Tag Archives: Sicily

Transcribing the Letters of John Jarmain: reflections on a remote internship project

Earlier this year, Special Collections launched its first remote internship for University of Exeter students. Unable to run our usual in-person work experience programme, and knowing that another lockdown at the start of 2021 was highly likely, we were pleased to offer an opportunity for students to gain valuable archive experience whilst working from home.

The collection we chose for this remote internship was the Letters of John Jarmain (EUL MS 413). William John Fletcher Jarmain (1911-1944) was a novelist and poet. He served throughout the Second World War as a gunnery officer with the 51st Highland Division during their campaigns in North Africa and Sicily. He took part in the D-Day landing and was killed in action on 26 June 1944. The collection comprises 120 manuscript letters that he sent home to his wife Beryl between June 1942 and November 1943. 

EUL MS 413/1/66 – Aerogram dated 10 March 1943

Digitised images of all of the letters are available to view online through our Digital Collections website, making them ideal for our interns to access and transcribe from home. Once proofread, the transcripts produced by the interns on this project will be uploaded to the website to sit alongside the digitised letters, enabling letters of interest to be more easily identified, accessed and understood.

We would like to take this moment to thank our interns, Beth Howell and Ruby, for their hard work, diligence and enthusiasm for this project. Through a combined effort, they recently completed the transcription of all 120 letters – an amazing achievement! Below you can read their reflections on the project.

Reflections by Beth Howell

Transcribing the letters of a person is always a very involved experience, and working on John Jarmain’s war-time correspondence has proven to be no exception. However, perhaps because Jarmain was so engaged with the process of writing, (often demonstrating himself to be an almost obsessive editor of his own poetry), he always seems to write with a real sense of how his words might be read and interpreted in the future, making his letters a real privilege to read. Though most of his correspondence is addressed to his wife, Beryl, he often appears to imagine a reader beyond her, documenting the world around him with a real sense of capturing the present moment. His letters are therefore not only interesting because of what they reveal about his poetic practice, but also the landscapes he found himself in, the relationships he fostered, and his hopes and anxieties for a future after the war.

My favourite element of Jarmain’s writing, though, was probably the way in which he balanced larger concerns with little details. His ability to find joy in the spaces around him, even though the vision of those landscapes necessarily meant his separation from home (and, of course, were imbued with the ever-present anxieties of potential battles), is really heartening and beautiful to read. He loved birds, and many of his letters are preoccupied with identifying species from a little bird book he bought and carried around with him. (Though I have to say that deciphering rare specimens from his sometimes quite hastily-scribbled writing presented a few challenges- I had certainly never heard of a rufous warbler before!)

EUL MS 413/1/85 – Letter dated 30 April 1943, in which Jarmain writes about birds, including the rufous warbler (highlighted)

I also admired his confidence in informing his wife that he had fallen in (platonic) love with various women during his time in service- including Yone May, the subject of one of his poems. Jarmain presents a tangible picture of contemporary technologies (or quite the opposite), which affect his writing in a very material way- he finds himself scribbling in pencil, writing by candlelight in the wee hours, hastily penning an aerogram when he knows the post is leaving soon. He laments his ability to construct suitable diagrams of views and barracks, continues to marvel at unexpectedly quick postal deliveries, and to agonise when the opposite proves to be the case. His letters are a fascinating and absorbing insight into his life away- checked only by the knowledge that his observations would be tragically cut short. Jarmain died, killed by a fragment of mortar shell, on Saturday 26th June, 1944.

EUL MS 413/1/19 Letter dated 11 October 1942, next to transcript by Beth Howell

Reflections by Ruby

It hardly seems right to call this internship “work”. Work refers to something laborious, something that has to be done, but I found transcribing John Jarmain’s letters delightful. It saddens me that the World War II poets don’t receive the same attention as the World War I poets. Jarmain, though brilliant and sensitive, is far from a household name and does not even have a poetry collection currently in print. This is what makes me so genuinely honoured to have been involved in this project, typing up his letters, so that we can start to make Jarmain’s literature more accessible for more people. I hope that, going forward, people will read these letters and be touched in the same way that I was. 

This internship has shown me that there is a big difference between reading for pleasure and reading to transcribe. Transcribing Jarmain’s letters has forced me to read them carefully, sensitively and attentively. I have had to pay attention to punctuation, names and form which I might not otherwise have paid much attention to. When I’ve read letters from authors in the past, I don’t tend to focus on people who are off-handedly mentioned (cousins, distant friends, colleagues etc.), and only really focus on those they are closest to. However, when writing up these letters I had to pay attention to every name — zooming in to make sure that I got every surname right — and, in doing so, I noticed certain people who popped up time and time again (his friend, Harry, for example). Jarmain’s handwriting also means that it’s easy to mistake a semicolon for an exclamation point. At first glance, his semicolons can look like exclamation points, but when you look more closely, they’re usually not. If I were reading these letters at a glance, I would think that he was just heavy-handed with exclamation points, but this project showed me that he is not, and that he actually uses exclamation points quite sparingly. Over the course of the internship, I became more familiar with Jarmain’s writing style and more attentive to quirks in his handwriting. For example, when writing “a”, he tends to attach it to the word in front (i.e. if he says “a ship”, he will write “aship”). This led to some tenuous guessing at the start of the project; however, I was familiar with this by the end, and found transcribing his letters much easier. 

EUL MS 413/1/14 – Aerogram dated 28 September 1942, mentioning his friend Harry (highlighted)

The internship showed me how important it is to read letters attentively and slowly — to savour them and their images and their kindnesses. This is what Jarmain’s wife, Beryl, would have done, and so we perhaps get closer to the experience of these letters when we read in this way. Having to read Jarmain slowly was probably my favourite part about and, as a consequence of having done this, I feel like I know him better than I otherwise would have done. 

One particularly striking part of Jarmain’s letters is just how little he refers to the actual events of war. He hardly talks about what his troops are doing, and any danger they might be in. Rather, he documents domestic experiences — for example, how he spent his time on leave, or how he goes swimming in the morning before starting work, or a joke told by one of the men. Jarmain separates himself from his identity as the “soldier” and presents himself as a real man, the same husband to whom Beryl waved goodbye. Though this is humbling to see, it also points to the separation between war and home which he documents in his poem ‘El Alemein’. The separation between Jarmain as husband and soldier in these letters makes the dramatic irony of his death all the more upsetting. Reading the letters, I knew that he would never come home and safely settle back into domestic life. In one of his last aerograms (EUL MS 413/1/153), he writes of the Christmas presents he plans to give them, clinging to the possibility that the war will end soon and he will be home with Beryl and Janet-Susan. When the letters abruptly stop, there is no warning and, since he was so secretive about his life as a soldier when writing to Beryl, it seems strangely incongruous that he could have been killed in war. 

EUL MS 413/1/33 – Aerogram dated 8 December 1942: draft of poems ‘For Alamein’

Possibly my favourite parts to transcribe were his descriptions of nature — and, in particular, his descriptions of Italy in his final aerogram (EUL MS 413/1/154): “Away to the right, tier upon tier lit in streaks of sun and shade and clotted with white clustering towns, were the hills of Italy across the strait. In England you cannot imagine such beauty, such a scene”. You can feel the wonder in his voice here and the sheer extent of the view he relays. These nature descriptions are occasionally shown in his poems, but only fleetingly, and I enjoyed reading this different writing style from him. It is also so illuminating to see the poems embedded within these letters because the poems will often refer to images he’s already described for Beryl. For example, in letter one (EUL MS 413/1/1), he writes that he “was struck suddenly by willows, English willows, how they stand in rows like thick-handled powder-puffs, grey-green in the evening”. Then, in a poem in letter two (EUL MS 413/1/2), he writes that the train “Passed willows greyly bunching to the moon”. In this, we can see his poems as snapshots of real, personal experience. Indeed, the fact that they are embedded within letters shows just how intimate and personal they are, which can and should encourage us to read them contextually in new ways. 

Ruby has very kindly recorded herself reading John Jarmain’s first letter (EUL MS 413/1/1). Click on the play button below to listen to the recording. 

The Odysseys of Captain George Henry Parlby White (1802-82) – Naval Diaries, EUL MS 418

While taking a slight repast in the Temple of Venus, we were surrounded by a bevy of young girls dancing the Tarantella
–     
George H.P. White R.N., Diary entry, May 1836. EUL MS 418/6

Old travel narratives can be a source of reading pleasure as well as edification, as the charm of their quaint language and their unusual perspectives on regions both familiar and unfamiliar can help us to think again about our own views of the world. The literary pretensions and insatiable curiosity of many of these travellers combined to produce chronicles of their journeys that sometimes reveal as much about the culture from which they came as they do about the culture they were exploring.

We are fortunate to have in our collections a series of six notebooks written by Admiral George Henry Parlby White R.N. (1802-82) between 1819 and 1845 when he was a young naval officer stationed in the Mediterranean. These record his journeys around the coasts of Spain, Italy, Greece, Malta, Turkey, Morocco and Tunisia, as well as voyages further afield to South America and Canada. He later served on HMS Implacable during the blockade of Alexandria in 1840 when the British navy engaged with Egyptian forces who had invaded Syria, although these events are not included in these books.

Four of the six notebooks in which the diaries are written        EUL MS 418

The author of the diaries had been born into a naval family. His father Admiral Thomas White (1766-1846) was a native of Buckfastleigh and lived at the Abbey House, the castellated Gothic mansion built on the ruins of medieval Buckfast Abbey. Thomas spent 66 years in the navy, having entered the service in 1780 at the tender age of eleven. Three of his four sons followed him into the Royal Navy, with George being joined by his younger brothers Edward John White (1805-47) and Richard Dunnington White (1814-99), whose son Vice-Admiral Richard White died in Exeter in 1924. Richard also took part in the naval operations off the Syrian coast and painted a watercolour The Bombardment of St. Jean D’Acre – November 3rd – 1840 which is now held in the collections of the V&A.

George was born on 11 October 1802 at Droxford in Hampshire, and after entering the Royal Naval College in November 1816, he served on ships within British waters before joining the crew of his father’s ship HMS Superb in August 1819. The diaries begin with an entry for 9 September 1819: ‘Sailed for South America in HMS Superb. Longeur and Hyperion in company.’

HMS Superb (on the right) engaging with the French flagship Impérial at the Battle of San Domingo in 1806. Painting by Nicholas Pocock, National Maritime Museum

All the diaries are written longhand in lined notepads, with sporadic inclusion of dates and long prose passages that continue over several pages.  It is not long before the reader gains some sense of White’s character and interests. Having caught sight of Tenerife and crossed the Equator, a dolphin is killed for food and the young midshipman writes out some thirty lines on ‘The Dying Dolphin’ by William Falconer – an extract from Canto II of the poem The Shipwreck (1762.) The wording varies in several places from the published text, suggesting that White was quoting the passage from memory. As the diaries proceed, the sailor’s literary interests and skills become increasingly apparent, as does his intellectual curiosity and observant eye.

When the ship arrives in Rio de Janeiro (24 October 1819) he writes a vivid description of the sunset over the harbour, and is soon exploring inland, recording in detail the riding skills, habits and cuisine of the gauchos, or cowboys, of Maldonado (January 1820.) Life here was not without danger – White’s diary notes how ‘The Hon. Lieutenant Finch was basely assassinated when returning from a shooting party,’ (29 August 1820) – but he evidently found much to interest him in the region, from the ‘immense number of sperm whales’ on the voyage to Valparaiso (13 February 1821), to flamingos, condors and other local birdlife (15 September 1821) – indeed he regarded Chile as truly ‘the country for the Poet, the Artist, the Botanist, in fact every lover of nature and her works; at every step he sees something new, he treads on something yet unknown.’ (13 April 1821.) When not exploring South America’s flora and fauna, there was naval work to be done, such as a fortnight’s pursuit of the Chilean pirate Vicente Benavides (5-19 July 1821); although White and his crew failed to find Benavides, he was captured soon after and executed the following February.

The first diary ends in January 1825, by which time White had attained the rank of lieutenant. Later that year, he would be promoted to captain. At the back of the notebook, written in the opposite direction, are almost 100 pages of poems and prose passages, some of which – such as Lines on Botogago Bay, Rio de Janeiro and Admiralty Leave to Tell! A Soliloquy. In the Royal Marine Barrack Yard – appear to be White’s own work. Others have been selected and copied out from books, periodicals and other sources in the manner of a commonplace book, including poems in Greek and Italian, the work of Gabriel Rossetti and Petrarch, an Ode to Lord Byron and some lines from Morning Twilight, by ‘Maria Colling, a servant girl living at Tavistock’. Some of these passages are dated as late as 1845, indicating that the notebooks were reused.

There is more evidence of reuse in the later volumes, with some entries duplicated in different books, indicating that the diaries were copied out at some point. The wording of the two versions is not always identical. Although we only possess six notebooks, these are numbered in pencil as Nos. 1, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7, and the full extent of the original diaries is unclear. Pencilled dates have been written inside the covers, either by White or a later hand, but these do not always represent the contents accurately. An approximate summary of the actual dates would be thus:

Notebook I    September 1819 – January 1825, with additional material up to 1845
Notebook II   September 1829 – June 1830
Notebook III  August 1830 – September 1834
Notebook IV  February – August 1834, and September 1841
Notebook V   August 1836 – May 1840
Notebook VI  May 1836 to May 1838

Part of White’s account of his visit to the temple on Aegina, December 1829. EUL MS 418/2

Following White’s departure from South America he had a brief stint off the coast of Africa, but most of his subsequent career was spent in the Mediterranean, which is the background to the events recorded in the rest of the diaries. Notebook II chronicles his ship’s constant cruising between Gibraltar, Malta and the coasts of Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey. Those who imagine that sailors spent their time ashore seeking the pleasures of wine, women and song might be pleasantly surprised to find White and his fellow officers pursuing other interests. Upon reaching the Greek island of Aegina, he writes ‘Let out with ten officers of our ship to visit the remains of the Temple of Jupiter.’ (4 December 1829). This was the famous Temple of Jupiter Panhellenius, which had only recently become known in the west. After an energetic walk across the island, White provides a detailed description of the site as well as recounting the legends about its foundation. It has since been recognised as being dedicated to Aphaius rather than Jupiter.

‘Temples of Jupiter Panhellenius, Aegina’ engraving by William Miller published in H.W. Williams, Select Views In Greece With Classical Illustrations (London, 1829)

He sailed on to Smyrna in modern-day Turkey, where he visited a mosque and commented, ‘There is something particularly impressive in the simple and unostentatious worship of the Mahomedan. No noise, no bustle, no laughing and talking, as is often the case in Christian churches.’ (20 December 1829). On a later visit to Smyrna he enjoyed a Turkish bath, which he also describes in detail (Notebook III, 17 September 1830, see below.) His ship then moored at Parikia on the Greek island of Paros, where he led his fellow officers into the nearby marble quarries ‘in search of antiquities’ (9 January 1830) only to stumble across the famous bas-relief depicting the Festival of Silenus (a companion of Bacchus). A few days later Captain White ‘formed a large party from our ship to explore the celebrated Grotto of Antiparos’ (15 January 1830.) The party’s enthusiasm for seeking out ancient ruins gives some insight into the degree to which their view of the region was highly coloured by knowledge of classical literature and mythology.

White’s account of a Turkish bath in Smyrna, September 1830. EUL MS 418/3

Later entries cover his visits to Siciliy with detailed descriptions of the Cathedral at Grigento, antiquities in the museum at Syracuse and the Benedictine monastery at Catania, pursuing a Spanish privateer off the coast of Gibraltar, sailing to Tangiers and Tétouan on the African coast, a narrow escape during a boar hunt in Tunisia, a description of the Carlist wars in southern Spain, including the brutal murders of the governors of Malaga and the military exploits of General Miguel Gómez Damas and Don Antonio Escalante, plus carrying troops of the 71st and 73rd regiments around Quebec and Halifax. There are interesting passages in which White ponders on the location of Troy, expressing his doubts about the theories of Dr Edward Daniel Clarke (1769-1822) and advancing his own ideas as he examines inscriptions and the terrain around Berika Bay and Bounarbashi (Pınarbaşı in modern Turkey.)

White married in 1847, retired in 1863, and was subsequently promoted to Rear Admiral (1865), Vice Admiral (1871) and Admiral (1877). Returning to Devon, he lived in Ashburton for a while and later at Rockwood Villa off Totnes Road in Newton Abbot, where he died on 29 December 1881 leaving two daughters and a son.

The diaries would be of interest to anyone doing naval or maritime studies, particularly with regard to the Royal Navy, as well as those researching Victorian travel, antiquarianism, amateur archaeology and classical studies, the political and military histories of Spain and Latin America, the Kingdom of Greece, the Ottoman and British empires, early Victorian encounters with Islam and the Orient, the relationship between Britain and its colonies, 19th century memoir-writing and vernacular literature. The local connections are also strong, with the links to Devon and occasional references to the west country. More details about the contents of the diaries can be found in the online catalogue entries here.