Archive of the Month
The Department of Fiction in the RCB Library
By Bryan Whelan
For November’s Archive of the Month, the RCB Library returns to exploring its early years, focusing on the evolution of its small but diverse range of literary titles. These incorporate novels, poetry, drama, and literary essays that reflect the eclectic nature of those who visit the Library, whether to borrow items or to spend time reading these items. Many of these items formed part of the original Guild of Witness Lending Library or were donated in the 1930s after the establishment of the RCB Library.
It sometimes comes as a surprise to visitors at the vast amount of print material that is held on site in the RCB Library. There are currently nearly 60,000 print items catalogued on the Library’s online system, and this is a number that is continually growing as the Library accessions new publications, as well as retrospectively catalogues older material. The Library serves a diverse range of users, from ordinands training in the Theological Institute, to members of the clergy and lay members of the Church of Ireland, as well as a broader user–base with the Library open to all who wish to visit. Given this, it is no surprise that the print collection of the Library has grown to incorporate a vast range of subjects, from religion (including theology, biblical studies, and liturgy, among many other areas), history (particularly Irish and religious history), and the much–valued parish history section – often including hard–to–find and rare items. The library’s literature section is another substantial area. It tells the story of the natural evolution of the collection, as well as the people who contributed to its development. There are also some wonderfully esoteric titles, the vast majority of these being available to all of our members to borrow.
During the pandemic, Library staff used the opportunity presented by remote working to continue to retrospectively catalogue the large number of print items that were not present on the Library’s online catalogue. A large percentage of these items were those from the literature section. Being able to devote this time in a systematic fashion allowed Library staff to gain a valuable insight into how the Library developed, from its initial incarnation as The Guild of Witness Library or the Sir James Stephen Library (variously known as the Feenish/Ardfeenish Library, and sometimes called Leabharlann an Chomhluadair on its bookplates) through to its eventual incorporation as the Representative Church Body Library in 1932.
Early accessions to the literature section of the Guild of Witness Library and the RCB Library
The RCB Library holds 1,720 titles classified under the 800 heading in the Dewey Decimal Classification. The 800 heading is more commonly known as the literature section (or ‘belles–lettres’ depending on the specific edition), and encompasses drama, poetry, fiction, essays, speeches, letters as well as miscellaneous writings. This section includes works written in other languages, as well as translated works. While the vast majority of the 1,720 titles held in the RCB Library are literary essays, there is a substantial amount of material that can be classified as fiction. Most of these are novels, but there are some short–story collections available, with the vast majority of these being works written in the English language, either by American authors (35), English (217), or Irish writers. However, there are some examples of translated material, particularly some 17 novels translated from German, as well as novels translated from French, Italian, and Spanish.
The Guild of Witness Library gave particular importance to the sub–genre of historical fiction. The Library holds a wealth of material pertaining to the Irish Guild of Witness (Ms 89) and within this collection are illuminating documents that Rosamond Stephen, who founded the Guild in 1901, used to document and run the fledgling library. There are five items – a substantial percentage of this collection – with the sole focus of documenting the fiction section of the library, and two of these deal specifically with historical novels. It is interesting to note that there are no similar documents – at least none that survive – that are devoted to documenting any of the other sections of the Library. This devotion to historical fiction is further emphasised by Rosamond’s note at the end of her ledger recording the borrowing habits of the Library’s members on 17 December 1931. This date is a significant one for Rosamond and the RCB Library being the last day of her service and over 30 years of dedication to aiding the reading habits of members of the Guild of Witness Library. In this note, Rosamond notes that it marks the ‘end of my service. Greeting to all who read historical fiction here in days to come’.
Rosamond adopted a hybrid approach to the use of genre classification (for the literature section) and the Dewey Decimal System for other substantial areas. In an undated hand–written jotter, titled Register of Books Borrowed and Returned, we see in Rosamond’s hand an outline of the Dewey Classification system, most likely copied from the Boston Library Bureau. Rosamond states that ‘at present only two classes need be further noticed for Guild Library’, specifically those of religion and history. Sections such as fiction were simply marked as such, similar to what present–day members of some public libraries will see in their local branches.
These working books kept by Rosamond give an illuminating insight into the operations of the Guild of Witness Library, and it is fascinating to see how the basics of running a library – choosing and recording accessions, documenting which books were being borrowed and by whom, as well as publicising new additions – are things which the staff of the current Library still do. In the ledgers mentioned above, we have a detailed list of the members of the Guild of Witness Library and what books they were borrowing, and we see regular examples of Rosamond writing letters to the Church of Ireland Gazette to advertise new additions to the Library.
As would be expected, the Guild of Witness Library was curated by Rosamond Stephen, albeit with substantial additions, primarily from members of the Stephen family. We can see from the accession numbers that were carefully maintained by Rosamond that some of the very earliest additions to this Library were novels, primarily those of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Leo Tolstoy. These types of novels fit well with the idea of a moral and instructive collection, one aimed at giving its members an eclectic choice of materials suitable for the time. However, as the Library transitioned through its various iterations, eventually becoming the Representative Church Body Library, we see the addition of contemporary fiction that was reflecting the politics and events of its time. A good example of this was the addition of works from German authors, translated into English, particularly during the 1930s. This material was accessioned by the then Librarian Geraldine FitzGerald, often with guidance from Rosamond in the form of letters between the two women. These works sometimes reflected the trend for works from Germany extolling the benefits of patriotism as a force for good. An interesting counterpoint to these novels is a collection of novels by Lion Feuchtwanger (1884–1958), a German Jewish novelist and playwright and early critic of the rise of the National Socialist German Workers (Nazi) Party. The RCB Library holds six of Feuchtwanger’s work, all of these having been accessioned during FitzGerald’s role as Librarian. Some of these titles were clearly accessioned due to their being historical fiction set during the time of Jesus, specifically The Jew of Rome: A Historical Romance (London: Hutchinson, 1935), Jew Süss (London: Secker, 1926), and Josephus: A Historical Romance (London: Secker, 1933). However, two of the remaining titles held by the Library detail the persecution suffered by the Jewish community in Germany during the 1930s: The Oppermanns (London: Secker, 1934) and Success: Three Years in the Life of a Province (London: Secker, 1930). It is interesting to see that the work of Feuchtwanger is being recognised with the republication of The Oppermanns this year. The Library holds many items from writers persecuted by the Nazi government, including Max Brod and Sigrid Undset, and all of these items were accessioned by FitzGerald.
The desire to reflect – and perhaps subtly comment upon – current political trends continued during Geraldine FitzGerald’s time as Librarian. An interesting example of this is the addition of two novels by George Orwell, Penguin paperback editions of Animal Farm and 1984. Although there is no record of any of Orwell’s work having been accessioned before this, these two copies – previously the personal property of FitzGerald – were accessioned in the early 1960s. If there was any doubt as to why these were being accessioned, FitzGerald helpfully affixed newspapers articles warning about the dangers of Fidel Castro and the recent overthrow of the military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in Cuba.
The importance of donations
The RCB Library gratefully receives donations of print materials from benefactors, and this has been the case since Rosamond Stephen founded the Guild of Witness Library. When Library staff were accessioning the literature section, two donors were noted as having contributed a huge amount of print material during Geraldine FitzGerald’s time as Librarian, particularly in the area of literature. One of these was Linda Hillas, born 19 October 1878 at Farm Hill, Dundrum, just a short distance from Taney parish church. Linda’s mother, Alice Grant, was the daughter of Revd John Grant (1804–1858), curate of Monkstown and St Stephen’s, Dublin, as well as perpetual curate of Stillorgan. After the death of Linda’s father, Robert William Hillas, the family moved to 8 Fitzwilliam Street Lower, a short distance from Rosamond’s Ardfeenish Library on Mount Street. The titles donated to the Library are nearly exclusively literary in nature, with some historical items included. Many of these items are by Rudyard Kipling, but other items of interest include Sixteen Poems by William Allingham (published by The Dun Emer Press in 1905) as well as The Rose of Heaven, a collection of poetry by Ella Young and illustrated by Maud Gonne (Dublin: The Candle Press, 1920). The latter was limited to 350 copies, with this particular item being number 313. It is inscribed Linda Hillas, September 1925.
Linda Hillas was the president of the Dublin Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and went on to the position of Hon. Secretary and Chairman. Linda appears in the Church of Ireland Gazette letters page on 28 April 1939 with a letter advertising the Society’s stall at the forthcoming Royal Dublin Society Spring Show in May of that year. Linda died 21 June 1955, and it can be assumed (primarily by the accession numbers affixed to the items) that this is when her collection of books was donated to the RCB Library. The Library has also accessioned a donation from Linda as Ms 321, being a ‘scrapbook of Linda Hillas containing book plates and 20th century press–cuttings’. Although undated, it might be assumed that this was donated to the Library at the same time as the print items.
Another major donor to the new Library was that of Ethel Davidson, née Goddard. This donation encompassed as least 120 books, with a broad subject matter encompassing religion and theology, history, as well as literature. A significant and much–treasured part of this donation was a set of books published by the Cuala Press. Mrs Davidson was noted as ‘a devoted member of the Church of Ireland, taking a keen interest in the parish of Howth, and was a member of the Select Vestry and President of the local Branch of the Mothers’ Union’. You can read more about Mrs Davidson’s bequest here: https://www.ireland.anglican.org/news/10952/the-cuala-press-a-focus
Recent additions to the fiction section of the Library
The RCB Library continues to accession new literature where appropriate. Like the Guild of Witness Library, these are mainly literary essays, but there are some new novels that we have accessioned in the last decade, usually dealing with religious themes, or documenting Protestant life in Ireland. Notable additions include Ted Woods’ ever popular works of fiction, Bishop (2020) and Priest (2021), as well as Norma MacMaster’s Silence Under a Stone (Dublin: Transworld, 2018), Homan Potterton’s Knockfane (Dublin: Merrion Press, 2019), A Lost Tribe by William King (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 2017), and Paula Gooder’s Phoebe: A Story (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2018). All of these items, as well as the vast majority of the Library’s literature section, can be borrowed by Members.