Thomas and his Village”, published in the February 1954 issue, volume 38, number 4, of Mademoiselle. New York : [15 January 1954].

Typed letter on Mademoiselle headed paper signed by Cyrilly Abels, the managing director of Mademoiselle, to a recipient whose name has since been redacted

Fortunately for Thomas, this was not everyone’s view. In a note attached to advance proofs of Under Milk Wood for Mademoiselle magazine, which published an abridged version of the play in February 1954, Managing Director Cyrilly Abels wrote, ‘I hope you will find Under Milk Wood as exciting as I do each time I read it–and I’ve read it five times to date!’ This proof  – to which Cyrilly Abels, managing director of Mademoiselle, attached her enthusiastic note – constitutes the earliest known issuance of the complete text. A magazine known at the time for its literary connections (publishing short pieces by numerous brilliant writers, including Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, William Faulkner and Alice Munro), Mademoiselle also famously played host to a young Sylvia Plath, whose role as Guest Editor in the summer of 1953 provided ample material for her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar. Coincidentally this was the same year that Mademoiselle commissioned the 28-page spread that included Thomas’ verse play: Plath was a devoted admirer of Thomas’ work is said to have been distraught when she missed the opportunity to join a lunch meeting between him and the magazine’s editor. The editors of Mademoiselle collaborated with Thomas, the poet and literary critic John Malcolm Brinnin, and photographer Rollie McKenna to publish ‘Dylan Thomas and his Village’, a feature that would bring the play to life in print.

And so it did. Passing time on a train journey in the winter of 1954, American author James Salter flicked through Mademoiselle and happened upon the newly published Under Milk Wood. In his autobiography he describes the discovery in vivid detail:

In the bluish issue of a women’s magazine in which the models, maddeningly prim, wore little hats and white gloves there was a curious article that caught my eye. It was a tribute to a plumpish Welsh poet whose photograph, taken outside the door of his studio in a seaside town, a manuscript stuck in the pocket of his jacket, was beguiling. John Malcolm Brinnin, perhaps excerpting it from his book, had written about Dylan Thomas and somehow the piece had appeared in Mademoiselle. There was a picture of Dylan Thomas’s wife, children with celtic names, and even a snapshot of his mother.
Brinnin’s lyric description of seedy, romantic life was an introduction to the poem that followed, in overwhelming bursts of language, page upon page. It was Under Milk Wood, roguish, prancing, with its blazing characters and lines. The words dizzied me, their grandeur, their wit. In the soft, clicking comfort of the train I feasted on it all.

On 24th October Thomas experienced breathing difficulties and looked close to collapse at the theatre, ominously saying that he felt his play had ‘taken the life out of him’. Over the next week his health deteriorated further and on 5th November he was taken to hospital, but he did not recover.

Despite its tumultuous journey, Under Milk Wood is one of Dylan Thomas’ best-known and most-popular works. It is constructed using the same enthralling, rhythmic, playful and at times subversive language and structure that he’s known (and loved) for. His ‘play for voices’ sits somewhere between Aristotle and T.S. Eliot: Its linear form and rollicking humour recalling Greek comedy; its plurality of voices and improvement on being heard of course evokes The Waste Land. \Henry W. Wells, a contemporary Professor of English at Columbia University, considered Under Milk Wood proof that Thomas was ‘an even greater innovator in the long than in the short poem.’

In the decades since, Thomas’ seminal script has been produced and recorded globally with all-star credits to its name. It has had music composed by Elton John, been directed by Antony Hopkins, and performed by world-class casts that have included Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Tom Jones, Alan Bennett, Charlotte Church and Rhys Ifans. The late music producer George Martin CBE (aka ‘the fifth Beatle’) recorded a mostly-sung album version of Under Milk Wood, which was performed to an audience that included the Prince of Wales to commemorate the launch of Martin’s independent recording company. Under Milk Wood has seen productions on every scale – in Australia alone it’s been produced as a one-woman-show and also been adapted by composer Tony Gould to be performed alongside the Queensland Philharmonic Orchestra. That Under Milk Wood is one of Thomas’ greatest and most far-reaching works is indisputable; its complex and protracted genesis makes it all the more so.

View all works by Dylan Thomas currently in stock. 

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Mary Westmacott, the real Agatha Christie

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by Andy Stewart MacKay

Thanks to her hugely successful detective fiction, and the many film and TV adaptations of her work, Agatha Christie has perhaps done more to define a particular kind of Englishness than any other writer. Despite the lurking malice and impressive body count, disorder is neatly resisted and withstood in Christie’s fictional England. The horrors of violence and murder are reassuringly contained, resolved and appropriately punished. Even if, by the 1950s, Christie’s village England was already beginning to feel out of date, all remains well in the “Queen of Crime’s” fictional world – and even if it isn’t, by the end it will be. Much, in fact, like Christie’s own life.

Often regarded as the epitome of the conventional upper-middle class English woman of her generation – with idyllic Edwardian childhood in Torquay, governess and finishing school in Paris – she and her family were, in fact, somewhat less conventional than they appeared. Her self-made father was American, her Irish-born mother sprang from German stock and both were born into what was, essentially, the working-class. Fascinatingly, Christie’s American grandparents were arrested in New York City in 1849 for sending anonymous and libelling letters. Like her own famous ‘disappearance’ in December 1926 (which culminated in Christie being discovered in a hotel in Yorkshire, having checked in using the surname of her husband’s mistress), there are elements of Christie life, and her family’s history, that feel distinctly like the prelude to one of her own mysteries.

Front page of the Daily Herald (London) 15 December, 1926.

From the distance of nearly a century it’s easy to romanticise Christie’s England, but it wasn’t always easy to live in it. Soon after her beloved mother’s death, and after twelve years of marriage, following the revelation of her husband’s infidelity, she and Colonel Archie Christie separated – subsequently divorcing in October 1928. The pain of it all, whilst contributing to her famous ten-day ‘disappearance’, triggered something in her, however, that she’d never known: a strength,  resilience, and quiet rebelliousness. Contrary to all the assumptions of her upbringing and youth, Christie became a single and intrepid working-mother who, at the age of forty – on an archaeological dig in the Middle East – met the much younger man who would shortly become her second husband (Sir Max Mallowan). And, perhaps most surprising to Christie herself, she became the most successful author of all time. Like Miss Jane Marple and Monsieur Hercule Poirot, Christie defied expectations. Older ladies in tweed and ‘exotic’ foreign gentlemen, Christie makes quite clear, are underestimated at one’s peril.

Having been a debutante in colonial Cairo, in what was then British-controlled Egypt, Christie would later use this as the setting for her first rejected and unpublished romantic novel Snow Upon the Desert. More self-aware than is generally acknowledged, she enjoyed poking fun at herself. Whilst the funny and camp romantic-novelist Salome Otterbourne in Death on the Nile is often thought to be based on the flamboyant Edwardian best-seller Elinor Glyn, she’s also partly based on Christie herself. Otterbourne is, after all, we are told, the author of a book called Snow on the Desert’s Face.

“Like Miss Jane Marple and Monsieur Hercule Poirot, Christie defied expectations. Older ladies in tweed and ‘exotic’ foreign gentlemen, Christie makes quite clear, are underestimated at one’s peril.”

Christie’s fame came at some cost, however, to her literary freedom. Her invention of a pseudonym, Mary Westmacott (combining her middle name with that of some relatives) allowed Christie to free herself from readerly expectations and find a little space for self-exploration. As Westmacott, Christie wrote six novels – even adopting a different style of handwriting for her pseudonymous manuscripts – and managed to keep Westmacott’s true-identity a secret for nearly twenty years. More obviously biographical than her better-known work, the Westmacott novels –  Giant’s Bread (1930) Unfinished Portrait (1934) Absent in the Spring (1944) The Rose and the Yew Tree (1947) A Daughter’s a Daughter (1952) and The Burden (1956) – are, like most love-themed books by women, often labelled ‘romantic novels’. Christie’s daughter Rosalind more accurately, described them as “bittersweet novels” about life itself – novels that, naturally, also meditate on the power, intensity and destructiveness of love. Christie’s Unfinished Portrait (1934) reads almost like a memoir.  Written in her mid-forties – and without the services of a therapist – she’d begun to wonder what the sum of her life could yet mean, remaining as it was, ‘unfinished’.

[CHRISTIE, Agatha; as] WESTMACOTT, Mary. Unfinished Portrait. London : 1934.

Whilst Christie’s crime stories were one response to the pace of social and political change, her Westmacott novels are another: an alternative ‘disappearance’, and a deeply personal response to the pressures of being a woman in the world. Her pseudonymous fiction offers deeper and more sensitive exploration of the complexities neatly and predictably resolved in her detective fiction. If you want to read the real Agatha Christie, read Mary Westmacott.

View all books by Agatha Christie currently in stock.

Andy Stewart MacKay is an author and cultural historian.

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Christmas 2019 Shipping Information

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We are delighted to announce that we are offering free expedited shipping upgrade on all website orders between now and Christmas. We offer free next day delivery on all UK orders. Overseas orders will be upgraded from air mail to UPS Express at no extra cost.

Last recommended Christmas shipping dates (order by 3pm):
UK: Monday 23rd December
USA, Canada & Western Europe: Friday 20th December
Eastern Europe & Russia: Friday 20th December
Middle East, Asia, Central & South America: Wednesday 18th December
Australia & New Zealand: Tuesday 17th December

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Illustrated Inscriptions

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While books inscribed by authors or illustrators cross our desks almost daily, more unusual are inscriptions which include an original illustration or pictorial signature. Some writers are known for their creative inscriptions: Ralph Steadman, famous for his caricatures, often added grotesque portraits to his signature, while Alan Ginsberg’s inscription is sometimes accompanied by a triple fish doodle, a Buddhist symbol he saw in India in 1962.

We’ve gathered a selection of illustrated inscriptions currently in stock.

The House at Pooh Corner. With an original pen and ink drawing of Winnie the Pooh. With Decorations by Ernest H. Shepard.

Third edition. With an original pen and ink drawing on the title page by Shepard of Winnie-the-Pooh in full traditional Russian costume including a fur hat and playing a balalaika, signed beneath the image.


(RACKHAM, Arthur.) ANDERSEN, Hans Christian.
Fairy Tales.

First Rackham trade edition, presentation copy from the artist to his sister-in-law, inscribed by Rackham with an original ink illustration of the five little ducks on the original front binder’s blank.


The Gruffalo’s Child.

First gift edition, signed by both the author and illustrator on the title page, with an original small ink drawing of the Gruffalo’s Child by Scheffler alongside his signature.


Allen Ginsberg Reads Kaddish.

A superb association copy, inscribed and signed by Ginsberg: “For Robert Lowell, on the occasion of a visit to his house in company with my father Louis Ginsberg on December 22, 1966 in the presence of Lord Gowrie and St. Paul.” In addition, Ginsberg has drawn his fish triskellion.

Ginsberg’s fish symbol appeared on all of his Harper Collins books, and was used as the frontispiece of Indian Journals. In a letter published in the Catholic Worker in 1967, he explained where he had first come across the image: “I saw the three fish one head, carved on insole of naked Buddha Footprint stone at Bodh-Gaya under the Bo-tree. Large – 6 or 10 foot size – feet or soles made of stone are a traditional form of votive marker. Mythologically the 32 signs – stigmata, like—of the Buddha include chakaras (magic wheels symbolic of energy) on hands and feet. This is a sort of a fish chakra.”


(KNIGHT, Hilary.) THOMPSON, Kay.
Eloise A Paris. Dessins d’Hilary Knight.

First edition in French, inscribed by the illustrator “to Elegant, Beautiful, Brilliant Elizabeth Welch from Hilary Knight and ELOISE, April 27th 1972” and with an original drawing of Eloise listening to records and eating sandwiches, captioned “Eloise says The Supreme pleasure is Elizabeth Welch’s sliced cucumber sandwiches and recordings – eaten and played on a Sunday afternoon at about 4:30”.
In all likelihood, the recipient was Elisabeth Welch (1904-2003), an American-born singer, actress, and entertainer, whose career spanned seven decades.


DURRELL, Lawrence.
The Alexandria Quartet. Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, Clea.

First one-volume edition, first impression, inscribed by the author on the front free endpaper, “For Margaret McCall from Larry Durrell” along with a full-page drawing of a map titled “Languedoc by Epfs” and showing Sommières, Nîmes, Uzès, Cevennes, and Anduze. These places were of particular importance to him: “he completed Justine, the first volume of the Quartet, on Cyprus in 1956, after his separation from Eve, and wrote the remaining three volumes in Languedoc, where he lived near Nîmes and in Sommières”


YOUNG, Filson.
A Christmas Card.

First edition, first impression. Presentation copy, inscribed by the author to his old associate Max Beerbohm, while on service with the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in the First World War, “Max from Filson. H.M.S. Lion, North Sea, 5 Jan 1915”, together with an original pen-and-ink and watercolour caricature of the author by Beerbohm drawn on the half-title. Alexander Bell Filson Young (1876-1938) was a journalist who survived the sinking of the Titanic, and published the first book about the disaster just 37 days after the sinking. A bromide print by him of Max Beerbohm is held by the National Portrait Gallery, London.

The portrait is based closely on that executed by Max in 1913 and published in A Survey (1921), differing primarily in expression and the treatment of the hair. Young had given Beerbohm’s A Christmas Garland (1912) a warm but astute notice in The Saturday Review.



BEARD, Peter.
Peter Beard.

First edition, first impression, inscribed in each volume by the artist with an original drawing on the title page. In the first volume, Beard has drawn three elephants, with their ears comprised of his ink thumbprints, around which he has inscribed “greetings and warm salaams to Herbert and Angelina @ Xmas 2009 Blessings & warm regards Peter Beard”, and noted the place of signing in Cassis in France. Beard inscribed the second volume at a later date: he has drawn round his hand, adding in fingernail detail and a bird composed of a thumbprint, and inscribed around it “Special delivery to the inestimable Angelina & her amazing book maker better-half Herbert the great from the compiler Peter Beard February 15th 2010 ad”. The recipient was the photographer and travel writer Herbert Ypma, and his partner; Beard inscribed the books for the former on occasions when they met for lunch.


(STEADMAN, Ralph.) STONE, Bernard.
Emergency Mouse.

First edition, first impression, inscribed “For Bernard’s Joan, from Bernard [Stone]”, and “ with love from Ralph Steadman” on the title page, with an original drawing in black biro and red felt-tip pen by Steadman: a portrait captioned “I’m a critic actually…” on the verso of the front free endpaper.


(RIMBAUD, Arthur.) VIEILLARD, Roger.
Hommage A Rimbaud.

First edition, first printing, inscribed in pencil “à Ralph Kirkpatrick pour ‘les possibilités harmoniques’ Roger Vieillard amicalement” inside the first blank, including two musical drawings, further drawings on the title page with the caption “pour Ralph Kirkparick” signed with Vieillard’s “RV” monogram and dated “1942-1971-1982”. This copy number 46 of 150 signed copies on Vélin d’Arches from a total edition of 186 copies.


(RACKHAM, Arthur.) IRVING, Washington.
Rip Van Winkle.

Signed limited edition, number 26 of 250 copies signed by the artist. This copy also includes a charming original pen and ink portrait of Rip van Winkle by Rackham, dated 17 July 1918.


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“The great and awful book of human folly”: Charles Mackay’s Popular Delusions

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The South Sea Bubble, a Scene in ‘Change Alley in 1720, Edward Matthew Ward, 1847

By Hector Kociak

In modern Britain, where bold and successful inroads upon public credulity seem to be a daily occurrence, it’s natural to look for some wisdom on how to avoid financial, intellectual and moral ruin. The godly would make a sign of the cross and reach for the Good Book; Ecclesiastes 1:9 informs us in Morrissey-like fashion that “What has been will be again / what has been done will be done again / there is nothing new under the sun.” You don’t have to go back that far, however. As the Black Monday crash of 1987 wreaked devastation across world markets, many a clammy-handed trader would have felt a chill of recognition listening to the frontman of the Smiths echo their thoughts on the A-side ‘Panic’, from the aptly titled ‘The World Won’t Listen’: “I wonder to myself / could life ever be sane again?”.

If you’d travelled back a hundred and something years and asked the journalist Charles Mackay, the author of the compendium of human folly Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, the answer would probably be that life was never sane to start with, wherever you look in the historical record. From the crusades, to witchcraft, alchemy, magnetism, haunted houses and more, Mackay’s masterwork sets out in crystalline and quotable prose how men and women throughout history have been hustled, scammed, bamboozled and willingly led astray by themselves or others.

Charles Mackay

The work is an interesting combination of humour and reflection. We laugh along through the chapters on ludicrous prophecies, alchemy, “The Influence of Politics and Religion on the Hair and Beard” and “Popular Follies of Great Cities” (a riff on absurd street slang). Treatment of the Crusades and other destructive superstitions is more sober. Mackay’s exhaustive (and somewhat exhausting) treatment of European beliefs in witchcraft is suffused with clear authorial horror at a “frightful catalogue of murder and superstition”. The reader is made aware that the horrible reality really was no laughing matter.

On beliefs in hauntings and ghosts, Mackay tells explanatory stories of draughty hallways, trapped rats, and human roguery with the relish of an Arthur Conan Doyle. Amongst tales of “hams, cheeses, and loaves of bread [disporting] themselves upon the floor as if the devil were in them”, particularly relatable to the modern reader is Gilles Blacre of Tour. A candidate for patron saint of all tenants, Mackay recounts how Monsieur Blacre almost managed to convince local courts in 1580 that his insufferable tenancy should be annulled on account of his home having become (in his words) “the general rendezvous of all the witches and evil spirits of France”. A worthy excuse for turning down that next unwelcome dinner party, perhaps.

Mackay does not miss the chance to draw a progressive and paternalistic lesson from these tales of folly and superstition. He highlights that the reason they appear absurd to the modern reader is because over time, modern lawmakers “by blotting from the statute-book the absurd or sanguinary enactments of their predecessors, have made one step towards teaching the people”. If ghosts and witches still remain in the popular imagination, it is the fault “not so much of the ignorant people, as of the law and the government that have neglected to enlighten them”.

The witch no. 1, J.E. Baker, c1892.

Some lessons are proving harder to learn, however. Most famously, and at the core of the book’s reputation as one of the first treatments of crowd psychology in the financial markets, Mackay recounts the absurd and entertaining details of three of history’s most notorious economic disasters, the Dutch Tulipomania, the South Sea Bubble and the Mississippi Scheme. If you’ve paid attention to any recent financial manias, the features of the delusions Mackay describes are startlingly and depressingly familiar.

The description of the Dutch Tulipomania in Chapter 3 reads almost like an instruction manual for a financial crisis. First, take a rather sub-prime asset. Make it really desirable. Let middle class vie with each other to possess as much of it as possible in the belief that prices will rise forever. Draw in the cut-throat speculators, wait until the markets hit their peak, then inject a large dose of cold sobriety. Mackay’s reportage is pithy: “It was seen that somebody must lose fearfully in the end. As this conviction spread, prices fell, and never rose again…”.

Mackay’s account has remained so influential that it was often quoted in descriptions of the recent Bitcoin bubble. In July 2010, one was worth 8 US cents. Nobody cared, until everyone cared. On 15 December 2017, a Bitcoin was worth over $19,000 and was being touted as the future of global currency. The cryptocurrency has since fallen sharply, leaving only a group of true believers and fringe speculators to tend to it. Mackay would probably point out that at least a tulip is pleasantly fragrant.

Satire of Tulip Mania, Jan Brueghel the Younger, 1640.


Mackay also repeatedly highlights how some of humanity’s greatest follies spring from a desire to solve its greatest problems. The South Sea Bubble arose from a simple and perhaps slightly too elegant scheme by the Earl of Oxford in 1711 to reduce the crushing national debt. The British government agreed to compensate (at 6% per annum) a mysterious group of merchants for taking on the debt by granting a monopoly of the South Seas trade and certain taxes to the South Sea Company. With the promise of inexhaustible riches from South America funding all of this (bearing an uncanny resemblance to the indefatigable gains of the housing market in 2000s North America), what could possibly go wrong?

Everything, frankly. By dint of its power the South Sea Company prompted stratospheric speculation in its shares and a mushrooming of fraudulent joint stock companies, plunging large numbers of the public into speculative ruin as they indulged their acquisitive instincts wherever they could. The Company itself was embroiled in a scandal of cooked books, and Mackay concludes the saga with Parliament and the Bank of England intervening shamefacedly to fix and find scapegoats for the godforsaken mess. It’s rather tempting to draw parallels with more recent financial disasters, botched investments, and political movements. Mackay’s comments are quietly scathing: “The English commenced their career of extravagance somewhat later than the French; but as soon as the delirium seized them, they were determined not to be outdone…” – a familiar sentiment for the modern reader.

The story of Extraordinary Popular Delusions as a literary object however is not one told entirely by what is between the covers, or by its popular reputation as an instructive warning from the past. Recent scholarship has pointed out that, curiously, Mackay himself was a cheerleader for a contemporary infrastructure investment bubble of the 1840s known as the Railway Mania, which saw frenzied investment in a new disruptive transport technology end with losses for many Victorian luminaries such as Charles Darwin, John Stuart Mill, and the Bronte sisters.

Extraordinary Popular Delusions does not mention the scheme except in passing – perhaps unsurprisingly, given Mackay’s aggressive promotion of railway development schemes in the Glasgow Argus at this time (even prompting a spat with William Wordsworth). The Railway Mania only merits a carefully worded footnote where it is in fact placed above the South Sea project as evidence of the “infatuation of the [British] people for commercial gambling” –  but Mackay takes it no further.

It’s quite a glaring omission. One can only guess that Mackay’s enthusiasm for free markets and the progressive powers of new transport technology led him to think, quite wrongly, that things would be different this time. Perhaps that inherent optimism explains why for its length, Extraordinary Popular Delusions reads fairly lightly even today. Neither a haughty assault on human stupidity, or an exacting work of historical scholarship, Mackay describes the work as “more of a miscellany of delusions than a history — a chapter only in the great and awful book of human folly which yet remains to be written…”. It is not a great leap to suppose Mackay knew that while he may have been a chronicler of popular delusions, it was deceptively easy to become a willing participant.

While the popular perception of Mackay’s work today is as a knowing 19th century guidebook to financial crises, its power as a starter in crowd psychology comes from Mackay’s insistence on humanising the follies he describes. No macroeconomic constructs here – just good old greed, optimism, superstition and cunning plans. Perhaps the final words should be left to the author, describing here the history of the study of the follies of magnetism with a sentiment that could well be applied to Extraordinary Popular Delusions as a whole:

It [affords] an additional proof of the strength of the unconquerable will, and the weakness of matter as compared with it; another illustration of the words of the inspired Psalmist, that ‘we are fearfully and wonderfully made.’”

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Hector Kociak is a lawyer and writer based in London. 

The post “The great and awful book of human folly”: Charles Mackay’s Popular Delusions appeared first on Peter Harrington Blog.

Contraception and Control: two early advocates of reproductive rights

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Annie Besant and Marie Stopes

By Thea Hawlin

In 1877 a woman stood up in a courtroom and became the first female to publicly endorse the use of birth control in the United Kingdom. The Freethought Publishing Company were being prosecuted using the Obscene Publications Act for issuing a pamphlet on contraception. The woman who defended the writing was Annie Besant. She argued that birth control had the power to alleviate poverty. No one listened. The next year her own essay The Law of Population was published: she kept talking.

Besant risked a lot by authoring her essay. In the wake of its publication her ex-husband claimed her radical views made her unfit as a mother. He won the case and Besant was separated from her daughter. The experience was excruciating, and one that saw Besant dedicate her life to “cure the pain at my own heart by soothing the pain of others”. She openly dedicated her work to the poor, specifically mothers “that it may make their lives easier”. In fact the most compelling argument within her essay revolves around her concern for the increased rate of “prolapsus uteri, or falling of the womb” in poorer communities, due to poor women being unable to rest after giving birth and returning to work immediately to feed growing families. For Besant the conditions of poverty were linked inextricably with a lack of choice with regard to reproduction, consequently her argument for contraception focused on how it was better to prevent birth than watch the living suffer.

BESANT, Annie. The Law of Population: Its Consequences, and Its Bearing upon Human Conduct and Morals. One hundred and fifty-fifth thousand. London: Freethought Publishing Company, 1889.

Despite Besant’s seeming progressiveness, it must be noted that her advocacy for contraceptive rights is one rooted in fear, and the classist prejudices of her time. Some of her views are unambiguously problematic: to say her comparisons of the poor to unchecked rabbits or insects feel jarring is an understatement. For her, having many children was a luxury that the poor couldn’t afford.

However uncomfortable, Besant’s work highlighted the vast chasm of experience between those wealthy enough to nurture families and those too poor to do so. Health was a class matter, just as it is today with the privatisation of the NHS and American health insurance. Parallels with the one-child policy in China and the rolling back of reproductive rights in the US show us just how conflicted a modern outlook on population control and contraception are even today. A lot has changed since Besant wrote her essay, yet many of the concerns she addresses have remained resolutely unchanged. She notes herself how a system of complete control on who is deserving to reproduce, and when, would merely: “replace one set of evils by another”.

Though areas of her thesis remain dubious – one method of contraception she advocates involves a wad of cotton that can be replaced as easily as “an old slipper” – Besant busts important myths of the time, including the idea that nursing a child prevented the conception of another, as well as highlighting the dangers of abortion – at the time an unregulated and often risky procedure. As she notes “surely the prevention of conception is far better than the procuring of abortion.” It’s the key argument that pushes her polemic forward. She is perhaps a little too optimistic; theorising that with contraception “the root of poverty would be dug up”. Though she was against abortion she clarified that preventing conception was not morally evil: “an extraordinary confusion exists in some minds between preventive checks and infanticide. People speak as though prevention were the same as destruction.” Again, it is an argument that rages on in contemporary societies. Besant assured her readers “no life is destroyed by the prevention of conception, any more than by abstention from marriage”; a progressive argument that established a framework whereby contraception could be seen in a positive light.

Following in Besant’s footsteps in 1918 Marie Stopes published Married Love, a book so popular it would be reprinted nineteen times. The first female academic on the faculty at Manchester University, Stopes also edited Birth Control News, a newsletter which gave explicit practical advice, and went on to found the first birth control clinic in Britain; a foundation bearing her name, which offers women support in their reproductive health, continues to this day. The first manual of its kind, it sought to rectify the wrongs she had suffered in her first marriage. The book was a means of saving others from divorce: “to increase the joys of marriage, and to show how much sorrow may be avoided.” Information which “may save them years of heartache and blind groping in the dark.” Controversially, Stopes advocated the use of birth control within marriage.

She opens the book: “more than ever to-day are happy homes needed”. Today, with growing divorce rates, some of Stopes’s words sound just as relevant for newlyweds: “It is never easy to make marriage a lovely thing; and it is an achievement beyond the powers of the selfish, or the mentally cowardly. Knowledge is needed, and as things are at present, knowledge is almost unobtainable by those who are most in want of it.” Her assertions are astute: “They ask: Is not instinct enough? The answer is: No, instinct is not enough. In every other human activity it has been realised that training is essential”.

STOPES, Marie Carmichael. Married Love. A new contribution to the solution of sex difficulties. Fifteenth edition. London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, [1925]

Despite dated ideas and references (a point made especially uncomfortable knowing Stopes was a supporter of eugenics), the book does offer advice as kindly and lyrically as it can. There’s often a poetry to the way that Stopes writes about marriage and love: “The search for a mate is a quest for an understanding soul clothed in a body beautiful, but unlike our own.” It still feels at least partially accurate. The famously dubbed “honeymoon phase” is instead a “celestial intoxication”. The text itself is peppered with glorious metaphors, sex compared to everything from music lessons: “Only by learning to hold a bow correctly can one draw music from a violin” to electricity: “To use a homely simile – one might compare two human beings to two wires through which pass electric currents. Isolated from each other the electric forces within them pass uninterrupted along their length, but if these wires come into the right juxtaposition, the force is transmuted, and a spark, a glow of burning light arises between them. Such is love.” She identifies hormonal “sex tides” in women and openly rejects the idea that sex should be for men’s pleasure alone: “The supreme law for husbands,” she writes, is to “remember that each act of union must be tenderly wooed for and won, and that no union should ever take place unless the woman also desires it”.

These early works are compelling examples of how instrumental the voices of women were in creating a dialogue around birth control and how crucial they were in transforming the climate of that conversation. The discourse of sex and the teacherly pragmatism with which both approach their subject are prime examples of how woman’s voices were essential in normalising the narrative around the control of their bodies, but also vital in recognising female voices as worthy of a place within that conversation. For Besant contraception was a political issue that has radical implications for society at large. For Stopes it was personal, a vital part of sustaining a healthy and happy relationship in which both parties are equal. Contraception is revealed ultimately as an issue of addressing power dynamics, a means of establishing control, both within the domestic sphere and beyond it.

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Anne le Fèvre Dacier: Homer’s first female translator

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Penelope and her Suitors (1912) by John William Waterhouse

by Lauren Hepburn

The last ten years have brought particular focus to women’s engagement with the Classics. 2017 saw Emily Wilson publish her much-lauded translation of the Odyssey, and much of the press surrounding the publication focused on her status as a rare female translator of Homer’s work. She was, however, by no means the first to blaze this trail: 300 years previously, the first woman to translate Homer was a prolific but now largely forgotten scholar named Anne le Fèvre Dacier.

Dacier grew up in Saumur in the Loire region of France, where she was taught Ancient Greek and Latin by her father, Tanneguy Le Fèvre, a professor of classics. That he educated his daughter during the 17th century was unusual, and, happily, prepared her to become one of the foremost classical scholars of her day, as well as one of the most inspiring since.

Anne le Fèvre Dacier

It is a testament to her talent that Dacier’s ouvre has been held in high regard, and remained academically relevant for centuries. Even before her best-known work was published, French academic Gilles Ménage had dedicated his 1690 Historia Mulierum Philosophorum (The History of Women Philosophers) to Dacier, describing her as ‘the most learned of women, whether in the present or the past’. Touchingly, there is a school in Angers, France, where Ménage was born, named after her. Over a hundred years later, in 1803, she was again listed as one of history’s great female intellectuals by British writer Mary Hays. Hays included Dacier in her 300-entry encyclopedia of the most ‘illustrious and celebrated women’ of all time, alongside figures such as Agrippina the Elder and Queen Elizabeth I. More recently, in Harvard University Press’s The Classical Tradition, a 1,000-page volume that explores the legacy of the ancient world, Dacier is credited with popularising the classics during the Neoclassical period (particularly with women) and, through her championing of the poet, returning Homer to the literary foreground. The editors of the tome note that after Dacier’s proficient versions of the Iliad and Odyssey were published, no one else ‘dared to translate Homer for half a century’ .

But the admiration Dacier’s translations received from her male contemporaries is perhaps the best evidence of their quality. That she was considered an eminent scholar in an era that was hostile towards learned women was a considerable anomaly, so much so that she is said to have become quite the topic of conversation in Parisian salons. Her first published volume, translations of the Hellenic poet Callimachus, is what catapulted her to success. It impressed fellow academics and caught the attention of the Dauphin’s assistant tutor, Pierre Daniel-Huet, who became her patron. Huet invited Dacier to contribute to – and even co-edit – the Dauphin’s selected reading of Latin texts, Ad usum Delphini (also known as The Delphin Classics), which were subsequently read by circles beyond the royal household and helped promulgate ancient literature. Simultaneously, she had a number of Greek and Latin prose and poetry translations published independently, meaning that between 1674 and 1684, over ten of her editions were made available for purchase.

(DACIER, Anne Lefèvre, trans.) HOMER. 
L’Iliade d’Homere, traduite en françois, avec des remarques par Madame Dacier. 
Paris: Rigaud, 1711.

(DACIER, Anne Lefèvre, trans.) HOMER.
L’Odyséé d’Homere, traduite en françois, avec des remarques par Madame Dacier.
Paris: Rigaud, 1716

Then came the first of her famed translations: Homer’s epic poem the Iliad. Dacier was the first woman to tackle the dactylic hexameter poem, which was first written down in the 8th century BC. Her interpretation captures the essence of the original, with an emphasis on accurate translation over artistic license. At the same time, Dacier’s Iliad is a beautiful example of Neoclassical French prose. Her translation nine years later of the Odyssey was equally admired and was even used by Alexander Pope as a helpful reference when writing his own. Ironically, his was decried by Dacier as being unfaithful to the original.

The difference in style between Dacier and Pope’s Odysseys typified a long-standing academic debate at the time – the querelle des anciens et des modernes (the ‘ancients versus moderns’ debate). In 1714, Dacier published a treatise entitled Des Causes de la Corruption du Goût (On the Causes of the Corruption of Taste), which firmly established her position as a proponent of classical literature’s superiority. She argued that it need not be ‘improved’ and scathingly reviewed what she saw as the deterioration of aesthetic taste since ancient times. Translators such as Antoine Houdar de la Motte disagreed: what he perceived as Homer’s primitive poetic style should be updated to suit cultivated modern tastes. Dacier so opposed this view that she produced an additional two commentaries on the topic, Une Défense d’Homère (A Defence of Homer, 1715), which directly rebuffed scholars’ criticisms of the poet, and Réflexions sur la Préface de Pope (Reflections on the Preface of Pope, 1719). The latter critiqued Pope’s liberal approach to translating Homer’s Odyssey, which was a looser reproduction of the poem written in verse. ‘Whereas Pope’s translation claimed to restore Homer’s brutality, Anne Dacier saw in the poet only harmony and regularity… and in what her contemporaries found shocking, she found traces of the golden age’ (Grafton and others). This veneration of Homer is evident in the multitudinous explanatory notes that accompany her translation: for Dacier, translating the Iliad was not just an academic challenge or means for an income, it was a deeply-felt passion project.

Other female retellings of Homer have appeared in recent years. In 2011, Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles reimagined the Trojan War from the perspective of the hero’s friend and lover, Patroclus. Just last year, Pat Barker told the story of the Trojan War in The Silence of the Girls, this time through the eyes of its female victims. What Dacier would have made of these retellings, we cannot know, but it seems apt that we should revisit her work now and celebrate her as a brilliant scholar – and, of course, as a spirited female pioneer.

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