Biographies from the Basement

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.

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 libraries@rbkc.gov.uk

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. In every post I’ll include an extract of the biography of someone who lived in Kensington or Chelsea at some point – see if you can identify the person!  Hope you enjoy it.

 

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

 

Biography of the Week

Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography

By Zora Neale Hurston

“I have been in Sorrow’s kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows with a harp and a sword in my hands.”

When I first discovered Zora Neale Hurston’s writing in my early 20s, I was bowled over – the copy of her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God I borrowed from Hammersmith Library opened up a world where poetic images tumbled and glittered like fragments of foil in a kaleidoscope, moving so quickly that I often had to revisit sentences to savour the impact.  But the writing was never self-conscious or showy, and Hurston’s underlying voice was perfectly controlled, generous and vital, sharp as a scalpel.  The power and inventiveness of her metaphors was such that I still remember some of them all these years later.

In 1942, at the same time as E. B. White was writing the essays we looked at last time, Hurston published Dust Tracks on a Road, her autobiography.  By this time, aged nearly 50, Hurston was a giant of the African American literary and scholarly scene, not only a writer of fiction but a leading anthropologist of African-American and Caribbean folklore.

She was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, the explosion of African-American creativity which produced ground breaking art, literature, culture and commentary, centred on Harlem in the 1920s, but in later years she received less and less attention and had faded into the realms of forgotten writers by the time she died in 1960.  Opinion had been divided about her use of dialect in her novels – some felt it was a crude caricature of the speech patterns of her community, which risked feeding into racist stereotypes; others believed it was a way of celebrating the poetic cadences of the American South and exploring the way language enriches and subverts.  Her later work looked at class and gender and how they shaped the lives of disadvantaged women, both black and white.

In 1975, the writer Alice Walker led the way to a rediscovery of her work, which was rightfully placed at the forefront of American literature.  In the 80s, the publisher Virago which was dedicated to making unjustly neglected out-of-print women writers available brought her autobiography out in a British edition, which is the one we have.  Hurston brings the same sparkling prose to her own life story, the story of a woman finding her inimitable voice against all the odds presented by poverty and racism. It resonates with her energy and genius, and I found it no easier to put down than that novel I first read 30 years ago.

The covers of our books can be wonderful examples of particular fashions in graphic design. And it’s always intriguing finding inscriptions in books – some are dedications by the author, some are intimate messages commemorating the giving of a gift. This week’s cover and inscription are from the same book – Memoir of Edwin Bainbridge by Thomas Darlington, published by Morgan and Scott in 1888.  Bainbridge, aged 22, was one of the 120 victims of the eruption of Mount Tarawera, on the North Island of New Zealand, on 10th June 1886. He had been travelling the world, and died at his hotel. His old school friend Darlington set about interviewing everyone who had known him to present this tribute to his life and heroic death (survivors of the eruption remembered him leading prayers to comfort and fortify them).

The binding is an elaborate one very typical of the period, with gilt lettering and a detailed image of Tarawera.  The inscription inside reads “To dear Willie on his fifth birthday, July 2nd 1889. G. B. Saltash”.   It seems extraordinary to us that such a sombre book should have been presented to a five-year-old. Presumably G. S. Saltash considered it a duty to inspire little Wille with the austere example of the classic ideal of Victorian manhood that Darlington evokes – self-sacrificing, valiant in the face of danger, pious and athletic.  We recognise this type as a quintessential Victorian idea, and a key component of the triumphalist mythology of Empire.  I feel rather sorry for poor Willie – I can’t help thinking he might have preferred one of the colourful illustrated books of nursery rhymes or fairy tales that were popular at the time.

The last extract describing the life of a resident of Kensington was from Queen Victoria by E. Gordon Browne, published in 1915.  Victoria always emphasised the simplicity of her upbringing, and Browne quotes her as saying: 

“I was brought up very simply—never had a room to myself till I was nearly grown up—always slept in my mother’s room till I came to the throne.”

 Can you identify the subject of the following extract?  (A clue: it’s an artist and it’s the late nineteeth century).

“In his garden he had a motley collection of animals, peacocks, armadilloes, the wombat, woodchuck, or Canadian marmot, and other outlandish creatures, including the famous zebu.”