European Writers in the Public Record Office

By Harvey, A. D. | Contemporary Review, March 1998 | Go to article overview

European Writers in the Public Record Office


Harvey, A. D., Contemporary Review


The Public Record Office at Kew contains innumerable documents by or relating to British writers but there is also a considerable amount of material relating to European authors. Voltaire's sycophantic letter to King George I of 6 October 1725 - 'j'ai parle dans mon ouvrage avec liberte et avec verite. Vous etes Sire le protecteur de l'une et de l'autre' - is an autograph text of considerable interest (already printed in Besterman's edition of Voltaire's works) whereas the Director of Public Prosecutions' opinion of Balzac's Contes Drolatiques - ' "The Old Gadabout" is a filthy story, whilst the others, I am informed by the [Police] Inspector who has read some of them, are all more or less suggestive' (HO 45/24805) - belongs more to the musty corners of English Social History than to the annals of French Literature; but most of the documents in question are at the very least of some biographical value.

Perhaps the most obvious reason for a foreign writer appearing in British government files is residence in Britain as a political refugee. Victor Hugo, for example, figures occasionally in the reports of Sergeant Sanders of Scotland Yard, who was sent to Jersey to watch French republican emigres during the 1850s: 'Caussidiere has only visited Victor Hugo once . . . Victor Hugo will publish shortly another against Louis Napoleon, more violent than Napoleon le Petit . . . Victor Hugo and his Sons [and other principal exiles] very seldom see the other Refugees, they appear in fact to avoid them.' (HO 45/4547A) Even with Hugo amongst them the French emigres failed to endear themselves to the local populace; when they were expelled from Jersey the Lieutenant-Governor reported to the Home Office that they embarked quietly, 'with the exception of one man, who, on going on board, called out "Vive La Republique Universelle et Sociale," which was answered by some of the Bystanders with "Down with the Refugees", "down with the bloody Reds".' (HO 45/6188 3 November 1855) Usually however political refugees were not interfered with unless, like the German journalist and revolutionary Johann Most, they were deemed to have broken English law. Sergius Stepniak (S. M. Kravchinski) who, having stabbed to death a police chief in St Petersburg and participated in an armed rebellion in southern Italy, came to London, published articles in The Times and 'the first novel written in English by a Russian', and was run over by a train on the way home from a conversation with Oxford University's Regius Professor of Modern History, appears in the records neither of the Home Office nor of the Foreign Office. Nikolai Ogarev crops up in a Home Office file only long after his death, when the Soviet authorities applied for the return of his remains. Enquiries showed that his grave had been purchased in 1877 by 'Madame Herzen,' presumably the widow of Alexander Herzen, but 'ownership is now believed to have lapsed . . . no relatives of the deceased can be traced.' A Home Office minute described Ogarev as 'a secondary figure in the intellectual history of nineteenth century Russia. His claim to fame rests on his association with Herzen.' Sir Frank Soskice, the then Home Secretary, was inclined to raise objections:

'It is probably too late to raise the point; but I hope the Foreign Office have fully considered the political overtones of this. I do not know enough about Ogareff's work or the position he occupied in the 19th century revolutionary movement, and I therefore cannot judge how strong or legitimate might be opposition from White Russian emigre circles in this and other countries. Was Ogareff a Marxist revolutionary who advocated the violent uprising and dictatorship of the international proletariate? Or was he an advocate of peaceful social reform step by step? For example when Kerensky, now in his 80s dies, it would surely be an outrage if the Soviets were to be allowed to remove his remains back to Russia, in order to make bogus political capital out of it (hard though they might find this). …

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