BFFs: Balliol friends forever

It is tempting to conflate a writer’s personality and the work they produce, but this can give us an incomplete picture of who they really were. The great literary scholar Andrew Cecil Bradley (Balliol 1868) is best remembered for Shakespearean Tragedy, a work of ‘high seriousness’ that profoundly influenced 20th century Shakespearean criticism; but the Oxford poetry professor also had a playful side. In the poem ‘Were I but fat’, Bradley expounds on the many benefits of portliness: ‘Were I but fat, I should not freeze … Wives should be mine, and properties’.

Were I but fat - ACB
©Royal Holloway, University of London

The possibly unpublished poem was Bradley’s contribution to a friendship book recently acquired by Balliol Library as part of its continuing effort to collect the intellectual history of the College. It was compiled by Balliol alumnus, poet and clergyman Henry Charles Beeching (Balliol 1878) between 1889 and 1899, with two final pieces contributed in 1939. Friendship books, or liber amicorum, are personal albums to which the owner’s friends and loved ones contribute verses, drawings, photographs and personal inscriptions.

Bradley had been Beeching’s tutor when he was an undergraduate in Balliol from 1878-1881, and from the inclusion of the poem in the friendship book we might infer the two were quite close. Balliol at the time was under the Mastership of Benjamin Jowett who emphasised academic brilliance but also encouraged more informal and close relationships between tutors and students.

Congenial though the environment was, superiors were still to be respected. While Beeching was an undergraduate he contributed to the Masque of B-ll—l, a booklet of verse that poked fun at the students and Fellows of the College. Perhaps tame by our standards, it was quickly suppressed although a few copies remained in circulation. It was later published in 1939 by Basil Blackwell as Balliol Rhymes [Balliol Library, 68 e 33]. The most famous verse portrays Jowett as a pompous know-it-all and is attributed to Henry Charles Beeching:

‘First come I.
My name is J-W-TT.
There’s no knowledge but I know it.
I am Master of this College,
What I don’t know isn’t knowledge.’

Lucius Smith - Music - p1

One of the most visually arresting contributions to Beeching’s friendship book is Lucius Smith’s wonderful musical notation. Smith, a contemporary of Beeching’s at Balliol, was immortalised in the Masque as ‘Lucy …the Archbiaconate’ , particularly apt considering that he went on to become the inaugural Bishop of Knaresborough. The author of that verse and many more in the Masque was poet J W Mackail. Mackail and Beeching were part of a literary circle at Balliol that also included J B B Nichols and the three friends later collaborated on two published volumes of poetry. Both Mackail and Nichols contributed poems to the friendship book. In ‘Winter is over’, an unpublished poem dated 1889, Mackail describes the end of winter and spring’s return: ‘poppies & great white daisies in the dew/ morning by morning are uncurled anew’. Nichol’s ‘Pastel’ was later published in Love’s Looking Glass, one of the collections on which the three friends collaborated. Beeching’s own poem, ‘The robin in January’, which also features in Love’s Looking Glass is included here under the title ‘Hey robin, jolly robin’.

Beeching_Mackail_Nichols
From the left: J B B Nichols, J W Mackail and Henry Charles Beeching c1882

Other contributions speak further to the circles in which Beeching moved, and include poems by poet laureate, Robert Bridges whose niece, Mary, married Beeching in 1890, as well as writer and social reformer Annie Matheson. Matheson wrote one of the first biographies of Florence Nightingale, a close friend of Benjamin Jowett’s to whom, rumour has it, he proposed unsuccessfully.

Many of the contributions are initialled rather than signed and so we can only guess at their origin. Beeching’s daughter Helen Fanning speculated on the identities of the unknown authors were and her guesses are slipped into the front of the book. Others remain tantalisingly unknown to us including the contributor of a piece in Hebrew.

Hebrew

A detailed record for Beeching’s friendship book is available on the Balliol College Archives website.

Friendship books may have been in their heyday in the 16th and 17th centuries, when they functioned in a similar way to social networks today, but they continue to be revived and re-imagined in the virtual world such as this 21st century incarnation, produced by graffiti artists in LA and inspired by rare books.

 

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