A Literary Treasure Hunt

A few months ago, I was going through some boxes of books that belonged to Robert Allason Furness, thanks to his daughter Mary Furness. He had first moved to Egypt at the beginning of the 20th century to work in the colonial civil service and ended up as Professor of English at Cairo University. He left Egypt shortly before the Free Officers revolution of 1952 and died in 1952, having spent half almost half a century in Egpyt. He also spent a few years as press officer in Palestine, from 1934-36, and so was there during the beginning of the Arab revolt.

Among his books were five copies of a small pamphlet containing translations that Furness had made of the poet from the Greek Anthology, Rufinus.

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Printed in 1917, while Furness was working for the British in Alexandria, this is a parallel text Greek-English text of (generally) the love lyrics of an obscure poet, about whom we know little.

British colonial officials were usually well versed in the classics and Lord Cromer, who had been British consul general of Egypt when Furness arrived in 1906, did his own translations of selections of the Greek Anthology. I would like to think that Furness was subtly poking fun at Cromer with his slim selection of material from the same anthology. Furness, was certainly not shy of translating more controversial poems. Cromer dedicates a whole section of his collection to “Family”, mostly full of poems on the institution of marriage.

Wife's Prayer

Furness, on the other hand, begins his anthology with a poem that explicitly mentions homosexual sex. He is, perhaps, giving a little wink to the stiff , upright Lord Cromer:

“Lover of boys in times gone by

Lover of women now am I:


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Beyond his attempts to queer the Greek Anthology (frankly, not a particularly laborious task with Greek Lyric), the history of small pamphlet itself  can provide us with a rare window into literary Alexandria in the early 20th century.

Before looking through Furness’ book collection, I had read Laurence Grafftey-Smith’s memoirs Bright Levant. In this books he talks about first meeting Furness in Egypt; he describes him as “bespectacled, spidery and very long in the leg, looking like a cerebral and ruffled heron.” He adds that “To him I owed my introduction to … the more obscure ‘curiosa’ of the Greek Anthology. He abused his official position [at the Civil Service] in the name of culture by having his translations of these printed, in parallel Greek and English, by the Alexandria police press.”

Grafftey-Smith provided no more details but this book, privately printed in 1917, must be the translations he was talking about (there was another small run of Ante of Tegea and Moero of Byzantium run off in 1921 but that was printed in Cambridge).  It is strange, by somehow pleasant, to think that even during the war people were running off pamphlets of Greek Lyric poetry for their friends, but this must be what this is.

Once I had the book’s title it become much easier to look into it and, it turned out, that, as an artifact, it told a fascinating story about Furness’ part in literary life of non-Arabophone Alexandria of the 1910s and 1920s.

25 copies of this particular pamphlet were printed, of which I have one and four still remain with Furness other books. Another one is in King’s college library and this is the copy that Furness gave to his friend E.M. Forster in March 1917.

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Another copy is in Athens and was part of Constantine Cavafy’s library. I have not been able to consult it but it is safe assume that it was given to him by Furness, who was a great promoter of Cavafy’s work. In fact, it was Furness who first introduced Forster to Cavafy. I would, in fact, be fair to say it is in large part due to the work and contacts of Furness (and the vivacious Borchgrevink, who would become his first wife) that Cavafy is so well known in the English speaking world now. Fans of Cavafy have a lot to thank him for.


(From the Cavafy Museum in Alexandria)

The question now remains what happened to the rest of the 25 copies. If I have one, Forster had one and Cavafy had one, that leaves 22. There are still four with Furness books (one of which seems likely to have been dedicated to Aida Borchgrevnik). That leaves 18 to be found. One copy exists in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, but it is hard to know how it got there. The only details we have is that it was acquired in 1965 in the Wells bookshop but we don’t know what happened between 1917 and 1965.  Still, it leaves 17 to be found.

Finding the other copies will be difficult. To all appearances this is just an ordinary little book of Greek translations, of which many were produced around this time. Furness is not named anywhere on the printed version. In fact the only other details about it are that it as privately printed in 1917. It doesn’t have a location. It is the kind of thing that might not make it onto a library’s online catalogue or be given away in a purge of superfluous books.

The Berenson library in a villa in Florence has all the other translations that Furness has done (including the 1921 version of which only 50 copies were made). Perhaps there is/ was a copy lurking there. We could trace other people who might have had a copy. It seems very possible that Laurence Grafftey-Smith was given a copy (perhaps his was the one from Wells). Also, people like Bonamy Dobrée, George Antonius, Christopher Scaife, are all other possible recipients of the book. Some, surely are still in Egypt but they are not in the National Library, Bibliotheca Alexandrina, or the library of Cairo University.

It would be fascinating to find the remaining 17 copies of the book because of what it can tell us about the networks of people in early 20th century Alexandria and those who were responsible for making Alexandrian writers like Cavafy, household names in the Anglophone world.

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