At Kensington Central Library, we are fortunate in having the largest special collection of biographies in the country (and possibly further afield!) – 85,000 volumes of published biographical material: biography, autobiography, collections of letters, diaries, journals and speeches.
With the social distancing measures we are currently taking in the library, it won’t be possible to have our normal monthly display of books from the collection. In this blog I will have a fortnightly look at a book, and will sometimes take the opportunity to showcase (virtually!) one of our most interesting, quirky or unusual volumes. I will also feature a cover and an inscription and look at some interesting features and aspects of the collection. Every now and then I’ll include an extract of the biography of a mystery person – see if you can identify them! Hope you enjoy it.
The Maimie Papers
Edited By Ruth Rosen and Sue Davidson
“I can recall distinctly that I was never on the alert as a girl to learn the things that distinguished ‘nice’ people from the other kind.”
“Mr Welsh’s idea was to call it the Montreal Mission for Friendless Girls… I’d have plenty of books such as they like, though no trashy stuff….Then I’d beg around for the issues of various magazines….then there is the phonograph for the more popular airs – for the girls insist on lively ones….I would permit them to write and receive their mail here, furnishing plain stationery…any girl who needed help to learn to write I could teach…the telephone they could use….they could come for baths or to have their hair washed….if it is possible, I should like to offer any girl a cup of tea and a biscuit…any girl, especially in the winter, will go a long way for a good cup of tea.”
One of the most striking things about the Biography Collection is how accounts of the lives of the most ordinary and humble, and sometimes the most disadvantaged and marginalised people, sit alongside the biographies of the famous, illustrious and powerful. Often an accident of preservation and rediscovery means that someone who would otherwise have disappeared into obscurity is able to speak to us across decades or centuries. One such case is Maimie Pinzer, whose letters to Fanny Quincy Howe were donated by Howe’s daughter Helen to the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1971. They turned out to be an incredible record of the kind of life rarely revealed in such detail and with such candour – edited by social historian Ruth Rosen and Sue Davidson of the Feminist Press which published them in the US, they were another of Virago’s gems in this edition from 1979.
The friendship between Pinzer and Howe was an incongruous one – Howe was a distinguished lady from the upper echelons of liberal Boston society, and Pinzer was a Jewish Philadelphia prostitute, originally from Canada, who had lost an eye due to an infection and was now recovering from morphine addiction and trying to find other means of earning money. Introduced by a social worker interested in Pinzer’s schemes to help women in her position, the two women corresponded between 1910 and 1922. Only Pinzer’s side of the correspondence survives, and when it was re-read for the first time in 60 years it opened up the world of an extraordinary woman. Writing with verve, compassion, humour and complete honesty, Pinzer describes her struggles with her health and money, her relationships with friends and with the two men who love her, her troubles with her difficult mother and siblings, her yearnings and religious ruminations, her deepening friendship with her incongruous penfriend. She writes of her innovative business plan, to set up a service for typing, letter writing and using the then modern technology of mimeography, an early form of stencil printing for the mass production of flyers and handbills etc. This was successful until it was derailed by the First World War. Most of all, she writes about her setting up of a “mission” to help provide comfort and stability for young prostitutes; she indefatigably fights to make this a reality, and is very aware that her first hand knowledge of life on the streets enables her to reach the “girls” and earn their trust in ways that more “respectable” and privileged philanthropists cannot. As a kind of wise older sister figure, she devotes herself to helping her young charges, understanding that the dignity of a hair wash and the fun of a tea party are as important to them as nursing during illness and help with applying for jobs. It is very moving and uncannily immediate to eavesdrop on her attention to detail as she plans what pictures on the walls would most raise the girls’ spirits, or works out budgets for Christmas decorations, flowers for a special occasion, and “inexpensive tea”. Maimie Pinzer is one of the most amazing people I have “met” in the biography collection – by the end of the book I felt I knew her, and as nothing is known about how her life developed after the point where the letters end, I can only hope fervently she had the happiness she so deserved.
Cover and Inscription
This is the front cover of Fra Angelico by Langton Douglas, published by George Bell and Sons in 1900. Another typical design of the period, with a swirling gilt decoration of intertwining leaves, flowers and thorns around a fleur de lys on a background of dusty blue-green that must originally have been quite vivid. Look closely at the top, and you can find two dogs’ heads almost hidden within the design, and easily missed. There are lots of monochrome plates inside, both photographs and photogravures, showing works by the early Renaissance Italian painter.
Our “inscription” this time is not an inscription, it’s a stamp. The collection has the designation of a “Metropolitan Special Collection” – these were collections which different public libraries were tasked with building up on different subjects in the 1950s. Many became significant collections – sadly, most were broken up and lost over the years. Our Biography Collection is still by far the largest in existence, and in this borough we are also extremely lucky to have two other MSC collections – the wonderful Fashion collection at Chelsea Library, and the Folklore collection in Kensington Central’s Reference Library. (I have been unable to find much out about the origins of the MSC scheme, so if anybody out there knows anything about it, we would be delighted to hear from you.) Books came into the collection through this scheme from a wide variety of sources – some private donations and bequests, academic libraries, the libraries of various institutions including the BBC (I have heard an uncorroborated theory that they deposited various of their books with us at our former premises in Kensington High Street during the war, which were then absorbed into the new MSC – again, any information gratefully received)! But by far the majority come from public libraries, mainly in London but throughout the country and indeed the English-speaking world. This means that they are full of library stamps, plates and labels, some of which can be very ornate and which form a fascinating record of public library rules and procedures. (The instructions for dealing with books that had been exposed to infectious disease sadly no longer seem like quaint reminders of a distant time.) This book contains this card-pocket stamped with what was presumably the date when it was acquired by Bethnal Green Library in 1921. Some libraries even had their own bespoke gilded stamps for the spines of their leather bindings, with their own signature designs – Westminster’s of the late Victorian period was particularly pretty, with flowers around a portcullis. I am trying to “collect” one from every London borough – and there were quite a few more boroughs before the merging in 1965.
The last extract was from the chapter entitled “Chelsea Memories” in Famous Houses and Literary Shrines of London by A. St. John Adcock, published by J. M. Dent and Sons in in 1912. It is describing the menagerie kept by the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the garden of 16 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, in the 1870s, which delighted and sometimes alarmed his friends.
We are delighted to have reopened the library, and it is possible for you to borrow books from the Biography Collection once again (as our regular readers will know, the collection is never open for direct browsing access to the public, but all except our most fragile books may be borrowed). To minimise staff trips to the store while our one-way system is in place, we have organised timed collections of books. These will take place at 12pm and 5pm Monday to Friday, and at 12pm and 4pm on Saturdays. Please email your requests to email@example.com.
Claudia, Kensington Central Library