Blog Archives

Reverend Spooner, Father of the Spoonerism

In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle delves into the life of the man immortalised by the spoonerism

Archibald Spooner (1844-1930) was a physically striking man. An albino with pink skin and white hair, he became affectionately known as the Child by students at New College, the Oxford college of which Spooner became warden in 1903. (His wife Frances became known as the Madonna, hence their inevitable collective nickname of Madonna and Child.) By all accounts, Spooner was a kindly man who insisted, in the face of indignant opposition, that the college’s war memorial should list the names of the German dead alongside the college members who had given their lives in the Great War.

But this has all been lost from the popular consciousness – if it ever resided there – and Spooner’s name and legacy have firmly centred on the ‘spoonerism’ – a word attested from The Globe magazine in London from 1900, and defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘an accidental transposition of the initial sounds, or other parts, of two or more words’. Interestingly, though, the OED’s next citation for the word ‘spoonerism’, from a Notes and Queries article of 1923, suggests that Spooner may have given his name to a word-game that was much older than him: Read the rest of this entry


George du Maurier’s Trilby: A Victorian Phenomenon

In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle doffs his hat to a half-forgotten Victorian sensation

Here’s a question for you: what was the biggest-selling novel of the Victorian era? And who wrote it – Dickens perhaps? George Eliot? Robert Louis Stevenson? It was none of these, though they all enjoyed huge sales. Instead, the accolade arguably goes to a man who was principally known, not as a novelist at all, but as a cartoonist. (I say ‘arguably’ because reliable sales figures for nineteenth-century books are not always easy to find.)

The cartoonist’s name was George du Maurier and the novel is Trilby (1894). Du Maurier had made his name as an illustrator: in 1895 he was responsible for the famous curate’s egg’ cartoon (with its complaisant curate assuring the vicar, concerning the bad egg he’d been served up, that ‘parts of it are excellent’), and he’d even been responsible for coining the phrase ‘bedside manner’ in a medical cartoon of 1884. But owing to failing eyesight, du Maurier had begun to complement his illustrating work with novel-writing as a way of continuing to make a living from his pen. He certainly succeeded: Trilby would become the sensation of the age, not just in Britain but in the United States. In time, even when the novel was largely forgotten, its title would be immortalised in the name of a hat. Read the rest of this entry

Dickens’s Most Neglected Book: A Child’s History of England

In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle celebrates Dickens’s forgotten history book for children

A Child’s History of England (1851-3) occupies a unique place among Dickens’s works. The only one written specifically for children, and the only book-length work of history he wrote, it is the most neglected of all his books, and has long been overlooked by both critics and readers. There has been no scholarly edition of A Child’s History of England published by any of the leading publishers, and few studies of Dickens’s writing – even his non-fiction writing – provide any sustained analysis or treatment of the book. Critical opinion has generally been unfavourable: epithets including ‘puerile’ and ‘weak’ have been used to describe it.  G. K. Chesterton’s tart dismissal has been echoed by the succeeding generations: ‘It is indeed A Child’s History of England, but the child is the writer and not the reader.’

But this does not altogether explain why it has attracted such scant critical attention ever since it was published. In many ways it can be used to shine considerable light on Dickens: on his political and religious attitudes, his prejudices, and his sympathies. Why the neglect? This question is posed by John Gardiner, in one of the few pieces of criticism to consider A Child’s History of England. Read the rest of this entry