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“Only connect”: Laura Mary Forster and Charles Darwin

Amongst our fascinating collection of books from the personal library of E.M. Forster (1879-1970) are some which were passed down to him by relations. These include a number of volumes which once belonged to his aunt, Laura Mary Forster (1839-1924):

Laura Mary Forster's bookplate

The bookplate of Laura Mary Forster (1839-1924)

In his biography of Marianne Thornton, Laura’s aunt, E.M. Forster provides a brief outline of Laura’s character:

“Miss Forster never married … she followed the Thornton pattern of intellectual and philanthropic activity, but she could be censorious of her elders, and is constantly taking them up and dusting them before she replaces them, with a word of c0mmendation, on their shelf. In her later life she changed – became gentler, wiser, greater.”

Some of the volumes formerly owned by Laura are especially interesting, since they feature bindings with blind-tooled and stamped leatherwork of her own design. These include a volume by John Ruskin on the medieval Italian artist Giotto, which has a design based around circles, making reference to Giotto’s reputed ability to draw a perfect circle freehand without the aid of a compass.

Binding of Ruskin's work on Giotto

Front cover of: John Ruskin “Giotto and his works in Padua …” (London: Arundel Society, 1854. Forster.RUS.Gio.1854)

It is possible that Laura’s designs were influenced by her association with the arts and crafts designer William Morris (1834-1896), with whom she is known to have corresponded and sent samples of her work. The Arts and Crafts Exhibitions Society exhibit for 1889 featured several of Laura’s book-bindings and also embossed leather chair seats produced by Morris and Co. from her designs.

Another work, a three volume set of “The life and letters of Charles Darwin”, which was given to Laura by the editor, Darwin’s son Francis, features a floral design based on poppies.

Binding of volume 2 of "Life and letters of Charles Darwin"

Front cover of volume two of: Francis Darwin (ed.) “The life and letters of Charles Darwin…” (London: John Murray, 1887. Forster.DARW.Lif/2.1887)

This set is one of the jewels of the Forster collection, since attached inside the front cover of the first volume is an autograph letter from Charles Darwin himself, addressed to Laura and thanking her for allowing him to stay at her house in Surrey in 1879. A transcript of the letter appears in a footnote on page 224 of the third volume.

Darwin letter page 1

First page of a letter to Laura Mary Forster from Charles Darwin, written in 1879

Forster.DARW.Lif1.1887 letter page 02

Second page of Darwin’s letter to Laura

Transcript of Darwin letter

Transcript of Darwin’s letter, from volume three of “The life and letters of Charles Darwin”

Laura was a lifelong friend of Darwin’s eldest daughter Henrietta, with whom she conducted a lively correspondence. Many of these letters survive, including some which convey Laura’s leaning towards Darwinism. Whilst stating that: “it is against one’s taste to come from furry animals, tidal or otherwise”, and remaining steadfast in her Christian faith, she nevertheless believed that: “it is of practical use to get a just estimate of one’s place in creation”. Other relations regarded Darwinism with horror, and Laura relates wryly that one family acquaintance: “…expects every time he comes down to see me hung up on one of the large oaks opposite our house…”

Bibliography:

Forster, E.M. Marianne Thornton (André Deutsch, 2000)

Kelvin, N. (ed.) The collected letters of William Morris, Volume II, Part B: 1885-1888 (Princeton University Press, 1987)

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Clashing inscriptions

Front pastedown of J.75.17 from the Thackeray collection

Front pastedown of J.75.17. From the Thackeray collection

This amusing exchange appears on the front pastedown of a 1794 edition of “The conduct of understanding” by John Locke. The inscriptions read: “C. Sturges K.C.C.  Recommended by Dr Glynn 1794” and: “You lying scoundrell Sturges. Dr Glyn does not recommend any such book”

1794 was the year the book’s first owner, Charles Sturges (1776-1802) joined the college as an undergraduate, and, as a newly minted scholar, he appears to have been eager – perhaps too eager – to show that his book purchases were guided by the advice of his betters. Being labelled a “lying scoundrell” seems to have done him little harm, as he later became a fellow of the College and also a clergyman, acting between 1800 and  1802 as curate of St. Mary’s Church in Reading, where his father was the vicar.

The author of the second inscription is thought to have been Dr Glynn himself.  Robert Glynn (1719-1800) was a colourful character in every respect.

Dr Robert Glynn. An engraving of a drawing by the Rev. Thomas Kerrich

Dr Robert Glynn. An engraving of a drawing by the Rev. Thomas Kerrich

A prominent and well respected Cambridge physician and a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, his  habit of wearing a scarlet cloak and a three-cornered hat and carrying a gold-topped cane must have made him an easily  recognisable figure around the town. A Kingsman, Glynn lived in College and ran his practice from his rooms there.

Described in the Rev. Augustus Austen Leigh’s history of the College as: “the most active, eccentric, and benevolent of doctors”, Glynn’s popularity stemmed in part from his generosity and kindness towards the people of the malaria-ridden fens, who were encouraged to come to him for free medical advice. Fees were also waived for Cornishmen (Glynn was Cornish by birth), clergymen and old Etonians. A man of firm opinions, Glynn always avoided prescribing opium, advocated fresh air as one of the best remedies, and never bled his patients, despite this being a common medical practice at the time. He avoided regular mealtimes, preferring to snack on cold mutton kept in his rooms.

Memorial tablet in the College chapel

Memorial tablet in the College chapel

Eccentric to the last, Glynn stipulated that he should be buried in the College chapel  late at night, by torchlight, and that only College members were to attend.  He is memorialised by a tablet on the wall of one of the side-chapels. The name Clobery was adopted by Glynn after he received a large inheritance from a maternal uncle.

The book made its way into the collection of George Thackeray (1777-1850), who was Provost of King’s between 1814 and 1850. Most of Thackeray’s books were passed to his daughter  Mary Ann (1818-1879), who in turn bequeathed them to the College.

Sources: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,  “King’s College” by Rev. A. Austen Leigh, and Venn’s “Alumni Cantabrigienses”

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