On the trail of a Traherne reader

What is the connection between Thomas Traherne, Edward Elgar, the Observer newspaper and Eugenia Langdon von Nottbeck?


The improbable answer to this improbable question is Traherne’s Christian Ethicks. The clue to this unlikely chain of connections is the front flyleaf of a copy of Traherne’s book (the copy now owned by the Huntington Library). This is inscribed with the name of the owner: ‘Eugenia Langdon de Nottbeck Champel-Geneva – Lys – 1908’.


The known facts about the owner are that she was born Eugenia Langdon in New York in 1855, and married her cousin, the wealthy Finnish industrialist Edvard von Nottbeck in 1880 (The flyleaf ownership inscription is the French version of the marital surname). The couple had two children, and moved from Finland to Switzerland after the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917.


The Observer connection derives from that fact that Eugenia was a wealthy descendant of John Jacob Astor, the richest man in America, from whom the newspaper’s most famous owner-editor Waldorf Astor, 2nd Viscount Astor, was also descended.


The Elgar connection is more tenuous. Of the little that is known about Eugenia Langdon de Nottbeck, one thing is certain: she was an admirer of the writings of A. C. Benson, Fellow (1904) and later Master (1915) of Magdalene College, Cambridge. Such was her admiration that she became a generous benefactor of Benson, and, through him, of the college. This included funding a portrait of him by William Nicholson, begun in 1916 (he did not, apparently, like it—see Magdalene College Magazine 63 (2018-19). Benson enjoyed great success as a novelist and poet in his lifetime. But his most enduring verse has proved to be the patriotic ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, which he wrote in 1902 to be set to Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March (composed 1901). Elgar connection explained.


But none of this tells us anything about how or why Eugenia Langdon de Nottbeck came to own a copy of Christian Ethicks. However, the Benson connection may turn out to be less tenuous than it seems, because Eugenia’s copy also has a Cambridge connection. It bears the ownership stamp of Cambridge English Library. This raises the question of how it came to be acquired, and whether it is just a coincidence that its owner was an epistolary friend of the Master of Magdalene College. The connection to Cambridge is one of many avenues to be explored. Watch this space.


Sarah Hutton