A friend who teaches in New York told me that the historian Peter Lake told him that J.G.A. Pocock told him that Conrad Russell told him that Bertrand Russell told him that Lord John Russell told him that his father the sixth Duke of Bedford told him that he had heard William Pitt the Younger speak in Parliament during the Napoleonic Wars, and that Pitt had this curious way of talking, a particular mannerism that the sixth Duke of Bedford had imitated to Lord John Russell who imitated it to Bertrand Russell who imitated it to Conrad Russell who imitated it to J.G.A. Pocock, who could not imitate it to Peter Lake and so my friend never heard it. But all the way down to Pocock was a chain of people who in some sense had actually heard William Pitt the Younger’s voice.
Or at least that’s how the story goes. There are alternative versions of this kind of cross-generational vaulting. Craig Brown’s One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time (2020) draws on some of the same genealogy to construct a related series of baton-passings. In the summer of 1967, around the time when ‘All You Need Is Love’ was broadcast live from Abbey Road to a global audience of 400 million, Paul McCartney discussed Vietnam with Bertrand Russell (aged 95), ‘who remembered childhood meetings with William Gladstone (b. 1809)… [who] himself used to breakfast with the elderly William Wordsworth (b. 1770)’. This path back into the mists, or into the daffodils, could be organised differently: since Russell’s grandfather was Lord John Russell, and since Lord John Russell visited Napoleon in exile on Elba in 1814 (‘his manner seems studied to put one at one's ease by its familiarity’), we can leap from Paul McCartney to the Emperor Napoleon in three happy bounds. A retired friend in Canada recalls her now deceased Hungarian friend Dorothy telling her that her mother had been walking in the park at the age of four with her mother when the Emperor Franz Joseph bowed to them from his carriage. ‘In time,’ Borges wrote, ‘there was a day that extinguished the last eyes to see Christ.’
What is the nature of the connecting bond in these fantasies? Often it is the touch of the hand: ‘you just shook the hand that shook the hand that shook the hand of Abraham Lincoln’, and so on. In other versions, the link is sight. In Camera Lucida (1980), Roland Barthes starts to comprehend the power of photography and in particular of what he calls punctum – the particular detail within a photograph that touches, even wounds us – when he remembers how
One day, quite some time ago, I happened on a photograph of Napoleon’s youngest brother, Jerome, taken in 1852. And I realized then, with an amazement I have not been able to lessen since: ‘I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor.’
Napoleon often features in these little narratives because he is a figure both iconic and also crucially pre-photography: Napoleon died in 1821, 5 years before Nicéphore Niépce’s ‘View from the Window at Le Gras’. In this sense, Napoleon, like the pre-phonograph voice of William Pitt the Younger, is unreachable, on the other side of the archival chasm, and so the wonder of generational connection is even greater.
It is often the role of books, and in particular of annotated books, to articulate these kinds of temporal bridges. Here is a copy of Epistolae decretales summorum pontificum, printed in Antwerp in 1570. (Decretals are papal letters setting out decisions in ecclesiastical law.) The name ‘Carolus Pole’ is written up the fore edge, and handwritten annotations have been added that describe a series of owners across several centuries.
On the fly leaf is written ‘Edward Pole 1840’, along with a detailed note in the same hand, dated January 1884 and recording
This Book, Printed 1570, I give to my son in law Daniel Evans R[ector] of Llanmaes near Llantwit South Wales, who married my daughter Caroline Jane Pole – this Book belonged to herGreat, Great Grandfather Carolus Pole Rector of St Breock in the County of Cornwall.
What this collectively describes is the movement of this book through time, and across owners: printed in Antwerp in 1570, and owned by – among others whose names we don’t know – Charles Pole (who graduated from New College, Oxford in 1712); and then some time later his great grandson Edward Pole (1805-90); and then, via his daughter Caroline Jane Pole, Daniel Evans, working as a rector in the small village of Llanmaes. A loosely inserted leaf dated 1998 shows that the book continued to descend through members of that family.
It’s not Paul McCartney to Napoleon, but it is the kind of roll call that appears on many early modern books. The book is both the object that connects and, in those annotations, the document of its own migrations: annotated books carry their own accumulating histories with them (and in this sense they flicker between object and representation). One of the things that lists of names like these suggest is the poverty of singular claims to ownership: books move on, passing out of one owner’s hands – however grasping those hands might be – and moving on to meet the next generations.