With the recent warm weather and crocuses and daffodils beginning to fill the parks with the joyful colours of spring I thought I would have a wander through our collections to find some treasures to celebrate this happy time of year. Our Early and Fine Printing Collections hold a wealth of botanical and zoological studies and many of them contain beautiful coloured illustrations. It was hard to pick out a favourite to talk about but a stunning Art Nouveaux gilded binding caught my eye and I found myself leafing through Maurice Maeterlinck’s ‘The Life of the Bee’ (collection reference AQ 096/1912).Unknown to me previously, it turns out that this is a classic text relating to the bee. It is not a practical manual nor does it claim to be a scientific treatise. Instead it is an in-depth study of the complexities of hive society, the queen and her interactions with her workers, male drones. It is clear that Maeterlinck was fascinated by the subject and spent many hours examining his hives before creating this work. What makes it even more interesting is the way it is written. The language is strikingly exuberant and poetic, clearly expressing Maeterlinck’s fascination with the little insects. It is hard not to be swept into the detail such as this extract relating to how a bee sting feels
‘… which produces a pain so characteristic that one knows not wherewith to compare it; a kind of destroying dryness, a flame of the desert rushing over the wounded limb, as though these daughters of the sun had distilled a dazzling poison from their father’s angry rays, in order more effectively to defend the treasure they gather from his beneficent hours.’1
This may be unsurprising as Maeterlinck (1862-1949) was a Belgian playwright, poet and essayist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1911
“in appreciation of his many-sided literary activities, and especially of his dramatic works, which are distinguished by a wealth of imagination and by a poetic fancy, which reveals, sometimes in the guise of a fairy tale, a deep inspiration, while in a mysterious way they appeal to the readers’ own feelings and stimulate their imaginations”2
The original version of this book was published in French in 1901 and translated into English by Alfred Sutro in 1911. Maeterlinck was writing at a time when concerns over increasing industrialisation and the urban environment were fashionable. Whilst ‘The Life of the Bee’ is primarily a natural history text it also draws out parallels relating to human society and the relationship of man to nature. Much of this can appear dated to the modern reader but nevertheless captures a vivid sense of the philosophy of the time.
Our edition is from 1912 and is illustrated by prominent Victorian illustrator Edward J. Detmold who went on to illustrate many other natural history works. These beautiful watercolour prints bring out the drama of this story as well as being intricate entomological studies in their own right.
As with our other collections this and other Early and Fine Printing texts are free to view by appointment in the Wolfson Centre for Archival Research. More information regarding visiting us can be found on our website. The text of the Life of the Bee is also available at Project Gutenburg.
Senior Assistant (Archives and Collections)
Biographical Information taken from http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1911/maeterlinck-bio.html