From the Archive II: Reading the Yates Family Archive

In the first half of this two-part blog about the Yates Family Archive I have introduced the parents of Frances Yates (b. 1899), her three siblings Hannah (b. 1885), Ruby (b. 1887) and James (b. 1889) as well as the house in Claygate from where after the scholar’s death in 1981 the Family Archive, an adjunct to Yates’ working papers, had been transferred to the Warburg Institute. I shall now turn to the collection itself.

Unknown photographer: The Yates children c. 1906: Hannah, Frances, James and Ruby (from left to right); photo: Warburg Institute.

Significantly, the largest section of the Family Archive relates to Frances’ brother James, even though it did not grow after the move to Claygate in 1925. James was the only son and for ten years, until the arrival of Frances, he had been the youngest child. Aged 14 he left home in 1903 to attend  the Kings’ School in Canterbury and from this point until the end of his life he and his mother exchanged letters on a weekly basis. James studied Classics at Hertford College, Oxford and became a schoolmaster at St Bee’s  on the Cumbrian coast. While his letters to his mother survive, her’s do not. Not that he was in the habit of throwing away his correspondence – there is a large body of letters from friends, teachers and pupils that he collected over the years and that were preserved after his early death in 1915, together with essays from college days and a large number of poems that he started writing at school. Ruby published some of these in 1921 in a volume called “War Lyrics” for which related correspondence survives. Ruby was James’ sole heir, with the instruction that the inheritance was to be used for her missionary work. Upon joining the military in April 1915, James had reportedly declared his intention to become a priest, were he to return from the war.

He did not. On 8 October he was reported missing, believed killed, the news arriving on 10 October by telegram. A second message confirmed his death on 16 October. Both telegrams survive, as do eyewitness reports of his death that reached the family over the following weeks and months and which they scrupulously typed up, presumably for further circulation. Newspaper reports of the battle and the campaign, small clippings reporting on progress, and entire sections of later issues of The Times summarizing the campaign of autumn 1915 were collected and survive. Duplicates indicate that at times others forwarded such information, too: in fact, one of the eyewitnesses of James’ death also sent an illustrated newspaper article, marking with a cross the trench where James had been shot. The family collected mentions of James in death rolls that were published in national newspapers, Lists of Honour by The King’s School, Hertford College and St. Bee’s. Services commemorating the fallen were attended, their programmes kept. Letters to the family arrived in two waves, first to encourage hope, then to express condolence.  

Later on, letters concerning the erection of monuments in honour of the fallen were collected, including at the British War Cemetery in Loos in France. A tourist’ map of northern France from the period may have been acquired to locate the cemetery and was added to the collection. Frances Yates’ parents travelled extensively before the war, and after their mother’s death, Frances and Ruby travelled several times together to Italy. Yet, apart from a journal on Paris by the father, and a book with personal observations on life by Hannah, there is very little in this archive – outside James’ letters – that does not focus on specific projects, such as Hannah’s writing or Ruby’s missionary work. 

The papers relating to Hannah are the most limited. There are no letters that would betray any personal friendships or interests, next to nothing that relates to her studies at Cambridge, or her work as a teacher; the focus of what survives is her career as a writer. There are copies of the two successful novels she published with Collins, Irene in the Centre (1926) and Dim Star (1928), advertisements that list her in tandem with Agatha Christie and other authors, reviews of her books, bad and positive, and letters by readers. And then there are the unpublished typescripts, two novels and many short stories. This makes intriguing, if dry, reading – during a lunch break I read “Inertia Damnata”: two sisters sit in their small home eating a meagre Christmas dinner, charitably provided by some neighbour. They are annoyed by a young boy on the street who mocks them. One sister gets up, calls him off, but, retiring to her meal, declares that he at least is doing something.  

Ruby’s papers also focus on specific projects: much relates to her time in South Africa and may have been used after her return in preparation for her book about the school. As to her later project, a history of actors in the Yates family, there are notes from archive and library research, drafts and a proposed structure, but nothing that would give a flavour of the intended book. Frances in her autobiographical fragments does not refer to Ruby’s later activities. She does, however, mention her father’s life-time interest in Shakespeare which she relates to Shakespearean actors in his family, the picture of one of whom he reportedly put on display in New House. It survives in the archive.

Thus, the archive reflects choices. Explanations for the wealth of James’ papers are easily at hand. The early separation from the family triggered a correspondence with his mother and, after his death everything relating to him was held onto. Collecting reports and maps of the battle, may have been part of the attempt to understand what cannot be understood. Absenses in this archive are also significant, demand and resist interpretation. We know that the mother’s letters to James are lost, but don’t know why. The elder sisters’ surviving papers indicate selection criteria, but we do not know what and how much was thrown away, by whom and when.   

In many ways this is the archive of Frances Yates’ family. She came to greater lasting fame than her siblings or parents, outlived them all, was able to look through everybody’s papers, commented on some of them and left them to an institution that is associated with her work. Where memory was on her side, Frances could retrieve information from documents that nobody else would have. If the photograph of the sheep still exists, it will only communicate its significance to those who have read her memoirs. Our duty as archivists however, is not so much to communicate such existing meanings, although that is something we do, as to make our material as accessible to our users as possible, as to enable them to draw out new questions and meanings from the material. 

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