Last year I wrote a piece for this blog about a mysterious Russian manuscript held in the Library’s Special Collections, the origins and provenance of which were completely unknown to us. The original manuscript of the dramatic poem Pugachov, written by the Russian Silver Age lyrical poet Sergei Esenin (sometimes spelt “Yesenin”), was acquired by the London Library in 1934 and was accessioned without a donation label or any other clues that would point to its provenance. In my blog post I speculated that our Russophile Librarian of the time, Sir Charles Hagberg Wright, may have bought it from an antiquarian bookseller in Berlin, and that it had probably been abandoned by Esenin after its publication there in 1922 (Esenin was touring Western Europe with his new wife, the American dancer Isadora Duncan and had visited Berlin).
The manuscript has since been examined by researchers from The Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow, who have declared it a magnificent gem, the missing piece in the jigsaw of Esenin’s biography and definitely an authentic document.
However, the real turning point in this story did not come from Moscow, but from the back offices of 14 St James’s Square – home of The London Library. In October 2014 our Librarian, Inez Lynn, stumbled across an unassuming announcement while perusing the Library’s Annual report for 1935. It was a list of donations that the Library had received in the previous year and Mr C.E. Bechhofer-Roberts was being thanked for a typed and autographed copy of Esenin’s Pugachov.
I set about discovering more about the life and works of Carl Eric Bechhofer-Roberts (1894-1949). The Library holds at least 25 titles penned by this prolific and eclectic British author. They range from travelogues of his journeys to Russia as a correspondent during the 1917 Revolution and the ensuing Civil War to biographies of British statesmen (including one of the very earliest of Winston Churchill), through fiction and plays written under the pseudonym “Ephesian”, to accounts of famous trials. Bechhofer-Roberts started his career as editor and translator of Russian contemporary literature and his Five Russian plays: with one from the Ukrainian was published in the same year that he joined the London Library, 1916.
I was particularly attracted to his accounts of travels in Russia before 1921, as I hoped that they would provide valuable clues as to his meetings with Sergei Esenin or other members of his literary circle. Russia at the Cross-roads is set in 1916 and did not provide any useful leads, and in his second work, In Denikin’s Russia and the Caucasus, 1919-1920 (1921), Bechhofer-Roberts only describes his meetings with Georgi Gurdjieff in Tiflis in 1919. Gurdjieff was the philosopher and mystic who founded the “Institute for the Harmonic Development of Man” at Fountainebleau, a spiritual guru for our traveller in Russia, but of little meaning to my research.
The Library did not have a copy of his third travelogue, Through Starving Russia (1921). I ordered a reprint for our collections and started reading it with a great sense of urgency. In the book Bechhofer-Roberts gives an eyewitness account of the terrible famine that was affecting the Southern Volga region and the relief operation organised by the Red Cross. Arriving in Moscow in late August 1921 he writes about the utter dilapidation of the capital and its inhabitants.
In Moscow, Bechhofer-Roberts aimed to discover what had happened to the local literary intelligentsia. He tells us that one day he walked into a bookshop in Tver Street and engaged in conversation with the writers, who have turned booksellers. They tell him that the Bolsheviks have suppressed the publication of most literary works, many writers have emigrated and several others have been incarcerated, including Nikolai Gumilev, the husband of Anna Akhmatova, who was a friend of Bechhofer-Roberts and had been his guest in London in 1916. “In fact, Russian prose has practically ceased to appear. Only poetry and a few plays have been published [since the Revolution]”. Bechhofer-Roberts describes buying some books from the shop, including the works of the Imaginists (Esenin’s own literary movement) and those of Gumilev and Alexander Blok, of whom he had published a famous translation the previous year (The Twelve, illustrated by Mikhail Larionov). Sensing that I was coming closer to the kernel of my story I turned the page and came across the following paragraphs:
“One evening, a little later, I discovered a café in the town called “The Café of the Imaginists”, where I met … Yessenin and Mariengof …. Yessenin gave me the manuscript of the new play Pugachov, which deals with the adventures of the famous Cossack bandit…”
The solution to our mystery was staring me in the face. It certainly explains how the manuscript made its way to London and eventually ended up in our Russian collections. But it also raises many questions as to the reasons why Bechhofer-Roberts did not translate the text into English, as Esenin undoubtedly had hoped and perhaps asked him to do, since he knew of Bechhofer-Roberts’ translations and editions of Russian plays. And why did he stop writing about Russia altogether? We will probably have to wait until a brave soul undertakes to write a biography of our mysterious benefactor, Carl Eric Bechhofer-Roberts. Meanwhile, our colleagues in Moscow are busy rewriting the history and chronicle of Pugachov, which had to be completed by Esenin in a hurry so that it could travel to England, where a future of hope and success could be awaiting far from the bleak reality of civil-war-torn Moscow.
Claudia Ricci, Russian Acquisitions and Cataloguing
Claudia Ricci will be speaking at the conference “Sergei Esenin: his personality, work and times: commemorating the 120th anniversary of his birth”, organised by The Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow (Russian Academy of Sciences), Sep. 23-26, 2015. http://www.imli.ru/events/show/_2017/Sergej-Esenin-Lichnost-Tvorchestvo-Epoha-K-120-letiyu/