Guest post by Lilia Kanu
Easter intern at Bodleian Libraries Archives & Modern Manuscripts
A collection of books and manuscripts related to the poet James Elroy Flecker (1884-1915) has now been catalogued and is available to view at the Weston Library. This small collection spans the period from 1902 to 1951, with papers dating from his late school years up to decades beyond his death. Although it is a small collection, the contents of these five boxes are nonetheless fruitful and intriguing.
Flecker was born in London and first attended Dean Close School in Cheltenham, where his father was headmaster. In 1902, he won a classical scholarship to study at Trinity College, Oxford, where he spent his time writing poetry characterised by his growing interest in Parnassianism and being a sociable conversationalist with his peers. After several stints as a schoolmaster in schools in London and Yorkshire, in 1908 he attended Caius College, Cambridge where he studied oriental languages to prepare for consular service. From 1910, he was stationed in Constantinople [Istanbul], and then Beirut, as vice-consul, but he oscillated between his posts abroad and living in England due to bouts of illness.
He married Helle Skiadaressi (1882-1961) in 1911. Due to his long-term struggle with tuberculosis, he retired and moved to Switzerland in 1913, where he lived out his final years. Here, he continued to write and published his most notable work, The Golden Journey to Samarkand (1913). He died aged 31 in January 1915, and many of his poems were posthumously published, as were his two acclaimed plays Hassan (1922) and Don Juan (1925).
This collection was brought together from several different sources by Howard Moseley before arriving at the Bodleian. The boxes include a plethora of items, including manuscript drafts of Flecker’s published and unpublished poetry and plays written throughout his life, as well as his personal correspondence with other notable contemporaries such as John Mavrogordato and Edward Marsh. There are also books which Flecker owned and annotated, including one with an 18 line comic poem inscribed into the title page of The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini (1904). There are also posthumously produced sources, such as a proof copy of T.E. Lawrence’s An Essay on Flecker (1937), alongside ephemera and clippings from publications such as The Times containing obituaries, featuring his poems, or reviewing various productions of Flecker’s plays. Amongst the materials produced after his death are letters from his wife, Helle, to the same recipients of the letters written by Flecker himself which are also present in the archive.
A striking element of this collection is the broad temporal and geographic scope from which these items were produced: there are letters written from Switzerland, manuscript poems written in Beirut, and postcards sent from his alma mater – and family home – in Cheltenham. These materials had obviously been in different hands and travelled across continents, with many of the manuscripts or bounded books being accompanied by postcards or letters between Flecker and others. The same names continuously pop up in his correspondence, evincing some valued, long-lasting friendships. There is much evident interaction with these materials, as seen by the extensive marginalia, fingerprint marks, and other signs of use. Each item can be placed at distinct points of Flecker’s lamentably short life, the latter fact which is heightened by the sentimental features of the posthumous sources written about his life and his impact – a quality which, as a fervent Parnassian, Flecker might have been averse to! You get a sense of the impact Flecker had in his loved ones’ lives; the letters from his wife to Flecker’s friends are characterised by black edged writing paper as a symbol of mourning, and Heller Nichols’ copy of Hassan features a cut-out from The Times stating that ‘it was James Elroy Flecker’s dream to live long enough to see his first play Hassan produced’. In some of his items, Flecker’s personality shines through – especially amusing was reading of his preference to write in ink, noting below a typescript copy of one of his poems, ‘excuse the typing on a mad writing machine’!
Typescript draft of ‘The True Paradise’ [c.1914], by J.E. Flecker, Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS.21234/1
This is overall a lovely small collection of materials relating to Flecker, and will be of interest for early 20th century English poetry and further insight into Flecker’s life.
-Lilia Kanu, Balliol College
This collection complements the Literary Papers of James Elroy Flecker already held at the Bodleian Libraries.