Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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The "Victorian Blood Book" from the Library of Evelyn Waugh

Evelyn Waugh, whose manuscripts and 3,500-volume library are now at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin, was an inveterate collector of things Victorian (and well ahead of most of his contemporaries in this regard). Undoubtedly the most curious object in the Waugh library is a large oblong folio decoupage book known affectionately as the "Victorian Blood Book."

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RICHARD ORAM: Hello, I'm Richard Oram, Hobby Foundation Librarian and Associate Director at the Ransom Center. I'm here to talk about the Evelyn Waugh "blood book," as we call it here.

And, first a few notes about Evelyn Waugh, who was, of course, a distinguished novelist. We have almost all of his literary manuscripts here in the Ransom Center collections and his complete library of about 3,500 volumes or so. And Waugh is almost unique in being not only a major British author, but also a very accomplished book collector and bibliophile.

He had an eye for things, in particular Victorian. And when he started collecting books in a big way when he became wealthy in the 1930s and '40s, nobody was interested in Victoriana. In fact, people were practically giving it away. So, he acquired quite a large collection of antiques and antique books and Victorian items at very reasonable prices. One of the things he acquired, I think, probably in the 1950s or perhaps the 1960s was the so-called "blood book."

We know quite a bit about its provenance, that is to say where it came from, although we don't know how Waugh acquired it. We know that because it's inscribed quite clearly and prominently on the front page by a man named John Bingley Garland. It happens that Garland was a fairly well-known figure in his day. He began as a successful Victorian businessman and, with his brother, immigrated to Newfoundland—Canada—and became speaker of the first Newfoundland parliament. Then, having made it big there, he took his money and went back to England in the 1840s or 1850s. And we know from his inscription on the front page that the book was presented to his daughter Amy. It was just about a year before her marriage, so it may have been on the occasion of her betrothal.

Well, why is it so important or so interesting? To describe it is just impossible. You have to see it to appreciate it. It is, briefly, made up of decoupage engravings, many of them, we think, by William Blake from the early part of the nineteenth century. And somebody has put them together with a religious interpretation. It's my opinion that all of the collages—all 40—reflect, in some sense, a sense of religious struggle or turmoil and victory over sin and death. Many of the engravings have been cut out, and drops of blood have been added in red India ink.

The whole, in fact, in its totality is, to the modern eye, extremely gruesome and troubling. Why would you give something like this to your daughter a year before her wedding day as a token of esteem from a beloved father? It's very puzzling to us, but in the Victorian context where both death and religion were much more prominent in the household and daily life, I think it makes a little more sense in that historical context.

My latest thinking on the subject is that he [Garland] was the one—he didn't just commission it, but he probably played the leading role in actually producing it. Perhaps, actually as a retirement project, cutting out the images from probably 10 or 15 or more books of engravings, pasting them in very, very carefully, in assembling them—we know he had an interest in art and painting—and producing the "blood book" by adding the drops of India ink to almost every image.

It actually bears at title. It's a little hard to find, but it can be found in the table of contents. And that title is Dürnstein. I had to look that up in Wikipedia myself and discovered that it was the name of a battle in 1805 in which Napoleon's forces were defeated. Now it turns out that Mr. Garland could very well have been the age not to have fought at that battle—he was too young because he was born in 1791—but he could very well have fought during the long Napoleonic war period. And it is possible, just possible, that the name Dürnstein had a special significance to him as a sort of victory of good over evil and reinforces the sense of religious struggle that is found in so many of the plates and collages in the blood book. This is pure speculation on my part, and I doubt that we'll ever know the real true answer to the puzzle. But in the meantime, it remains an object of special fascination to me as a curator and, I think, to many of the people who have seen it and blogged about it and talked about it on the Internet and have had kind of a good time with it.