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2003-06, 338, Brian Taylor, German, Literature


Chris Brennan’s German books.

A few weeks ago, as part of my ongoing attempt to purge my still oversized library of volumes I can do without, I was holding in my hand and about to put into the “to be disposed of” box an odd volume 3 of a very modest octavo edition of Goethes Werke in vier Bänden , i.e. one of a four-volume set of the works of the great German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), published by the Stuttgart publishing house of J.G. Cotta in 1887. It contained his two Bildungsromane [“novels concerned with the intellectual or spiritual development of the main character”] Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre [W.M.’s apprenticeship years] and Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre [W.M.’s journeyman years]. Since a complete edition of Goethe’s works runs to dozens of volumes and there are not a few very fine complete editions of them, this unassuming little item certainly did not seem worth keeping.

But just before it went into the box, I peeked inside the front cover and there on a front end paper was the signature “ Chris: Brenn An” (yes, written thus!) and a little below were the words “Bought in Zürich 1/8/92”, and up in the top righthand corner of the e.p. was another signature: “R Farrell” (Illustration 1).

While on the present occasion looking at the e.p. again, I have just noticed on the opposite e.p., on the verso of the cover, a very faint pencilling: “(vol IV at NUJ)”.1 This note is clearly in the hand of my late friend and colleague – and editor of Biblionews John Fletcher, so I realise now that the volume must have come to me with some of his other books after his death in 1992.

John was a great fan of Brennan the man, less of Brennan the poet, and along with Robyn Marsden and the late Axel Clark founded the Brennan Society to encourage a new burst of research into Brennan, his life and works. When he was first thinking about it, he told me he didn’t want it to be some society that started, then over many years petered out as people lost interest in it and its object. In those days there were things called “terminating building societies” which, as I understood it, were set up for a restricted number of customers and when the job was done they were closed down, so I suggested to John that perhaps the Brennan Society could be a terminating literary society. Indeed, it did run for a few years, organised conferences and published the proceedings of these2 and then closed down once the task was completed. However, whether my suggestion was actually taken up or whether the society’s life took the form it did independently of my suggestion I do not know.

One important product of this period of activity was Axel Clark’s book Christopher Brennan: a critical biography (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1980).3 While he was working on the book Axel – the son, incidentally, of the Australian historian Professor Manning Clark – mentioned to me that, in tracking down books that Brennan had once owned, he had found the biggest lacuna to be in the area of Brennan’s German books: no one knew what had become of them after his death.4

John Fletcher developed a theory about what had become of them: they had come into the hands of Ralph Barstow Farrell, most likely by purchase to help the impoverished Brennan out some time after his sacking from the University of Sydney in 1925 or perhaps even by gift. Farrell, born in 1908, was from 1926 a brilliant undergraduate student at the University who was specialising in English, German and French, who went on to take out an MA with First Class Honours and the University Medal in German5 and who, after a period of study (1933-1936) on the Woolley Travelling Scholarship at the Humboldt University in Berlin (where Brennan had in 1892 gone ostensibly to study Classics), became first a lecturer (Assistant Lecturer 1937, Senior Lecturer 1945) and then, from 1946, Professor of German at Sydney. He was thus John’s and my boss for a few years till his retirement in 1973.

After Farrell’s retirement John, with or without me, used to visit him at intervals at his house in Rifle Way, Roseville. John told me he had often tried to draw Farrell out about his relationship with Brennan but that the old man had never been very forthcoming at all. However, on one occasion as he arrived for a visit, John noticed Farrell’s garage door wide open as usual – he had no car anymore by then – and decided to have a quick look at the books he could see piled up in there and exposed to the elements.

Sure enough, amongst them were German books with Brennan’s telltale signature inside. Just when John developed his theory I cannot remember, but when Farrell retired he left his university office library behind and told John he could have any of the books in it he wanted.6 It contained books that had belonged to Farrell’s predecessors going back to the nineteenth century. John took most of the books, and amongst them he found Brennan’s odd Goethe volume now in my possession.

There was hope amongst the Brennan coterie at Sydney that after Farrell’s death on 24 June 1983 his Brennan books might end  up in the University’s Fisher Library. But they didn’t, and for some years it was not certain where they had gone. However, a couple of years ago I happened in the University’s now defunct Staff Club to meet Reg St Leon, who had been an associate professor on Farrell’s staff and a close friend of his. I also knew him to have been one of the beneficiaries of Farrell’s will. I therefore mentioned the problem to him and he told me then that in fact Farrell’s German books had, for the most part, come to him, that he still had them and that there were many among them with Brennan’s signature. This revelation has sadly come too late for either Axel or John to follow it up. But at least the mystery seems now to be solved.

Miss Amy Chicken, a pupil of the dismissed Brennan.

John Fletcher had a quite impressive book collection, but one thing he did not have in it that he would have liked to have, as he told me on occasion, was a signed copy of one of Brennan’s books

As fate would have it, sometime in the 1980s John was on study leave in his beloved Duke Augustus library in the north German town of Wolfenbüttel when an elderly lady enrolled in German at the University of Sydney, in a course for those who had matriculated in German at the Higher School Certificate examination. This lady, whose married name I have now unfortunately forgotten, had actually done the equivalent course back in the 1920s, had in later life had a career as a concert pianist and now, retired and in her seventies, had returned to relearn much of the German she thought she had forgotten.

One day I happened to walk past the alcove where she always sat waiting before class and we got into conversation. For some reason the topic of Christopher Brennan came up. She told me that as a young student she had been having trouble coping with university German and felt she needed some coaching. Her mother, a stern Victorian lady from what she told me, decided that the ideal person was “Professor Brennan”. Now this was two or three years after Brennan had been dismissed by the University, not only because of his drinking problem and his alleged consequent growing incompetence in his role as a teacher,7 but also – and doubtless more importantly to a university administration itself not averse to a bit of imbibing, so one has heard8 – because of his adulterous relationship with Vie (Violet Léonie Singer, née Bird). It was her death around 1 a.m. on 8 March 1925 when she was run over by a tram returning to Manly Depot that precipitated Brennan’s rapid decline. After years of emotional alienation from his Berlin-born wife Elisabeth (née Anna Elisabeth Werth), he had finally left her to live openly with Vie early in 1923. Thus Mrs Chicken’s desire that her daughter should be coached in German by the formerly adulterous and disgraced Brennan evidently caused some consternation amongst friends and acquaintances, but Amy told me her mother had said to her: “Professor Brennan is a gentleman, and you have nothing to fear from him”.

That was indeed Miss Chicken’s experience of the man who coached her and presented her with a copy of his Poems by C.J. Brennan (Sydney: G.B. Philip and Son, 1913), usually referred to as Poems [1913], inscribing on the half-title page: “To/Miss Amy Chicken/with friendliest regards/of the author/ Chris: Brennan/ 14.4.28” (Illustration 2).

She told me that as she was getting on in years and had no one to leave Brennan’s book to she would bring it in next time she came to class and give it to me, since I seemed so interested in Brennan. And that is what happened. However, she gave me too her little collection of books about Brennan by some who had known him: A.G. Stephens’s Chris: Brennan (Sydney: The Bookfellow, 1933) in the Australian Writers series, the University Librarian H.M. Green’s Christopher Brennan. Two popular lectures delivered for the Australian English Association (Sydney and London: Angus & Robertson Limited, 1939) and Brennan’s publisher George Blackmore Philip’s Sixty years recollections and impressions of a bookseller: Christopher Brennan (Sydney: George B. Philip & Son, 1939) (Illustration 3).

This wasn’t a bad little trove to pick up almost by accident, especially as Brennan’s coaching of Amy must have been so effective that she found her German came flooding back as she was exposed to the classes, with the result that she decided she did not need to attend them anymore and left not long after I had received the books from her.

Naturally, when John Fletcher returned from study leave and heard of my good fortune and his misfortune at being away at the vital time, he – the most gregarious of men, who would most certainly have accosted Amy in conversation long before I did – was clearly crestfallen that he had missed this big chance to own an inscribed Brennan book. I was then and have often since, of course, been painfully pricked by my conscience that I did not magnanimously hand the book over to him as an act of matey selfsacrifice, but we all know how amoral book collectors can be when it’s a matter of owning such a desirable item as that one was.

A French thesis on Brennan.

Just a couple of weeks ago I was fossicking about in the foreign language section of Berkelouw’s secondhand bookshop in the Sydney suburb of Leichhardt when my eye lighted on Brennan’s name on the spines of three uniform white, card-covered volumes on an upper shelf. On inspection they proved to be volumes 1 to 3 of a French doctoral thesis: Simone Kadi, Christopher Brennan, poète (Lille: Université de Lille III, 1994) (Illustration 4). Although according to what is given at the top of the title page the thesis appears to have been written for the Université de Nanterre, its publication, or rather reproduction, was a non-commercial one meant for private use and undertaken at the author’s request by a unit at the Lille university responsible for this on a national level, according to a colophon on the reverse of the title page ( Réproduction hors commerce et à usage privé réalisé à la demande de l’auteur par l’Atelier National de la Réproduction des Thèses de Lille).

How it got to Australia is indicated by a dedication on a front endpaper of the first volume, which I will quote without identifying the Anglo-Saxon dedicatee (so, XX), lest there be some Franco-Australian falling-out over the work’s being offloaded after relatively few years: “A XX,/Hommage au talent/ et à la générosité” followed by a squiggle that is doubtless Ms Kadi’s signature. Oddly, the same dedication appears again on the e.p. of the third volume – though not of the second – with the addition of the date “7 Mai 1996”.

Volumes 1 and 2 (pp.1-325 and 326-674 respectively) contain the body of the thesis, and volume 3 (pp.675-905 + 7 unpaginated pages) contains Notes (675-804), Bibliographie (805-885) and an Annexe (886-899) containing pictures of Brennan and his friends plus facsimiles of pages from his manuscripts and other relevant illustrations, all reproduced from photocopies (of photocopies?) of the originals, so pretty poor in quality. Then, in accordance with the French practice of putting it at the end of the work, comes the table of contents (Table des Matières, 900-905) and finally the unpaginated Index.

I checked the University of Sydney Library’s online catalogue, but, not surprisingly in view of the colophon, could not find Ms Kadi’s thesis9, so I think I may well overcome my collector’s amorality and pass this particular piece of Brennaniana on to fill the gap.10

Brennan and Yours Truly.

I myself never met Christopher Brennan (1870-1932), of course, having been born four and a half years after he died on 5 October 1932, but there are ways in which his shade has metaphorically brushed me at a few points during my life. For one thing, I attended classes in medieval German in the room of the late Dr Ralph G. Crossley (who set me on the path to later research into that area of German studies),11 and that room beneath the clock tower at Sydney University had been Brennan’s room. It was on a kind of mezzanine floor and we accessed it from a flight of wooden stairs from a first floor corridor, but these didn’t exist in Brennan’s day, so “Cross” told us, and Brennan had to climb the stone spiral staircase in one corner of the tower to get to it. He also told us that Brennan’s ghost was said still to haunt the room, but I can’t say I myself was ever directly aware there of the aforesaid shade.

Brennan and I both spent the early part of our teaching careers in the New South Wales town of Goulburn attempting to impart some Latin to the local youth, he at the Catholic St Patrick’s College in 1891, I at the state Goulburn High School almost seventy years later, in 1960. And both of us left our teaching jobs there after a few months to take up within a few more months scholarships to study at German universities, he to the University of Berlin with the James King of Irrawang Travelling Scholarship, I to the University of Heidelberg on a German Academic Exchange Service scholarship. He, however, left Goulburn under a cloud for activities dealt with by Clark (pp.40-52) and, on the basis of what is in Clark, to a great extent fictionalised in John Stephenson’s The optimist (Melbourne: Text Publishing, 1996), “a sexy historical romance based on a rare good year in the tragic life of Australian poet Christopher Brennan”,12 I in a state of relative innocence by comparison.

Neither of us ever did a doctorate but we both ended up as associate professors of German at Sydney, though he had the more august title of Associate Professor of German and Comparative Literature, a title that I, a language man never much chop at literature, could never have aspired to. He left there too under a cloud, the blackest of clouds, and passed into physical decline and penury, while I the innocent passed out in due course in the most mundane way possible, into superannuated retirement.

The tragic fall of the brilliant poet, scholar and teacher but in many ways flawed human being Christopher Brennan was what fascinated John Fletcher and attracted him to this figure, and that is what will probably ensure fascination with him for generations of Australians to come who get to hear about him. Others over time have hoped to find a little, if not fame then, significance by having rubbed shoulders metaphorically with the living Brennan, or even more metaphorically with the dead one.


1 This means that volume 4 was, at the time the note was made, in the library of the Catholic St John’s College at the University of Sydney and presumably – although I cannot confirm this – also contained Brennan’s signature, since he had resided there as an undergraduate and some of his books later finished up there. BCSA member Frank Carleton did a thorough survey of the books in St John’s College a few years ago and may be able to shed light on this point.

2 I think there were three of these publications, but I can only find one now: Axel Clark, John Fletcher, Robyn Marsden (eds), Between two worlds:“loss of faith” and late nineteenth Australian literature, (Sydney: Wentworth Books, 1979) containing papers by Vincent Buckley and others, I took over storage of the remainder after John died and still have quite a few copies I would love to dispose of to anyone who will take them.

3 It is in large part based on his 1978 University of Sydney PhD thesis “The life and writings of Christopher Brennan: a literary-critical biography, 1870 -1914”, which is available on a 1979 microfilm in the University’s Fisher Library. I was foolish enough not to buy Clark’s published biography when it appeared, and by the time I wanted to it had gone out of print. Hence I snapped up a secondhand copy I later chanced upon in a certain book barn in the Sydney suburb of Newtown with the pencilled annotation in the corner of the half-title page “$30/ out of p[rin]t”, only to find when I got home that no fewer than sixteen of the first fifty pages remained unprinted. I doubt that that was what the bookseller was warning me about with his annotation. Caveat emptor librorum!, as Brennan might have put it.

4 It is clearly the book that I have that Axel Clark refers to when describing Brennan’s progress to Berlin, where he arrived on 4 August 1892, from the ship that had brought him to Genoa from Australia: “He then went to Zurich (presumably by train), where he bought a volume of Goethe’s works” (p.59), and again later when seeking possible evidence for Brennan’s competence in German – which he had not studied formally in Australia – when he arrived in Europe: “[ … ], soon after he arrived in Berlin he added Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft and three volumes of Heine’s works to the book by Goethe he had bought in Zurich: whether he found these books hard to read when he bought them or not, he could certainly read German of all kinds with ease before he left for home, [ … ]” (p.67). However, we may not know – not yet anyway – just how many German books he acquired at this time.

5 In his obituary for Farrell, read to the Faculty of Arts and published in July 1983 in the University of Sydney News, Farrell’s colleague and very close friend, Professor of Early English Language and Literature H.L. Rogers said: “[ … ] he wrote to the Registrar in 1931 proposing the poetry of C.J. Brennan as the topic for his M.A. thesis. This request was refused by the professors concerned, on the grounds that ‘a thesis dealing exclusively or principally with the critical and creative work of Mr Brennan, presented also by one of his disciples, is not suitable from the point of view of Mr Brennan’s former colleagues’.”

6 John refers to this in his item “Who is ‘Hec.?” In the Notes & Queries section of the 254th issue (vol.7, no. 2, June 1982) Biblionews, p.37.

7 The then Registrar of the University, W.A. Selle, later said, according to Clark, that Brennan had been removed for “neglect of work caused through drink” (p.257). In the fifties when I was studying at the University, I encountered Selle working after his retirement as a sales assistant at, I think, Angus & Roberston’s bookshop in Sydney, where he proudly told me he had been the University’s Registrar. No mention of Brennan, however.

8 On this point Clark says: “Among them, of course, were several heavy drinkers, though they all contrived to conceal the fact more effectively than Brennan ever bothered to” (p.235).

9 The catalogue showed only two books by her: a 1973 work La peinture chez Proust et Baudelaire [painting in the works of P. and B.] and a copy of a 23 page edition of 300 numbered copies of her own poems, Inflorescences, from around 1976.

10 When I got the volumes home and thumbed through them, out of one fell what seemed at first some sort of pamphlet, but proved on inspection to be apparently an offprint of an article in English by Simone Kadi (now, or then, at La Rochelle University, France), “Symbolic current and Australian poetry”, in which there are several references to Brennan, a great fan, of course, of the French Symbolist poets. That it is an offprint is inferrable from the fact that the article is paginated 109-127, but there is no indication at all of what periodical or book the article was published in nor when. A terminus post quem is provided by the fact that the latest date of any work she refers to is 1989, but that proves little. There is also no written dedication, only above an abstract in English of the article on p.110 a faintly pencilled note – presumably to the dedicatee of the thesis – “Cet ‘abstract’ a été compilé par l’éditeur et ne rend parfois pas le texte” [This abstract was compiled by the editor and at times does not render the sense of the text], referring evidently to the sentence beside which she has put a question mark: “The revelation of the Australian soul needs the annexation of Aboriginal culture”. It is heartening for us Antipodeans to see this interest in Australian studies in France. A course in Australian English, too, has just recently been set up at the Université de Toulouse, I have heard.

11 Brennan was reputed to be such an exacting teacher that at one stage he demanded that his students translate from English not into modem German but into Middle High German, the literary language of southern Germany during the Middle Ages. I once saw an example of such a translation exercise held now in the University’s archives: it was done by a student of his named Hilda Hancock. In my day we found it difficult enough to read MHG let alone write in it. I remember the student’s name still because Miss Hilda Hancock later lectured to me during 1958, my Diploma in Education year, in the Modem Language Method course at Sydney Teachers’ College, till she suddenly resigned or retired in the middle of the year “to get out of the rut”, as she put it.

12 Luke Slattery, “Romancing the poet” The Australian Magazine,  August 24- 25 1996, pp.28-32, there p.29.

 Illustration 1

Illustration 2 

Illustration 3

(The drawing of Brennan is by Lionel Lindsay)

Illustration 4



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