Napoleon’s March

Napoleon Bonaparte died two hundred years ago today. It is worth revisiting the amusing headlines that accompanied the Emperor’s return to France in 1815, following his first exile on Elba.

As reported in The Museum of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art, Volume XVIII,

The French newspapers which, in 1815, were subject to the censor, announced the departure of Bonaparte from Elba, his progress through France, and his entry into Paris in the following ingenious manner:

— 9th March, the Anthropophagus has quitted his den

— 10th, the Corsican Ogre has landed at Cape Juan

— 11th, the Tiger has arrived at Gap

— 12th, the Monster slept at Grenoble

— 13th, the Tyrant has passed through Lyons

— 14th, the Usurper is directing his steps towards Dijon, but the brave and loyal Burgundians have risen en masse and surrounded him on all sides

— 18th, Bonaparte is only sixty leagues from the capital; he has been fortunate enough to escape the hands of his pursuers

— 19th, Bonaparte is advancing with rapid steps, but he will never enter Paris

— 20th, Napoleon will, tomorrow, be under our ramparts

— 21st, the Emperor is at Fontainbleau

— 22nd, His Imperial and Royal Majesty, yesterday evening, arrived at the Tuileries, amidst the joyful acclamations of his devoted and faithful subjects.

The Voynich Manuscript, a Modern Forgery?

Every six months or so a new solution to the cryptic Voynich Manuscript is touted in academic journals and/or tabloid press. The document purports to be a cipher-herbal from the fifteenth century. Its Medieval origin is asserted and repeated uncritically by otherwise credible sources, but I am convinced that the manuscript is a twentieth-century forgery. The theory that it was created by or for the book dealer Wilfrid Voynich between 1908 and 1910 has been elaborated upon by Richard SantaColoma in his excellent blog. Consider:

1. The Voynich Manuscript has no independent provenance.

There is no written evidence that can be used as provenance for the famous and enigmatic Voynich Manuscript. Although it is claimed that certain 17th century mentions of a manuscript are the Voynich, on close examination these fail to satisfy the most basic standards of proof that the work existed back then.

This claimed provenance is in a small selection of 17th century letters to and from the Jesuit Polymath, Athanasius Kircher. These include mentions of a mysterious, unintelligible manuscript. From them, we learn that a Georg Baresch is the first assumed owner of the manuscript they describe. But these descriptions do not actually come close to identifying it as the Voynich Manuscript…

Moreover the proposed provenance is suspicious.

Voynich claimed to have found the Cipher Ms. in a “castle in Southern Europe”, and an “Austrian Castle”, and later, the Villa Mondragone in Frascati.

2. Voynich possessed sufficient materials to forge it. Immediately before the appearance of the manuscript, Voynich purchased the Liberia Franceschini, which consisted of:

over one half a million books, maps, pamplets and incuncubilia…Voynich could have had access to much unused, blank parchment…It would have taken just one blank ledger in that vast archive of unknown content to create a “Voynich” Ms.

3. He had or could access the skills to forge it.

Voynich sold at least one (known) forgery, the Columbus Miniature. It is considered by some a “Spanish Forger” work, but is also sometimes attributed to another unknown forger or shop.

For his own part, Voynich was “a trained chemist.” His friend, the spy Sidney Reilly, “took a book on mixing medieval inks out of the Cambridge library.”

And finally, there are anachronisms in both the subject matter and the physical binding of the manuscript. I urge anyone interested in literary mysteries to read Mr. SantaColoma’s scholarship at the blog linked above.

An Amusing Anecdote of the Mitfords

The second Lord Redesdale, father of the Mitford sisters, had many larger-than-life qualities as related by his daughters. Not least of these was his intense reaction to dramatic literature.

According to Deborah Mitford the only book her father had ever read for pleasure was White Fang. She explained in an interview,

It was so good he didn’t want to read another, until my Mother thought it was really awful he didn’t know anything, this was when they were very first married so she chose Tess of the d’Urbervilles, so when he got to the sad bits my Father started to cry and my Mother said ‘don’t cry darling it’s only a story’ and my Father was furious and stood up and said ‘what, do you mean to say the damn fellow made it up?’

Lord Redesdale appears thinly disguised as “Uncle Matthew” in Nancy Mitford’s autobiographical novel The Pursuit of Love. She recounts the following anecdote:

Uncle Matthew went with Aunt Sadie and Linda on one occasion to a Shakespeare play, Romeo and Juliet. It was not a success. He cried copiously, and went into a furious rage because it ended badly. “All the fault of that damned padre,” he kept saying on the way home, still wiping his eyes. “That fella, what’s his name, Romeo, might have known a blasted papist would mess up the whole thing.”

Prussian Dreams

Pictured: a Prussian cavalryman watching the test flight of a biplane, circa 1910. This is a nice companion to the photograph of dirigible trials over Stonehenge that I posted last month.

In the introduction to my book Victoriana, I asked:

Was a different modernity possible? Something more romantic? Something more authentic? A future of dirigibles, telephones, Prussian and Russian monarchy on the Continent, railways (instead of motorways), heritage crafts, muscular Christianity, classical education, art and architecture that continued to develop within the Western vernacular not against it?

A Precarious Library

The Reverend Canon Claude Jenkins served as Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Christ Church, Oxford from 1934 until his death in 1959. In his will he left a collection of thirty to seventy thousand books. He directed that librarians from several Oxford colleges “be given as a free gift such books as they may select for the use of their readers.” St Anne’s alone acquired ten thousand volumes.

During his lifetime this library filled—literally—the five-room house that Jenkins occupied on Tom Quad at Christ Church. Theologian E.L. Mascall described the scene in his memoir Saraband:

in the corners of each room piles of books were thrown down anyhow like sand in the corner of a builder’s yard, and the bath, which was not used for its normal purpose, was a kind of dump for odd printed scraps. It was only just possible to push one’s way up the staircase, for on every step there were piles of books extending high out of reach; in fact the view of the staircase-wall reminded me of a sectional diagram of geological strata in an atlas, and one could see how the conformation had readjusted itself after a cataclysm had occurred through a removal of the book from one of its lower levels.


A long and interesting article about the collection appears at the website of St Anne’s College library.