From the Archives: An English Literature student's experience

POST BY MAllen

Alex catalogued the personal papers of Military Chaplain, Bernard Egan SJ

In this week's 'From the Archives' blog, we continue our series of guest posts written by our wonderful work experience students from earlier in the summer. This post comes from Alex Blaney, who was with us for two weeks to gain experience of work in an archive. There is perhaps something for everyone in the Jesuits in Britain Archives, and in Alex's post it is clear that there is much to inspire an English Literature student, from deciphering 18th century handwriting to cataloguing letters and articles written by prominent literary figures of the mid-20th century. If you are interested in our work experience and volunteer opportunities, please contact us.

Hello! I’m Alex, a student currently heading into my third year reading English at University, and for the past two weeks I have had the wonderful opportunity of undertaking a work placement in the Archives of the Jesuits in Britain.

No sooner had I breached the threshold than I was entrusted with my first task: assisting in calendaring a bound volume of papers relating to the Jesuit College of the Holy Apostles, 1775–1840. Calendaring – a process that is by turns vexing and deeply satisfying – involves compiling a list of full descriptive summaries of the thematic and historical content, as well as the physical condition of documents. Since the eventual aim of calendaring is to create a resource which effectively serves as a substitute for the original archival material, it calls for unflagging attention to detail on the part of the archivist. I certainly found that the challenges of accurately and succinctly summarising early nineteenth-century documents – letters, testaments, indentures, and the like – were compounded by the fact that the handwriting of certain Jesuits seemed to verge on the indecipherable. Still, as time progressed, I became increasingly proficient at interpreting the often elaborate cursive, and thoroughly enjoyed building up an impression of the administrative side of the College.

On those (rare) occasions when my mind threatened to lapse into a state of paleographic discombobulation, light relief came in the form of my second task: cleaning and re-packaging a collection of old photographs of Manresa – now Parkstead – House. In the Archives, different media call for different preservation techniques. Participating in this particular process gave me a sense of the wide variety of work which the archivists here must conduct in order to properly house and maintain their multifaceted collection. Being able to access snapshots of the architecture, scenic features, and surrounding landscape of mid twentieth-century Manresa was an added bonus; images of the majestically sprawling ‘Manresa vine’ particularly stick in the mind!

Much of my time in the archives was occupied performing three tasks, the first of which involved cataloguing the personal papers of Fr Bernard Charles Egan SJ (1905–88). An understated, unassuming, though in many ways outstanding man, Fr Egan was not only the first Chaplain, Priest, and Jesuit to gain his wings with the Parachute Regiment during the Second World War (1942), but was also the recipient of a Military Cross in 1944 for conspicuous gallantry shown during the 1943 campaign in Sicily. Through cataloguing Egan’s papers – a process that entailed tracking down and perusing his various obituaries, as well as producing detailed descriptions for items such as his sermon notes and wartime logbook (1944–45) – I came to understand how archivists can quickly develop an intimate knowledge of individuals and organisations through the material left behind in their wake. For my own part, I cannot help but think fondly of Egan, an individual whose immense feats of heroism were suspected by few following his quiet return to secondary school teaching at the close of the war.

The second of the three tasks involved indexing the Blandyke Papers – a collection of wholly manuscript volumes spanning 1888–1923, which predominantly contain the reflections of Jesuit priests-in-training on matters historical, liturgical, philosophical, literary, and scientific. From essays on Whitman, bees, protoplasm, Floridian rivers, Freemasonry, and wine, to a cardboard model illustrating the stage design for a production of the seventeenth-century Oberammergau Passion Play, the Blandyke papers have it all, and then some. The sheer miscellaneity of the articles found between the covers of these tomes stands as a testament to the teeming richness of their authors’ imaginative, intellectual, and spiritual lives. The following passage, written – no doubt with tongue firmly planted in cheek – by a Jesuit in the August 1888 volume on the subject of examiners and examinations, offers a tantalising flavour of some of the material that I encountered:

We must own at starting that the modern examiner is a necessity. If Adam had not fallen,— well, amidst the bewildering crowd of consequences following that hypothesis, it is obvious that examiners and examinations, like sin, disease, and death, would in that case have had no existence.

Stage design for a passion play, Blandyke Papers, March 1888

My third and final task took the form of another round of cataloguing – this time of papers relating to The Month, a periodical owned by the English Province of the Society of Jesus, edited by its members, and published on a monthly basis from 1864 to 2001. Many of the documents I examined came from the period 1948–63, while the review was under the general editorship of Fr Philip Caraman SJ (1911–98). What most struck me about this collection was the impressive volume of correspondence it contained. Caraman was constantly sending and receiving letters from a wide range of prominent figures of the day: high-ranking clergymen, academics, and literary figures including Evelyn Waugh, Russell Kirk, and D.J. Enright all make an appearance, and it is clear that the revival of The Month’s reputation during this period owed much to Caraman’s formidable networking prowess. Out of all the letters I came across, my favourite has to be one written to Caraman by the renowned writer, painter, and critic Wyndham Lewis. In it, Lewis turns down the opportunity to review a book by Roy Campbell – he is too busy being ‘harassed by hackwork’ – only to teasingly suggest that Caraman offer the job to the comic writer J.B. Morton, since he ‘merely has to leave off gardening for a few hours’.

Archives are by nature full of surprises. That being said, when looking through a box of mid twentieth-century manuscripts written by contributors to The Month, I was somewhat taken aback when there appeared before me two poems written in the hand of none other than C.S. Lewis. The first, a Juvenalian poem entitled ‘Odora canum vis’, is an excoriating satire of biographers and critics whose minds are in the gutter, and reveals a side of Lewis which may seem unfamiliar to those only acquainted with the famous Narnia heptalogy.

Unlike ‘Odora canum vis’, the second poem, ‘Epitaph’, is serious in tone. Originally written in commemoration of Lewis’ dear friend and fellow Inkling Charles Williams, Lewis went on to adapt the work into an eight-line ‘Epitaph for Helen Joy Davidman’ – his wife – which was later carved on her gravestone. I must confess that I prefer the version of the poem published in The Month. Lewis’ ability to write in a style that is at once utterly dignified – stately, even – yet utterly enigmatic cannot fail to enthral the reader:

Epitaph, by C S Lewis, as published in The Month

Many thanks to Rebecca, Mary, and Lucy for being so welcoming and helpful throughout my time at ABSI. I had a truly brilliant experience, and wish the Archives every success in the future!

Alex Blaney