Beatrice Harraden, Romain Rolland and Elsa Wolff

Dusting my bookshelves, I come across a slim rather tatty paperback “Ships that pass in the night” by Beatrice Harraden (1864-1936) published in Newnes Sixpenny Novels Illustrated. I don’t know how this book came into my life and have been on the point of disposing of it, stayed by its atmospheric quality and not quite knowing where I could find a good home for it. This time I looked more closely and see that the front cover is signed and dated, Elsa Wolff 1904. Checking who she might be I find that Roman Rolland corresponded for a number of years with an Elsa Wolff. And I’m fascinated to think that it might be the same lady. In favour of the connection is the date and that Elsa Wolff was a woman of culture (a translator even). Beatrice Harraden was a suffragette and had a long literary career in the UK, Ships that pass in the night being her most noted book (not sure of the plot I must read it – I believe there is a romance tragically ended by a deus ex machina accident but I’m not sure). Against this being the Elsa Wolff who was a friend of Romain Rolland is that fact that she was German (with a command of French evidenced in her long correspondence with Romain Rolland). I haven’t managed to find much information about her on the net so I haven’t been able to verify her signature or find out how good her English was I shall try to check other Elsa Wolffs who were around at this time to see how hard or easy it is to build up a case that could be some other Elsa Wolff. This Elsa Woolf eventually committed suicide in 1942 to avoid being deported by the Nazis. I have been to Uppsala University library, Carolina Rediviva, today to borrow “Fraulein Elsa” which is “Cahier 14” in Cahiers Romain Rolland and contains Romain Rolland’s letters to Elsa (but not as far as I can see her letters to him). It will be interesting to see how these letters survived – did Romain Rolland keep copies but destroy her letters to him? I hope at least it will tell me something about Elsa Wolff’s reading habits and knowledge of English. I know that Romain Rolland was in England at some point around this date (perhaps later) so I wonder whether it could have been a present from him to Elsa Woolf but this is pure speculation. It’s the second time in the past year that Romain Rolland has crossed my path. He also wrote a book about the Bengali disciple of Rama Krishna Vivekananda, which I was given as a present by our Bengali relatives. Whether or not it is Elsa Wolff’s, this slim volume has to be cared for and I have to find a small box to keep it in to prevent it becoming even more tatty. And if the evidence is strong that it did belong to ”Romain Rolland’s” Elsa Wolff, it will be a very special feeling to own it.

One thought on “Beatrice Harraden, Romain Rolland and Elsa Wolff”

  1. Comment to my own blog post.

    I have established two things. According to the introduction of the book of letters from Romain Rolland to Elsa, she taught English so that she presumably knew enough English to appreciate the book and secondly, that the dates don’t tally for it to be a present from Romain Rolland her. It was first after 1904 that they got to know one another.

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