Waltzing with the Goddess in Modern Britain


Ruth Lindley

Ruth Lindley is a PhD student looking at the place of religion and spirituality within the problematic of ‘modernity.’ You can follow her on Twitter @RuthLindley.

In September 1999, PhD student Ruth Mantin inter-viewed Jaki, a self-identified witch, about her spiritual journey with the Goddess. After discussing Jaki’s Jewish background, Ruth asked whether her relationship with the Goddess was comparable to the ‘God wrestling’ of Jewish theology:

I mean, ‘God wrestling’ to me suggests that you set yourself against him. ‘Goddess stroking’ or ‘Goddess tickling’ or something… It’s different from how God effects, God is so definitely the other that you’ll spend your whole time working out your relationship with God, whereas Goddess is just there, through us, enabling us to explore on Her behalf… Perhaps Goddess waltzing. [1]

For Jaki, Goddess waltzing was all about engaging with the sustaining symbolism of the female in divinity as an alternative to the misogyny of the monotheistic traditions. She explains to Ruth how the fluid and changing nature of the Goddess addresses what she views as the damaging “otherness” of the male God in the Western tradition:

I have occasionally experienced this as ‘other’ but most of the time to me it is the planet, it is nature, it is beauty, it is conduct of human relations which are all part of the Goddess to me… Soul, spirit, mind, body, it’s all embodied… unless we see it as embodied, acting through everything, we are going to continue with this sort of genocidal behaviour, the love of war toys, wastage of all our resources in war games, I mean wrong set of values. [2]

Jaki was one of nine women Ruth inter-viewed between March 1999 and July 2000 for her thesis on contemporary feminist spirituality. Although the common theme of Goddess waltzing ties the participants’ testimonies together, descriptions of the process are varied and sometimes divisive. For Helen, a Pagan who belonged to a local Unitarian community, waltzing with the Goddess allowed her to reject the idea of a static “true female self” and to embrace the pluralities of her experience:

The Goddess image was the mother, the woman, the child bearer, the creatrix, the whole gamut of female emotions, ways of being… I have uncovered layers of myself which has enabled me to take on other layers. I am deeply happy at the moment, it’s a wonderful feeling and it’s enabled me to be much more open to other things, other people and other situations because I don’t need to be anything particular anymore. [3]

Finding out what it meant for women like Jaki and Helen to waltz with the Goddess reveals so much rich and textured history of how faith is experienced in the modern world: a history that is lost when interpreted using current historical models. My PhD thesis looks at the oral testimonies of Ruth’s inter-viewees, and other similar sources, to messy the linear narratives that historians and sociologists use to tell the story of religion and spirituality in modernity, especially in relation to gender’s role in contemporary religious change.

When released from these kinds of stagnant narratives, the testimonies of Ruth’s participants reveal the fluid exchanges that were taking place between religion, spirituality and gender. Not only were the inter-viewees engaged in complicated and sometimes painful theological reflection when reimagining the objects and modes of their religiosity, they also engaged with the feminine principle of the Goddess as a fluid and transforming category.

A detailed study of Goddess waltzing forces us to question current scholarship on the ‘twin’ stories of gender and religion in the contemporary world. The most recent interpretations of the secularisation narrative identify women’s abandonment of the church in the 1960s as the primary motive force behind religious decline. Historians have constructed this argument around a blunt understanding of the way gender works: using the fictive nineteenth century constructions of the ‘feminisation of piety’ and the ‘privatisation of faith’ to argue that ‘heathen man’ secularised long before his counterpart, ‘spiritual woman.’

Masculine/feminine and public/private are just two of the outmoded and largely unchallenged binaries that frame the secularisation narrative and allow it to emphasise the inevitability of religious decline. Others include religious/secular; religious/spiritual; modern/tradition; bondage/freedom; East/West; universalism/particularity; progressive/outmoded. Especially in the sociological literature, these binaries carry problematic value judgements. They fail to escape from the implicit perspectives of religious institutions to whom ‘women’s spirituality’ is seen as ‘alternative’ as opposed to ‘mainstream’, ‘casual’ as opposed to ‘organised’, diluted as opposed to strong.

When viewed through the lens of this kind of reductive scholarship, Goddess waltzing looks like the result of a lot of ‘sloppy thinking.’ The willingness of Ruth’s participants to maintain several propositions simultaneously, some of which appear mutually exclusive, reflects a fluidity of thought that is too readily dismissed by historians and sociologists as unstructured and insignificant. What’s more, adherence to the clichéd historical construction of ‘spiritual woman’ allows this scholarship to emphasise the over-determined ‘feminine’ aspects of contemporary spiritual movements in order to claim that modern women turn to ‘alternative spiritualties’ because they nurture feminine qualities, which are depicted as timeless and universal.

To read the experiences of Ruth’s inter-viewees in terms of secularisation, ‘abandonment’ and ‘loss’ is to misinterpret the changing landscape of modern religiosity: it is a misinterpretation in which overdrawn binaries underpin linear narratives of change and imagined crisis. In order to better understand religious movements of the modern world we need, not just to reframe the idea of secularisation, but to remove it from our analytic vocabulary altogether. Only then will we be able to bring into focus the case studies that demand a quest for new paradigms.


[1] R. Mantin, ‘Thealogies in Process: The Role of Goddess-Talk in Contemporary Feminist Spirituality’, PhD Thesis, University of Southampton (2001), Jaki, pp. 16-17

[2] Ibid., p. 6.

[3] Mantin, ‘Thealogies in Process’, Helen, p. 5.


Amateur gentlemen, Everest, and the Science of Foie Gras.


Vanessa Heggie

In 1933 the rations for the British Expedition to Everest included, according to a recent history:

half a dozen kinds of breakfast food, bacon, ham, beef, mutton, chicken, lobster, crab, salmon, herrings, cod-roes, asparagus, caviar, foie gras, smoked salmon, sausages, many kinds of cheese, a dozen varieties of biscuit, jam, marmalade, honey, chocolates, sweets, toffee, tinned peas, beans, and spaghetti [p.135]

I often talk about provisioning in the seminars and lectures I give on exploration, and after this quote go on to say the 1953 Everest team, the first to put two men on the summit, debated whether or not to take foie gras. This nearly always raises a laugh from the audience, and it’s a laugh of familiarity, at least for British listeners, who almost seem to expect this sort of dietary quirk.

There’s a strong popular image of late nineteenth and early twentieth century explorers: they are male, white, usually fairly posh, and imbued with a (possibly unfounded) self-confidence – if we’re feeling generous we might call it ‘pluck’ – a deep conviction in the rightness of their actions, thoughts, words, the superiority of their moral and social codes. Men who genuinely think that their experience climbing Snowdon or Ben Nevis fits them for the icy, unmapped edges of the highest mountain on earth. Amateurs, in other words.

But the fois gras story is a cheap trick on my part; in 1952 the Everest team’s physiologist and doctor, the magnificently named Lewis Griffith Cresswell Evans Pugh, was determined to design the most efficient ration pack possible. One factor he considered was the fact that human bodies at high altitude tend to produce more haemoglobin in their blood, apparently in response to the reduction in available oxygen in the atmosphere.

When he wrote to experts on nutrition and blood function, they told him that some foods contained particularly high quantities of the iron and other nutrients essential in the production of haemoglobin: including offal, such as liver, kidney, and gizzard, as well as eggs and some fruit. Including caviar and foie gras – which were both available in conveniently portable tins – was a serious, scientifically informed suggestion. (Liver sausage and cod roe were a more affordable alternative).

Amateur is a dangerous word. Despite the romantic vision of gentlemanly-amateur climbers, the reality is that all the British Everest expeditions were expertly equipped, at least according to the standards of the day.

Participation was certainly not open to professionals, if by that we mean people paid to take part in (or train others in) sport; that was a class distinction – Everest expeditions were spaces for mostly upper middle class men, often Oxbridge graduates.People from other backgrounds were treated with suspicion, and even deliberately excluded. But the expeditions were supposed to take the best equipment possible, and expedition organisers sought opinions from a range of professional experts, and, most importantly, those who had experience of climbing at high-altitude.

A slightly battered, silver metal box marked with the words Mount Everest in red. The lid is opened up to reveal bottles, boxes and other medical supplies.

L0035747 Tabloid medicine chest used on 1933 Mount Everest Expedition Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org A Tabloid medicine chest, packed with Burroughs Wellcome Tabloid products, used on the 1933 Mount Everest Expedition Photograph c. 1933 Published: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

And yet it’s easy to find stories about the amateur attitude of early climbers, usually illustrated by a rejection of scientific or expert advice. The story most often told is one about oxygen; that the early attempts on Everest in the 1920s and ‘30s failed because the expeditions – and their supporters in the Royal Geographical Society and the Alpine Club – considered the use of oxygen unsporting; it just ‘wasn’t cricket’ to use technology to climb a mountain.

That argument is pretty thin: there were a few members of the teams who would have preferred an oxygenless ascent, or thought that at least an attempt should be made to climb the mountain without oxygen first, resorting to oxygen only if it was proved necessary. But by far the biggest barrier to oxygen use was the fact that the early systems didn’t work well: they were awkward, constricting, leaky, prone to freezing up at inopportune moments, and frequently did not release enough oxygen to compensate for their significant weight. There were also serious scientific and bio-medical concerns about the dangers of using fallible oxygen systems at altitude, and the physiological evidence about the need for oxygen was, at best, ambivalent.

So why do we tend to remember a scientific debate as one about sporting amateurism and gentlemanly values instead? Probably because that’s how it was described by the team who did get up Everest, and particularly by Pugh, in the 1950s. Looking back at the expeditions of the 1920s and 30s, he and the ’53 team doctor Mike Ward wrote that it was a ‘futile controversy over the ethics of using oxygen’ that had ‘handicapped for thirty years’ the introduction of functional respiration systems [p.276].

Pugh’s suggestion that the debate was about ethics in oxygen use, and not about the technology or science of oxygen, is probably a reflection of his own struggles to conduct and implement scientific work in the 1950s (and for much more on Pugh’s story I thoroughly recommend Everest – The First Ascent, an excellent biography). But his claim about the 1920s and ‘30s proved easy to believe precisely because it fed, and continues to feed, into a stereotype we find so familiar.

Amateur has been both a complement and an insult for twentieth century British men. While it might imply incompetence, inexperience, inadequacy, it can also suggest a purity of motive, and natural skill or talent, and has remained a word with some positive connotations in British sport (and British sports history). Often it is employed in a nostalgic way to indicate the Times Past when sports people behaved better, tried harder, were physically and emotionally hardier, and avoided drugs (this last point, of course, is nonsense).

These sorts of imagined identities, this slippage between rhetoric and reality, can make us spot-blind to some historical events; in this case the cross-over areas between sport, physical endeavour, exploration, and science.

To be a gentleman-amateur was clearly important to the self-identities of a cohort of British men in the twentieth century; but exactly what this meant in terms of attitudes and behaviours varied from man to man, from decade to decade. Personal identities are clearly deeply significant to historical figures, and to the historians who try to understand them, but they do not always work well as explanatory mechanisms – ways of explaining why this happened rather than that.

Gentleman-amateurs supported oxygen, and also opposed it, just as scientists supported oxygen and also opposed it. Awkwardly, historical figures also change their minds – the epitome of the gentleman climber, George Mallory, started as an oxygen-sceptic, was rapidly persuaded of the gas’s value, and climbed to his death in 1924 wearing a respiration system.

The technical, scientific debate might be much less fun than the romantic mythology, but it is also a better, more useful explanation. Foie gras can be scientific nutrition and a luxurious taste of home.

A ‘Courageous Decision’? Using Sitcoms as Sources for Historical Research


Kathryn Robinson

Kathryn Robinson has recently completed an MRes degree in Twentieth Century British History with MBS at Birmingham.


The word ‘courageous’, deployed in this post’s title, is used by Sir Humphrey Appleby and other civil servants in Yes Minister to refer to a decision or policy that would cause the politician to fall flat on their face, despite the best of intentions.

Part of my MRes degree in Twentieth Century British History has involved completing a 20,000 word thesis on the portrayal of Thatcherism in BBC situation comedy during the 1980s, with particular focus on Only Fools and Horses, Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister, Bread and The Young Ones.

What follows is a guide to any student considering research in the field of television and some thoughts about how television can enrich Modern British Studies and the historical profession more broadly.

1. Serious television history studies completed by historians are scarce
Despite some innovative studies on television history, historians still have a long way to go to fully recognising the equal status of television to any other historical source. Lawrence Black suggests bluntly but accurately that historians should spend less time judging television and more time watching it: an assertion that many of us need to heed. [1]

Many historical movements and philosophies, such as the Annales movement and ‘history from below’, have taught us that the everyday and ordinary are immensely valuable in writing history. Television is ubiquitous in contemporary British society and has been a key factor in many British people’s lives throughout the twentieth century. Therefore it merits study it in its own right, rather than merely as a light-hearted illustration of a more ‘important’ theme or concept.

2. Television archives can be both fascinating and frustrating
When I embarked upon this course, I naïvely expected to visit an archive and find recently released, confidential letters from Margaret Thatcher to John Sullivan pleading with him to reconsider that joke about dole queues in the 1982 Only Fools and Horses Christmas Special. Alas, this was not to be.

As a historian, you feel a sense of privilege using archives through seeing sources first-hand and handling correspondence and other documents that have not been released into the public domain.

However, the once-held belief that drama and light entertainment programmes had little worth unless they could be sold to other networks or countries has severely impacted the historians’ quest for relevant source material, especially for earlier programmes.[2] This perceived inferiority of light entertainment has meant that fewer records were kept of such programmes, meaning that my search for audience reports for some of my sitcoms, for example, was largely unsuccessful.

Nevertheless, whilst some historians have argued that they have felt awkward in archives and like they were intruding on the work of archivists who are based there, my personal experience has been the exact opposite; those at both the BBC Written Archives and the BFI Southbank Library have been nothing but helpful and supportive of my research. [3]

3. Being a fan helps
For any historian of television, choosing some programmes that you are a fan of personally is advisable. This is primarily because the number of hours spent watching the sitcoms, not mention the hours spent in archives looking at press reports and other archive materials seem longer if you find the programmes uninteresting. This interest however, means that I have been more likely to get distracted from my studies although for example, I am now full acquainted with the story behind the famous chandelier scene in Only Fools and Horses and about Carla Lane’s love of animals…

4. Avoid simplistic conclusions and analyses
This is something that I am still learning. It is all too easy for instance to take a piece of dialogue from The Young Ones and conclude that Rick is a Thatcher-hating anarchist. Historians of television programmes need to learn their case studies inside out in order to ascertain who the characters are, the relevance of the situation they are in, what – if anything –the humour contained within such programmes tells us and what the writers are trying to communicate through their programmes.

It is also essential that historians of television avoid any generalisations about those who watch such programmes. Collective terms such as ‘the audience’ will always be more of a hindrance than a help as to truly understand comedy and television, it is important to consider the many responses and views those watching will have to a particular programme. In this way, Geertz’s concept of ‘thick description’, in which the different meanings of a cultural act are identified and analysed, could prove useful here.[4]

5. Enjoy it – it’s a worthwhile and fascinating topic
I chose this topic because television has been prominent in British society for generations and has at times reflected and driven social, cultural and political change in modern British history. Sitcoms have been an important part of this change and, as such, should be treated with equal importance as other sources from the period. Their contribution and complexity should not be underestimated.

I have come to the conclusion that there will always be those who would probably consider a thesis involving medieval manuscripts or political speeches to be more valuable than one based on sitcoms. However, historians should be saying that there is no source hierarchy and that each source is as important as the next. This idea was illustrated brilliantly through our Sites and Sources in Modern British Studies module, where we discussed sources ranging from rattles to Napalm Death which can all teach the historian so much, yet are often overlooked.

I have enjoyed this research  and although it isn’t without its difficulties and obstacles, in the words of Bread’s Joey Boswell, “some you win, some you have to postpone”. [5]

[1] L.Black, ‘Whose Finger on the Button? British Television and the Politics of Cultural Control’, Journal of Film, Television and Radio 25:4 (2005), pp.547-575.

[2] L. Cigognetti, ‘Historians and TV Archives’, in G. Roberts and P.M.Taylor (eds), The Historian, Television and Television History (Luton, 2001)

[3] G.Born, ‘Inside television: television studies and the sociology of culture’, Screen 41:4 (2000), pp.404-424

[4] C.Geertz, ‘Thick Description: Toward a Interpretative Theory of Culture’ in Geertz, The Interpretation of Culture: Selected Essays (New York, 1973)

[5] Bread, Series Two Episode Six (BBC1, 19th February 1987).


Hues of Red: On Book-Jackets, Politics and Publishing in 1930s Britain

Ellis Stacey

Ellis Stacey

Ellis Stacey is working on a PhD on British book culture and the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s. You can follow him on Twitter @corduroycheeks

Two copies of Sir Walter Citrine’s 1936 book I Search for Truth in Russia (London: Routledge, 1936) feature in the images above. Taken from product listings on the popular online literary marketplace abebooks.co.uk, they are ‘seller-supplied images’ produced with the express intention of attracting the flitting gaze of the potential buyer as he or she scrolls and scans up or down the backlit page.

With the internal written content obscured, the photographs present us solely with the outward appearance of each volume. Left with nothing but an object to appraise, our attention is forcibly turned from considerations of the text to the rare and valuable dust-jacket with which both books are adorned; to the striking contrasts of colour and the sharp crisp detailing of the woodcut printed portrait of the author and his disorderly industrial surroundings.

Figure 1: The Jacket(s).

Figure 1: The Jacket(s).

Despite the centrality of books to the practice of history and the wider arts, book-jackets – and particularly the behind-the-scenes processes and decisions that fashioned their creation – have been almost universally overlooked.

Using the jacket produced for Sir Walter’s book as something of a “hook,” this blog post aims to go some way towards rectifying this oversight; championing them – and other forms of publishing paraphernalia – as historical artefacts worthy of attention.

The book itself is a monographic version of a travel-diary kept by Sir Walter – at the time of publication the General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress – during a visit to the USSR he, and his wife Doris, had made in the autumn of 1935.

Having been invited by the Russian authorities, the keen-sighted conjugal pair toured the Western Soviet Union for just over a month; travelling from Leningrad in the North to the southern Grozny oilfields and “The Black City” of Baku on the shores of the Caspian Sea.

Figure 2: Map of Sir Walter and Doris's route. Printed in I Search for Truth in Russia (London: Routledge, 1936), p. xii

Figure 2: Map of Sir Walter and Doris’s route. Printed in I Search for Truth in Russia (London: Routledge, 1936), p. xii

Under the auspices of the official Soviet travel agency Intourist and their ever attentive guides, an exhausting itinerary saw them briskly perambulated from ball-bearing factory to underwear factory; from motor works to rest homes and on further still to Palaces of Industry, Collective Farms, towering urban housing projects and partially constructed hydro-electric plants in the Caucasus Mountains.

Figure 3: Illustration taken from I Search for Truth in Russia (London: Routledge, 1936), p. 256

Figure 3: Illustration taken from I Search for Truth in Russia (London: Routledge, 1936), p. 256

Although impressed by Soviet welfare provision and the vast scale and ambition of what he saw, the prominent Trade Unionist painted a bleak picture of life under Communism. He was appalled by the standard of housing, balked at the high-cost of basic consumer goods and was disappointed to observe ‘something dangerously like social distinctions’ creeping into public life. Towards the end of his trip he concluded that, despite being nominally in control of the reins of power, the Russian worker existed firmly under the heel of an undemocratic and repressive police-state which, in its methods at least, was almost indistinguishable from the Fascist regimes of Germany and Italy.

‘Keep at them with incessant propaganda!

Propaganda! Propaganda! – from morning to night.

On the wireless, films, pictures, posters, text-books, follow them everywhere.’

Sir Walter Citrine, I Search for Truth in Russia (London: Routledge, 1936), p. 254

 Having read the book, I came across its jacket by a rather unusual and strangely indirect route. In fact, it may come as a surprise to hear that I have never really encountered it at all – the pictures presented above are the closest I have come to experiencing it first-hand.

I found it – or, to put it more accurately – I found the fragmentary archival traces of its conception, at the University of Reading’s Archive of British Publishing and Printing whilst looking through the correspondence files of the book’s publisher, the firm of Routledge & Kegan Paul.[1]

I was confronted with a conversation, conducted via letters and postcard notes, between three men: the author Sir Walter, the TUC’s experienced Publicity Officer Herbert Tracey – who acted as Citrine’s representative due to the General Secretary’s heavy workload – and Routledge’s Managing Editor T. Murray Ragg who was overseeing the publication.

Demonstrating the extent to which publishing was – and remains – a collaborative enterprise, it was these three men who, in a series of wrangling, fraught and at times tense discussions debated about and finally decided upon the jacket’s design.

As the literary theorist Gérard Genette tells us, the jacket (often called a dust-jacket or cover) is a key component of any book’s paratextual apparatus: those circumambient ‘verbal or other productions’ that, by surrounding and interacting with the central text, provide the means by which it ‘makes a book of itself and proposes itself as such to its readers, and more generally to the public.’ Conceptualised spatially as an intermediary field placed between text and reader – a ‘threshold’ or ‘vestibule’ – these paratextual elements are not benign supplements to the text but fundamentally affect its meaning.[2]

Focusing on jackets – and particularly any materials which provide an insight into how and why they were created – therefore allows us to examine how books were assembled and presented to readers and glimpse the variety of mediating factors involved, whether commercial, personal or political. The processes and politics of book-presentation are revealed.

Before we return to Citrine’s case, indulge me as I make a few preliminary statements about book-jackets in the 1930s.

Despite having existed, in one form or another, since the early-to-mid-nineteenth-century, the arrival of mass culture and the commercialisation of the publishing industry in the early-twentieth-century transformed the physical appearance of books and instigated something of a visual revolution within the book-trade. Driven by the desire to exploit an expanding market, jackets became increasingly salient and their designs became more elaborate, pictorial and colourful.

Figure 4: Examples of 1930s book-jacket design taken from Books about Russia. From http://www.abebooks.co.uk/mw-books-ltd-galway/3249244/sf

Figure 4: Examples of 1930s book-jacket design taken from Books about Russia. From http://www.abebooks.co.uk/mw-books-ltd-galway/3249244/sf

For many commentators, the new “poster-like” jacket signalled the book-trade’s entry into modernity. As Thomas Foster – providing one of my favourite quotes – eloquently wrote in 1933:

‘Books, as all else, reflect the spirit of a time which expresses itself in other directions through the brightness of neon signs, Fair Isle pullovers, platinum-blonde hair and red-enamelled finger-nails. To-day, a booksellers’ shop resembles nothing so much as a poster hoarding; yet it is not books which are thus displayed, but book jackets…’

Figure 5: A 1936 bookseller’s display. From author’s own collection.

Figure 5: A 1936 bookseller’s display. From author’s own collection.

With the public’s ‘modern tendency towards brightness and colour’ firmly entrenched, Foster continued, the jacket had become ‘an integral part of the modern book.’ Tellingly, works of non-fiction, such as those from the ‘sober realms of biography and history,’ had not remained unaffected and even ‘such aridities as scientific and technical publications’ were adopting the ‘fashion’ and wearing the á la mode ‘pictorial dust-cover.’[4]

The book-jacket, therefore, mattered. Creating an ‘attractive and effective design,’ Ragg explained to Tracey, would be ‘very important from the selling point of view.’ It would play a key role in representing and advertising the diary to the potential purchaser as he or she passed by the bookshop window and, significantly, to preliminary buyers in the wholesale and retail trade.

Ragg’s initial suggestion for the jacket allows us to map channels of artistic influence and demonstrates the ways in which successful designs were regurgitated and adapted for subsequent projects. Routledge had recently published a work of reminiscences by the world-renowned journalist H.W. Nevinson entitled Running Accompaniments. Impressed by the simple eye-catching form of its cover, Ragg suggested that the same artist – the Australian William Kermode – be commissioned to produce a similar arrangement for the Russian diary; as was the case with the parent design, a portrait of the author, reproduced by the artist from a photograph, would provide a focal point and stand out against a red background.

Figure 6: Figure 7: The Inspiration. The dust-jacket for H.W. Nevinson's Running Accompaniments (London: Routledge, 1936). From http://bit.ly/1PxlDBX

Figure 6: Figure 7: The Inspiration. The dust-jacket for H.W. Nevinson’s Running Accompaniments (London: Routledge, 1936). From http://bit.ly/1PxlDBX

The trio were in agreement regarding the centrality of Citrine’s portrait: a stylistic feature that drew upon the good-name, social standing and cultural authority of the author, but the make-up of the background proved highly contentious.

Ragg, keen to conform to the generic tropes of the “Books about Russia” genre and trade upon the relatively positive public image that the Soviet Union was enjoying in Britain at the time, advocated a vivid red ‘symbolic composite design’ made-up of the instantly recognisable insignia of the communist creed: ‘a hammer and sickle and other Russian emblems or typical scenes.’[5]

Citrine, as a moderate leftwinger and vocal anti-Communist, had strong feelings about the potential connotations that such a design might evoke and rejected it outright. With his portrait featuring so prominently, Citrine’s book-jacket would not only advertise the volume, it would also visually represent, and increase the public visibility of, its author. With this in mind, Sir Walter was intensely nervous about publicly displaying any material that might create a visual association between himself, communism, and its Soviet heartland at a time when he was actively engaged in opposing calls from the British Communist Party, and other members of the Left, for a progressive anti-Fascist “United Front” and military alliance with Russia.

Citrine’s book, as the letters detail, was intended to counter perceived untruths, about the apparent wonders and didactic achievements of Soviet society, being circulated by those of the Fellow-Travelling intellectual Left, the CPGB and the cultural institutions of the Popular Front.

The jacket availed Citrine of the opportunity to distance his work from similar – and predominantly pro-Soviet in their tone – books on the market: an act of authorial and literary positioning.

The General Secretary’s concern was so acute that he even challenged, after being presented with each of the latest proofs, the shade of red being used. He continually requested, to Ragg’s annoyance, that the ‘heavy and lurid’ background tones be lightened; literally avoiding any association with the “Reds.” [6]

Eventually Ragg convinced the author to relent, reassuring him that the colour – being already ‘about fifty percent white, fifty percent red’ – was ‘very far from the glaring, pillar-box red generally used for books about Russia.’[7]

Here, abruptly, the trail runs cold. The final details of the discussion are lost to us: carried out in-person, over the telephone, or simply missing from the archival files.

Here also, I must stop.

I’m afraid my conclusions are far from sophisticated and succinct; I’ve used – perhaps abused – the informal and non-prescriptive blog format to present ideas and material still raw, half-formulated and highly suggestible.

Thinking critically about book-jackets and related classes of literary ephemera forces us to (re)visualise the books we study; to recognise the importance of the visual in the communication of ideas through the medium of books. By extension, we are further cajoled into appreciating books – in Modern Britain at least – as commodities operating within, and profoundly influenced by, consumer society. Non-fiction in particular has often been perceived as existing above of, or aloof from, the demands of the marketplace, yet Citrine’s case – and similar research that I, and others, have carried out – problematizes such assumptions.

Going deeper – past the palimpsestic final product and into the archives of publishers and authors – allows us to humanise the publishing process; so often assumed to be mechanical, mundane and platitudinous. We see that authoring and presenting a book to market – especially highly personal or potentially politically inflammatory works of life-writing – could be an anxious, taut and contentious process as multiple exigencies interacted, combined and conflicted.

The next time you find yourself confronted with a tattered copy of a century-or-so old book, clad in nothing but a fading cloth binding, think: did it always look this way?

 Further Reading:

For more on book-jackets see, for example.

  1. Baines, Penguin by Design: A Cover Story 1935-2005(London: Allen Lane, 2005)
  2. Connelly, Faber and Faber: Eighty Years of Book Cover Design (London: Faber, 2009)
  3. Drew and P. Sternberger, By Its Cover: Modern American Book Cover Design (New York : Princeton Architectural Press, 2005)
  4. Powers, Front Cover: Great Book Jacket and Cover Design (London: Mitchell Beazley, 2001)
  5. Thomas Tanselle, ‘Book-Jackets, Blurbs, and Bibliographers’, The Library, 26:2 (1971), pp. 91- 134
  6. Thomas Tanselle, ‘Dust-Jackets, Dealers, and Documentation’, Studies in Bibliography, 56 (2003/2004), pp. 45-140
  7. Thomas Tanselle, Book-Jackets: Their History, Forms, and Use (Charlottesville, Vir.: The Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia, 2011)

[1] RKP 28/7: Letters to and from Walter Citrine; RKP 41/11: Letters to and from Herbert Tracey, Records of Routledge & Kegan Paul, The Archive of British Publishing and Printing, University of Reading

[2] G. Genette, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 1-15

[4] T. Foster, ‘The Evolution of the Book Jacket’, The Bookman, 85:505 (October 1933), p. 26

[5] T.M. Ragg to H. Tracey, 2nd April 1936, RKP 41/11

[6] W. Citrine to T.M. Ragg, 4th May 1936, RKP 28/7

[7] T.M. Ragg to W. Citrine, 5th May 1936, RKP 28/7

Bringing out the dead

Donna Taylor is currently working on a for a PhD dealing with 19th century Birmingham. She posts regularly on her Notes from 19th Century Birmingham blog and can be followed on Twitter @D_MT66.

Reading about the recent protests over the opening of a Jack the Ripper museum in London prompted me to think about the way in which historians present the dead and how the living can sometimes continue to be offended on behalf of the dead.

The issues surrounding the museum go beyond the historical facts – Fern Riddell, writing in the Telegraph, argues that ‘the so-called museum is profiting from the victimisation of women’ and a concerted public campaign has been established to force the museum to close down. It has been described as ‘misogynistic’ and ‘salacious’ in its presentation of the murdered women.

Clearly there are some very important social issues to be considered here, but there is also a question about how the dead are presented to a living audience and particularly I think modern history, where there are fewer degrees of separation between the past and the present.


As all my research centres on the 19th century I encounter a lot of dead people. Regardless of how dusty they might be, they all soon develop a personality and I find myself taking to some more than to others.

Even though most of them are politicians, I do try to be objective and a little bit sensitive as I drag them out into the twenty first century. Still, dead people can’t read and I have no compunction in revealing what Joseph Parkes called Thomas Attwood ‘in confidence’. A couple of reactions to posts on my blog have made me think more carefully about the presentation of the dead to a living audience.

In a post on how coroner’s courts were organised in early nineteenth-century Birmingham I included the case of Ezra Steapenhill, who had been charged with fatally shooting his wife, Bassilese, in 1841. There were numerous witnesses to attest to threats he had made to Bassilese in the weeks leading to her death and the jury of the coroner’s court found him guilty.

However, when the case reached the Warwick assizes, the judge released Ezra based on the account of an expert witness, a doctor with the Enniskillen Dragoons, who argued that the angle of the gunshot wound suggested accidental shooting. It was an interesting case.

Soon after publishing the post I had a response from Ezra’s great-great-great granddaughter. Ezra had remarried two years after the death of Bassilese and the woman who contacted me was a descendent of this second marriage. She had come across the tragic death when researching her family tree and was keen to know more, I sent her the newspaper articles I had found.

A less positive response came earlier this year following a post about the first execution at Birmingham’s Winson Green prison, in 1885. Henry Kimberley had been found guilty of the shooting of two women, his estranged partner Harriet Steward and her friend Emily Palmer. Emily had died from her wounds.

In retrospect and, reading the post again just now, I can see that I had included a lot of detail of the murder and that perhaps it should have been presented a little differently. It’s perhaps not as salacious as the dreadful ripper museum, but may lack sensitivity towards living relatives and 130 years is not such a long time in terms of a generation gap – my great-grandfather was born in 1889 and I remember him very well.

The post was garish enough to be copied and shared in a Facebook group on Birmingham history where it aroused lots of interest and a number of questions. However, among the comments was one from a relative of Henry Kimberley. She was aware of how Henry’s death had come about, it was a family story and hadn’t been kept secret. But she hadn’t expected to see all the details of the event that I had included in my post and it had left her feeling upset. I made an apology and she was very gracious, though reiterated how the details included in the post had come as a shock to her.

Of course, we cannot become over sensitive about treading on toes, whether they are dead or alive, or history would never get written. But, particularly in blog writing, there is a danger of being as over dramatic as the ripper museum and we should aim to bring out our dead gently.

Fern Riddell’s review of the ripper museum featured in the Telegraph on October 12th, 2015 and can be read here http://bit.ly/1POuzEa