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Inside Spencer: The KSRL Blog

Books on a shelf

Welcome to the Kenneth Spencer Research Library blog! As the special collections and archives library at the University of Kansas, Spencer is home to remarkable and diverse collections of rare and unique items. Explore the blog to learn about the work we do and the materials we collect.

Hidden Treasure Found in the Stacks

April 15th, 2015

Working at Spencer for the past two years, I’ve discovered many amazing manuscripts and old novels that I never dreamed of getting the chance to actually work with. An even more far-fetched idea, however, was finding books that I read when I was a kid and had completely forgotten about.

Yet I did.

It started off as any other day: reshelving books within the stacks. I pushed my book cart, complete with its squeaky wheels, down the rows as I returned the books back to their homes on the shelves. Walking around the perimeter of the stacks, I found a section of books that I hadn’t noticed before. They stood out amongst the old, leather bound covers of books published before the 1700s. Instead, these spines were cloth and colorful, rich in design and detail.

And they looked eerily familiar.

Image of the cover of In the Reign of Terror by G. A. Henty, 1888

The cover of In the Reign of Terror by G. A. Henty.
Illustrated by J. Schönberb. London: Blackie, 1888.
Call Number: O’Hegarty B805. Click image to enlarge.

Leaving my book cart behind me, I walked up to take a closer look, disbelief forming in the back of my mind. No, these couldn’t be the same books I read in middle school, I thought. There was no chance. Upon closer inspection, my gut was proven to be right: I had discovered a treasure trove of books by British author George Alfred (G. A.) Henty. Shelves upon shelves were lined by his masterpieces, a series of adventure books that I’d barely scratched the surface of, reading them in my youth.

Instantly, I was transported back home, as an eleven-year-old, acne-riddled, glasses wearing middle-schooler, standing in my public library. I discovered a book by accident: it had a simple red cover that was torn on the sides. The title read In the Reign of Terror: The Adventures of a Westminster Boy by G. A. Henty. I have never heard of him before, but I decided to take the book home with me and give it a try.

I finished it within the week.

Henty was a mastermind of writing stories threaded within historical events. In the Reign of Terror was about a boy named Harry Sandwith, who was sent to live with the Marquis de St. Caux during the French Revolution, in a time when political stresses tore the country apart during the reign of King Louis XVI. Even though his novels were written in the late nineteenth century and intended for a young male audience (he always started off his tales with a letter to his audience, addressed to his “Dear Lads…”), I still found them to be enlightening, enjoyable and one heck of a political and historical ride.

And I had completely forgotten about Henty and his tales.

Image of the cover of St. Bartholomew's Eve, G. A. Henty, 1894

The cover of St. Bartholomew’s Eve by G. A. Henty.
Illustrated by H. J. Draper. London: Blackie, 1894.
Call Number: O’Hegarty B818. Click image to enlarge.

Since being reunited, I have been reminded of the books that I raided when I was a kid. After reading Reign, I quickly went through our library’s collection back home, which consisted of six titles. My favorite I’ve read is St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, which is a tale of the Huguenot Wars.

Illustration in St. Bartholomew's Eve, G. A. Henty, 1894

An illustration in St. Bartholomew’s Eve by G. A. Henty.
Illustrated by H. J. Draper. London: Blackie, 1894.
Call Number: O’Hegarty B818. Click image to enlarge.

Image of preface in St. Bartholomew's Eve, G. A. Henty, 1894 Image of preface in St. Bartholomew's Eve, G. A. Henty, 1894

The preface of St. Bartholomew’s Eve by G. A. Henty, addressed to “my dead lads.” Illustrated by H. J. Draper.
London: Blackie, 1894. Call Number: O’Hegarty B818. Click image to enlarge.

Now that I have rediscovered Henty, I’ve been looking into him again and trying to decide which book to read next in order to get back into reading him. Yet I also realized that there are plenty of controversies surrounding the author I’d accidentally discovered. While these stories are advertised as stories of adventures for young boys, they were also criticized – both during the time of publication and especially since then – as being xenophobic towards anything that wasn’t part of British culture and nationalism. His books were also labeled as strong propaganda towards British imperialism, raising the question of if there was another purpose behind Henty’s agenda for writing these novels.

None of this political scandal was noticed by me as a young reader, but recognizing it now, I think it would be interesting to go back and reread some of his stories, or pick up a brand new one. Rediscovering one of my favorite childhood authors was something I definitely didn’t expect to happen while working within the stacks. It was an experience that made me feel like I went back in time, while at the same time, opened a door to learning more about this controversial, yet very popular, late-nineteenth-century author.

It just goes to show that no matter what you’re doing in a library – working, researching or just simply browsing – the treasures waiting to be discovered are endless.

Nicole Evans
Public Services Student Assistant

No Taste for Innocent Pleasures: L. E. L. and the Nineteenth Century

November 15th, 2012

Student Manuscripts Processor and Museum Studies Graduate Student Sarah Adams revises her ideas about the nineteenth century after working on the collection of British poet L. E. L.

When we think of English society in the nineteenth century, we often associate it with what we’ve read in classic novels. British literature and culture of that era seemed to me to lean heavily on polite social decorum and chaste modesty. With such stringent moral codes, people from these periods can at times appear dull compared to modern society. However, after working on a certain nineteenth-century collection in the processing department, I have a hard time believing this to be the case.

Image of Portrait of L. E. L. (1)  Image of portrait of L. E. L. with text

Two portraits of Letitia Elizabeth Landon (L. E. L.). Left: by S. Wright del; S. Freeman sc.; Right: by D. Maclise ; J. Thomson. Letitia Elizabeth Landon (L. E. L.) Collection. Call Numbers: MS 223 E1 (left) and MS 223 E2 (right). Click images to enlarge.

Letitia Elizabeth Landon (1802-1838), or L.E.L., was an English poet and novelist in the early nineteenth century.  She was controversial in her time due to rumored inappropriate relations with a man, a broken engagement, and her suspicious death (perhaps by suicide). Her small collection at the Spencer Research Library (MS 223) includes some of her poetry as well as personal correspondence. In her letters, L.E.L. displays a certain frankness that I was surprised to see in that time period. She could be quite harsh on those she felt were unexciting or uninspired.

In one passage from a letter to Mrs. E. Lytton Bulwer [1834?], she said this of her cousin Caroline:
“My cousins have all good constitutions, complexions, and tempers. They have always lived surrounded with every comfort and have ideas as regular as the lines in a copy book. They hold rouge to be endangering your immortal soul, the opera as sinful, and theaters the downright profession of the devil. In short, Caroline’s idea of London, where she spent a few weeks after their bridal excursion, is that of the whole set, my that ‘it is a great, wicked, expensive place.’”

In another passage, she writes regarding her cousins’ ideas of recreation:
“I have no taste for innocent pleasures.”

Image of a detail from the first page a letter from L. E. L. to Mrs. Bulwer.

 Detail from the first page a letter from L. E. L. to Mrs. Bulwer.  Letitia Elizabeth Landon (L. E. L.) Collection.
Call Number: MS 223 Bc2.  Click image to enlarge

And further:
“One of my little cousins has a gold chain to which she attached at least as much the idea of dignity as of vanity. Her younger sister first implored her to give it – no – then to lend it. The negative nod even more decided. At last the petition became a ‘farther looking hope’ and she exclaimed, ‘Will you Annie leave it me in your will?’ ‘No,’ replied the cautious Miss Annie, ‘I shall want it to wear in Heaven.’”

This attitude toward her cousins likens L.E.L. to one of the many “villains” of Victorian literature. Perhaps, though, there was another side to nineteenth-century English society that some modern readers choose to ignore in the interest of romantic ideals we’ve grown to love in our favorite classics.  I, for one, find it much more exciting to imagine this slightly wicked side in our beloved heroes and heroines.

Curious about L.E.L.’s work? Click here for a link to one of her poems, “Revenge.”

To read the entirety of the letter from  L. E. L. to Mrs. E. Lytton Bulwer discussed in this post (MS 223: Bc.2), please click on the thumbnails below.

Image of Letter from L. E. L. to Mrs. Bulwer, page 1  Image of Letter from L. E. L. to Mrs. Bulwer, pages 2-3.  Image of Letter from L. E. L.  to Mrs. Bulwer, page 4

Sarah Adams
Student Manuscripts Processor and Museum Studies Graduate Student

Editor’s Note: An online finding aid for the Spencer Library’s Letitia Elizabeth Landon (L. E. L.) Collection will be available through our finding aids search portal in the coming weeks.