03 April 2021

The Tale of the 'Holiday Shocker'

 

Christine Fell in 1965
from a photo
kindly provided by
Gillian Fellows-Jensen 
One of my most treasured possessions is my copy of Sigurður Nordal's scholarly edition (1913-16) of Orkneyinga saga, which has been my constant companion for over two decades now, ever since I inherited it from my former colleague and friend Professor Christine E. Fell OBE (1938-1998; you can read about her on pp. 214ff. of this link). I have treasured this volume for its mere existence, because this edition is not always easy to get hold of and it is essential to my work on this saga and on Orkney generally. As a result, it's started to get a bit battered. Using it regularly always reminds me that it was Chris who encouraged me to go to a conference in Kirkwall in 1987, celebrating the 850th anniversary of St Magnus Cathedral. It was my first visit to Orkney and so she can be held responsible for my subsequent obsession with the place. But, although I have always been aware that the book has an interesting history, I've only just recently started to explore that history in more detail through the clues in the book itself.

The book bears the mark of Weeks & Co. Binders. London. N.W.1., and it was when it was bound that the letter that explains the book's provenance was bound into it. Loosely inserted into the book (it's a miracle that I still have it) is a small, neatly written note that explains who that letter was from. More on the letter later, but first the note. It is signed (but not dated) by Edith C. Batho. The name rang a faint bell with me, so with the help of Wikipedia, I discovered that she was the Principal of Royal Holloway College of the University of London from 1945-62. There I thought I had a possible connection with Chris Fell, as she got her BA in English from Royal Holloway in 1959, and Batho was an English specialist. Chris Fell went on to do an MA in Old Norse at UCL, awarded 1961, and presumably her interest in the subject began during her undergraduate years. However I have not been able to find any evidence that the two met then, though it is quite possible - in the late 1950s, there were apparently fewer than 400 students in the college. There's a nice painting of Edith Batho in 1961 here and I would like to imagine that Batho had given Fell the book around then, but it could equally have been at a later date. I'm told by an authoritative source that Batho was a regular attender at meetings of the Viking Society for Northern Research until her death, suggesting that she was still interested in Old Norse topics even after her retirement. This could have been where they met if not before and it gives an extended window during which Batho could have given Fell the book, perhaps especially when Chris was the Society's President 1980-82. But I also know that Chris was an assiduous purchaser of secondhand books and had built up an impressive library before her own death in 1998, so she might have bought the book after Batho's death in 1986. At the same time, Chris was keen for her books to be passed on to people who would find them useful, which is how I and some other younger colleagues and students had the privilege of selecting items from her library after her death. I suspect that this attitude reflected her own experience as a grateful young scholar on the receiving end of important books, which is why I like to think she got it directly from Edith Batho, whenever that was.

But why did Edith Batho have this book in her possession? Well, she had a degree in English and, although Wikipedia only mentions her publications on Wordsworth and the Victorians, she also had an interest in Scottish texts. She published on James Hogg, the 'Ettrick Shepherd' (more on this below) and co-edited John Bellenden's 1531 translation into Scots of Hector Boece's Chronicles of Scotland for the Scottish Text Society. And she published an article on Sir Walter Scott and the sagas in the Modern Language Review for 1929. Well, that's more than enough to explain why she might want the edition of Orkneyinga saga, but how did she get it?

The answer is in the letter, which Edith's note explains is from Olivia Stuart Horner, 'my friend for 50 years'. While the note is not dated, the letter is, to '10.11.25', so the note cannot have been written any later than 1975 and could be quite a bit earlier. In 1925, Edith was 30, and Olivia a bit older (the note states that she married Sir Ernest Barker a year or two after writing the letter and the census records that she was baptised in 1891, though elsewhere it is suggested that she was born in 1894). Googling Olivia Stuart Horner certainly gave me a clue to what the letter says about the book. Olivia was the god-daughter of no less than William Paton Ker, a distinguished literary scholar usually known as W.P. Ker, who was himself Scottish and who wrote on both Old Norse and other medieval topics. Among his many achievements was the establishment of the teaching of Scandinavian Studies at University College London in 1917. Olivia was with him when he died on a walking tour of Italy, at a place called Macugagna.

According to the letter, Olivia is sending Edith what she describes as 'W.P.'s "holiday shocker" as he called it in 1923 at Macugnaga'. The reason she had it was because 'it got among other paperbacked books' which she discovered as her family was moving house. Clearly Edith thought highly enough of this rough paperback (the original paper covers are bound into the back of my copy) to have had it bound in London, with the letter also bound in to indicate its provenance. Olivia notes that 'you are the right person to have it'. This is explained by the fact that not only did Edith get her degree in English from University College London in 1915, while W.P. was Quain Professor of English there, but her book The Ettrick Shepherd (1927) is posthumously dedicated to him. The preface makes clear that it is based on work she did for her MA, and one could surmise that he was her supervisor for it, but then perhaps these things worked differently in those days. I'm wondering if it was W.P. who introduced his promising student to his god-daughter.

W.P. Ker's literary interests were very wide, and when he wrote about Old Norse texts it was usually to place them in a broader literary context. Typical is his inaugural address when he became President of the Viking Society for Northern Research (then still known as the Viking Club) printed in its journal Saga-Book as 'Iceland and the Humanities'. He was very active in the Viking Club during the first two decades of the twentieth century and his obituary in Saga-Book notes that 'The thing for which he cared most was the study of what Scandinavia had given to the world' (p. 410).

Although Olivia Barker is less well-known than the other actors in this little saga, there's actually quite a bit more to say about her and her family, even if it is not especially relevant to my book and its history. She was born in Cheshire, but by the 1911 census was living in Surbiton, and may have spent time in the family's ancestral home of the Manor House in Mells, Somerset. At the time of writing the letter she was, on the testimony of the letter itself, still living in Surbiton but about to move to Sussex. One of her brothers, Maurice, was murdered in London in 1943, a murder that was never solved. Another, David, wrote a novel based on this murder and was the long-term partner of no less than Osbert Sitwell.

I still need to find out whether the Scot W.P. Ker had a particular interest in this 'Scottish' saga, or whether he was just omnivorous when it came to Old Norse-Icelandic literature. So far I have not discovered any specific references in his works (but there are very many!) to Orkneyinga saga, but maybe he was reading it for the first time on that fateful Italian holiday. After all, it had only quite recently been published. So there may still be more to be found out about my treasured book. In the meantime, I'm delighted to have learned a bit more about its adventures.

So it's wonderful to think that my copy of this book has been to northern Italy with W.P. Ker, sat on the shelves first of Edith Batho and then of Christine Fell, and here I've been bashing it about for 20-odd years. I really must take better care of it! And from a personal point of view, I am delighted that this book links three Past Presidents of the Viking Society (Ker, Fell and myself) and three women scholars (Batho, Fell and myself), and that it is all down to Olivia Stuart Horner's clearout.