You never know what you’ll discover on other people’s book shelves.
We’ve been working at Tyntesfield, a Victorian Gothic fairytale of a house whose spires and pinnacles rise up out of a valley near Bristol. Part of our job was to rethink the lives and personalities of its Victorian owners, the devout and high-minded Gibbs. It’s amazing how quickly the past slips away from you, how hard it is to reconstruct the personalities of people who died only last year, let alone in the 19th century. The Gibbs were devout and High Church but time had turned them into a pious family and nothing else.
And so we were intrigued to discover that Matilda Blanche Gibbs, wife to William Gibbs, the Victorian paterfamilias to this sprawling tribe, had owned a three-volume copy of ‘The Arabian Nights’.
This small fact had slipped off the pages of a curatorial report. It was buried deep in the lists of the other books that the Gibbs had owned – bibles and prayer books, biographies of bishops and martyred missionaries, books on theology, classics and the History of England – and maybe it wouldn’t have caught my eye at all except that I had been reading Robert Irwin’s book on the history of ‘The Arabian Nights’.
‘The Arabian Nights’ came west in its first translation at the beginning of the 18th century. From the start it trailed clouds of playfulness, illicitness, fantasy and seductiveness, and although by the 19th century it had settled down to become a children’s book, it ws never really a safe reading choice. Coleridge read it when he was six (so he said) and found it terrifying. Henry Layard read it when he was little and was inspired to become an archaeologist in the Middle East. You can trace its magical influence on most Victorian novelists – Dickens, Melville, De Quincey. A grown-up version of the book was a standard part of a Victorian gentleman’s library, but this was Matilda Blanche’s book and interestingly she owned an 1858 copy, by which date she was 41. Had she read it when she was little and wanted to read it again? And if so, why? And what does it say about her that she owned a copy of ‘The Arabian Nights’?
So by a lovely bit of symmetry there was also a surprise on her husband William’s shelves. William was equally devout but he owned a (well-thumbed) copy of Charles Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’, a book that would overturn all his religious assumptions.
Exploring characters from the past is like working in mosaics. You build up your portraits fragment by fragment and as you do so their colour and texture shifts and changes little by little. A new fragment doesn’t necessarily contradict the one next to it, but it does add an extra nuance. The end result? Raising the dead and breathing life into ghosts.
So what do I conclude from all this about William and Matilda?
That maybe Victorian piety was a more capacious concept than I had imagined, that it allowed you to be many other things as well?
And that you should never judge by appearances.
The image at the top of the page is of the Gibbs family, with William and Matilda in the middle.
Tyntesfield is a Victorian Gothic mansion just outside Bristol. It’s owned by the National Trust and is open daily. Well worth a visit.
Robert Irwin’s book on ‘The Arabian Nights’ is fantastically read-able and much recommended.
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