Love stories from our Biography Collection

In honour of Valentine’s Day, our February display of books from our Biography  Collection at Kensington Central Library is a bouquet of the joys and pains of romantic love.


We have stories of love transcending cultural barriers – Kate Karko left London to join her husband in Tibet, while as recounted in Sword and Blossom, Arthur Hart-Synot and Masa Suzuki breached the barriers between Edwardian England and Japan to nurture their love.  Barriers of class rather than continents were crossed by Arthur Munby and Hannah Cullwick, one of the rare marriages between upper and working class people in a Victorian England obsessed with class distinctions – this gulf was also negotiated by the artist Ford Madox Brown, whose unmarried cohabitation with Emma Hill raised eyebrows; Into the Frame by Angela Thirlwell examines Brown’s love for her and for three other equally unusual women.  His romantic relationships inspired his work, as did the love of Gertrude Stein for Alice B. Toklas, of W. H. Auden for Chester Kallman, and of Anton Chekhov for Olga Knipper.

Terrible circumstances have strewn some loves with unimaginable obstacles – the poet May Cannan immortalised her fiancé in poems as he served in the trenches of World War One; Helen Drysdale spent years searching for Gheorghe Cupar, who had disappeared into the brutal Romanian penal system during the Communist era; Betty Schimmel survived the Holocaust without hope of ever seeing her first love again, but miraculously re-found him 30 years later.  In An Act of Immorality, John Carr charts the suffering of he and his wife Cynthia; he was white and she was black, so in the 1960s South Africa where they met, their love was a crime.  So too was the love of Oscar Wilde for Lord Alfred Douglas; Douglas’s father’s virulent homophobia found its outlet in the bigoted laws of the time, and put in train a sequence of events that ended with Wilde in Reading Gaol.


Even without the cruel interventions of repressive regimes, we know that not everything in the garden of love can always be rosy, and we have stories of relationships facing illness both mental and physical, and crises of infidelity and deception.  Lillian Ross writes movingly about being “the other woman” of New Yorker editor William Shawn for decades, and Julie Metz discovered her entire marriage had been based on lies.  Dylan and Caitlin Thomas experienced a love triangle of a different kind, with the third party being alcohol.  David Helfgott’s wife Gillian describes loving in the shadow of mental illness, as does Elaine Bass, whose challenges were kept secret at a time when such problems were taboo. John Bayley’s tender accounts of caring for his wife Iris Murdoch as dementia changed everything except their love, are classics of understated devotion.


Some infamous love stories ended in shocking crimes of passion and, in the era of the death sentence, ended the lovers’ lives – the romantic obsessions of Edith Thompson and Ruth Ellis led both to the scaffold; both of their sentences are now widely viewed as grotesquely unjust, and both added momentum to the fight to end the death penalty. These ill-fated women’s stories kept the newspapers flying off the newsstands;  comparable scandal and obsessive coverage by the media of the 18th and 19th centuries centred around “adulteresses” Lady Wyndham and Caroline Norton.  Their stories tell us much about the messy and unpleasant complexities of aristocratic marriages gone sour amongst the glamour of silks and brocades.  On a lighter note, Round Heeled Woman tells the hilarious and surprising story of what happened when Jane Juska placed a very candid classified ad looking for a sexual partner in her retirement.

In looking at this most universal of subjects, we have tried to represent the lives of ordinary and obscure people alongside the famous.  What happens when celebrity affects a love story – as in the case of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton?  How does a marriage react to self-imposed, adventurous challenges – as when Gwyneth Lewis and her husband Leighton decided to sail across the Atlantic? How did the huge social changes of the 20th century affect the balance of power in relationships like those described by Ruth Brandon in The New Women and the Old Men?

All human love is here – come and find a love story to transport you, or to help you look afresh at your own relationships.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library




Loves of the Famous

In honour of Valentine’s Day, this month’s Biography Store display at Kensington Central Library is on the theme of Loves of the Famous.

Many couples have walked on the world stage as separate individuals in their own right – but what of the more intimate stories of the relationships between them?

How have the relationships between Her Majesty the Queen and Prince Philip, between Bill and Hilary Clinton or between Gilbert and George helped inform the work they do?

What was the experience of the partners inhabiting the shadows behind their more famous significant others – sometimes, as in the case of Alice B. Toklas, made the subject of the other’s art?

Then there are the private passions which became part of the mythology and iconography of some of the biggest Hollywood stars – Burton and Taylor, Bogart and Bacall, Hepburn and Tracy.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor

Amongst the biographies of the famous which focus on all aspects of their private and public lives are those which concentrate on marriages, affairs and liaisons, sometimes official, sometimes clandestine, and show that the same passions and problems recur in all human love stories.

Jackie and John F Kennedy

Some of the most intimate records of relationships are love letters by the famous – though sometimes famous for very different things than their romantic passions (who knew Ramsay Macdonald, the first Labour Prime Minister, was such a one for sweet nothings?


Or that Albert Einstein called his first love “my little everything” and worried constantly that he might have upset her?)


Henry the VIII could be pretty risqué and was not backwards in coming forwards in his letters to Anne Boleyn.

Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII

Some of the love letters included are intensely private, and the writers would never have imagined they would be read by anyone other than the addressee.  Some have become famous as works of literature and historical testaments in their own right, like Oscar Wilde’s “De Profundis”, his letter written to his former lover Lord Alfred Douglas from Reading Gaol, which shows that the intimate minutiae of feelings come before the retrospective resonance of socially significant moments.

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas

Some – like the correspondence between Abelard and Heloise in the 12th century – are classics of world literature, and prove that whatever the forms of expression used, human emotions are still very recognisable across the centuries.

Wallis Simpson and Duke of Windsor (King Edward VIII)

One of my favourites is one of those many books in the Biography Store Collection which give an intriguing insight into previous times – it’s Royal Love Letters, a collection from 1911.  The publisher is none other than Mills and Boon, and it seems not only the content of their books but their presentation has definitely been spiced up in the last 108 years.  This is a decorous volume – although maybe the deep purple binding hints at the passionate content – and the illustrations are of various royal personages looking very correct, not a steamy clinch in sight.  A list of other available titles doesn’t quite set the pulse racing, and apparently Mills and Boon didn’t only produce romantic titles in the Edwardian era: “Rambles in the Black Forest” and “Nerves and the Nervous” were amongst its non-fiction offerings.

Barack and Michelle Obama

We hope you enjoy our Valentine’s selection of the romances of some of our most celebrated figures.

Blog post from the North – March 2013

North Kensington Library
North Kensington Library

Welcome to our blog post from the north! This month we thought we’d tell you about the exciting things that have been happening at all three of the libraries in the north – Kensal, Notting Hill Gate and North Kensington, libraries.

What’s been happening at North Kensington’s Children’s Library?

This past two months we have had a very busy time in North Kensington Children’s library and it continues to be so.

Ishwari Prince
Ishwari Prince

Saturday 9 February was National Libraries Day.  To celebrate this Senior Customer Services Assistant Ishwari Prince led a children’s craft and story session with ‘create your own book’.  This involved some origami type folding and cutting to make simple books, which the children filled with their own ideas, pictures and stories.  We were all very impressed with the creative and original ideas the children came up with, and everyone enjoyed themselves. Please visit the National Libraries Day website for more information about this day.

Valentine's Day crafts on display
Valentine’s Day crafts on display

Senior Customer Services Assistant, Zvezdana Popovic launched our new after school children’s story and craft Sessions (second Thursday of every month, 4pm to 5pm) on  Valentine’s Day  with appropriately themed crafts and romantic verse.

Spring books on display
Spring books on display

We are celebrating Spring Time with a display of books including fact books about animals, urban nature trails and nature guides, festivals such as Easter and Holi and stories for children of all ages.  We have lots of picture books and board books about spring animals.  For toddlers and babies we have I love rabbits, an interactive touch and feel book full of adorable fluffy rabbits.

My favourite fact books are Wild Town: Wildlife on your doorstep by Mike Dilger  and Usborne Spotter’s Guides: Urban Wildlife. You don’t have to visit the countryside or have a garden to enjoy nature. Both of these beautifully illustrated books introduce you to the secret world of wildlife in our cities and towns. They give useful tips on where to spot birds, animals, plants and creepy-crawlies in your local park, alongside rivers and canals and even on your doorstop or under your roof!

Gaynor Lynch
Gaynor Lynch

Gaynor Lynch

Lending Librarian, North Kensington Library

North Kensington Library’s Chatterbooks club


North Kensington Library’s Chatterbooks club is a reading group for children aged 8 to 12 years.   The club members meet on the last Thursday of the month at 4pm in North Kensington Children’s Library.  The club gives opportunity for children to share their reading experiences, discuss books, do fun activities including writing stories and poetry, quizzes and word search.  New members are welcome, so come and join us! Check out our Chatterbooks page for more information.

Adisa Behmen-Kreso

Senior Customer Services Assistant, North Kensington Library

New story and craft sessions at Notting Hill Gate Library

Story and craft sessions
Story and craft sessions

Notting Hill Gate Library will be holding monthly story and craft sessions on the last Saturday of every month. Come have fun with your children, give them a chance to explore their creativity, meet new friends and better yet it’s free!

The first session will be on Saturday 27 April, 11.30 am to 12.30pm. Hope to see you and your children there!

Ihssan Dhimi
Ihssan Dhimi

Ihssan Dhimi

Senior Customer Services Assistant, Notting Hill Gate Library

What’s been happening at Kensal Library?

Kensal Library
Kensal Library

Come along to hear wonderful stories read by engaging friendly staff at Kensal Library at our storytime sessions every Friday from 11am to 11.30am.   One Mum commented that her son and herself thought the staff were ‘amazing’.

We have a new collection of Portuguese and Arabic titles in stock which reflect the needs of our community here in the north of the borough. There’s more information about our this collection on our books in other languages page on our website.

Our first story and craft event was well attended and the children enjoyed the theme.  We read a fictional story about sharks and then looked at some non-fiction books and talked about sharks and why people are scared of them and how we can protect endangered species before making some spectacular shark jaws! The next session will be on Saturday 13 April from 3 to 4pm and will be tied in to our Cityread London events.

Natasha Chaoui

Senior Customer Services Assistant,  Kensal Library

A Love Story from Kensington Palace

Kensington Palace
Kensington Palace (© Historic Royal Palaces)

This is a guest blog post from Sutherland Forsyth from Kensington Palace. We regularly work with staff from the palace on events for adults and children in our libraries.

To celebrate Valentine’s Day Sutherland tells us about one of the greatest love stories in history.

‘My dearest Albert put on my stockings for me. I went in and saw him shave; a great delight for me.’

Queen Victoria, 13 February 1840

Oooh-er – that’s a bit racy! A gentleman running his hand up a lady’s leg, her sneaking in to watch him as he gets ready….can this really be the prim, proper, grand old Queen Victoria – dressed in black with a scowl on her face – with whom we are all so familiar?

The answer is a resounding ‘yes’.

Statue of Queen Victoria outside Kensington Palace, sculpted by her daughter Princess Louise
Statue of Queen Victoria outside Kensington Palace, sculpted by her daughter Princess Louise (© Historic Royal Palaces)

Queen Victoria was always a woman of passion: strong-willed and spirited as a girl, confident in her role as monarch, and loving as a wife to her husband Albert. The relationship between Victoria and Albert was one of history’s great love stories, and it started on the Stone Staircase at Kensington Palace on 18 May, 1836 when her cousin Albert arrived to visit her and her mother. She felt an instant attraction to him, and over the next few years they corresponded regularly.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's portraits on display at Kensington Palace
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s portraits on display at Kensington Palace (© Historic Royal Palaces)

After marrying in 1840, Victoria and Albert went on to have nine children, 39 grandchildren and over 1,000 other descendants. There was deep affection as well as mutual respect between this royal couple, and when Albert died at the age of 42 from typhoid fever in 1861, it left Victoria devastated, plunging her into a state of mourning which would last until her dying day, over four decades later.

Victoria’s mourning clothes on display in ‘Victoria Revealed’ at Kensington Palace
Victoria’s mourning clothes on display in ‘Victoria Revealed’ at Kensington Palace (© Historic Royal Palaces)

People remain fascinated by Victoria and Albert’s love affair. When I speak to community groups, run projects with them or take them to Kensington Palace as part of my job as an Outreach & Community Involvement Officer at Historic Royal Palaces (the charity which looks after the public side of the palace), it is striking how some of the small details of their story really strike a chord. There may be well over a hundred years separating us from them, but the emotion of their story still resonates today.

Sutherland Forsyth

Sutherland Forsyth is the Outreach & Community Involvement Officer for Adults at Historic Royal Palaces, the independent charity which cares for the State Apartments at Kensington Palace

Find out more…

Valentine’s Day – as reported by the Illustrated London News

The Illustrated London News - masthead
The Illustrated London News – masthead

I’m sure it couldn’t have escaped anyone’s notice that it’s Valentine’s Day this week. One of our Triborough Reference Librarians, Debby Wale, has been looking at how this day has been covered in the past.

Looking at the month of February, traditionally  associated with Valentine’s Day on 14th February, I looked through Kensington Central Reference Library’s holdings of the The Illustrated London News.

The  library has copies of the  The Illustrated London News from 1842 to 2000.  This publication is probably best described by the Encyclopedia Britannica.

A magazine of news and the arts, published in London, a forerunner in the use of various graphic arts. It was founded as a weekly in 1842 by Herbert Ingram, and it became a monthly in 1971. It was London’s first illustrated periodical, the first periodical to make extensive use of woodcuts and engravings and the first to use photographs.

As well as serious news, The Illustrated London News had lighter articles and poems. Today, folk often complain that Valentine’s Day has become over commercialised. Looking back to 1877, we see that there were indeed a large choice of Valentine cards.

This pretty child who seems to be taking counsel from her doll – which shall I choose?
Image from The Illustrated London News, 1877
Image from The Illustrated London News, 1877

As always, there are Great Expectations from the postman on Valentine’s Day….

Image from The Illustrated London News, 11 February 1882
Image from The Illustrated London News, 11 February 1882
The customary sending and receiving of pretty love-tokens becomes the occasion of a little playful excitement among the children, especially the girls below their ‘teens’

In 1868, another rush to the door, to see what the postman brings.

'Valentine's Day' drawn by G.H.Thomas, 1868
‘Valentine’s Day’ drawn by G.H.Thomas, 1868

And from The Illustrated London News 11 February 1899.

Image from The Illustrated London News 11 February 1899
Image from The Illustrated London News, 11 February 1899
The ancient festival of St Valentine, of which poor Ophelia sang, has, in recent years, fallen into neglect; but although outward observance of the day may be slight, our Artist seems to be persuaded that, as the old verse has it, “Cupid still calls at a pretty girl’s door”

From the same issue February 1899 – Mardi Gras in Paris, 14 February.

On Mardi Gras (Shrove Tuesday) in Paris the Carnival is at it’s height. Holiday-makers pelt each other with confetti until the street are ankle deep in the paper snow. The  police insist that every handful shall be freshly thrown and of one colour, and that no confetti to be picked up.

Paris, of course, being the city for lovers.

Image from The Illustrated London News, 11 February 1899
Image from The Illustrated London News, 11 February 1899

The course of  true love doesn’t always run smooth, as illustrated in a cartoon from February 13 1886 by S T Dodd.

Cartoon by S.T. Dodd from The Illustrated London News, 13 February 1886
Cartoon by S.T. Dodd from The Illustrated London News, 13 February 1886

As the text is too small for you to read, I’ve copied out some of it for you.

Young Smithers invests in an expensive valentine to send to his adored, Miss Jones.
 He directs the same, putting his initials in the corner that she may know it’s from him.
 Her Maiden Aunt, another Miss Jones, at the same address, takes unto herself the Valentine with rapture.
 The day afer, Smithers calls, his adored is cold and distant, her Aunt effusive…

You can guess the rest, but on hearing of her mistake, the Aunt swoons!Smithers explains the situation to his Adored, and the “affair terminates in the usual manner” Miss Matilda Jones becomes Mrs William Smithers.

In an edition from 1900 two take A Spin on Valentine’s Day.

A spin on Valentine's Day
A spin on Valentine’s Day, 10 February 1990

But of course, ultimately, diamonds really are a girl’s best friend. Just in time for Valentines day in February 1905 – The Discovery of the World’s Biggest Diamond, 29 Times Bigger Than the Koh-I-Noor. Discovered at the Premier Mine Johannesburg, weighing 3032 carats, the new diamond is compared with other famous gems.

The world's biggest diamond!
The world’s biggest diamond!

Speaking of jewels, come along to Kensington Central Reference Library and see The Illustrated London News for yourself – just one of our many treasures!

Debby Wale
Debby Wale

Debby Wale, Triborough Reference Librarian

Chelsea Reference Library

Further information

  • Kensington Central Reference Library has almost the complete holdings of The Illustrated London News in their store.
  • The Encyclopedia Britannica can be accessed via our reference and information web page. You’ll need a Kensington and Chelsea library card to access this.
  • Westminster City Libraries has electronic access to The Illustrated London News via Westminster City Libraries website. You’ll need at Westminster Libraries card to access this.